In a world where pop stars carefully plan every interaction they have, John Duff is a refreshing shift. While tracks like this summer’s anthem ‘Hokie Pokie’ was scorchingly provocative, his latest single ‘Give A F*ck’ seems to be exactly where this artist is right now. Freshly sober and willing to be open about everything in his life, Duff’s outspoken style tacks on a layer of directness to his music. Duff dares both his listeners and viewers to “go there” inspiring them to see themselves in his art, but to also think outside the box that they might be living in. I sat down with Duff for a chat and whether we were discussing his new single, sobriety, or the standards that the gay community has set for us, every perspective from this emerging pop artist is a fresh and much needed one in today’s landscape.
Michael Cook: Your new single ‘Give A Fuck’ is decadent and gloriously opulent. Does it deliver the message you intended?
John Duff: Absolutely; it was very funny how the treatment of the video evolved. My original concept was one of this lonely guy in this big house. It was going to be like two worlds. I would be sitting at my computer masturbating, eating in my kitchen, and sitting in my bathtub. Each of those things would then transcend into a fantasy version of that. I then found a picture of Liberace in a bathtub in full-tuxedo and jewelry and I said “Fuck that, we are going full-tilt in this direction”. That felt risky, because we are in a pandemic. It’s a taste level issue; can you be opulent, can you be glamours? I think that I can because it is costume; it’s not my life, I don’t live in that house (laughs).
I am creating escapism and showing people this Old Hollywood world for a second. I think that there is an issue with consumption in general right now, where people are not giving themselves the liberty to relax and enjoy something. They don’t feel that it is appropriate; the truth is, there is not that much for us to do. You can vote, you can post, you can encourage other people to vote, but other than that, it is kind of out of our hands. So you definitely have to learn to relax.
MC: Even in the midst of a pandemic, you released the single and video for ‘Hokie Pokie’ and now ‘Give A Fuck’. As a person, you don’t subscribe to sexuality and homosexuality specifically, the way that many people do, correct?
JD: You are correct, I don’t. It is definitely not the crux of my identity. In fact, sex on the pyramid of needs is not anywhere close to the base of mine. That has given me a great deal of freedom as a performer to say that I don’t care if anyone wants to fuck me; they didn’t want to fuck me anyway because I had a big personality (laughs)! You see those memes on the internet that on one side say “When You First Meet Me” and the guy is tough and with muscles and then it says “When You Get To Know Me” and he is in a wig and twerking, whatever (laughs)! I have just been the type of person who presents it all up front; in some regards that has been a detriment. You don’t know; gay culture can be weird. I feel like sometimes people are embarrassed to be attracted to me; I’m “supposed” to be a white muscle gay. I’m supposed to fall into that type; so why am I falling into that thing?-Because it is the most natural thing for me.
This is all stuff that I wanted to do when I was twelve; I did Elvis Presley for the talent show when I was eight years old. I was wearing a sparkly shirt with faux diamond buttons on them, too oversized at the time, I think it fits me now. This has always been who I was. In my twenties, I lost sight of that. I was trying to assimilate to be someone that someone would want to be with. I pulled it off when I was twenty five in New York; I just was a guy who posted pictures of my abs on the internet. Then Stories got introduced on Instagram and then I started talking. They were like “oh no he has a personality, get him away from me, he’s a loose cannon” (laughs)!
MC: Artists are known for being very cautious about their releases and heavily curate and plan their content. Do you ever feel that putting it right out there with heavily provocative, yet quality material has set you apart from other artists?
JD: I’ll put it this way; my single and video ‘Hokie Pokie’ that I put out a month ago; the summer single ‘WAP’ was not out yet when we filmed the video. We thought it was the gaggiest-gag ever that I was coming out with this cunnilingus song, I thought it was so brazen. Then suddenly, for ‘WAP’ to come out two weeks later, it was like “oh shit there goes my whole schtick, now it is going to be something different and all people are going to see is male ‘WAP’. My actual point for doing it was to actually make people uncomfortable, but it was also to make myself uncomfortable. Those are the parts as a gay man, those are for OnlyFans. That’s not for us to do in entertainment, it’s for everyone else to do. Men can do it, women can do it, but when we do it, that is “not how we should be represented.”. I was fourteen years old on a pool raft in Ocean City, Maryland singing My Neck My Back” and got kicked out of the lazy river. It’s not new, if anything it is an homage to who I was.
I am in a weird conflict now, because a lot of the the music that I have been working on for the past two years is coming out now, but where I am mentally I want to do a Tom Petty record (laughs). I am committing to what we have now and my original vision, but I know what I have in store. So that gives me the freedom to put out anything really.
MC: Do you think being an East Coast guy has helped shape who you are as a performer and a person?
JD: I always like to say that on the East Coast, you have diversity. Where I grew up in Maryland it was very diverse. Not just in ethnicities but in socioeconomic status, but also in political views. There are truly people that are on the other side, or this side, or ambivalent. You don’t really find that on the West Coast. I think that breeds a level of tolerance in a way. I think that breeds a level of tolerance in people; I think people are struggling to understand tolerance right now. I desire to move back to the East Coast, that is my plan. I’ll come out to Los Angeles to make what I make. With recording, I have been working from my computer and doing it all remotely. I did a song in London during the pandemic from my computer; times are a changin’!
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Today I am 6 months sober. I debated whether to share this, but maybe it will help one person so: The first photo is me unedited now, the second is me the day before I quit. To people who know me well, my drinking problem probably isn’t much of a surprise. I’ve always been like the Pringle’s guy – once I pop the fun don’t stop… but in actuality it was more like that Smokey Robinson song “Tears of a Clown”. Sure, I was sometimes the life of the party – but that was really just a mask. At the height of my use, I stayed very active. I was always at the gym, making music, going to therapy – I was putting in “the work” but yielding little result. I guess you could say I was functioning, but truth be told I was running in place. There was drama. I was constantly apologizing. I was super reactive, and probably quite unpleasant to be around. Life had become a cycle and I was stuck. I was stuck in hiding. So what was I hiding from? It wasn’t actually pain or sadness – it was life. I was hiding from my potential to be great. To be lovable. Talented. Consistent. Reliable. Beautiful. I no longer hide from these things, I am these things. I am eternally grateful for my sobriety and the people who have guided me on this journey. It is a team effort. While i cannot say that I won’t explore with natural psychedelics (which were a huge part in discovering who I truly am and my need to quit drinking) – I intend to never drink or use *drugs* again. Take care of yourselves, after all: this is your story. You don’t have much control, but embracing that is much easier than working against it. I leave you with this quote from @mariannewilliamson, because it perfectly articulates my truth. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. … continued in comments…
MC: You were a part of The X-Factor several years ago and have been very vocal about your experience not being a great one. Do you see that medium of how the recording industry finds stars beginning to change now?
JD: I think it shifted a little bit after Kelly Clarkson won American Idol. I don’t think the goal was to find a new superstar, it was to get ratings and to create storylines for people. It’s a reality show and I think people now are faced with the fact that it is not reality. There are more talented singers sitting at their computers singing TikTok covers than there are winning American Idol.
MC: In the midst of everything else, you have a visual EP coming soon. What info can you sneak to me about it?
JD: Well we have already shot two other videos. Then there are two more in the works right now, then I am going to take a little break. It’s a tricky situation; do you drop everything at once or do you keep doing one thing at a time? The thing about doing one thing at a time is that I am really trying to build a fan base. I had such space between my first three releases, that I don’t think people have really been counting me as a viable person to look to for the content. These days, music is content that way that we are processing it with Spotify, which is another social media platform.
You will continue to see homages to my inner child, truly. I didnt even realize how parallel some of the work that I have been creating is with who I was when I was twelve or thirteen. We finished the video that is going to come out next and at the end of the day I looked around the set and said “this is my childhood”. It’s cathartic for me; I think that there are people like me out there who hopefully will get to see themselves in a new way or feel permission in a new way. It is a healing process for me, that I can definitely say.
MC: How are you staying creatively infused and inspired during this time in our country when so many of us have been forced to slow down?
JD: I am lucky that I had been working on this music for a couple years. For example, ‘Give A Fuck’ has been around for about two years in my bubble. In quarantine, it kind of got to the point where I could not keep making things, I could not keep making music and writing at the rate that I was. What was the other thing I do?-I make videos. I turned the energy as a vessel to get these things out and help people see the picture of who I am clearer. As far as writing new things, I am a little destitute and not flying out with tons of emails a day. I am newly sober though, I am nine months sober, so there used to be so much to write about. I was constantly in these highs and lows. I got some medication last year that worked but it definitely took away a little of the rawness of me. This is not my first time at the rodeo of sobriety. I got sober five years ago and did it for a year and my life was so great and thought I could drink again. It took me four years to come back to this level of commitment to my own well being. That I have weaned off of that, I am really starting to feel normal again. I am being patient right now.
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