“I used to get kind of stressed about my age,” says Jon Santana, sitting outside Steadfast Coffee in Germantown, reflecting in between sips of a coffee soda. “Especially when I was twenty-one [or] twenty-two. I was like, ‘Zedd’s twenty-three – I got two more years! I gotta make it!'”
But that sense of artistic dread is nowhere to be found amid the measured production that has since echoed throughout his last several years of credits, be it the “buzzing staccato synth” of his original work, his “chilled out” remixes, or the “diverse landscapes” of his many collaborations. Santana will turn twenty-seven in December, but in the five or six years that have passed since his passing phase of creative anxiety, he’s gone from being a college kid recording and producing friends in his parents’s house, to being a full-time producer in Music City.
“My bills are getting paid by working on other people’s stuff,” he says, smiling. While he hasn’t headlined any international tours yet, adopting his passion as his profession should still be considered a near-universal sign of having made it. Taking a moment to naval-gaze amid his caffeine-induced stream of consciousness storytelling, it seems to hit him. “It’s a dream,” he says.
Born to Caribbean parents and raised in Long Island, Santana’s family moved to Florida when he was fifteen. He eventually transitioned to Southeastern University in pursuit of a music business degree. By this time, he was already experienced in making beats, having familiarized himself with Fruity Loops in his early teens. A California producer by the name of Errol Beats befriended him over AOL Instant Messenger conversations, and took him under his wing — teaching him how to market his music for sale online. “When I was 18, I was a freshman, I sold my first beat for like 50 bucks and I kind of just went from there.”
A drive to produce more music sprung out of this newly found source of validation and income. This evolved into a collaboration with close friend Patrick Hagen’s group A Sound Asleep, before teaming with Hagen under the name Apollo Poeta. Incepted in the midst of a semester studying at the Contemporary Music Center in Brentwood, Poeta helped mark Santana’s introduction to Nashville and later helped usher him into the DJ scene in Lakeland once he returned back home. The next two and a half years saw him springboard off the duo’s formulaic EDM and begin experimenting with a variety of new sounds and influences within the realm of electronic music. This period was essential in helping Santana reduce and refine his musical projects to a point where he could focus fully on his own production.
In the fall of 2011, Santana worked at a local Lakeland studio, where his education of recording and production really took hold. But throughout college and the years that followed his education wasn’t limited to the studio. For two and a half years he played keys with the hardcore band EliudinE, before connecting with indie rockers The Careful Ones. Already showcasing his stylistic flexibility, he began experimenting more with house music, mashups, and remixes.
What’s so interesting about this transition, however, isn’t necessarily the end result of what Santana’s music developed into, but how he moved in such a direction without abandoning his lifelong influences and personal history along the way. Throughout our conversation, Santana maintained a genuine enthusiasm to share all the different phases of who he used to be. There was no trepidation in saying his hardcore band was also a Christian band, and he openly shares about playing music at church. When asked about his faith he says, “I’ve always played in worship bands my whole life,” but aside production work on a surprisingly palatable Christian pop album (an ’80s synth-heavy EP by MOONS, which Santana called “worship music you’ll want to listen to”), there’s little effort made to either filter his music through a lens of his faith, nor try to scrub the internet of any sign of his beliefs for fear of being pigeonholed.
Similarly, scrolling back through his Instagram feed, Circa Survive’s post-hardcore debut album Juturna comes up as Santana’s “favorite record” and his “most prized possession,” despite abandoning rock music entirely as a performer, himself. He’s quick to express his love for his remix of Banks’s “Change” (“It’s just weird!”). But just as excited to share how he geeked out and threw a burned CD with his mix on stage when he saw the group shortly after its release. All of this is just who he is, and somehow it’s all contributed to him making some of the city’s most sublime electronic music.
Since making Nashville his full-time home in early 2015, he’s gone from producing two or three beats a day to learning the co-writing process to becoming an in-demand producer among the city’s burgeoning pop music scene. And having collaborated with the likes of local artists REMMI, CAPPA, and Truitt, he’s now expanding his reach and repertoire through projects such as the recent “power” which he released with Hoyle. Over this same period, he’s also refined his remixing (his 2016 collaborative mix of Justin Beiber’s “What Do You Mean?” with 4B — which is closing in on one million Soundcloud plays — was featured on Diplo’s best of 2016 mix) and released a “creative kaleidoscope” with his debut EP titled And There They Were.
Despite that initial anxiety over how to force success at an early age, little of that burden seems present in Santana’s daily life. Now he seems less occupied with reaching for some sense of other-worldly success, and more comfortable with continuing to allow his story to evolve. When asked about where he wants to see this go, his words make leaps as his mind bounces about. “I love making my own stuff,” he says, later adding that he has two or three songs started for his next solo release, which he hopes to ready by the end of the year. He’s finishing a few EPs, including one for Conventioner, and is set to get married next year, but this isn’t to say that he’s any less determined give up on his search for a larger audience. “I would love to have a major release, a radio song. I’m definitely working toward that.” He’s not limiting what success is to such rigid standards as he set for himself in college. “[A year from now I want to be] doing what I’m doing now, but at a larger scale. Nothing’s going to change, just the people I’m working with. Whatever that looks like, I guess we’ll find out.”