Whatever Makes JMSN Happy

Detroit’s JMSN is back with his fifth studio album, Whatever Makes U Happy, a tribute to, as the title suggests, living a life of self-fulfillment and casual glee. Or maybe just a cigarette and a cold beer. The journey of how Christian Berishaj arrived at his fifth studio album under the JMSN moniker is long and jaunting enough to merit an album that celebrates a carefree disposition, if only for a moment, and the extension of a sound unique to its creator.

Berishaj is, in many ways, a master of extending an unlikely aesthetic to its limits, alongside pure, honest recreation in moments of artistic crisis. From early, concise major label pop singles under his project Christian TV to the can’t-look-away “Jesus Timberlake” shagginess of early JMSN releases, Berishaj serves up a distinct definitions of expression that extends to his lavish, heartfelt live sets that’ll be returning to the road this summer.

JMSN’s latest offering highlights the soul and intimacy that’ve made Berishaj a sought-after songwriter and contributor for artists like Kendrick Lamar and Joey Fatts. Berishaj’s passion for Prince and the Motown surrounding his formative years in Detroit is on display more than ever on Whatever Makes U Happy, thanks to a brilliantly assembled session band of collaborators from throughout Berishaj’s career.

Recorded in LA, Whatever Makes U Happy evokes the aspired range of an early Brian Wilson composition, leaning on sporadic strings and brass to expand JMSN’s established nostalgic sound. At moments, you can hear the party in action, like at the end of the opening track “Drinkin'” where Berishaj confesses that it’s time for his shot in his charming Dallas drawl usually only reserved for his live iteration. It’s moments like these that confirm the album’s honesty, the prefect match for Berishaj undeniable vocal talent.

Noisey: You were born in Dallas but grew up in Detroit. Did you sing in churches or anything out there?
Christian Berishaj: I would sing in churches and my mom had a group with her sisters and they sang Christian songs. The first song that I ever recorded on, I think I was like eight years old and it was about abortion. I was the kid saying, “mom, please don’t take my life.” [Laughs]

What did your family think about that?
Yeah, it’s cool. I think it’s funny now. But they were like dead serious about it. I had my part in the bridge, “Oh ma, please don’t make Jesus cry.” [ Laughs]

So singing sensibly, is that your earliest memory?
That’s my earliest memory of singing, yeah. I was in a room like this, and probably this tall and putting the mic down, yellin’ at the mic.

And how did you learn to play instruments?
I took piano lessons. I didn’t like that, I wanted to play guitar so I took a little guitar lessons and then I just kind of stopped doing the lessons, just learned the songs that I liked. The chords and stuff. You know I’m still learning guitar, how to play that and how to work myself around piano for writing, and stuff.

What were some of those songs that inspired you early on?
Man, probably like stuff like Nirvana cause it was super easy to play, you know? So I would learn all that and Green Day, stuff like that. And then I moved on to like Jimi Hendrix and I bought the Jimi Hendrix Experience tab book. I was like learning tab for tab, trying to learn those solos. So that kind of made me better, you know? Trying to learn all that stuff. So, you know, that’s kinda my thing, I guess.

Were you inspired by any of the Detroit sounds, like KISS, or Motown or anything?
Yeah, of course, when I was growing up The White Stripes, Kid Rock, Eminem, I’m trying to think of who else, but yeah just those three were very influential in Detroit, you know? I’m still a fan of all of them, you know, Kid Rock’s the best. [Laughs]

Do you remember when you thought to yourself “I want to try to take music seriously”?
I just always wanted to. That’s just what I wanted to do. I’m blessed for that because some people don’t know what they want to do and stuff. I always knew that that’s what I wanted to do and take seriously. I didn’t know how I was gonna do it, but you know, you just do it and keep doing it, and something will happen. [ Laughs]

Photo by Cameron McCool

What was Detroit like? I hear it can be pretty rough, were you upper middle class?
No, we were like, low. Towards when my mom got remarried, kinda like before I was leaving. Her husband was a little better off, but before that, my mom was a single mom raising us. Now that I look back on it, she was on welfare and stuf,f but I’m like, I know people that have had guitar players that are getting food stamps and shit, so it’s like it’s not really that crazy to me to say that they’re just homeless and poverty-stricken. You get a perspective when you get older of like, you know, you need food stamps. It is what it is. I still got friends that are getting food stamps and stuff like that. It’s not such a crazy thing. And when you’re young, you don’t know any different. We were just going to a farther grocery store because we didn’t want to be seen by the people that we live around. But, it wasn’t anything, you know?

And what did she teach you? Did she introduce you to like, gospel soul?
Yeah, she just was a great songwriter. I got inspired by that, and that definitely helped for my songwriting. It was like the Whitney Houston era, Phil Collins, that kind of stuff. Your Vanessa Williams, that “Save the Best for Last”-type shit. It was good to soak in that and have my songwriting open up a little bit to be not just these same four chords over and over again.

As a 21 year old, is that when the JMSN project started?
At 18 I was in this pop-punk band called Lovercade and I uploaded a video to Myspace when that was happening, and some A&R saw that video and flew me out to New York to Atlantic Records. I ended up going to Atlantic Records and we toured about four years on that stuff, doing like Warped Tour and opening for like Paramore and shit like that. A couple of my band mates weren’t even out of high school, and we just hit the road. That was a good experience to just get into it, hit the ground running and see that it’s not gonna be a walk in the park. You’re gonna play shows with ten people there, maybe sometimes five, you know so it was good to get that experience.

After that, I moved to LA, and that’s when I started making music with a friend out here and then I started the Christian TV thing. It was more of a pop-electronic thing that I was doing. I got signed to Universal, was there for maybe about a year or so, and just got super engulfed in the whole major label, get-songs-on-the-radio type of thing. For a long time I was very naive to how everything worked, and this is why I’m glad that I have the experience now, of knowing a little bit more. I had no idea what was going on, I didn’t know that I had to work on these and build a fanbase myself. Through all that I learned that you really have to build a foundation and build and do what’s truly you. The music that you really wanna do. You really gotta be yourself, essentially, and then everything else will fall into place when it needs to fall into place. And it’s going to take a while. So I started doing JMSN stuff towards the tail end of the Universal thing. I brought them a record, which was my first JMSN record and it was like, “This is the music that I want to make, this is what I feel like I should be doing.” And they didn’t want to put it out, so I got dropped, and then shortly after that I put out my first JMSN record, and now I’m just putting out a bunch of ’em. [ Laughs]

You self-released. That’s real, that takes a lot of confidence to go against a major label like that.
Luckily I was still young, so I was like “Oh, I’m Superman.” You always have that attitude when you’re young and that’s good. And now as everything picks up steam and you see progress. As you get older you lose some of that, you gain some of the actual, you know, results. Which help you keep going.

How would you say the sound of JMSN is different than Christian TV?
Ah, completely different. I mean, in every way. In every way it’s different. But yeah, I was just doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing to get the right people to put me where I needed to be. The fans of the right people, you know what I mean? That’s what I need to be making music for myself, and fans, you know? I feel like fans, you get when you’re being yourself and they see you being yourself and they can relate to you being you. So, when I started doing that was when I started making this JMSN stuff. And it’s taken a lot of… it’s evolved a whole lot as I go, and you know that’s just me trying to get better at what I do. Trying to be better at writing songs, be better at playing guitar, be better at singing. And you know, hopefully I’m doing that every record I put out, and that’s my main goal. And just to do whatever I feel and what I love, all that stuff.

Were there any artists when you were conceiving JMSN that you really looked up to, as having the same sound or confidence?
Yeah, I mean Prince was a big one, because he’s very adamant about doing you, and like owning what you do and all of that and owning your masters and stuff too, which helps when you’re going on the independent path to have somebody that great be vouching for you and telling you this is what you need to be doing, you know ‘own your shit’ cause it’s yours. Don’t let anybody exploit it, I mean, you know to an extent. [Laughs]

Let’s talk about the process of putting this new music together.
The process, it was kinda just like, I wanted to keep it raw. Like, as much one-take stuff as I could do. And leave mistakes, and leave little bad notes and stuff like that just so that it stayed raw. And I felt like it was from a lot of touring, I was a little more confident in my singing to be able to do that, to know that not every note is going to be the best that you can do, but that was what I loved about Whitney Houston. In her takes, there was a passion rather than this perfect, like, let me sing every note perfect and stuff. There were bad notes in there, but that gave it character. So I just wanted to keep as much character as possible in the record, that was the general idea. So I just started making music and, you know, something happens every time you start, you just gotta start.

When people see you live, did that kind of help introduce you as a writer to some of these bigger artists and instrumentalists? Or, how did some of those connections come about?
Yeah, definitely, it gets you out there and puts you in front of people that you might not be in front of if you weren’t putting out stuff. And if they’re a fan of what you’re doing and want you to be a part of anything they’re doing then they’ll reach out, you know, in my experience. But yeah, it’s nice.

You have placements all over hip-hop albums. What was that experience like, working with Kendrick, some of those other guys?
Yeah, it’s good, it’s cool. Because they’re doing the same thing, they’re just trying to make music and they’re 100 percent in it. And it’s good to see other musicians doing that. Even, whoever it is. So it’s good to see other people doing stuff, and doing it well. It inspires you.

Did you find that some of them were willing to make more raw songs and go along with your vision for stuff?
Yeah, for sure.

Photo by Chad Crews

Yeah, that’s what you usually bring to the studio too probably right?
Yeah, for sure, and you know it’s cool that rappers like Kendrick Lamar want to put organic instrumentation in their songs and they think of you to do it. You know, that’s like amazing. You know? Because they hear the overall body of work that you’ve presented, so they’re like ‘oh shit those strings are awesome, can you do that on my song?’ Like, yeah for sure, that’s cool.

Okay, let’s talk about “Drinkin’.” What’s that song about lyrically?
Drinkin’. [Laughs]

What role does alcohol play in your life?
It plays a big role. [Laughs] I guess you could say that. Loosens up, yeah of course. Yeah. I just like it, you know? I don’t really drink before shows, because I don’t wanna be too loose, you know. But over the years I’ve like, started to like do it later in the show when you’ve loosened up a little bit and you’ve established that you’re halfway decent at what you do. Then it’s like ok, let me be a little loose with it.

Is drinking an enhancement of that feeling?
Yeah, I mean, “Drinkin'” the song, at the core of it is just about doing whatever makes you happy, just like the title of the record. It’s kinda just like, if this is something that makes you happy, then do it. That’s the message in the song, and it just happens to be “Drinkin'” for me.

Do you find that people less and less are taking the time to make themselves happy?
I don’t know, that’s a good question. I feel like there’s a lot of people who are doing what they think they are supposed to do, you know? But I feel like that’s everybody at one point or another. And that’s not a thing that’s gonna stop. But the more you put the message out there of do what you wanna do, do what makes you happy, rather than what you think you’re supposed to, as long as that message is out there and people are getting it when they need to, it’s good. Cause everybody needs that message. Whether they figure it out now, or later. We all have a point where we figure that out. Where they’re like, ‘Shit, I can either do this just to do it or I can do something that I actually want to do and be okay.’ But, you know, maybe some people never do what makes them happy, they just do what they think they’re supposed to. Who knows?

Did you feel like it was a message you wanted to get out bad enough that you named the album that?
Yeah, I mean that’s the general idea of the whole thing, you know, doing whatever makes you happy and that’s kinda how I approached recording the songs. Not worrying about what genre I’m in or the songs, the music climate. You know, just make whatever I feel and it’s always been something that I try to do every record but I just really wanted to be conscious of it this record, you know. Like no outside influence. Even like fans, a lot of times it’ll be like we want you to do the same thing you’ve been doing. So, that can be like, well you want to appease them because they’re your fans and stuff. But even then it’s like, I want to evolve, I want you to grow with me. I don’t wanna be doing something because I’m trying to please someone else. And you have to constantly remind yourself of that, you know?

Let’s go to the next single then, “Where Do U Go.” We debuted it. The art direction is so laid back too, you’re on vacation, hanging. What’s going on in that song?
That song is about wondering where the girl goes—why is she not with me, what the fuck is she doing? [Laughs] You know, and all the stuff that goes through your head when somebody leaves. Because we’re all our own worst enemy when it comes to that shit. We get these stories in our head which are just ridiculous of where it could be, or what somebody is doing—even if it’s not a girl, maybe just la friend. Like, “Oh she’s probably fuckin talking shit about me,” or whatever, it could be anything. You didn’t get invited to something, it’s probably cause this. It’s about that, it’s about being in your own head and thinking something’s crazy, when it could be just something simple. But we all get crazy sometimes.

Do personal relationships make their way into your lyrics a lot?
Yeah, they do. They definitely do. Because every aspect of my life will make its way into lyrics. I like to write about people, even if it’s not an intimate personal relationship, even if it’s just a personal relationship of talking to somebody, from their point of view and aspect, and then thinking about that point of view that they have and where they’re coming from. I like to think about that stuff.

Would you say you mainly write from experiences on this new album?
Yeah, oh yeah. For sure, yeah that was all. I try to write from experience all the time, you know. I feel like 90 if not 100 is from experience. And whether it was from that exact moment, it could be from a memory of that moment, and then applying it to a situation that you’re in right now or something like that. So yeah, it’s a broad spectrum of things that go on with that.

Is there heartbreak on the album? Or love?
There’s love and heartbreak. It’s like more of like a limbo, like trying to figure out if this thing is gonna work out, if a relationship is gonna work out or if you’re just wasting your time, or is she going somewhere else to fuck somebody else, like and I’m just sitting here just still hitting her up and shit. You know that kind of stuff, so, there’s a lot of that in there and just, yeah there’s other stuff just talking about myself like drinkin and doing whatever makes me happy, because that’s what’s gonna make me happy. I can’t look to somebody else to make me happy. You know, I gotta be happy within and then all the rest will be alright. [Laughs]

Photo by Chad Crews

Besides drinking, playing music, touring, what else makes you happy? Got any other hobbies?
Smoking cigarettes. [Laughs]

Watching UNC basketball?
I love. I’m getting ready to watch the playoffs right now. NBA playoffs now. Football, I like football. I wanna see Boston, the Celtics and the Spurs in the finals, I think that would be cool. But I don’t know, Washington is pretty good too, and Cavs are always good. And the Spurs gotta beat the Golden State. I feel like we’re on ESPN! [Laughs]

You’ve got many albums, many projects releasing here in your career. Do you have any expectations that you’re gonna hold yourself to with this release?
I try not to hold any expectations so then I can be happy with the outcome no matter what. Because the outcome, no matter what it’s gonna be moving forward, so that’s the only expectation is that it’s moving forward. And putting something out I think you’re moving forward. You know, that being said I hope it does better than the last one. I wouldn’t say I expect it to, but I really fucking hope it does. [Laughs]

Let’s talk about “Slide.” What are you trying to present with the song?
This song is about the thing that’s in me that’s always been in me, which is not being satisfied, like chasing something and not really knowing what it is that I’m chasing, but it is something that I’m thankful that I have, you know? Because it keeps me going. And yeah, some of the lyrics are kind of talking about my family and leaving stuff, and that represents a whole list of things that it could be, but you know just leaving a lot of things behind and making your priority this thing that you’re chasing, whether it’s what a lot of people think your priority should be. It’s like you’re a rolling stone, a traveling man, and chasing this thing you can’t worry about everything else that’s going on. So yeah, it’s like that.

Aesthetically, I feel like nostalgia and the imagery of the past is kind of important to you. Can you talk about why you wanted to maintain that look and feel?
I think it’s fun, I think some of the promo that we’ve been putting out, like that beer commercial kind of stuff. It’s fun to make, you kinda put yourself in that era. It’s kind of like making a movie, you know? You immerse yourself in that time and just it’s fun, nostalgic. You get to think of all the stuff that you saw when you were a kid when they actually had cigarette commercials on TV and alcohol commercials that were like ridiculous. [Laughs]

Do you think the aesthetics were a little more rich?
It’s a style, it’s a style you know? Definitely now, beer commercials are a lot different now, it’s very clean, you know? And I feel like beer commercials back then they were just figuring out all of the things that they could do, and it was more like collage. You know? Rather than this clean stuff. So, but it definitely did have a sense of cleanliness, and smoothness, but it was its own character. That’s why it’s fun to get in that mode and channel that.

Are you featured on anyone else’s songs coming up?
I just have one that came out with Curren$y and Joey Fatts.

Talk about that, let’s talk about some of the collaborators you’re working with now, out of your solo stuff, and maybe people you would like to collaborate with in the future.
Yeah, yeah. I just did that Curren$y song, and Joey Fatts song with Curren$y and then, shit, working with Taku again on some stuff, but besides that not a lot in that realm. But I would like to work with, who was I wanted to work with? I mean, I would love to like work with Eric Clapton or Shugie Otis or, have John Mayer play some guitar on my shit, you know? [Laughs]

What would a dream collaborator for you, look like?
Well, since R. Kelly’s still alive, I’d love to do that one, you know? Besides that, a lot of them aren’t around anymore. Like Prince and Whitney Houston. But yeah, R. Kelly’s definitely one.

What happens when you get with the thug rappers? Does shit get crazy.
It’s interesting, it doesn’t get too crazy. It’s just, very sporadic. You know, like times and stuff like that. You know, let’s get together at this time on this day, oh let’s get together next week. Oh hey, come right now, right when you’re in the middle of something, you know? That type of shit but, it’s fine. It’s a different world.

Do they make you drink Hi-Tech and stuff?
I mean they don’t make you drink anything, but I’ve definitely had tried the syrup before. That’s interesting. Got to a point where you’re like breathing slow and you’re like, “Aw I shouldn’t have done this.” You’re like, I probably shouldn’t fall asleep.

We’ve had rappers fall asleep during interviews. “Is he awake? Oh, he’s awake.”
Oh for sure. Yeah. But it’s funny how alert they are though, because I remember when we were all drinking the stuff, I was with Ab Soul and them. I probably shouldn’t put anybody on blast, but and then I went to go grab an alcoholic drink and everybody was like ‘No, noo, no’. So I was like, ‘oh shit these guys are awake’ but you’re really like alert and on that shit. It’s cool that they’re like, I guess there’s a little bit of responsible use there, you know?

Yams’s wave made everyone more serious.
Yeah, true.

And you’ll be on the road May?
Yeah, May, June, we go to Europe till July, and then yeah, I’m not sure what happens after that. We have Glastonbury and what’s it called? Color Festival in Brussels, and then Poland we’re doing what’s that festival? Color Cafe. An opener festival in Poland and we’ll do fill dates in between there in Europe so people can actually go to like, venue shows as well.

JMSN’s Whatever Makes U Happy is out now. Visit IAMJMSN.com for more info.

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