The journey to J3M’s debut project AFRONAUT starts outside of Toronto, more than 100 miles away in the community of Moose Factory. Only accessible by plane or train, this is where the rising songwriter received his first piano at two years old and started his obsession with music. “A red toy piano,” he tells RANGE. “I still have it in my bedroom in my parent’s house and sometimes I play it when I go home to visit.”
J3M started piano lessons at four and shortly after began playing in church, which offered plenty of opportunities for him to showcase his budding talents. Touring as a keyboard player into his early teen years, J3M joined youth choir ‘Divine Connection’ where he split time between singing and playing keys. They would travel to cities like New York and Boston, visiting churches and leading services. A seasoned performer and touring musician all before graduating high school, J3M took his talents to York University where he joined Karen Burke and the York University Gospel Choir. “That was when I really started to challenge my voice a bit more,” he says.
Eventually J3M started travelling with secular acts. A friend was starting a band and was looking for a pianist to audition. His impeccable command of the keys coupled with his lively personality made him new friends at every venue. Quickly he became entrenched in the Toronto music scene, making a name for himself as a piano player. Behind the scenes he had been writing songs his whole life. “Since I was maybe 10 years old, me and my little brother would write little jingles,” he reminisces. “Our answering machine was a song that we sort of wrote. It was ridiculous.”
His sound has evolved over the years, and on his birthday in 2017 J3M had his first show with a full band. A huge milestone for the songwriter, this show featured many collaborators he still works with today, including fellow Kingsway alumni, Daniel Caesar. Near the end of 2021, J3M had a realization that eventually became the genesis of AFRONAUT. He had all these songs about space where even the song titles matched the outer space theme, like “Future Lover” and “Blame it on the Universe.”
This was the start, but AFRONAUT itself was much more intentional. He had travelled to London, England for a songwriting session and things didn’t exactly go as planned. He doubled down and decided he would write regardless. At the time J3M was listening to the audiobook of The 4D Songwriter by Jayson John Evans. Evans highlights the importance of creating a character for the audience to get attached to. This inspired J3M to develop a character of his own. “And I was just sort of thinking about video games because I love video games. All of that stuff was a huge escape for me because I was bullied pretty bad as a kid.”
Video games and music have always had an intimate relationship and the two collide on the album artwork for the singles leading up to the release of AFRONAUT. He takes it a step further. “There aren’t very many Black video game characters. There aren’t very many Black astronauts. So I was like, ‘what if I created one?’”
Although the project is visually themed around outer space, its subject matter focuses on the stages of a relationship. His messages are clear and are derived from personal experiences. “Tell Me You Love Me (TMYLM)” specifically has its own story behind it. “My love language, my two top ones, are physical touch and words of affirmation,” he says. “Tell Me You Love Me’ is about me not getting the words of affirmation.”
Since he was a child J3M has had a love for transportation; buses and trains in particular. “I’ve always loved buses. I actually wanted to be a bus driver when I was younger. My grandma would take me on the bus and we would just ride it from end to end. She would just be there, sleeping. And I’d be there, face pressed against the window, talking to the bus driver. Sometimes he’d let me open and close the doors, stuff like that.” This passion for the TTC shines through in the video for his single “Space and Time” where he dances alongside the subway and around the city in a space suit.
AFRONAUT feels like it’s about the manifestation of ideas. J3M sees big things for this next step in his career and has already seen some of them come to fruition. Awards, radio play, and national recognition have all been goals he’s set for the album. And the dominoes are starting to fall. “I can’t believe this is happening. Those were all goals that somehow accomplished themselves.”
After decades of performing, touring, and songwriting J3M finally emerges from the cosmos with the fully realized AFRONAUT. For many this will be their first time hearing J3M, but he intends to use his well-earned time in the spotlight to its fullest potential. “At the end of the day, I’ve sort of recreated myself in a way. But I think it’s exciting for people to discover where I’ve come from in my background later. I like the idea of a fresh start.”