By the Mango Tree

Born and raised In Lakeland, Joshua Michael Robinson started making music at a young age. Since moving to Nashville three years ago, the artist, known as JMR, has recently released his second album, its soulful melodies making waves throughout the music scene. jmr shares the many influences that impact him still and the reflective makings of his latest EP Boyish. or what Robinson would call a kind of conversation with his 20-year-old self.

Photography by Rob Crosby

An acoustic guitar in one hand and a handheld phone in the other, the dated photo appears to be of a boy coyly caught in the midst of delivering an earnest serenade.

The boy is 13-year-old Joshua Michael Robinson, and the cover of his sophomore EP release, Boyish. “A photo of preteen me, attempting to woo some unfortunate girl over the phone with my acoustic guitar, felt fitting for the cover,” says the singer-songwriter Robinson, now 26.

Independently released in May, Boyish is a broad body of work — some songs complex and dark, some emotive and atmospheric, while others take a soft and eerie tone, each woven together by Robinson’s rich soulful voice.

“Lakeland in some ways has been a compass for me. Every time I return it’s changed, but maybe not as much as I have. It provides for me a contrast for my self-realization, I think, and there’s a lot of inspiration in that.”

Since moving to Nashville three years ago, Robinson, creating music under the moniker JMR, has released two records. His debut EP, Ritual, was released by Republic Records in 2015 to critical acclaim, including a feature on the popular music review site, SPIN. He has now returned with seven new songs, in his self-produced EP, Boyish.

Delivering rich vocals and raw lyrics, Boyish features both collaborative endeavors birthed from the artist’s wealth of music influences and Robinson’s emerging ingenuity as a songwriter. One highlight from the EP, the song “Harbinger” was written at Salaam Remi’s house (Amy Winehouse, Miguel, Estelle) and features the piano work of Robert Glasper (winner of the 2012 Grammy Award for Best R&B Album).

“Robert is arguably the best piano player alive,” says Robinson. “I’ll never forget jamming with him and getting interrupted by a phone call from Erykah Badu on speaker. Definitely don’t deserve to know that guy and am forever grateful for his influence on me.

“That song [‘Harbinger’] in particular stemmed from a conversation I had with Salaam at his house. We had been talking about Amy [Winehouse] and the way she wrote songs. Salaam suggested I go outside and pull from the deep, and I decided I wouldn’t come back until I had a song. I sat by one of his mango trees and tried to face some of my personal darkness head-on. When I returned inside, Salaam told me that’s where Amy would sit when she wrote. That song was an experience. Salaam has been a source of wisdom for me. His talks have informed a lot of my recent work.”

Robinson had been developing other songs from the EP for some time. “To be honest, some of those songs were many years old, ‘Not Said Enough’ being one of the first songs I ever began to record. I looked back at a younger me with those songs and tried to make this EP a sort of conversation with who I once was. Boyish is like my 20-year-old story.”

Another of Robinson’s most featured songs is the second single released from the project. “June Carter,” a brooding R&B ballad with sharp percussion, has been referred to as his ode to strong women. “A few years ago, I began writing a handful of role-play type songs about women in history whose story may have been overshadowed by their significant other,” says Robinson. “I’ve always been obsessed with Johnny Cash and the dark magic attributed to him. The song is a playful love song to June.”

“I’m just more interested in good songs. I didn’t want to be a part of the machine.”

Robinson moved to Nashville prior to the release of his first EP, Ritual, in 2015, and credits much of his initial exposure and opportunities to his A&R, Nate Albert (lead guitarist from The Mighty Mighty Bosstones.) “He’s the reason I went to that label,” says Robinson.

Before the release of this latest project, Robinson had to regroup when Albert (now executive vice president of A&R at Capitol Records) transitioned to another state. For most any recording musician under a label, they understand a deal is a deal, often hard to get out of and easily stifling for an artist if not well-represented. “With the label [Republic Records], I’m not sure they understand me,” says Robinson. “Nate understood me as a musician. But when your A&R leaves, you’re kind of stuck in the broom closet.” Knowing the many ways the change could affect his work, Robinson sought to record independently. “Half the battle was I had to write a radio song. A radio hit is what really makes the record sales happen. I’m just more interested in good songs. I didn’t want to be a part of the machine.”

So Robinson worked some Southern charm into the situation. “I sent flowers to their headquarters, with the appropriate ‘thank you’ and ‘please.’ I asked to get out of the deal.” Which he did. Setting out to record independently may have been an unexpected hurdle in the way, but it gave Robinson the freedom to record the songs he wanted to make.

Now with a home studio, the freedom of an independent artist lends itself not only to the songs he can write, but even the way he writes. “For the last EP, we recorded the music at a cabin on the cliffs of Pigeon Forge,” Robinson says. “Lately, I’ve been writing in more of a natural way — sitting at the piano or with my guitar and will probably weird the songs out later. Who knows; there are no rules. I started one of those songs [‘Elephant’] with audio I ripped from an elephant-poaching video I found on the internet. The song began to lend itself to themes of love, loss, and memory (for which elephants are known).”

“Lately, I’ve been writing in more of a natural way — sitting at the piano or with my guitar and will probably weird the songs out later. Who knows; there are no rules. I started one of those songs [‘Elephant’] with audio I ripped from an elephant-poaching video I found on the internet. The song began to lend itself to themes of love, loss, and memory (for which elephants are known).”

Robinson says the songwriting hub of Nashville has allowed him the opportunity to create the songs he’s most interested in writing. “Sometimes when you are writing so much, it may be difficult to become attached to a song or to know when a song is good enough. Nashville allows me to write for other people and work on other artist’s music so I can step back and assess what I want to say for myself when the time comes.”

Throughout a bellowing tone and fresh-versed narrative, Robinson’s natural way with both singing and songwriting is crystal clear. “I’ve been writing music since I was 14, though I tend to only like the music I’m writing at the current period of my life.”

The artist was the seventh in a family of eight kids. “Definitely a special way to grow up,” says Robinson. Lakeland born and raised, while not necessarily surrounded by the sounds that first drew him to music in his own home, it still managed to find its way to him. “I sort of stumbled upon music. I had little formal training growing up, that didn’t teach me music per se, but rather the language.”

Next door lived a family where music was a way of communicating. “They were cool, spirited people,” says Robinson. “I’d hear them playing Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Eric Clapton… The father, Patrick, played blues guitar on a 1970s’ stratocaster, which started my affinity for stratocasters. He really impacted my introduction to a lot of music: rhythm, blues, jazz. Seeing how important music was to his everyday life was inspiring.” Soon Robinson’s parents recognized a skilled obsession and gifted it with the coveted instrument. “I remember a particular Christmas day,’” he recalls, “when I brought over my new stratocaster to Patrick and finally attempted to keep up with him on guitar.”

“Coke Can Motorcyle” presents a conversation between his mother and God. In one line, his mother asks, “Do you still sing when you don’t know you are?” Later on, the line follows, “I’m still that kid.”

Continuing to develop his sound in Lakeland, playing at coffee shops and some of the many local churches, a few local musicians became very influential. Aaron Marsh (producer, lead singer from Copeland and owner of The Vanguard Room recording studio) has been one of the many who’ve encouraged Robinson on his songwriting career. “Aaron has had a huge influence on me,” says Robinson. He’s one of the only reasons I take music seriously. When my mom passed, I’d sleep on his couch and we’d eat ice cream. He’s been an influential figure in my life.”

Robinson went on to attend Trevecca University in Nashville, later transferring to Southeastern University in Lakeland for the remaining two years to study theology. After college, he worked a few part-time jobs, dabbling a bit in sales while talking to a different recording label most every morning. But at times he dealt with an uncertainty of whether to pursue music head-on. “When I was younger, I wanted to quit music,” says Robinson. “People like Aaron Marsh, Ryan Bates, Sean York, and more kept convincing me that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. Good Lakelanders.

“Singing, for me, can be a natural response to the surprise of joy in my life. It doesn’t have to be so deliberate even though my work requires a lot of it from me.” He says the song “Coke Can Motorcyle” presents a conversation between his mother and God. In one line, his mother asks, “Do you still sing when you don’t know you are?” Later on, the line follows, “I’m still that kid.”

Robinson says, “That particular line references the times when I catch myself singing involuntarily during my day. It also doesn’t take a long time in the industry to start picking apart any song you hear with its various writers/publishers/labels/producers — so at times I have to get back to that bliss of being a kid in the back seat with his hand out the window humming along. I still can.”

If Robinson has any advice for the next wave of musicians coming out of Lakeland, it would be, “Think of the craziest thing you could possibly do; that’s your best idea.” Maintaining the thrill of the music and still progressing forward as an artist can be treading a tightrope, but Robinson credits much of his influences from his childhood and home as sources that continually keep him grounded. “Lakeland in some ways has been a compass for me. Every time I return it’s changed, but maybe not as much as I have. It provides for me a contrast for my self-realization, I think, and there’s a lot of inspiration in that.”

Robinson’s next project is much in the works over this season. Venturing beyond realms of romance, he seeks to engage some current political issues the nation faces with an upcoming single. “I wrote a song with a friend named Math Times Joy during the immigration ban,” says Robinson. “I really enjoy it, and it should be out soon. It’s currently titled ‘Sojourner Within Your Gates,’ but that could change. Additionally, I’m writing an album with a short film. I’ve been writing some of the music for the last year or so. Some friends and I are taking a trip out West this summer to get some inspiration for the short film. It’s a new creative realm for me, but I’ve been able to meet some amazing people in the process.” 

Moving forward, Robinson’s work progresses to cover even more territory. “I’ve written two or three different records coming out. I’m trying to buy time and get enough support to do this bigger idea, a film/album. The last few years I had shut off my love for theology and philosophy with making art. I used to be obsessed with philosophy. But recently I’ve opened up that door again — merging theology with art. The best art leaves you with questions.”