When John-Robert left his Edinburg, Virginia, hometown (pop. 1,070) for Los Angeles in 2019, he did so with starry-eyed ambition – a teenage songsmith bypassing a Berklee College of Music scholarship to chase his own musical manifest destiny. It quickly materialized: Grammy-nominated producer Ricky Reed (Leon Bridges, Lizzo) signed him at age 19 to Nice Life/Warner Records, helping integrate John-Robert’s lilting blend of traditional folk and Appalachian country into the modern pop landscape. 

His debut single, 2019’s “Adeline,” has become an 11-million streamer, and collaborations and co-signs from the likes of Alessia Cara and Camilla Cabello, respectively, have further cemented him as a deeply auspicious writer on releases like 2020’s Bailey Barely Knew Me and 2021’s Healthy Baby Boy, Pt. 1. Now, on his new EP, Garden Snake, the artist hailed as “a small-town teen poised to become the next big singer-songwriter” by Live Nation’s Ones To Watch explores the pull of his past in a captivating five-song collection, bursting with the grassroots musicality of his Shenandoah Valley birthplace and the homespun purity of his earliest songwriting endeavors.

“My dad nurtured my love of music in a way he never received himself growing up,” John-Robert remembers. “When I was in elementary school, he’d take me to sing at local fairs and open mics at coffee shops and bars. I even sang the national anthem at baseball games and MMA fights. He was always encouraging me. His motto was always, ‘the worst they can say is no.’” 

After an impromptu a cappella performance at a local Relay for Life cancer fundraiser at age 9, John-Robert started posting YouTube covers and later joined the cast of the Shenandoah Jamboree, a concert series run by Dukes of Hazzard actor Ben Jones. At age 13, he was handpicked to perform on Ellen, where he was gifted a $5,000 Guitar Center gift card which he used to purchase a laptop and interface. Before long, he’d gone from making demos on an RC 30 Looper station to writing and producing his own recordings.

It’s in this way that Garden Snake, at its core, is very much a throwback, melding the rich storytelling of the self-described “top-shelf” country he was exposed to as a kid with the buoyancy of contemporary popular music. Accentuated by high-capoed guitars, delicate fingerpicking, double bass and soothing harmonies, the musical menagerie John-Robert fills on Garden Snake showcases not only his elastic versatility as a songwriter but also his hard-worn DIY mentality.

“I’d just gotten Ableton and decided I’d teach myself how to use it,” he explains of the project’s genesis. “It took me back to when I’d watch YouTube videos to learn how to use Garageband and Logic. I dove in headfirst, using the Nice Life studio space and focusing on classic, great songwriting. I had to take it back to basics, and build up from there.”

Ruminating on friendship, loneliness and the search for identity and inner peace, the songs on the self-produced Garden Snake are rooted in truth but seem cinematic, the soundtrack to a coming-of-age epic. From the back-porch breeze of “Come Pick Me Up” and colorful chants of “Sweet Child” to the West Coast bedroom pop “Road Trip,” wistful, twangy “Westward Bound” and red-clay shuffle “Good Days’ll Come,” the project radiates the spirit of John-Robert’s upbringing at the intersection of both small-town America and the internet age.

“In the past, my writing sometimes felt like I was trying on different costumes – experimenting with different styles without being able to commit to one sound,” he says. “I had a dynamic collection, but it didn’t make for a cohesive body of work. Garden Snake feels like home and true to myself. It sounds the most like me, and what’s really cool is I feel like the songs have legs that allow me to perform them in any setting – on a solo run or with a band.”

That complex songwriting, centered in his hometown roots, is what’s taken John-Robert this far, and you can trust it’ll be there in everything he created. He’s poised to do a lot of it moving forward, as he notes that Garden Snake is but the first entry in a long line of releases that will find him spreading his sonic wings further than ever before. (“I want people to be able to mosh, cry, and everything in between,” he says with a laugh.)

For now, the EP represents a healing exercise for the 23-year-old songwriter, a way to pull himself out of professional and personal turmoil and reconnect with the people and places that made him who he is today – the banks of the North Fork Shenandoah River and rolling hillsides, the home-cooked meals and close-knit community. It’s the place he found himself physically in 2020 as the COVID pandemic began, and a destination he’s since learned is only a song away.

Garden Snake is a time capsule,” he says. “It was like trying to make a Virginia record in LA. I’m really proud of myself for seeing it through. It was character building, but I proved to myself I could make it out the other side. It’s something no one can take away from me.”