Clash meets the pop teen with the world at his feet...

“I want people to get to know who I am and where I came from,” Aaron Frederick Junior, aka AJ, Mitchell tells Clash from backstage at the Camden Assembly. “Because I've never really talked about my life, my journey.”

The 18-year-old American singer-songwriter has just finished up soundcheck at the London venue ahead of his first-ever UK gig and is giving the lowdown on his forthcoming debut album ‘Skyview’ - named after a movie drive-in in his hometown, Belleville, Illinois, no less - due out early this year.

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He’s visibly stoked for his first performance on British soil - and not just because he’s actually allowed to booze over here. Despite having racked up hundreds of millions of streams across his singles and EP tracks online, his success feels “super surreal, because it’s just a number. It’s nothing attainable you know, so it can be weird.” The chance to perform live and connect with his ever-growing international fanbase “makes it more real. Especially when you hear everyone singing back the lyrics; it’s the best feeling in the world.”

It’s been little short of a meteoric rise for the teenage artist - and one he in some respects is still catching up with. “I remember when I was younger and I got a hundred views and that was crazy,” he says, speaking fondly of the “musical household” that nurtured a songwriting impulse from as young as four - his dad writing songs on their piano, him singing harmonies with his sisters - and of the artists that shaped him via endless listens to his mum’s iPod.

There were eras of Stevie Wonder, Kiss and Aretha Franklin, a Beatles obsession, then Bruno Mars before a “rap phase”: “I loved Lil Wayne and Eminem.” It’s all these influences that coalesce into his lyrically-mature songwriting, which hits that sweet spot between pop and R&B.

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It’s also only recently he’s even found enough confidence to perform. He shares how he was formerly painfully shy, hiding his first music creations from his friends before some low key gigs in bars and cafés, and finally starting to post them online. The big step change came with track ‘Used To Be’, written when he was just 13, which subsequently went viral on YouTube.

“I was really going through it at the time. I got out of a relationship with this girl who I guess wasn’t the girl she used to be,” he explains. “I remember I went home and started playing the piano and writing the song. It was like therapy for me, to put it all in words.”

If all that sounds rather profound for the musings of a barely-adolescent, there are parallel levels of maturity in his other reflections. His smalltown beginnings are front and centre thematically in the new album. And while they’re celebrated - such as in the title of the album and setting of his shot-in-one-take marching-band-backed ‘Unstoppable’ video - he isn’t overly sentimental about the reality of life for young people there.

“I love where I came from. But I saw a lot of things there, like one of my best friends ended up joining a gang, a lot of my friends were getting into drugs, some were getting pregnant at only 18. So seeing all that was like, ‘Okay, I want to do something with my life. I want to get out of this place.’”

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He got his escape off the back of ‘Used To Be’, which brought him to LA at 15 and was re-released with help from legendary producer Mike Dean (who’s worked with megastars from Madonna to Beyoncé). But even once there, it wasn’t immediately plain sailing, as he initially got sucked into a social media group, which he quickly realised wasn’t “what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be taken seriously as an artist.”

Despite being part of a generation of artists capitalising on an instantaneous worldwide reach afforded by social media, he also saw straight through to its flaws and dangerous detachment from reality, something he is still finding his own balance with, and tackles in the track ‘Never With You’.

“I talk about when I needed to post every single day,” he recalls. “I realised, every time the camera was on, everyone’s mood changed. It kind of messed with me a little bit. No one would be talking to each other, and then all of a sudden, the camera comes on, everyone’s best friends. And for me, that was so weird. And it became normal, when it isn’t normal.”

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Fast-forward three years and he’s landed a record deal with Epic Records, got his first album virtually in the can and is travelling the world, “everything I've always dreamt of.” His biggest ‘I’ve made it’ realisation hit when performing at the VMAs: “That was a moment that was like, ‘Holy shit, that just happened.’”

So what’s next? It would seem the sky’s the limit. At the very least he’ll be able to “see the world" on tour. Perhaps land a collaboration or two: “Lil Wayne would be amazing. J.I.D or Camilla Cabello. Post Malone. Billie [Eilish] would be dope. If she hears that...hit me up!”

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As Mitchell finally hits the stage upstairs in Camden Assembly, there’s certainly stardust in the air. Virtually every attendee is singing (and filming on their phones) every word of his heartfelt songs. The slick and confident performer, skillfully wrapping his female-leaning audience round his little finger, gives little of the former shy boy away. “It’s sweat not tears,” he says with a laugh, wiping beads of water from his cheeks as he gives heart and soul to his performance from atop a piano.

We hear ‘Slow Dance’, which he’d earlier revealed captures “super nostalgic memories of going to the dance and asking the girl, ‘Hey, do you want to slow dance?’ and just being like super nervous. It’s like that first intimate feeling of love.”

Also, ‘Down In Flames’, a song he says in some respects holds his “message”, and was written after seeing a friendship go “down in flames” after a bad argument: “It’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned, being able to communicate with other people. Like, if you don’t ever communicate how you feel, you’ll never release your thoughts and they’ll always be buried inside of you.”

He’s certainly got something of the Justin-Bieber-meets-‘Justified’-era-Justin-Timberlake poster-boy pop. But hearing his effortless vocal range, the earnestness and depth to his lyricism that seemingly stretches far beyond his tender teenage years, it’s clear he’s quickly carving out a unique space for himself.

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Words: Sarah Bradbury
Photography: Richard Dowker
Fashion: Harry Clements

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