Singer/Producer Joji on His Career Flip From Crude Viral Comedy to Understated R&B: 'Now I Get to Do Stuff That I Want to Hear'

Joji, "Will He"
Courtesy Photo

Joji, "Will He"

George Miller has been getting a lot of buzz for his contemplative, trap-infused R&B, recorded under the name Joji. The production on his new EP, In Tongues, creates a dark atmosphere with its artfully disjointed placement of odd samples. “Will He,” the understated title track, has racked up over 12 million plays since it was released in October.

Acclaim has been adding up from music sites like Pitchfork and Pigeons and Planes. But there’s another reason why the Japanese-Australian sad boy recently caught the media’s attention. Miller is also the memelord behind such internet fanfare as Pink Guy, Filthy Frank and even the viral Harlem Shake phenomenon. And his new music is a stark departure from the crude humor that originally attracted his nearly 5.5 million subscribers. (The most viewed video on his channel, TVFilthyFrank, features him dressed as Pink Guy, cooking egg juices that he spits from his mouth.)

Miller’s story arc isn’t as simple as plotting out a straight trajectory from a gross-out comic to a serious musician, though. “I was always doing music on the side,” the trap-n-B artist tells Billboard. He uploaded his first public Joji song, “Thom,” to his SoundCloud page around two years ago. “I started both at the same time. Back then, to make up for that fact, I would still make music, but funny stuff -- but now I get to do stuff that I want to hear.”

If you made a word cloud of his answers during his interview with Billboard, the font for the word “conflicted” would be blown up to marquee status. But that makes sense -- his career code-switches between these two seemingly opposing worlds with ease. And Miller doesn’t intend to mix these worlds. “I like to let [listeners] learn to keep the two separate,” he says, “because I don't want a shitty Pink Guy [song] with a bad message that I made like four years ago to be like, 'Oh, that's Joji.’”

He specifies that Joji isn’t a character like Filthy Frank and Pink Guy. “I guess that's the difference,” he continues. “Joji's just me.”

The mythology surrounding his comedy personas took seven years to build, and many of the in-jokes (apparently, “chromosomes” are used as currency and a unit of time) have their own Wikia pages. But Miller doesn’t think his YouTube career was very rewarding. “That was the main thing, it wasn't challenging,” he explains. “And the only thing I could do was to keep upping the budget to make it bigger. And it wasn't getting anywhere. I was just losing money.”

Over the years, Miller has been growing out of the brand of comedy associated with Pink Guy. “It was a humor that I started when I was in high school,” the 23-year-old says. “So naturally as I got older, I got tired of that humor. People's taste change. People's humor change.” For a while, Miller wasn’t happy with his career because his lack of progress made him feel stuck. “As stuck people do, I was indulging in vices and just drinking a lot,” he shares. “It got to the point where I was just showing up to the sets and the PAs knew there had to be a six-pack of beer there.”

So, he sees the In Tongues EP as a source of relief. “It was not only a transition of career, but in my life too,” he says. “Now I feel as if it was a rebirth, and I get to start fresh, and I get to leave this bad stuff behind.”

To help with his public transformation into Joji, he enlisted the help of 88Rising, a label that seeks to expose Asian artists to Western audiences. Miller points out the label likes “a good challenge.” When asked to elaborate, he responds, “Well, 'cause they're turning a fucking joke into something serious. I'll just come out and say it.”

It’s not like he hasn’t considered blending his two music projects. “I thought at one point, I could take [Pink Guy] into a direction where it could be serious and just some of the lines could be funny like some of Donald Glover's early stuff,” he says. He considered adapting Pink Guy into a project resembling Odd Future, the rap collective that seamlessly blends silliness with profundity.

But Miller ended up categorizing the two music projects as completely different. He won’t rap on a Joji track like he does as Pink Guy unless he’s doing a special collaboration with other rappers, like “Nomadic” with Chinese hip hop group Higher Brothers.

Although both music projects share omnipresent triple hi-hats, “Pink Guy music makes fun of trap,” he explains. “Joji music is inspired by trap. The Joji music is conflicting music, so it's like the hard-hitting of the trap, but with the soft melodies. And that represents me as a person, too -- as a conflicted person.”

As a sample-based producer, Miller has a knack for collecting compelling sounds that add ambient textures to his tracks. At the beginning of “worldstar money (interlude),” indistinct voices chatter over the prelude as the song fades in. “I don't like using MIDI and electronic stuff,” he says. “So I'd rather play an instrument and sample myself or kick a trash can and make a bass out of that. That's more fun to me. It's more organic too.”

When asked if he draws from sound FX artists, his eyes light up as he talks about the TIE fighters from Star Wars. He mimics the sound with his voice, then launches into a mini history lesson about the TIE fighters. “That shit is an elephant along with tire skids,” he elaborates. “There's so much you can do with sound. I don't think enough people realize that.”

In Tongues is so heavily textured that Miller included sounds that are more subtle than the instantly recognizable ambient noises populating the EP. One underlying sound hides in plain sight on some of the tracks. “I was throwing chains against the ground and I slowed it down super hardcore and pitched it down, and it has this really demonic chain shackle sound,” he says. You can hear the heavy industrial noise slither throughout “Demons,” adding a tactile texture to the background. Chains even appear around Miller’s neck on the EP’s cover art. “That's a sound I really like, because it's demonic but kind of hopeful in a weird way.”

But the serious approach to his work as Joji isn’t completely devoid of his comedic sensibility. “I want to make a whole song out of farts, but you can't tell that it's farts. And it'll actually be a good song,” he jokes. “I'll throw you off too. I'll put farts in other songs, and you just won't know.”

Miller considers himself to be “like 49 percent singer, 51 percent producer.” He’s going to ghost-produce for fellow 88Rising rapper Keith Ape, but he wants to eventually curate pop by producing “clean, crisp pop songs.” “I wanna be like Benny Blanco,” he reveals. “He's just chilling, always just makes a Selena Gomez pop song and sends it off.”

In the meantime, he’s got his work cut out for him. The day after our interview, he’s leaving for his Asia tour with the 88Rising crew, including Ape, Higher Brothers and Rich Chigga. But first, he has to go home and finish his next single, which he plans to release in early January. (He confirms that he'll release an EP next year and that he’s “already moved onto bigger and better sounds.”)

Even after Miller has received critical acclaim for his work as Joji, his career path has no set destination. “It doesn't matter how, I just want to continue expanding,” he says. “I just like creating stuff, it doesn't matter what the medium is.” There isn’t any finality to his latest tonal shift. He wants to leave his future as an artist open-ended.

“I just want to keep continuing to grow as a human,” he offers. “I'm also 5'9". I wish I was a little taller. But yeah, I will continue to grow, metaphorically hopefully. I just don't want to be stuck. That's all.”