Dream big, but put in the work first​​​​​​​ like JT Roach

Roach recently won the season finale of 'Songland'
JT Roach with his guitar on a pier
Photo Courtesy of JT Roach

When millions of viewers tuned in to NBC in September to watch 32-year-old Madison native JT Roach win the season finale of NBC’s “Songland,” they quite possibly witnessed the best day of Roach’s life. But that’s not the same thing as living your best life, and Roach knows it.

“It’s dreamy to think I just showed up in LA and then I ended up on the show and now my entire career is starting,” says Roach, whose original song “Somebody to Love” was recorded by OneRepublic and hit No. 1 on iTunes. “But the reality is I’ve definitely put in my 10,000 hours in my craft. I’ve written somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 demos since moving to LA at least.”

We’re sitting on the wooded back deck of the Madison house he was raised in. Inside are his parents, one of two sisters, his girlfriend and their new puppy. It’s been a whirlwind few days since Roach flew home for the watch party, but everybody here knows he was hardly an overnight success.

“I really am a deeply rooted Midwest dude. My story in LA is a story of struggle, but I’ve had so much support leading up to that that I feel like I was well prepared to deal with some of the trials and difficulties of that lifestyle,” says Roach, a proud alum of Our Lady Queen of Peace, Madison Edgewood and the University of Wisconsin–Madison. A history major, Roach made YouTube videos covering popular songs in his dorm room. He collaborated with friends like Quincy Harrison, who went on to create the “Teach Me How to Bucky” song. He embraced the hip-hop and acoustic community and played at every local venue.

But his strongest influence has been the Roach clan, who encouraged him to go for it. His extended family is sprawling and supportive, his immediate family tight-knit, driven and creative. Roach grew up watching his Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning dad actually make a living in the creative arts, even while raising a family — so he knew it could be done.

“My family is incredible. A lot of kids, if they would say, ‘I want to move to LA and make a living off of these poems that I’m writing,’ not a lot of parents understand that. My dad is on a shortlist of people who do, because he does that himself,” says Roach. (The elder Roach has penned the back page column of this magazine for more than 25 years.)

Roach set out for LA six years ago to make it as a songwriter in the cutthroat music industry. It took only six months for his money to run out, but somehow he kept the faith. And he kept writing, sometimes in hallways and closets, sometimes on friends’ couches that doubled as his bed for the night. In those first three years, he wrote one to two songs a day.

“I was pretty obsessively nonstop writing and producing music, both because I love it, but also because I knew I needed to prove myself if I was going to make it,” says Roach. “And I still feel that way. There’s still a lot of uncertainty in the career in general.”

But even in the year leading up to his “Songland” success, Roach had already begun to seek balance. He and his serious girlfriend got a place together, and a dog. He started a daily meditation practice, exercises most days and tries to limit his work hours. If all you do is work, you won’t have much to write about, he says.

“I try to treat it like a 9-to-5,” he says. “I really try to enjoy my life when I’m not working because then it informs the art and you feel like you have more balance and you’re more relaxed and you have more inspiration.”

You have to believe in yourself, Roach says, and it’s never too late. Have patience, set goals and put in the work each day. Winning “Songland” sure looked like Roach’s lucky break, but there’s an old saying by the Roman philosopher Seneca: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” As surreal as it was when the “Songland” producers came knocking, Roach had two top-contender recordings ready to audition on the spot. He’d already released numerous singles on iTunes and even dropped a new song just days after “Somebody to Love” went to No. 1.

Winning “Songland” was thrilling, and it still feels surreal to Roach. But even if he hadn’t won, the experience of collaborating with producers and other talented songwriters was invaluable. He’s stayed close with the other contestants, new doors have opened and now his goals are bigger than ever. He can’t help it — once the impossible comes true, your definition of impossible changes. Roach hopes to have a record deal with a major label within the year, tour with his band and land more records with big artists.

“I want a No. 1 record in the country,” he says, then pauses and smiles. “But there’s also people who would kill to be in my shoes right now. So it’s a balance of staying motivated and working hard toward your goals, but also trying to enjoy the milestones that you have.”