San Francisco native Jacob Sullenger’s rise to fame as a Twitter famous, festival-playing, 3.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify artist under current name Jawny has been anything but linear. While most toddlers spend time playing with toys, Jacob opted for a guitar, starting his journey on learning how to play at the ripe age of six-years-old. This led to Sullenger composing his own music in his teens, but he later decided to go the traditional route in terms of starting a career: attending college briefly to study nursing. Like how most artists’ stories go, Sullenger eventually dropped out to move to Philadelphia and pursue music full time.
Sullenger’s career started with the name Johnny Utah: a moniker that was a reference to the 1991 film Point Break. Utah’s first self-titled EP dropped in January 2018, eventually leading to the track “Really Meant” getting a placement in the HBO series High Maintenance. “Honeypie,” Utah’s breakout single in spring 2019, led him to a record deal with Interscope, where he also decided to rebrand again to simply, “Jawny.” This transition also relocated Jawny to Los Angeles, no longer needing to manage a pizza restaurant to pay the bills.
Jawny’s debut project with Interscope, For Abby, dropped in October 2020, and his second EP, The Story of Hugo, was released this past July. Jawny’s current string of US headlining shows kicked off in San Diego last week, hitting Los Angeles’ The Roxy this past Thursday night.
This is the fourth show I’ve attended at this venue since I moved to LA earlier this year, and I can say with 100% certainty that Jawny’s crowd was the most rowdy (in a polite, considerate way, not in the way that people would get literally trampled to death, which unfortunately happened 24 hours later in Houston). After opening act Vanillaroma’s 30-minute set, a band who was definitely well-received by the audience, the curtain dropped for a quick stage change, the transition period lasting no longer than 20 minutes.
As the curtain rose and the audience cheered, bodies physically shifting their stance to prepare for the start of the performance, Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” started blaring across the speakers as Jawny took the stage with his bandmates. Though this choice of song seemed odd compared to the type of music Jawny sings and the general demographic of fans he attracts (the set later featured a brief mosh pit. I don’t think many Swifties are out moshing at any of her shows), it was a pretty well-executed choice, considering 95% of the audience was singing along to every word.
Donning a red “Marlboro” flat bill hat and a matching red and black sweater vest over a white tee, Jawny’s long, white-blonde hair was overflowing his shoulders, peeking out under the cap (his hair was lime green this past summer). As I watched his movements as he got settled onstage, I turned to my +1 and told her how much he reminded me of Michael Cera if he were a musician. She agreed. Jawny’s sense of casual confidence is subtle, but there, and necessary as a musician, or someone whose job requires to captivate other people for an extended period of time.
Jawny opened his set with an electrifying performance of “Take It Back,” one of the more rock-heavy tracks off The Story of Hugo, and a song that’s arguably my favorite from the project as well. I was caught off guard to hear it first, and I think that was probably the point. But what was even more surprising? That he immediately went into playing “Honeypie,” Jawny’s undoubtedly biggest song, surpassing 175 million streams on Spotify as I’m writing this—his second biggest is just shy of 17 million.
The 14-song setlist took audience members through a journey of Jawny’s more current songs of his discography, though giving OG fans a treat with his 2018 single “Crazy For Your Love”—intro’d by him as a song that is now too high for him to sing as he begged for the audience not to laugh at his strained vocals—as well as plenty of songs from For Abby and The Story of Hugo. Fans were also treated to some hilarious banter in between songs that (seemingly) felt unplanned (in the most pleasant, endearing way possible), most of which centered around Jawny’s astonishment that he was in the middle of playing to a sold out crowd in Los Angeles.
Two of the highlights of the evening were unexpected ones: bandmate Elli (who I’ve now discovered releases music as a solo artist under the moniker Sawyer Dust, took the spotlight for an incredibly impressive cover of The Killers’ “When You Were Young,” prompting a well-deserved singalong from the audience. The second highlight? Hearing not only “Honeypie” again towards the end of the set, but also another performance of “Take It Back,” considering the audience seemed “taken by surprise” to hear it as the opening track.
Even if fans weren’t shocked to hear these two songs at the front end of the set, I think he would have performed them twice regardless, cause Jawny does what he wants, which is how he got where he is today in the first place.
Click here to check out the rest of Jawny’s headlining tour dates.