By Cynthia Gross
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Maryland-based pop rock artist LJR is one of a kind. His journey to a full-time music career is at times heartbreaking, exhilarating, and ultimately, life-affirming in the most profound way. From breaking free of the grips of a restrictive evangelical upbringing; to searching for purpose as a Ph.D. student, where he studied autonomous flapping wing miniature aerial vehicles; to eventually discovering himself through music, LJR reminds audiences that ends serve as beginnings, offering new opportunities to become the person you were always meant to be. Learn more about LJR’s inspiring story with contributing writer Cynthia Gross, including the one thing he needed to unlearn during his growth process, how his background in engineering affects the way he approaches art, and the surprising story behind the title of his upcoming album.
You took somewhat of a circuitous route to a full-time career in music. Did you always know you would find yourself here?
A: Before my full-time music career, I attended the University of Maryland, College Park for grad school, where I studied autonomous flapping wing miniature aerial vehicles – robotic birds. I had to program the birds to be able to navigate autonomously and do aerobatic maneuvers like flips and dives. I put together a physics model of the bird to be able to predict how it would fly in the air when doing a dive. It was a pretty cool project, but for some reason, I kept getting more angry and sad because I wasn’t doing anything that made me feel alive.
During the same period, things began to unravel in my family and my romantic relationships. I was really Christian – evangelical – at the time. I began losing the foundations that were tied to what supposedly gave life meaning. The only reason to go to grad school was to add value to the world and contribute to the kingdom as a good ambassador. I took that really seriously. Eventually, my understanding of what relationships were supposed to look like didn’t make sense, and the whole thing fell apart. I was left with no real sense of identity. My romantic relationships, including with the girl I thought I was going to marry, fell apart, too. I experienced a fair amount of depression and imposter syndrome. I was really unhappy and getting more so every day.
What was the defining moment when you knew how you would pivot?
A: I was listening to The Strategic Entrepreneur Podcast, and the host said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive because what the world needs is more people who come alive.” It’s kind of cheesy, but it resonated so deeply within me. I started to think, what are the things I would do until I die – even if I never got paid. For me, that was creating art, empowering people, and building relationships. When I started to realize I can intentionally create something that’s meaningful, I got to a place where I could heal and give to people instead of allowing coping mechanisms and trauma to drive my relationships.
After getting through 4 years of the Ph.D. program at the University of Maryland, I quit and left with my master’s. I needed to do something I wanted to do instead of what other people wanted from me. It was 2-3 years before I understood who I was. Music has always been my primary form of expression. I released covers on YouTube and later switched to originals. I’ve been going to therapy to work through internal stuff, and this has brought a lot of clarity. I also learned how to create videos, including incorporating special effects and sci-fi. You can see that in the video for “I Can’t Say,” the opening track of my upcoming album. This project represents one of the most fun and meaningful things I’ve ever done.
Who are your biggest influences?
A: My biggest influence is Peter Gabriel. I love all of his music, and the drums are some of the best parts of what he does. I’m inspired by his ability to create a powerful bridge between cultures, which he’s done time and time again. I’m thinking of his “In Your Eyes” live performance, where he collaborates with the incredible Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour. I’ve incorporated this approach into my music. My song “Need a Little Lovin’” features my close friend and American Idol contestant Gurpreet Sarin. He sings North Indian classical style and plays tabla on the track. Other influences include Coldplay and Hillsong United. There’s a sadness and nostalgia to Coldplay and a similar longing that Hillsong United brings, as well as an anthemic style. More recently, I’ve been influenced by The Strike, The 1975, and Steve Winwood (along with a lot of 80’s groups).
How does your background in engineering affect the way you approach art?
A: I would say the biggest way it affects my music career is that I’m not afraid of the technical aspects of learning something new to the degree that other artists tend to struggle with. To run a successful indie music career, you need to master the business aspects, marketing, and learn to integrate a ton of tools. It can easily become overwhelming when you just want to focus on creating great art. In engineering, you get used to repeating things over and over until you figure them out, so I got used to feeling dumb all the time until I found a solution. This lens helps me approach my career from more of a systematic perspective rather than an artistic one. It helps me stay more organized with brainstorming and sorting ideas, which is great for when I collaborate with other people.
What inspired the title of your upcoming album – “When the Sky Began to Fall”?
A: During one of my livestreams, a fan asked an unexpected question, “What’s the title of your album?” I wasn’t even thinking of a title at that time, so I asked my brother Daniel, “What do you think I should name the album?” He said sometimes people pick an album title based on a song title that stands out. “When the Sky Began to Fall” was the one that jumped out at me right away. The song captures the overarching themes of the entire album: losing your foundation, having to rebuild and heal, and learning to recreate your own identity.
What’s something you had to unlearn during your growth process?
A: Because of my evangelical roots, I used to believe pouring into yourself was wrong. Investing in yourself – if it was ever at the expense of other people – was also wrong. Part of the narrative of who you’re supposed to be as a Christian is someone who surrenders to self-sacrifice. I learned that when you sacrifice yourself, your cup would be filled by God and Jesus. This perspective caused a lot of hurt and pain for me and the people around me. It was very damaging. As soon as I unlearned that, I started to see real growth at the level I wanted. Oddly enough, I found that pouring into myself was actually more empowering to other people since they were inspired by seeing me come alive. I no longer try to pretend to be somebody I’m not. This allows for greater authenticity and humanity.
How do you navigate collaborating with talented close friends and family members in your music career?
A: It’s challenging. I think the main challenge is when you can’t see what dynamics are governing your interactions. Everyone is just trying to maintain a sense of control so they can get their needs met. When you have unresolved pain and trauma, coping mechanisms are at play even when it’s not apparent. It can be hard to acknowledge things as they are because of how vulnerable you are without them. After all, they are there because they protected you long ago when you needed them. The worst is when it becomes trauma triggering trauma, and a fight about a narrative of what happened that was right or wrong, and we end up keeping ledgers on each other. You know, who’s invested more? Who owes who what? I’ve found the book “Nonviolent Communication” to be an extremely helpful tool. In some cases, I’ve found that I haven’t been able to continue working in an intimate way since there’s just so much to resolve. At a certain point, it becomes impact over intent, and you have to be really honest about where you are and what you can handle. You don’t want to put yourself into a situation you’re not ready for yet.
What’s your favorite track from your upcoming album?
A: “Need a Little Lovin’” is the one I’ve played the most on my own for fun. I love the breakdown. When it comes to the one that moves me the most, it’s a song called “Save,” which is not released yet. It hits most directly on the pain and loss I experienced leaving my faith. Whenever I listen to “Save,” I’m able to reconnect with the person I was. It can be very painful, but also healing. I feel like there’s a validation to it.
What’s on the horizon for you?
A: The main thing is my album. Each of the 12 songs has an accompanying music video with a sci-fi theme. The videos form chapters, almost like a TV series. I’m also improving my online marketing. It’s been awesome bringing in new fans so I can do a tour next year. I’ve formed a band, and now I have to make sure I have the budget to fund the tour. I’m getting comfortable with live performances and working through nerves as a lead singer, not from behind the drums or piano like in the past. I also just launched my new course, Music Video Accelerator. It teaches the process for how I film my content and empowers artists to create their own high-quality content without spending thousands on expensive gear and software. I’m in the process of creating an app called Fundup. It allows business and nonprofits to multiply their giving based on connecting to people and causes they care about.
Maryland-based singer-songwriter Cynthia Gross seeks to inspire an awakening to all we are and all we can become. With a passion for language in all of its forms and more than a decade of experience as a professional ghostwriter, she is a light seeker who understands the power of each individual’s voice to create positive, meaningful change.
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