Last summer, Ethan Curtis of the firm Plush initiated a management conversation with an unknown artist named JVKE (pronounced “Jake”), whose unfinished song had just been used in a TikTok video by influencer Charli D’Amelio. It quickly went viral, and Curtis was eager to move just as fast. He reached out to the 21-year-old Cranston, R.I.-based singer, challenging him to flesh out the song in just one day.

“I spent the next 24 hours nervously hoping the song didn’t suck,” recalls Curtis, who had previously launched the TikTok marketing agency PushPlay, “but it was great.” The resulting hit was “Upside Down,” a bouncy, hip-hop-inflected pop song that has garnered 48.8 million streams, according to Luminate. What followed was even bigger.

jvke golden hour interview

COS t-shirt, Acne denim jacket.Nicole Nodland

After officially signing with Plush’s Curtis and Aton Ben-Horin for management, the artist born Jake Lawson turned in his next song, the unabashedly romantic “golden hour.” Underpinned by a sweeping piano and violin melody over which Lawson sings about a lover with “glitter for skin,” the ballad similarly took off on TikTok — only this time, it raised the stakes to unexpected highs.

In September, “golden hour” scored JVKE his first hit on the Billboard Hot 100, soon sparking a major-label bidding war with offers in the multimillion-dollar range — all of which the artist rejected. And while many considerations came into play (including a desire to reap a bigger cut of his earnings), his decision to remain indie ultimately came down to accountability. “I’m a little scared that if I were to bring on a big team that I wouldn’t be as tenacious, or if I got a really big check that I would slack off a bit,” he says.

Even so, he notes that his eventual decision to remain unsigned, despite the flashy offers, “was against the counsel of some people.” Curtis and Aton-Horin admit they were less certain. “Obviously, long term, we don’t know what’s going to happen. But our job as manager is to always support our artists’ vision, whether or not we agree with it,” says Aton-Horin.

JVKE has shown a rare knack for promoting his music through TikTok ever since he launched his account in early 2020 — and that sort of knack is becoming increasingly valuable to record companies as the platform balloons. Now, with over 8 million followers on the platform, he and his older brother/co-writer Zac have been churning out a steady stream of content to promote the remainder of his relatively small catalog, which includes streaming hits like “this is what falling in love feels like” and the Galantis collaboration “Dandelion.” The former opened JVKE’s debut album, this is what __ feels like (Vol. 1-4), which arrived on AWAL in September.

JVKE got his start playing music in church growing up, exclusively listening to contemporary Christian artists before later discovering hip-hop on his brother’s iPod. Though he played piano, drums and guitar as a preteen, it wasn’t until he began using Logic Pro to create his own songs at age 14 that his desire to pursue a career in music took root.

Now, with his debut album behind him, JVKE is already working on new music and linking up with collaborators he won’t name yet but hints are well-known. In the live space, he and his management team are looking to take a cue from TikTok by architecting “viral elements” for in-person performances. Curtis teases that fans can expect “a scaled-down version” of a JVKE tour early next year before hopefully bringing on partners for a bigger outing later on. Already, he has teamed with MTV on a Push campaign in October, and in December, he’ll be American Airlines’ artist of the month, with his music given prime placement on in-flight entertainment screens.

jvke photo

KENZO sweater, COS T-shirt and pants.Nicole Nodland

One thing JVKE is sure he won’t be doing, however, is releasing another conventional full-length. “The way that people consume music is a lot different nowadays … so we need to change how we release music,” he says. Instead, he plans to consistently tease song snippets on TikTok to get input from fans on what he should release next — which he sees as key to connecting with them as an independent artist. “I think if you’re going to go independent, you really do need to … listen to the [fans] because that’s where you’re going to find the most success,” he says.

And though “golden hour” has climbed to No. 28 on Billboard‘s Pop Airplay chart, Curtis says that radio promo is one area they may need help in to scale even higher. “We can spark our own fires, but the question becomes, ‘How capable are we at keeping them burning? For how long?’ ” he says. “To be clear, we’re not saying we’ll never need a label. But I know Jake wants to see how far we can push it on our own.”

JVKE photographed October 20, 2022 in London. Kenzo vest, COS pants, H&M socks, Reebok sneakers.

Nicole Nodland

This story appeared in the Nov. 5, 2022, issue of Billboard.