NMV Sit Down: JST FRNDS
Interview by Tommy Walzer
Despite the name of their musical project JST FRNDS, Cali Dixon and Gabe Neal are much more than that. They’re both established songwriters, and they’re also dating, having met through Instagram several years ago. In addition, they’re primed and ready to take the charts by storm. Their most recent single “All Night Long” has amassed over 4.6 million Spotify streams in less than three months and has been featured in a number of popular playlists along the way. Blending light and bubbly electro-pop production, a seamless vocal dynamic, and a chemistry that goes far beyond the music, they draw comparisons to superstar acts like The Chainsmokers. It may seem like the blueprint for stardom is all laid out for them, but Cali and Gabe have a plan that’s uniquely their own.
In a world seemingly run by social media it’s hard not to get burnt out on all the superficial and ephemeral content out there, especially in music. For JST FRNDS however, it’s about more than likes, shares, and streams. It’s about making genuine, fun music from the heart for a new generation of listeners and beyond. Raised on and united (literally) by the internet, they seek to leverage their sudden success in order to bridge the gaps between genres, audiences, and entire cultures. In talking to Cali and Gabe, we put a lot of things in perspective—overnight success, social media, and setbacks, among others.
Tell me a little bit about both your musical backgrounds.
Cali: So, for us we kind of have sort of similar musical backgrounds. We’ve been playing music for quite a while. I started when I was six playing piano. Then I started taking music serious when I was 14.
Gabe: I was 13 years old but I started taking it seriously at 14 as well.
Cali: We both had our solo music careers. I grew up listening to Ingrid Michaelson. Gabe listened to a lot of John Mayer. That's kind of his songwriting background. Then we kind of collided and joined and I started liking a lot of pop, Top 40 stuff.
Has that been your vision musically the whole time, to go in that pop direction, or did it evolve from something else originally?
Gabe: When we were together it was very much pop. We wanted to go that direction. I think another way to say it is that we both were very singer-songwriter-y, and not that that’s not pop music, but we both had this very almost unoriginal sense of what we wanted to sound like when we were separate artists. Then when we came together we both had this new kind of leash on music and our personalities, and it kind of landed in that pop space naturally. It’s kind of not even a choice we made. It just kind of happened that way.
Gotcha. It sounds like it was very organic. I understand you guys met through social media, is that correct?
So, seeing how it’s kind of been an essential part of who you are in a way, how do you see the role of social media within music these days, or specifically the music you guys make?
Gabe: Well, it’s interesting because it’s ever-evolving, and it’s also super oversaturated too. Our perspective on it is we kind of just use it to share what we’re doing and share our music the best we can. I think it’s more difficult than it used to be, but, I don’t know man it’s—
Cali: Social media’s a great place. It’s weird. I mean it’s super awesome and it makes it super easy to share what you’re doing, especially for the music industry and when you’re independent. It’s one of the only sources you can really count on to get your music out independently, but it also can be kind of a crutch too because there’s so many people [releasing music] now.
Gabe: We kind of see two sides to our social media in terms of our music. We’ll have a very organic social media viral thing which is what happened with “All Night Long” on Spotify. But then in real life we have this other kind of fan base that we’re garnering though shows and stuff, and that we see as very real and very tangible. And we also have this other side on social media. I understand that it’s real but it’s also just completely separate, so our goal is trying to merge those two somehow. That’s kind of where we’re sitting at in terms of social media.
"I think people hear music differently in America."
Yeah, and it’s interesting because I was looking at your Spotify account and your streaming numbers. If you look at the breakdown of the streams you guys have a lot of foreign market popularity, particularly in East Asia. You’re also on a few big foreign Spotify playlists which is pretty huge honestly. What do you make of that? Does it surprise you? Because I actually see this kind of thing quite a lot, where musicians may not be terribly popular yet in America but have these huge foreign fan bases that they may be unaware of.
Gabe: Yeah, so, the label that we released “All Night Long” through is a streaming-based label, so a lot of the playlisting was through those guys on the front end of everything. But then we started to see an organic kind of growth. The viral charts, where we noticed our engagement in those parts of the world, those seemed to be almost completely organic, so it was kind of just like, big explosions over there. It’s really cool. Obviously we’re super happy about it. I have no idea why it caught on there versus here.
Cali: I think also people hear music differently in America. In my opinion they’ll listen to it and they’ll just kind of go through it and they won’t stay. I feel like there’s so much of it that we kind of throw away a little bit, but in other places they really hold onto new music and new artists and emerging artists. I think that’s at least what I got from it.
Gabe: Yeah, I think other countries like Brazil as well [enjoy music that way]. Sweden’s another country that we’re doing pretty well in on Spotify. I don’t know, it just seems like the way consumers work there is different than here. I don’t really know what it is that’s different about it, but they tend to savor stuff like that more.
Yeah, I totally agree. I don’t know, maybe it says something about the hyper-elevated status of pop music in other countries, and not even pop music. I feel like it’s a lot of different genres of music. For example, I listen to a lot of heavy metal, which is huge in Mexico and Latin American countries and I don’t really know why. That’s kind of just the culture over there. I guess you could say it’s oversaturated in America because a lot of popular music, a lot of the music that gets heard around the world, is coming from America.
Gabe: Yeah, like the Top 40s in every country, there’s always few key artists that are always there. You can expect what the radio is going to play. I guess what it seems like is that people engage less with music now than they used to. Not that they engage less, but they engage in a different way, a lot less personal. At least in my friend circles it’s a lot less personal than it used to be. Like I rarely hear people talking about going to see shows of people that we know or bands. It just all kind of revolves around the Top 40 guys, which I kind of understand. You know, where we’re living now, everything’s super streamlined. People, their attention is being taken away from everything and thrown around like a hurricane.
Yeah, it’s not necessarily better or worse. I guess it depends how you look at it, but it certainly is different and I totally understand. So, on that note, to me it seems like pop music and a lot of music and general, it’s in an interesting spot these days where the viral nature of songs is so big. This is largely in the context of social media. [Virality] can literally define the music and not only determine its success on the charts but give it an entirely new context. For example, I’m sure you’re familiar with the Drake song “In My Feelings.” That was kind of a deep cut on the album but it kind of achieved so much mainstream success with the challenge, the virality around the meme. Do you guys think about that at all? Is that something that perhaps you envision with your music, or do you try to keep it pure in terms of what defines your music and your image? Because I do feel like it can be a legitimate strategy for success, but at the same time it’s maybe coming from a place that isn’t as pure.
Gabe: Just to clarify, you’re referring to the kind of meme-ness of the song, right? Like a marketing strategy.
Gabe: We definitely consider stuff like that. Then again half of these things I feel like happen by chance anyway. I mean, with our music and our brand we try to be loose and silly and goofy, you know? It kind of just makes fertile ground for something like that to come of it. In terms of implementing [a viral marketing strategy] intentionally we haven’t done that yet, but we definitely have considered it. As long as it doesn’t clash too much with our brand and everything, there’s always room for something like that.
"It was kind of just a perfect storm situation when we met. We didn’t see it at the time, but it just started working for us."
For sure. So where does the chemistry between you two come from? Why do you guys work so well together? What’s the songwriting process like, and how does that contribute to how you guys are so successful together?
Cali: Honestly, I think it comes from the fact that we’re together and we’re dating. I think it creates a different cohesiveness in our songwriting ability. It’s really easy to bounce ideas off of each other. We’re constantly creating new ideas because there’s two brains and we’re super open and accepting of the ideas because of our relationship other than our relationship with music. I think it comes down to our relationship in general.
Gabe: I also think that we, in our respective solo careers, we learned a lot of lessons—from songwriting to just stylistically—what sticks and what does not. We’re both at very important points in our lives and careers. It was kind of just a perfect storm situation when we met. We didn’t see it at the time, but it just started working for us.
I think that’s so cool! I wasn’t exactly sure if you guys were in a relationship, but it certainly seemed like it. That makes a lot more sense and that’s cool how it’s so organic, the relationship and the music and how it’s all tied together. You guys recorded “All Night Long” in your apartment. How much of a DIY approach do you take with your music? Is that something that’s important for you at all?
Gabe: For “All Night Long,” that was definitely recorded in our little studio apartment. The microphone and interface that we used was given to Cali by her ex-boyfriend like five years prior [Cali chuckling]. That song was honestly created more for fun than anything. And it just managed to do what it did and we’re super happy about that. In terms of the new stuff, we’re working with a studio now. We have a very streamlined process with all the new songs. We have a whole team and everything which is super great, but the songs always start in that organic kind of way. It’s always us sitting in our room or in the car, and we’ll just have this whole idea. We’re always trying to start the song that way at least, you know, to have that core of it. And then of course we’ll have people with us and sculpt the ideas out. I think the organic-ness of the music too is kind of why it catches on. Like “All Night Long” has a lot of charm because it was recorded in an apartment on really crappy—
Cali: Yep! [laughing]
I mean it sounds great! I wouldn’t have guessed. It definitely sounds great and it sounds radio-ready. When did you realize the success or the potential for success for that song?
Gabe: Well, I think it happened when we saw the numbers grow. It’s funny because when we started we both really wanted to do the solo thing. We didn’t realize the potential in the duo and also just the chemistry between us, not only as songwriters but I think us being together, people really like that. It’s something fresh, and I guess we didn’t recognize that at the time, so we were just kind of rolling with the punches. We were working jobs and at that point we just kind of wanted to make music and we sat down and set down that as a serious career choice. And when we saw the numbers and we saw the reactions from people, especially like you said in other countries, we were like, Ok this is something different. This can actually go somewhere. So we leaned into it super hard and here we are.
Cali: In a month we had 1 million plays and I think that’s when it really set in, because we always thought we were just going to wake up and was just going to stop, but then it never did. We kept getting more success and we were like, Ok, this is definitely something more than just a random song we recorded in our studio apartment.
Yeah, I mean the numbers speak for themselves. That’s kind of cool how, going back to the whole social media thing, that instant feedback that a platform like Spotify gives you, it really makes you realize your potential with the music. That’s really cool that you guys just ran with it and now it’s a serious career.
Cali: Oh yeah, definitely. It’s more serious than we have experienced ever I think, right now. That’s pretty cool.
Gabe: We’ve always had moments of personal success in our solo stuff. We thought we got really close before. Like big things that never quite came to fruition. It’s really cool to be on the other side of that line now where we actually have seen—quite literally—success. And it’s kind of hard to internalize that because once you experience it doesn’t feel quite as magical as you think it would, you know? But we’re seizing the opportunities that we’re receiving now and there’s a lot of cool stuff happening that we never experienced before or that we never actually thought would happen before. It’s just a really surreal place to find ourselves in.
What’s been the most surreal part of it all? Or what was a moment that kind of made you step back and say like, Wow this is really something!
Cali: Man, I think it happened so quickly that we never even thought about that, to be real.
Gabe: I think hitting 1 million [Spotify streams] was a big one for us.
Cali: Then I think getting in the United States Viral 50 and then literally the same day hitting the Viral Global 50. That’s when it started to begin and then labels started reaching out and it was kind of like, Ok [laughing], people are actually catching on to it.
Gabe: Yeah, and just the attention of everyone too and people knowing who we are. That step too is big. It’s kind of a slow release though, the whole accepting what’s happening. It’s a very slow release. Like, every day we’re like, Oh, this is a thing now. So, we’re not drowning in stuff. It’s a very steady stream of new things happening and it’s just a really good feeling. It’s not overwhelming, which is good.
You guys are based in Atlanta now, correct?
Atlanta seems to have been kind of a musical hotbed over the last 10 years or so. What’s the vibe there musically? Is it a competitive environment? Are there any local musicians you’ve gotten to know well or collaborated with?
Gabe: As you probably know, the scene in Atlanta’s been primarily hip-hop for a very long time. It’s awesome here. Atlanta and the hip-hop scene here is incredible. The community that you see in that kind of genre is amazing. But there’s also this kind of new wave of pop music that we’ve seen here, and we work closely with a lot of artists at Bravo Ocean Studios. There’s a lot of new sounds, a lot of new types of pop music that are coming out of here, and we’re kind of seeing that open up here as well. In terms of us knowing other guys, we have some bands that we’re super good friends with here, and we all play together, and we write together, and we’re always helping each other out when we can. It’s a super great community here, and there’s a lot that’s just about to happen here that’s super cool to be a part of.
That’s awesome. Do you have anyone specific that you’ve been collaborating with, or any up-and-coming artists that you’re really co-signing?
Gabe: Well, we have a really close band that we’re with called Sweetbay. They’re some of my best friends, they have been for a long time, and we’re always on and off of each other’s stuff. Writing-wise and production-wise, we’re always back and forth helping each other out. Still very different sounds and we definitely have our own things, but we do that a lot and we’re always open to writing with other people as well.
Are there any genres that you could see yourself kind of, not crossing over into, but perhaps in terms of collaborations, artists in other genres that you would want to incorporate into your music?
Gabe: We’re super into the Chainsmokers pop thing, as you hear from “All Night Long.” We’re moving towards a more 80s-inspired synth pop, just kind of a blend of all that stuff, but we’re super open to collaborations. We think it would be really cool to do something one day with like, Post Malone or someone like that. We’re very open stylistically too, if any artist like—
Cali: Would reach out.
Gabe: Yeah. We’d certainly be open to it. Music’s so fluid now too. You don’t have to cage yourself into a certain sound.
No, absolutely. What would be one musical inspiration for each of you that perhaps people wouldn’t expect?
Cali: Good question. Hmmm. That’s a very good question.
Gabe: I think Post Malone is a good one for me because he’s certainly not in the same vein as us musically. I think he’s tapping into a lot of stuff in terms of hopping genres, kind of not what you’d expect. He’s doing a lot of cool stuff and his music is definitely a big inspiration for me.
Cali: Yeah, that’s a good question and I’m not even sure. I listen to so many different types of music and I have so many different types of artists that I love and love to write with that it’s kind of just hard choosing, because I love Post Malone too, but it’s kind of just hard to choose. I don’t know.
Maybe like a dream collab for you that maybe people wouldn’t expect.
Cali: One they wouldn’t expect? I don’t know anyone [laughing]. I don’t know! I’ve always wanted to collaborate with Charlie Puth. I listened to him even through YouTube since years and years ago, but I think we both would love to write with Post Malone.
Gabe: Yeah, I think it would be a really fun collaboration. But other artists, like I grew up listening to Fall Out Boy. That was a big one for me. That band shaped me. Brendon Urie from Panic! At The
Disco, I would love to collaborate with him. He’s one of my favorite producers and writers. Their new stuff is phenomenal.
Cali: I don’t know, I mean I listen to a lot of Kelly Clarkson. I love Kelly Clarkson, but I don’t think anyone would not expect that. I listened to her a lot growing up, Ingrid Michaelson, but I don’t know if that’s something they wouldn’t expect necessarily just because I listen to a lot of them.
"It was pretty bad. Definitely a horrible moment but I definitely wouldn’t change anything about it."
Hey that’s still cool. I mean Fall Out Boy, that’s an interesting one because they started off as a pretty straightforward pop-punk band, but they’ve delved into so many other genres and had so many interesting collaborations. That’s definitely an interesting one and one that I could definitely see as inspirational, seeing as how much they’ve done. Panic! At The Disco too, very much in a similar vein of music.
Gabe: And now [Brendon Urie] is doing Sinatra-style stuff. All those artists—Fall Out Boy and Panic!—definitely seem to evolve every record cycle. They’re always doing something new. Those guys are big inspirations for sure.
You guys were involved in a car accident a couple years ago. How did that affect you two both personally and in terms of the chemistry between you?
Cali: Actually, I think it’s the reason that we are where we are today. We were on a mini “tour,” and I quote tour because we went from Atlanta to New York to Pittsburgh and that was really it.
Gabe: Atlanta was last.
Cali: Oh yeah, Atlanta was last. He’s from Atlanta, I’m from Pittsburgh. We went to Atlanta and the day that we got there we got into the car accident, and we were practically bedridden for a month. I couldn’t fly back to Pittsburgh so literally all we had time to do was talk and write music, so that’s when really everything started for us.
Gabe: To clarify, the tour was when we were both solo artists. We had known each other in person for maybe like, a week and a half at this point. And we got in that accident and we just became super, super close, and that’s where our relationship kind of came out of. We kind of discovered our chemistry musically and personally and it all kind of took off from there honestly.
Wow. That’s really powerful, that such a positive relationship can come out of a tragedy like that. It’s kind of beautiful in a way.
Gabe: We definitely wouldn’t change it. I mean it was a hard time for sure. I couldn’t walk for two months. It was pretty bad. I totaled my car. Definitely a horrible moment but I definitely wouldn’t change anything about it.
Future plans for you guys? Upcoming projects, tours, things that the fans should be excited about?
Gabe: We have a bunch of new songs that we have written. We’re working on finishing up those guys now. We’re kind of figuring out our release strategy for those, and then shows. We played a show in Atlanta just last Thursday. We had a really good draw, a really good time. Doing more of that, hopefully finding some opening spots for some people. We’d love to go to East Asia considering that’s where all our listeners are! I don’t know how we’d get there but we’d love to go there. Yeah, and just keep making music, that’s essentially where we are, just keep the ball rolling.
Cali photo credit: @jstfrndsmusic Instagram
Gabe photo credit: Curtis Potvin