“I’m a fourth-generation musician,” says Charles “CJ” Harper, speaking to Billboard over the phone from Los Angeles, by way of introduction. And the title couldn’t be more accurate — the 20-year-old musician, songwriter and son to Ben Harper grew up surrounded by folk and blues in his great-grandmother’s local instrument sale and repair shop, established in Claremont, Calif., in 1958.
The family’s Folk Music Center and Museum still stands today, just an hour northeast of the University of Southern California, where Harper attends college. In fact, it’s the same collaborative, storytelling tradition of the family’s folk music roots that partly inspired “Into the Light,” Harper’s debut single under new moniker Four AM, premiering today (Oct. 4) on Billboard.
“I come from a family of folk musicians, and a huge part of that is just telling stories and bringing people together and singing these songs and sharing music,” Harper says of the track, which he wrote with producer and high school friend Adrian Cota. “I think I have obviously a very 2017 interpretation of that.”
The idea for the song first sparked one night in January, when Harper and Cota began experimenting with the mellotron, a type of keyboard originally popularized by the Beatles. With Cota’s penchant for gospel music and Harper’s experiences in choir coupled with a growing interest in hip-hop, the collaborative song took on an ethereal, soul-tinged vibe, hinged on the hymn-like chorus “let’s look into the light.”
The friends and creative partners stayed up all night finishing the track, with Cota crafting the melody and Harper noting down lyrics, posting it to Soundcloud at — you guessed it — four in the morning. Soon after, realizing they had something special, the two took the track down in order to keep refining it.
“December break had just passed, and it [was] a very cloudy and warm progression remembering all the memories I’d had,” Cota explains. Adds Harper: “It just came together.”
While the self-released song may be Harper’s first effort as Four AM, it’s not the first time he’s gotten serious about a career in music. The budding artist released a rap EP called TRU2U under the moniker Lord Olaf last year, collaborating under the name with the likes of Odd Future’s Hodgy and Chuck Inglish of rap duo the Cool Kids. (As for Cota, the multi-talent plays drums as part of Cody Simpson’s band the Tide, which dropped their new album Wave One last week.)
And while the artist’s familial folk background is palpable in “Into the Light,” so are a range of other influences. Growing up, Harper says his iPod Mini was filled with everything from the Spice Girls and Beastie Boys to alternative rock royalty like Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl and, by middle school, hip-hop greats. “I’ve been following Kanye West since I was 10,” Harper adds, recalling with a laugh that he in fact played the rapper’s now-iconic “Jesus Walks” music video on a projector for friends at his 10th birthday party. “Now, I’m all over the place.”
These days, Harper splits his time between attending music industry classes at USC and working on “a good body of songs” in the studio. Harper says he plans to release a string of singles in the coming weeks, followed eventually by a full EP.
“I wanted to create something that was raw-feeling and not trendy or attached to any era or particular genre or sound, so much as just the feeling that I wanted,” Harper explains. “I think people will string it together and figure it out as the songs are released.”
Listen to the full debut single from Four AM with Adrian Cota, “Into the Light,” below.