It’s not unusual for young people to move to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams in the entertainment industry, but few find success as quickly as AJ Mitchell.
The 17-year-old singer, songwriter and musician left Belleville two years ago, and he’s already signed a four-album contract with Epic Records. Next week, he’ll launch his second national concert tour, including a stop in St. Louis.
“It’s been a great journey,” AJ said in a phone interview, taking a break between rehearsals and photo shoots. “I get to do what I love every single day, so I can’t complain at all.”
AJ had become a YouTube and Instagram sensation even before he headed for Hollywood. He began posting his pop and R&B music videos at age 13, performing both covers and original songs. To date, he’s accumulated more than 60 million streams.
AJ sings about friendship, dating, love and heartache, so teenage girls are among his biggest fans. Last summer, he released a six-track EP, “Hopeful,” and made his national TV debut on “Today.” He’s been followed by TigerBeat, Just Jared Jr. and other teen publications.
“AJ has gone from a boy who loves to sing and write his own songs to a soon-to-be international pop star,” said his L.A. manager, Mike Spitz. “He’s on the rise and developing a fan base all over the world.”
AJ ditched the periods after his initials for his stage name. Otherwise, he’s the same sweet and humble kid who attended Union School, West Junior High and Belleville West, according to his grandparents, Phil and Debbie Holeman, of O’Fallon.
Phil, 70, a Scott Air Force Base contractor and retired Air Force pilot, remembers AJ writing love songs at age 6 and performing them for the family. Now complete strangers buy AJ Mitchell T-shirts, hoodies, hats and socks on his website at www.ajmitchellmusic.com.
“I can’t believe it’s really happening,” said Debbie, 69, a retired site supervisor for a pharmaceutical company. “But he deserves it. He works 24/7. I’ve never seen a young man work so hard.”
In November, the video-streaming platform Vevo DSCVR named AJ as one of 20 “artists to watch” in 2019, prompting a Billboard magazine item that read in part:
“Mitchell’s pop sound combines the breezy composure of Los Angeles with the heavy-hearted sincerity of the Midwest. (‘Hopeful’) delivered on his creative potential with a collection of sharp tracks that showcased his dynamic abilities and easygoing, inviting personality.”
Proud roots in Belleville
Aaron Frederick Mitchell Jr. (A.J. for Aaron Jr.) is the son of Allison and Aaron Mitchell. They’re living with him in Los Angeles and renting out their Belleville home.
Allison still owns Top to Bottom Enterprises, a local floor-care and ceiling-restoration company. Aaron is a traveling nurse who formerly worked at Memorial Hospital. The couple also have two daughters, Andrea, 22, and Addison, 20.
“We’re going to be Cardinals fans until the day we die,” said Allison, 44, noting her parents retired in the metro-east to be near the baseball team after traveling all over the world with the Air Force. “I have Cardinals blood running through my veins.”
AJ proudly traces his roots in a video called “My Hometown” that includes archival footage of him performing as a child; shots of his Belleville home and neighborhood; and images of local landmarks, such as Bel-Air Bowl and the golden arches at McDonald’s on West Main.
The video also covers a 2017 performance at the Old Rock House in downtown St. Louis, where screaming girls gave him rock-star treatment, crowding around the stage, arms and cellphones in the air.
AJ recently released the single “All My Friends,” which will be part of his first full-length album, “Skyview.” The cover will feature Belleville’s Skyview Drive-In, where his family spent many summers.
“I think it’s kinda cool,” said owner Steve Bloomer, who’s celebrating the drive-in’s 70th anniversary this year. “Evidently, we made an impression on him when he was young. Well, he’s still young.”
Steve said AJ plans to perform a concert at Skyview in August.
AJ will kick off his six-city Hopeful Tour on Sunday in Denver, followed by a St. Louis show Tuesday at Delmar Hall, a 750-seat venue next to The Pageant. The line-up includes Brynn Elliot at 8 p.m., Marteen at 8:45 p.m. and AJ at 9:30 p.m. Tickets cost $15 in advance or $18 on Tuesday.
“I’m really excited about the show in St. Louis,” AJ said. “My friends are going to be there, plus all my family.”
Beyond music, AJ also works as a fashion model. Some of his shoots can be seen with a 2018 cover story by YSBnow (You’re So Beautiful Now), a digital platform for teenage girls that includes news of young celebrities.
“Life for AJ is very exciting right now,” his grandfather said.
Playing piano at 4
AJ started taking piano lessons at 4 and writing songs at 6, inspired by his father, who was doing essentially the same thing at the same time. AJ also sang harmony with his sisters and later added guitar and drums to his instrumental repertoire.
AJ remembers the simple lyrics of his first song: “Two little birdies sitting in a tree; one fell off and broke its knee.”
One of his biggest influences was Gary McClain, his piano teacher for eight years at Melodic Rhythms in Belleville. Gary formerly played keyboard and sang in The Guild, a well-known Southern Illinois band in the 1970s.
Gary’s love of classic rock must have rubbed off on AJ. The family has a grainy video of him at age 10, playing keyboards and belting out the Journey hit “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
“He was so addicted to singing and playing,” his mother said. “He would play piano before school, and when he got home, he wouldn’t even take his backpack off. He’d go straight to the piano. He just couldn’t get enough of it.”
By age 13, AJ was posting music videos on YouTube and Instagram and performing at The Abbey and 4202 Main Street Brewing Co. on open-mic nights.
AJ played football and sang with the Maroon Magic choir as a freshman at Belleville West. But a growing Internet following his sophomore year led to inquiries and offers in the entertainment industry, so his parents began taking him on trips to Los Angeles.
Allison went to the library and checked out a copy of “All You Need to Know about the Music Business,” a best-selling guide by Donald S. Passman that stresses the importance of finding a good manager and lawyer, among other tips.
“I’ve stayed so level-headed with this,” Allison said. “I have to make the right decisions as a mom. I have to do the right thing. I can’t get overly excited and jump at something that’s not good for my son.”
At 15, AJ won the first “The Voice on Snapchat” competition. His selection by Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine qualified him for a blind audition on the TV show, but he turned it down in favor of other opportunities he was exploring at the time.
AJ now has a private tutor and expects to receive his high-school diploma this spring.
An ‘artist to watch’
AJ was Mike Spitz’s first management client, although Mike, 28, a Denver native, had worked in the music business for several years. He first saw AJ on Instagram in 2015 and recognized his natural talent immediately.
“The musical choices he was making, and the songs he was singing, from every decade, and the way he was controlling his voice, and just the tone ... It was so captivating,” Mike said.
AJ released the single “Used to Be” on iTunes and Spotify in 2017. For a short time, he was involved with Team 10, a creative collective of teens headed by actor and Internet personality Jake Paul.
In 2018, AJ signed with Epic Records and released the “Hopeful” EP, which included the single “Girls” and five other tracks: “Hate that I Love You,” “High Like You,” “I Don’t Want You Back,” “My Lover, My Friend” and “Hopeful.”
“It’s honestly unbelievable,” AJ said in the YSBnow cover story. “I never ever would have thought this could have happened to me. I’m from a small town, and I didn’t even know how I could get here.”
AJ’s biggest crowd for a live performance was last year at Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City, where 15,000 people gathered to hear CNCO, Ecosmith, In Real Life and other artists, his manager said.
Mike also noted that AJ’s “All My Friends” single has made it to Top 40 radio charts.
“He’s doing all the major things that people do to become a global superstar, and he has all the talent in the world to do it,” Mike said.
Someday, AJ would like to perform with Bruno Mars, one of his favorite artists, according to a recent piece called “Artist to Watch: 5 facts about AJ Mitchell,” in Justine, an online magazine geared toward teenage girls.
The YSBnow story commented on AJ’s humble attitude, verifying his grandparents’ claim. It described him as a typical teenager in many ways who likes hamburgers, enjoys spending time on the beach and understands the importance of “being yourself.”
“I think it’s very important that you stay true to who you are because if you’re trying to be someone else, it’s really obvious,” he told the magazine. “You can see that. And I don’t think people like that. People like seeing people who are true to themselves and are grounded.”