20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.
“No two queer people are alike and the goal of art and music is to have people relate to it, so the more queer art in the world the better, in my opinion.” Getting kicked out of his private Christian high school for being gay prompted pop singer/songwriter Clinton John to finish early online and relocate to Nashville at 17. He attended the Darkhorse Institute for audio engineering and spent the last 8 years working behind the scenes with songwriters, producers, videographers, and photographers to fine-tune his craft and fully prepare to release music that was true to his vision.
The result is a blend of hyper-vulnerable lyrics and captivating pop soundscapes that draws inspiration from fashion-forward, boundary-breaking artists like Troye Sivan and Kim Petras. With a few singles under his belt, he’s already performed at the Nashville Pride main stage and earned a spot in Lee Jean Company’s “Artists at Home” performance series. With the title single of his debut EP Embarrassing, he shares brutally honest stories and experiences in the song that he’s never even shared with his close friends and the video is also the first time he’s ever done any choreography — all in the name of capturing that searing feeling of embarrassment for the listener.
I had the true pleasure of getting to know Clinton for the latest edition of 20 Questions, where he told me all about what drives his passion for making music for queer listeners, the creative process for his first EP and the music video for its lead single, which artists have inspired and influenced his style the most, and more.
What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a musician?
When I first got cast in a musical in sixth grade, the rush from being on stage and auditioning was when I realized that I wanted to feel that high more. Then around age 15 when I found my dad’s old Spanish guitar and taught myself to play and started writing music is when I realized that I wanted to pursue a career in it.
What kind of artists did you grow up listening to?
I was raised in a very religious household, so I didn’t have free reign to a lot of mainstream music, but we did have a James Taylor, Carole King, Beach Boys, and Dixie Chicks—now the Chicks—CD that we always listened to. Looking back, I think the songwriting style and focus on pop melodies by all of those artists really molded my own songwriting style.
Musically and stylistically, who are your biggest influences?
I naturally gravitate towards artists who have similar musical styles to me and who I feel I can relate to in their approach to music. Troye Sivan, Conan Grey, Charlotte Lawrence, and Lennon Stella are all artists who write vulnerable and honest pop music with catchy melodies and also their aesthetics and visuals pair with their music well. I love well rounded pop artists who are great singings, songwriters, performers, and have strong visuals and that has always been my goal as an artist.
You were kicked out of your private Christian high school for being gay, which prompted you to finish early and move to Nashville to pursue music at 17. How would you say that experience has shaped your artistry and by extension your personhood?
I think it made me realize that you can choose to view tough circumstances in a positive light. Of course, you can’t always control the way trauma affects you, but I remember in that moment the choice seemed very clear that I could continue to be devastated about having to leave school, lose friends, and quit all my sports or I could embrace this next chapter of my life and pursue music in a way that I wasn’t able to before. I think that has affected how I view all changes in my life both good and bad and also shaped me as an artist because it made me more comfortable with going against the grain. Having to leave my high school was obviously out of my control but it did force my hand in a way to forge my own path of graduating early and moving to Nashville at 17, which none of my friends were doing. I think both musically and stylistically that has allowed me to keep driving to push outside the box with what I’m doing.
Favorite book of all-time?
I’m not much of a reader, but one of my favorite books of all-time is The Story of Ferdinand the Bull. I relate to the hypermasculinity put on him trying to make him be a fighting bull when all he wanted to do was smell the flowers in girl’s hair. He is a true gay icon.
One movie that will always make you cry?
It’s so cliché, but Call Me By Your Name really gets me. When Oliver calls to tell Elio that he’s getting married, I can’t control myself from tearing up.
What’s one vice you wish you could give up?
None, I think everyone needs a little vice. I gave up drinking 2 years ago so now I happily cling to nicotine as my little vice.
For you, how important is queer visibility in music and culture?
For someone who grew up without experiencing queer visibility in music and culture to seeing how much more accessible it is to the younger generation, I think it has had a huge impact on kids feeling more impowered to be themselves, which is so incredible. My hope is to do something similar with my music and having someone hear it and relate to my experiences. No two queer people are alike and the goal of art and music is to have people relate to it, so the more queer art in the world the better, in my opinion.
One piece of advice you’d give to your younger self?
My advice to my younger self would be to not be so hard on myself. I think I’ve knocked myself down more than anyone else because I thought it would drive me to do better and push harder, but it doesn’t. I’m still working on it, but I’ve recently started being much easier on myself, and it’s made me more productive and creative.
What inspired the creative process for your debut EP Embarrassing? (Dare I call the title track the queer “Drivers License”?)
You may absolutely call it the queer “Drivers License.” My goal whenever I’m writing music is to be honest and authentic. I never go into writing a song thinking “this will be relatable” or “I think people will like this.” I like writing music that scares me to think about putting out or feels like I’m sharing too much because I think those emotions are the rawest and people will actually relate to. I wish I had a song called “Embarrassing” after my first relationship and I hope that it will resonate with someone else and let them know they’re not alone in those feelings.
You’re stuck on a long flight. Which world-famous musician would you want sitting next to you and why?
Probably Charli XCX. I feel like she would ignore me the entire time and I would love it but also if I could just convince her to make me a playlist of her favorite new artists are, I would be so interested to see who she’s listening to. She is so in tune with pop music and has been relevant and groundbreaking for so long that I’d love to see who she thinks is up and coming.
Who are your style icons?
I take inspiration from so many different artists and designers that it’s hard to pinpoint one or even a few not to mention fashion is always evolving. Thierry Mugler has always been my favorite designer in the way that he created such bold statement pieces while still remaining timeless, which is the ultimate goal. Outside of that I have snapshots of moments that are inspiring like Shania Twain’s leopard jumpsuit, Marky Mark in the Calvin Klein campaign, or Britney Spears in the “Toxic” music video. I think what revolves around all of these are iconic moments that were groundbreaking in fashion and pop culture. Anyone who has had an icon moment that captivated the world is a style icon for me.
Favorite song to get your blood moving?
When I’m working out, I strictly listen to hyper pop and female rappers. There’s nothing that makes me want to sweat like a bitchy vocal over hyper pop production or a beat. Artists like Ashnikko, COBRAH, and Azealia Banks are currently on repeat.
The last series you binge-watched?
I am a very chaotic binge-watcher. As in I will stay up till 4am and then the second I wake up continue to watch a show until I finish it. I’m reluctant to say the last show I binge watched in this way was Squid Game because I hate jumping on the band wagon once everyone is talking about it but I did finish that series in one sitting.
Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
If there is one thing that COVID has taught me, it is that I am an introvert and like having a close-knit group of people around me but also need a lot of alone time.
Biggest pet peeve?
I literally have so many ranging from major to minor I could go on all day about my pet peeves. One of my main pet peeves is when you ask someone to try a new food and without even trying it, they say, “I just already know I won’t like it.” I don’t have time for that negativity in my life.
The music video for “Embarrassing” is the first time you’ve ever done choreography, and you manage to capture something so distinct to the queer experience within it. What would you say is the main goal behind the imagery of your music?
My goal with all the music videos on the Embarrassing EP was to show an accurate representation of how I experience love and life. I love all imagery created by queer people that represents their experience, or a dramatized version of queer culture, but with my goal of remaining authentic to myself and how I write music which most of the time that is not as flashy and that’s OK. For the “Embarrassing” music video, it was the first time that I had ever done choreography which was frankly terrifying at the thought that I might further embarrass myself, no pun intended, with looking stupid dancing. But I wanted to capture that sense of tension and questioning that I felt when I wrote the song of not knowing whether my ex was embarrassed that he dated me. After a break-up, it’s rarely a clean break of feelings. Through the heartbreak there’s usually still love for the person, maybe hurt from their actions or embarrassment of your own, and I wanted to try to represent all of those emotions throughout the video and intermingle them because they usually are so tied together.
Most expensive thing you’ve ever shamelessly splurged on?
My Buffalo London platform sneakers. They were a staple in pop music brought to popularity by the Spice Girls that have made a resurgence. I think they cost about $300 and I waited about 2 years before I pulled the trigger and bought them so I feel no shame.
One thing that’s been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?
Definitely my friends and also not drinking. I stopped drinking in February of 2020 right before everything started going into lockdown and I think with all that free time on my hands just to drink at home and do nothing I probably would have lost my mind. Thankfully it was relatively easy to stop drinking and I had a close group of friends that I quarantined with that got me through it.
What can we expect to hear next from you?
This EP has really made me fall in love with making visuals for songs so hopefully many more visually next year as well as another EP. I’m hoping to have an EP titled Commitment Issues talking about the struggles of committing to dating someone while also not having the desire to date at all that I’m working on right now.
Follow Clinton John on Twitter and Instagram, and stream his debut EP Embarrassing whenever you listen to music.