Studio Four is kind of a secret. Tucked in beside Stebbing Recording Studios' legendary main room – where Split Enz made their first single nearly 50 years ago – it's not even mentioned on the studios' website.
While the big room can accommodate a 50-piece orchestra, Studio Four, with its basic mixing desk and ensuite vocal booth, is about the size of a bedroom – a fact that may have some resonance for 24-year-old Eddie Johnston, who made his new album as Lontalius, Someone Will Be There for You, there, under an arrangement that lets him effectively treat it as his own space.
From the age of about 15, when he was at school in Wellington, Johnston was the archetypal bedroom producer. As Lontalius, he sang and played prolifically into his laptop: intriguing covers of R&B bangers by Drake and The Weeknd and melodic sketches of his own, uploaded to SoundCloud shortly after being written.
He created another persona, Race Banyon, the producer of electronic music as sleek and confident as the Lontalius songs were vulnerable and uncertain, who played many times at the Wellington venue Puppies before Johnston himself was old enough to walk through the door. He suffered the inevitable fate of the wunderkind – the main thing everyone talked about was how young this kid was. To be fair, he seemed to think about that a lot himself.
He's 24 now – the acne has cleared and so has his head – but he's still fascinated by the passion of youth. "I am only 17 in my brain," he sings drowsily in the opening lines of I'm Good on the new album.
"It's just a momentous emotional time for everyone, I think," he explains. "I found it very inspiring. Now it's more about looking back on it – and often wishing that I had that same emotional intensity with everything."
The younger Eddie was often intense. He'd attracted attention without really engaging with the typical New Zealand music career path and he wasn't shy about his dismissal of the local industry. The internet had connected him with both fans and collaborators; he'd make his own way. He signed a publishing deal with an advance that let him pursue his dream of moving to Los Angeles to work in the teams that write and produce modern R&B pop. It was everything he wanted – until he realised it wasn't really what he wanted. After five years, he came home.
"When I went there I so wanted to do all that kind of stuff. But think I was too young and I didn't have the confidence to be in those rooms. It is quite intimidating, being there with other people who've all had big songs or whatever. I come from, when I'm sad, I write a sad song – and then it's just like, oh yeah, we're starting from nothing to make a song for Rihanna or whoever. I found it quite hard. I didn't really suit the LA grind. But it was a very good learning experience."
In LA, Johnston worked on the last album with Om'Mas Keith (Frank Ocean, Jay-Z producer) and Mr Hudson (Kanye West) and he did remixes for Martin Garrix and Troye Sivan.
Johnston was right about one thing though. The internet would deliver. He's able to work as a musician and songwriter now because one of those melodic sketches he uploaded when he was 16 or 17 gained a life of its own.
Sleep Thru Ur Alarms is barely a song: less than two minutes long, only one verse. But it has been played nearly eight million times on SoundCloud and more across multiple instances on YouTube. One YouTube fan looped the tiny song so it runs for an hour – it's been played more than a million times. (Another fan loop runs for 10 hours.) Since Sleep Thru Ur Alarms was released in a form he could actually earn money from in 2019, it has logged nearly 21.5 million plays on Spotify alone, its momentum fostered by its use in more than 7000 TikTok videos.
And everywhere there are comments, there are kids spilling their feelings about everything from lost first loves, to struggles with gender identity or loneliness or just the simple, aching intensity of being a teenager. He captured a mood that means a lot to them.
"It just blew up, in a strange way that's sort of divorced from me really," he says. "But it's great. You kind of write a song at a point in your life and it exists on its own. It exists separate from me, really. So that song is living its life."
The Lontalius songs he's writing now are more sophisticated, especially the rich, radiant title track of Someone Will Be There for You. Most of them still offer permission feel sad – and where there's a relationship involved (which is quite often), he's still as matter-of-fact about his sexuality as he was when he was a kid.
"If I'm writing music and I write about someone, then I'll use the right pronouns – I'm not going to pretend or be shy about it," he says. "The first thing is that it feels good when I sing it, because that's the music that I wanted to hear when I was 14. And it's more direct, which I think makes people relate to it more. I'm not hiding anything."
He admits that it troubles him when he talks to young queer artists and hears they're worried about alienating straight guys. "Plenty of straight guys listen to my music. It's not a problem."
His experience in LA and his success in the unpredictable sphere of digital music make him a go-to for advice for teenagers with similar ambitions. He's so preternaturally thoughtful and centred that it's easy to imagine him becoming a producer for young artists like that, and he acknowledges that's a likely path.
Race Banyon, techno ace, is still there in the background as his other self and probably has further bangers to unleash, but for now, says Johnston, "I think I'm going to spend my entire life falling more in towards the music I listened when I grew up – which is Crowded House and stuff. I have my own ambitions of the music that I want to make, but if all I end up being is like a gay version of Wilco, that's totally fine. I think that's great."
EDDIE JOHNSTON, BY THE NUMBERS
Album - 570.7k streams already on Spotify
Sleep Thru Ur Alarms 21,414,235 streams on Spotify
YKK vs THE WORLD, 29 May at The Tuning Fork
Johnston is playing as Lontalius and Race Banyon, and it also features Church & AP, Maxwell Young, PollyHill. Tickets on sale at moshtix.co.nz
The new Lontalius album, Someone Will Be There For You, is out now on streaming platforms.