John Paciolla already has the makings of an epic Behind the Music episode, and he’s literally just getting started in the biz. The 27-year-old Los Angeles singer/songwriter/producer, who goes by the stage name Able Heart (more on that later), can barely contain his excitement in a call with Billboard just days after his track “Greenlight” was chosen by the Jonas Brothers on NBC’s songwriter competition show Songland.
“I definitely almost fainted,” he says of the moment Nick Jonas announced that his Lil Peep-esque R&B jam was the one they wanted. “In that moment, you think you’re going to cry if you get picked, but it just went, like, ‘whoop’ [over my head] and then, ‘What?’ And that’s when the realization sets in that things really could possibly change.”
Actually, change has been the only constant in Heart’s improbably journey to prime time, which has taken him from the cusp of Winter Olympic stardom in snowboarding to the depths of addiction and a phoenix-like rise to realizing his long-held dream of music fame.
“I would go back to my hotel and cry [during the show’s taping] because everyone was so nice and after the first few days, I already felt like I won and I didn’t need [anything else], because to know people at the top of their game like this?” he says of the Songland team, which also includes mentors and acclaimed songwriters/producers Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, Ester Dean and Nashville’s Shane McAnally. “That’s gonna push me more and I want to push myself to surround myself with people like this striving to be better every day.”
Dean sensed something special in Able Heart right away on the show, comparing him to a Eminem/Travis Scott-style “rap-rock” songwriter with an alternative twist and digging in to help him shape his song into something Jonas-worthy. What viewers didn’t get a full sense of, though, was the long, very hard road the Hershey, Pennsylvania-born artist went through to get here.
The shy, soft-spoken studio rat whose stage name comes courtesy of his mom’s saying that you’re “able to do everything your heart desires,” began snowboarding when he was eight (and he’d been skateboarding since he could walk). His mom took a second job in the kitchen at a Pennsylvania ski slope so he could get his weekened reps in, allowing him to rise to national prominence by 12, at which point he began training for halfpipe at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
But a bad fall that injured his spine ended his dreams after a once-promising career. He jokes, “It would be a shorter list to tell you what I didn’t break.” But the sudden loss of that dream, one he thought could help him repay his parents for their years of struggle to support him, led to a spiral of drug addiction that landed Able in 10 treatment programs and rehabs during his teens and early 20s. During that period of struggle, Able Heart began to realize that music had always been playing in the background of his life, quite literally, in the form of his dad, who was a touring musician and producer with a full basement studio in their house and who once had his own dreams of musical fame as a band leader.
It was at one of those treatment centers in Palm Springs that he met a friend who turned him on to modern house music, which brought on a “spiritial experience” the first time he heard it blasting through the speakers at a New York nightclub. “That changed my life and brought music into my life,” he says. “I used to listen to that kind of music all the time when I was snowboarding, because it’s good to ride to, so I was automatically hooked.” That deep connection to the music he heard at clubs like the legendary Pacha, drove Able Heart to dive into making music with the same “eat, sleep and breathe” ferocity he once channelled into the halfpipe.
Music didn’t initially come as easily as snowboarding, but he eventually tapped into the vibe he remembered trying to find when he would sneak into a corner in the team house and sing into his laptop, where he woudl ignore the giggles from the other athletes, which made the already self-conscious teen even more insecure. The house remixes and production gigs kept coming in despite getting “the smallest amount of sleep a human can” during that first year, during which he realized he needed to escape his hometown and be around a more motivated scene.
A move to Los Angeles five years ago coincided with a hard relapse, which sent him to treatment again after a heartbreaking admission to his parents that he once again needed their help. After that stint in rehab he began crashing on the kitchen floor of his sister’s kitchen L.A. studio apartment, setting up his cot at night and his studio during the day. But the noise complaints — he can only listen to music at ear-piercing volume — led to them moving and Able Heart’s light bulb recogniation that he needed to make a project that would allow him to explain, and share, what he’d been through. “I wanted a selfless way of being selfish, or is it the other way? Either way, that’s the best gift you can give, when you change someone’s life like that,” he says of his decision to focus on writing music about his journey.
That began a period during which Able Heart posted dark, beat-driven tracks on Soundcloud, with one of the songs, the grinding “Let Me Drown,” catching the ear of someone at Songland, kicking off Able’s unexpected second musical act. “The things I wrote about in my music were a way for me to vent so I wasn’t actually carrying through with these acts in real life,” he says. The only problem was that Able had a story arc in mind for his music, a plan to tell his tale in a way that might help someone else climb from the darkness to the light.
Which is why he wasn’t sure if the hope-filled “Greenlight” — about an insatiable desire and a request for the go-ahead to take things to the next level — was the way he wanted the wider world to meet him for the first time. “There has to be some realistic clarity there, so people can follow this from where it was to where it is now,” he says. “So you can say, ‘Damn! This is where I used to be.'” In fact, “Greenlight” was the first song he wrote when he moved to California as part of a batch of 7-10 similar tunes, but he though it was just “too happy” to put out at the time.
His mom, of course, convinced him that this was a great opportunity he had to grab (“I’m a big momma’s boy”), since he’d been working at an L.A. car wash by day and staying up all night making music with not much to show for it. All he knew was that he was going to be on national TV with a story that might connect with someone else, which could “give me a bigger platform to talk about a thing so many people go through,” he says. “Who knows who will see it?”
He didn’t really know what to expect from the show, and really didn’t understand that he would have to perform live in front of other people for the first time, which, he says, was probably for the best. “I got there and was like, ‘Oh boy, what did I get myself into?’,” he recalls thinking, joking that he felt bad for the Songland editor who had to cut around endless clips of Able Heart crying with joy at his good fortune during taping. The judges were impressed, to say the least. “Able Heart is the true definition of a ‘diamond in the rough,” Dean tells Billboard. “When it’s his time to shine the whole world will light up!”
Once the Jonas Brothers picked his song, Able Heart just kept reminding himself to be in the moment, because things started to take off very quickly. In fact, in addtion to having his song released by the band the night of the show, he also got a chance to work with will.i.am. on some tracks as part of what an NBC spokesperson says was a number of “many strong working relationships among the songwriters, artists and producers throughout filming. Ryan, Ester and Shane have been very supportive of the songwriters, and look to continue working with them beyond the show.”
He says that show executive producer, the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, came up to him after “Greenlight” made the cut and told him, “‘life’s about to be a lot different and things are going to change and dark places could lead you back. I’d like to help guide you through that process.’ He didn’t have to do that. And Ryan didn’t have to invite me over to his house to work on music,” he says.
After the whirlwind ride, Able Heart still can’t quite describe it all. “It’s the most insane thing. It’s weird,” he says excitedly. “I keep wanting to say ‘surreal,’ but the feeling it’s different. There’s no word in the dictionary. But that’s where I live…like, ‘Let’s go!'” His next goal is to do a whole new album and go out on tour for the first time, one of his biggest bucket list items. “Because it’s the biggest fear I have, going on tour, but I always picture being at the end of my life…what do they say, ‘you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take?’ So I’d rather have done it and failed then to never have done it at all.”