Magazine Feature

Artists to Watch In 2017: Mark Johns, the College Kid Whose Kanye Cover Got Her Signed to Skrillex's Label

Mark Johns
Sami Drasin

“I write these songs for myself, first and foremost. Sometimes they’re good, and those I share,” says Johns, photographed on Dec. 1, 2016, at Hudson Loft in Los Angeles.

Predictions 2017: Billboard forecasts the year's breakthrough artists, key shot-callers and industry innovators.

Mark Johns wasn’t even looking to land a record deal when, a year ago, she posted a cover of “N—s in Paris” on SoundCloud. Recorded with her producer friend Sable, “In Paris” utterly ­transformed the Jay Z/Kanye West track, with Johns’ ­alluringly layered vocals flitting over ­shimmering electronic beats. It also quickly attracted the attention of Skrillex. He posted the song on his Twitter and on his “Skrillex Selects” SoundCloud page, asking Johns for more music, which she sent him. Then he asked her to come to Los Angeles. Suddenly, Mark Johns, who’d only started ­making music a few months earlier, found herself the first solo singer signed to Skrillex’s OWSLA label. She released her first EP, Molino, in October, and she’s at work writing her first album.

“I wasn’t one of those kids who’s like, ‘I want to be a singer when I grow up!’ ” says the 22-year-old (real name: Naomie Abergel) while curled up in a studio deep within downtown Los Angeles’ warehouse district. “My mom would play Celine Dion and Aerosmith in the car, and I would listen to whatever was on the radio. Music was never really a huge part of my personality.”

Sami Drasin
Mark Johns photographed on Dec. 1, 2016 at Hudson Loft in Los Angeles.

“She didn’t know what she was doing, which is why it felt so honest,” says OWSLA co-founder Clayton Blaha of Johns’ early recordings. “No rules; just putting ­herself out there. She’s a real badass.” Molino, which has logged 1.7 million streams on Spotify, features Johns’ rainy-day lyrics sung in a gauzy ­mezzo-soprano -- sweet, but only just so.

Born in Montreal to Jewish-Moroccan parents, Johns had an unusually ­cosmopolitan upbringing: Her family moved to Singapore when she was a baby, and she attended boarding school in Israel. “Very cheeky” as a kid, she was inspired by Legally Blonde to practice law (“She’s such a boss bitch”), but digging around YouTube attracted her to music. “I would hear the deeper cuts of an artist I really liked,” recalls Johns, “and think, ‘Whoa, there’s so much more out there.’”

Sami Drasin
Mark Johns photographed on Dec. 1, 2016 at Hudson Loft in Los Angeles.

She was “super drawn to the remix and electronic elements” on SoundCloud. “That’s where everything started musically for me.” While she was still studying psychology at the University of Miami, Sable posted “In Paris.” Worried her parents would freak out, Johns adapted her favorite visual artist’s name -- Marc Johns -- as her own alias. Now, she has refined her sound, making the kind of ­downtempo dance pop that’s a first for OWSLA.

“Everybody is going to have an idea about what’s best for you,” she says. “You need to push for what you want. I don’t want to ever be bored -- because what’s the point, otherwise?”


Sounds like - Dreamy vocals atop a glittering electro-pop groove

Spirit animal - “Koala. They like to eat a lot, and they like chillin’.”

First song she wrote - A rap called “Icebox.” “It has, like, ‘lava lamps’ and ‘apple juice’ in the lyrics.”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 14 issue of Billboard.