fb-pixel Skip to main content

Johan Lenox’s adult angst, with beats and strings

Johan LenoxYenny Hsieh

Winchester, please don’t be upset.

The pop composer who calls himself Johan Lenox grew up in this well-tended town just north of Boston in the early aughts. He readily admits he was blessed with supportive parents and a comfortable suburban lifestyle.

Yet his hometown inspired at least one standout — “[Bleep] This Town” — among the disaffected batch of tracks on Lenox’s debut album, “WDYWTBWYGU,” out Friday.

The album title stands for “What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?” Collectively, Lenox’s songs express serious doubts about the advantages of growing up at all. The record is a down-tempo pop opus, one that exposes the dark shadows behind the American Dream.

Advertisement



The album, all avant-garde beats and strings, follows a thematic trail of disillusionment, as though it’s voiced by a hip-hop-era Holden Caulfield trapped inside the Internet. There are songs called “Aimless” and “Don’t Be a Loser.”

The album cover features a blond-haired boy sitting on the manicured front lawn of a family home. The sky is on fire. It could be Winchester. It could be any cramped, well-meaning town.

“There’s an overall sense that nobody is getting the house with the picket fence,” Lenox says, “that maybe all that [stuff] was a lie.”

The concept can be summarized in a nutshell, says Lenox: “How do you expect me to grow up, or what’s that even supposed to look like, in a world that is this unpredictable?”

The cover of Johan Lenox's album “WDYWTBWYGU."Handout

Based on his upbringing, it might have been hard to predict that Lenox’s compositional talents would lead to high-profile collaborations with Brockhampton, Travis Scott, Nas, Vic Mensa, and many more. (He has compiled an impressive playlist from his relatively brief career in pop production here.)

Lenox, who was born and raised Stephen Feigenbaum, took his stage name from his favorite composer (Johan Brahms) and the Western Massachusetts town where he spent summers studying classical music at Tanglewood. From an early age he was immersed in chamber music and symphonies, studying at the Winchester Community Music School and in weekend programs offered by the New England Conservatory.

Advertisement



Initially, he wasn’t a huge fan of his piano lessons.

“I just didn’t like the structure, I guess,” he recalls, on the phone from his home in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. “As soon as I quit the lessons, I went back to playing way more.”

He spent six years at Yale, first as an undergrad and then as a graduate student at the School of Music. It wasn’t until he heard Kanye West’s audacious 2010 album, “My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy,” that Lenox realized he could graft his classical expertise onto the world of popular music.

Until that point Lenox, who is now 33, had remained all but oblivious to the hip-hop and indie pop his peers grew up on. When he directed an a cappella group in high school, he arranged songs by groups — Guster, Ben Folds — he otherwise knew little about.

He and his girlfriend, who appears in several deep-thinking voice-overs on the record, have a running joke: They’ll hear a huge hit song from, say, 2005, and she’ll be amazed when he claims he’s unfamiliar with it.

“I still have all these gaps,” Lenox says.

But those gaps led to his unique perspective. Having produced for so many noteworthy artists, he’s hoping to fulfill a desire he’s had since he was a teenager.

Advertisement



“It’s been a long-range personal goal of mine to find ways of making contemporary classical music a bigger part of American culture,” he says. Ideally, he’d like to “build immersive theatrical shows with that aim, drawing an audience that isn’t just classical nerds but normal people who want to see something crazy on a Friday night.”

“I’m a mess,” Lenox moans on his new song of the same name. “But I do it with a little finesse.”

“The extra musicality that he adds to the records is just amazing,” says Cousin Stizz, who has invited Lenox to work on several songs for Stizz’s last two albums. The Boston-bred rapper also contributed a verse to Lenox’s new song “Phases.”

“He’s really tight,” Stizz says. “I don’t even worry when I send him a [demo] record. I don’t know what I’m gonna get back, but I know whatever I do get back, it’s gonna be great.”

To mark the release of the album, Lenox is on tour opening for 070 Shake, another artist for whom he’s done production work. They play Big Night Live on May 20 and the Paradise the following night.

Because he was a latecomer to pop, he believes his own music represents an unusual mix of art and commerce.

“It’s a weird thing that happened. I just landed like an alien, listening to the Top 40 charts, trying to understand pop music. And I ended up with something way more structured into the pop format than anything Bon Iver or James Blake do.

Advertisement



“People want me to be this oddball. No, I’m making a pop album. Every song is gonna have a catchy chorus, a pre-chorus, all that. I’ll probably find a middle ground that actually works, but right now I just want to prove that I can actually make pop bangers.”

On “WDYWTBWYGU,” he’s rap-singing on behalf of a certain age group. Despite the generational angst, however, he’s aiming to cast a wider net.

“A hit,” Lenox says, “is a song that anybody at any age can listen to.”

JOHAN LENOX

Opening for 070 Shake. At Big Night Live, 110 Causeway St., May 20 at 7 p.m. $25-$38. At the Paradise Rock Club, 967 Commonwealth Ave., May 21 at 7 p.m. $25. crossroadspresents.com

E-mail James Sullivan at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.