In an industry brimming with countless young singer-songwriters looking to make a name for themselves, it can be hard to stick out from the crowd. But if you focus on who you are and the story you want to tell, you’ll find just the audience you need.
Joe Piotrowski is living proof that pouring your energy into the work and lyrics is what matters for an artist trying to break into fans’ playlists. His new album, Are You Still Listening?, explores personal growth, optimism in the face of chaos, and the realities of being a young adult in a pandemic-ridden, internet-connected world.
“I don’t feel like I’ve ever been this vulnerable and honest on a record,” Piotrowski tells TREMG. “I feel like people are going to get to know this other part of me, but I’m really excited to see what everyone thinks and how it’s received.”
He kicked off this new era with the cheerful “Good Morning” back in May, a sunny celebration of the good things in life and how it feels to grow through a hard time. That bright sound peeks through on songs like “Drunk Off My Ass,” following the lead of “Good Morning” without feeling like a one-note record.
He explains, “It almost feels like failing and then starting anew, and the rest of the album that follows is the rest of that journey. It also has a lot of lyrical tie-ins to a lot of other songs on the record that I’m excited to see if people pick up on.”
Even with its wide variety of influences, ranging from Phoebe Bridgers and Bon Iver to Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance, Are You Still Listening? still comes off as a streamlined train of thought, seeing a young artist explore and step into his identity more than ever. This exploration is some of the most daring of Piotrowski’s career so far, pushing him into new territory while still maintaining who he is at his core. The perfect example is the album opener, “Do You Know What I Mean?,” which was a key moment in pushing the project in different directions.
“The song started as a demo with that opening piano line and the four-on-the-floor kick and that pretty random pattern on the ride,” he explains. “Something about it just grabbed me and the song just kept evolving until those last screams were recorded by a friend and I who made the song together in my dorm room. It was always just like, ‘Okay, how can we take this one step further?’”
Throughout the album, Piotrowski takes his artistry several steps further, drawing from the same focus on storytelling and emphasis on emotion he displayed on his previous album, Cautionary. A notable difference? His ambition and fearless experimentation. Bold songs like the autotune-accented “Serendipity” and the pop-rock “Unconditioned, Endlessly” stick out as shining moments on the project and showcase his versatility.
“I’ve grown so much mentally and I am so much more confident in myself as a songwriter and producer,” Piotrowski notes. “The chances I feel willing to take and that feel exciting to me, I don’t feel like I would’ve even considered an option while making Cautionary. I felt a lot more of a sense of purpose making this album, and it really pushed me to make it as weird, and messy, and perfect as it could be.”
You can find Are You Still Listening? on your favorite streaming services now, and get to know Joe Piotrowski on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter! Keep reading for more from our interview with the introspective singer-songwriter.
How does it feel to finally share Are You Still Listening with the world?
Honestly, pretty scary. I don’t feel like I’ve ever been this vulnerable and honest on a record, so I feel like people are going to get to know this other part of me, but I’m really excited to see what everyone thinks and how it’s received.
Is there a certain lyric on Are You Still Listening that you’re particularly proud of?
Absolutely, every lyric was almost slaved over thinking “How could it be better?” or “How can the next line beat that last one?” But I am so proud of the whole chorus of “Shut Eye.” It came out of me almost like a word vomit and it single-handedly tied the song together, I had already had both of the verses talking about that time in a day when you’re laying down trying to fall asleep and you start overthinking about completely unnecessary things and when you’re able to snap out of it and step back and think “Why was I even thinking about that? What did that even have to do with my day or week?” And I think the chorus represents that perfectly. Also, the bridge of “Asking For A Friend.”
Who were some of your influences on the album’s sound?
Bon Iver’s self-titled record and Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher played huge parts in finding where this album wanted to live sonically. Both of those albums both encapsulate my favorite things about music. Huge drums, beautiful melodies, and heartbreaking lyrics, but most importantly, created an atmosphere to the point where you can almost see exactly where the album takes place, and that was something really important to me and that I wanted to show on these songs.
Are You Still Listening opens with the upbeat “Do You Know What I Mean?.” How did you choose which song should start off the album?
Lyrically, that song is really about an outreach and a search for community. Judging by how the rest of the album flows, and how I thought this cycle and release was gonna go, I really wanted a special song to play live and to end a show. The song started as a demo with that opening piano line and the four-on-the-floor kick and that pretty random pattern on the ride, and something about it just grabbed me and the song just kept evolving until those last screams were recorded by a friend and I who made the song together in my dorm room. It was always just like, “Okay, how can we take this one step further?”
What made you choose “Good Morning” as the project’s lead single?
I really think of it as the centerpiece of the album. I love almost how funny it is following up “DYKWIM” with this song, ending with the screams and half-time breakdown to this almost Beatles-esque drumbeat with the whistles and the trumpets. It almost feels like failing and then starting anew, and the rest of the album that follows is the rest of that journey. It also has a lot of lyrical tie-ins to a lot of other songs on the record that I’m excited to see if people pick up on.
One of my favorite songs on Are You Still Listening is the guitar-led “We Both Know,” which combines elements of pop and rock. How did you find a balance between the genres you explored on the project?
The making of that song is one of the experiences of the creation of this album that I’ll never forget. I grew up loving My Chemical Romance and old Fall Out Boy records and stuff like that and that’s really where my heart lies and I knew it was a point I wanted to touch on with this album. I had an hour off in between lectures and laid down those pop-punk drums on a midi keyboard and put some guitar over it and I immediately knew something was there. I called my friend Jay who I made songs like “Do You Know What I Mean,” “Drunk Off My Ass,” and “Once Again” with. He had just gotten out of class and had like 20 minutes until his next one and I called him basically yelling “You need to get over here right now” while playing the demo through my phone speakers. He rushed over to my room and we were just bouncing up and down throwing lyrics and ideas back and forth and every single one was better than the last. There was just something in the air that day I guess.
Which song on the album means the most to you?
“Is There Anything More?,” which is the song that closes the record. I feel like it’s raised a new bar for me lyrically and as a producer. Not only is it the most personal song I’ve ever made and is about an event that I grew a lot from, but it incorporates some pretty weird industrial sounds (think early Nine Inch Nails or Big Red Machine) during that huge breakdown which is something I’ve wanted in one of my songs for a really long time.
Which song took the longest to write?
Definitely “Nobody Hears A Sound.” That was a song I wrote in the beginning stages of writing songs for Cautionary. The song started off with the electronic 808 drums with some delay and reverb, and once I got that groove, I threw the pad over it and instantly wrote the hook. I just feel like it’s a topic I’ve covered before with some of my songs and even though it is still something I continually struggle with and it’s something that is always growing and changing, I didn’t want to backtrack on already-covered ground and I wanted to make sure I was saying something new and true to the things I was feeling and thinking and figuring out about myself in the process and that song didn’t really get finished until the end of the writing process for this album too, so I have been sitting on this one for a while.
If it weren’t for COVID-19, what would your dream album release cycle/promotions look like?
I’d be playing a lot of shows, I can promise you that. The beginning stages of my career were playing shows across my hometown and busking for tips on the street and when lockdown happened, it was really hard to know if concerts were actually going to ever be able to come back, so I wanted to make a live-sounding album. But I’m gonna get back out there soon, and I’m really excited to.
How do you think you’ve grown as an artist and person since releasing Cautionary in 2020?
I don’t even feel like the same person. I’ve grown so much mentally and I am so much more confident in myself as a songwriter and producer. The chances I feel willing to take and that feel exciting to me, I don’t feel like I would’ve even considered an option while making Cautionary. I felt a lot more of a sense of purpose making this album, and it really pushed me to make it as weird, and messy, and perfect as it could be.