You are moving so fast/ but I caught a glimpse of you,” sings 18-year-old Eddie “Lontalius” Johnston, on his debut album, I’ll Forget 17, out March 25, 2016 on Partisan Records. “Feeling so sweet/ but then it goes away.” Like many teens, Johnston feels everything acutely: first love, the ephemeral nature of said love, the turmoil of the larger world as well as the need to experience that world. Lontalius asks the existential questions that haunt all of us at that transitional age and couches them in these forlorn yet resonant pop songs.
Listening to the teen’s strong debut might feel akin to stumbling across a teenager’s Tumblr page, where the jumble of feelings and emotions in their full array is on display. From Wellington, New Zealand, he’s garnered buzz and thousands of views on YouTube and Soundcloud for his poignant and measured takes on new classic pop hits but now he turns his focus squarely on himself, capturing his interior world and feelings at this vulnerable age.
Johnston took strength and succor from a line in Frank Ocean’s song “White,” even naming his album after it. “Being 17 felt like such an important year, maturing and falling in love,” Johnston says. “But hearing Frank say: ‘I’ll forget 17, I’ll forget my first love like I forget a daydream,’ it struck me that even though it felt so important to me, it probably wouldn’t feel like it in 5 or 10 years.” It became all the more important for Johnston to capture these conflicted, wistful, at times painful feelings while they were at their most resonant, traveling for the first time outside of New Zealand to Bristol to record with Ali Chant of Toybox Studios (PJ Harvey, Perfume Genius, M. Ward).
“Having more people pay attention really spurred me on,” Johnston said of taking that next step from a bedroom artist to a real-world one. “When you’re down in New Zealand, having international fans is really something.”
Johnston’s love of music mirrors that of almost every kid. His parents played him the Beatles and he got his first guitar at the age of eight. But rather than the story of a protégé, he was like most kids gifted an instrument: “I didn’t like taking lessons. But at some point I realized you could just Google Beatles songs and there were videos that would teach you how to play them.”
Johnston’s love of music runs parallel to his embrace of online life. Asked what his hobbies are, he replies simply: “the Internet.” It’s an awkward response perhaps, but an unflinchingly honest one and Johnston is unafraid to voice such emotions and feelings, whether they are embarrassing or not. And when he got a computer in his own room in 2007, he began to practice music in earnest. “I found free software to record my own music and started to experiment with writing my own songs,” he said. “I started uploading videos. The first YouTube videos are of me singing Crowded House songs.”
Time online also gave Johnston his artist name. Fond of clicking on random Wikipedia articles, even though he says, “it was always rowing teams from the 1700s that came up,” one day he clicked and an entry for Lontalius came on his screen. “I just liked the way it sounded,” he says with a shrug as explanation for the name of a genus of butterfly in the family Lycaenidae common to Borneo and the Philippines that he adopted as his own artist name.
Like most teens (or butterflies), Johnston’s musical tastes were mercurial, veering from Coldplay to the decidedly more alternative Radiohead, before he fully embraced pop music. Soon after, he began uploading hushed, forlorn covers of pop hits accompanied by an 808 and an old Casio MT-45 that a friend bought him for $2. In emulating his pop idols, he learned something about his own talents and abilities: “I found that covers improved my sense of melody. My voice isn’t amazing, but having to sing Beyoncé songs pushes you a little bit and widens your voice.”
In posting up these covers, Lontalius’s buoyant take on Young Lean’s “Gatorade” found a big online fan in hyper-networked Canadian producer/DJ Ryan Hemsworth. Soon the two were collaborating on music, Lontalius’s voice gracing Hemsworth’s “Walk Me Home.” “Ryan comes from this world I only really dreamt about,” Johnston says. “Having him put my cover on one of his mixes and then adding me on Facebook was like a dream come true.”
He also has Hemsworth to thank for spreading the rumor that Johnston was a classmate of fellow New Zealander, Lorde. It wasn’t true, but both teens played along on Twitter and even met right before “Royals” blew up. “I was shocked that Lorde was the same as me,” he says. “She was still just a teenager interested in music. Seeing her incredible success was really inspiring. That doesn’t happen to New Zealanders often.”
I’ll Forget 17 might be a case of lightning striking twice as the ten-song debut announces a bright new voice in pop. While fans of Lontalius might have admired the teen’s ability to find the sad sentiment underneath the pop exteriors, his emotional astuteness carries over into his original material. “I’ve always really loved dance remixes where they put an emotional breakdown with an acapella,” he says, adding that a song like “Kick in the Head” remains a favorite of his as it marks when he “started writing about real experiences and real feelings.”
Despite making his name on sad renditions of pop songs, Lontalius is definitely happy at the moment, as now he will leave behind his bedroom in New Zealand to tour the world with a real band, including stops at New York’s CMJ Festival and Red Bull Music Academy in Paris. “I’m not really sad,” Johnston says. “I’m emotional, but I’m not depressed. I just like sad music.”