Photos by Kiera Franks
Luxury apartments and national brands keep appearing on and around campus, but amidst the big dog deals behind the scenes, local floaters still linger near campus adding culture and originality to the mix. I met local artist, JT Hillier, at Kafe Kerouac this month to chat about his newest album release. He’s a bit of a campus celebrity, having played at campus bars for years covering some of the students’ favorite singles on his guitar.
“It was kind of like golfing buddies. You just get friends in a room and you’re talking about ideas. You’re paying people, sometimes you’re not, but it’s cool. I mean, you’re all down.”Hillier on the recording process
Growing up just outside the city in Delaware, OH, Hillier began playing around Ohio State when he was only 17 years old.
“It was the perfect cut-my-teeth situation. I was playing graveyard shift, 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. I really hadn’t been in the bar crowd as a person, so I’m playing in a culture I wasn’t used to,” he admitted. “It was extremely scary, but it was great. I learned how to win over that crowd. People would try to tip me beer, and I would have beers lined up at my feet because I couldn’t drink it.”
Nowadays, you can find him at Ugly Tuna Saloona on Chittenden and Fourth, or at Thr3e’s from time to time playing live music, taking requests, and sharing his original sound. Picture an American Ed Sheeran using a loop pedal like a pro and mixing in a little harmonica for pizazz. Also, a tambourine on his ankle. All-in-all, Hillier is a one-man-band and nothing but confidence at the mic.
“I take pride in the songs I play live,” he said. “I used to be really concerned about playing everything that I thought that everyone liked, and the more I did it, the more I realized the way I can survive playing covers is if I play songs that reflect what I actually like. It became less country, and more R&B, more pop, dare I say hip-hop. I’ll arrange the songs my own way, I’ll try to find my own voice with it. When you do covers you want to find something that’s true and honest.”
While his career started out by playing covers, in November he reached an important goal as an artist: releasing a record of his own original work.
Covers paid the bills, but the end goal was always getting his own sound out there. One that was developed through years of buying records and studying them in college the same way you’d study a textbook for class.
“Going to Nashville was studying abroad for me as a musician. I was co-writing with a lot of people, I was playing shows…”
Although the late nights and non-stop push for creativity trained him to become a better guitarist and musician, it wasn’t the most ideal job for Hillier.
“That’s one thing that’s cool about being in Columbus as opposed to other cities: people are helping each other a lot. There’s a lot of really talented, entrepreneurial people. Photographers, web people, other musicians. I had a lot of dudes play on my record. My producer was a referral from another musician,” he said.
Never short of humility, Hillier began shouting out dozens of local artists who have become members of his tight-knit and plentiful music community here in the city. The Columbus Songwriting Association was the first step to getting him connected to Nashville and his few recordings.
This musician isn’t fresh out of college, though. He’s taken the responsible route to a quiet, city-sized fame. He studied at Otterbein University and got a degree in Journalism and English, landing a full-time job in Delaware after Nashville before going back into music full-time.
“I never liked having a 9-to-5. I love being my own boss. I love having coffee at a Kafe Kerouac and then filling my Instagram feed while I’m on campus, and then I’ll go play a gig for 300 bucks, play a few songs, and then I’ll go home, sleep in, and go to the gym,” he said. “I appreciate it more since having a straight job. Now I know what it’s like, and it gave me some validation for what I do.”
With a degree on the fridge and a list of gigs on the calendar, Hillier is finally living out that artists’ dream around campus. I asked him when he knew his newest album, Elevate, was ready.
“To be completely honest, it was when the money was there. It’s expensive to make a record,” he shared. “I put $10,000 into this record of my own money. I did a campaign to help recoup expenses. I gigged a lot this summer, played about 20 shows a month from April through September, and when the numbers were there, I felt time to do it.”
Putting the record together wasn’t a one-man job, though. Building the songs is a collaborative process, even though the vocals, lyrics, and lead guitar is all Hillier. He made a handful of new friends through the process of finding drummers, bassists, vocalists, and others to feature on the album.
“It was kind of like golfing buddies,” he said, describing a recording session. “You just get friends in a room and you’re talking about ideas. You’re paying people, sometimes you’re not, but it’s cool. I mean, you’re all down.”
The record is a comfortable handful of eight songs, and Hillier believes there’s something for everyone on the setlist.
“If you’re into neo-soul, swaggy, Drake stuff, you’ll probably like ‘The Park.’ If you’re into country stuff, you’ll probably like ‘Looks Like Rain’ or ‘Breathing in Bar Smoke.’ If you’re into alternative rock, you’ll probably like ‘Cool Cool Wind.’ That’s more of a rock song and it sounds like alternative rock I grew up listening to. And if you like Ed Sheeran, you’ll probably like ‘Don’t Fail Me Now,” and if you like John Mayer, you’ll probably like ‘Home Free.’ Just depends on what you like.”
You can find JT Hillier’s newest album, Elevate, on Spotify, and you can follow him to his next live show in the city at www.jthilliermusic.com.