His name is Julian Sundby, and he lives and works right here in Southwest Florida.
Sundby, 39, couldn’t believe it when they called his name last month at the ninth-annual JMA’s. The revered awards ceremony celebrates the independent-music industry and honors musicians, producers and others from around the world.
“It was very surreal at the end when they called my name for producer of the year and I walked up there,” Sundby says. “I was just like, wow. I have no idea what to say. I am not prepared. I did not write a speech (laughs).”
The Fort Myers resident said he got 30 seconds onstage after accepting his trophy at the Grand Ole Opry House. He used that time to thank God, his family and all the singers in Southwest Florida (several of whom were also nominated).
He also talked about how, a year later, the area continues to recover from Hurricane Ian.
“We’re still Southwest Florida strong,” he says.
Winning Producer of the Year: It’s all about the music
The JMAs got about 59,000 applicants this year, says co-founder Tinamarie Passantino. But only 2.5 percent made it to nomination.
Passantino doesn’t know exactly how many nominees there were for Music Producer of the Year or why the panel of judges crowned Sundby the winner. The judges are anonymous and don’t submit scorecards or notes, she says.
But she’s sure Sundby won based sheerly on his music. “For that category,” she says, “most of it is pretty much based on the quality of the work.”
Singer-songwriter Adam Martin of Florida band Blackbird Anthem called Sundby’s award well-deserved. Sundby produced the band’s song “M.O.H.,” which also won a big award at the Oct. 22 JMAs (Social Impact Video of the Year).
“He’s very good at what he does,” Martin says. “Julian can usually bring something out of you that you didn’t know was there.”
Martin drives about 1 1/2 hours from the Sebring area to record at The Fort Studios, but he says it’s worth it. He’s recorded two EPs and an album there.
Martin usually arrives with just a guitar, and they build the song from there with various sounds and instruments.
“He hears all of the instruments in his head,” Martin says. “(It’s) that talent and that gift that he has to bring a song to life and give it breath in the way the writer of the song intended. And that’s hard to do, you know?”
The Fort Studios and Hero Song
Sundby – who’s also worship director at Fort Myers’ Faith United Methodist Church − opened Fort Myers’ The Fort Studios in 2019. His session musicians and engineers have worked for Luke Bryan, Tanya Tucker, TobyMac, Train, Shania Twain, Don Henley, Casting Crowns and other big-name acts.
Sundby produces music there for his nonprofit Hero Song, which records songs with soldiers, military veterans and first responders. He’s also a freelancer who’s worked with many other musical acts, including Florida’s Michael Constantino (their song “Iris” has 3.72 million Spotify streams).
Sundby says it was an honor to represent Southwest Florida’s music scene at the JMAs. Many other local artists were nominated, as well, including Marvilla Marzán (Pop Singer of the Year), Sarah Hardwig (Songwriter of the Year, Vocalist of the Year and more) and Sundby’s friend and songwriting partner Katelyn Gravel (Jazz and Blues Female Vocalist of the Year).
“Right off the bat,” he says, “representing Southwest Florida with all the artists that also got nominated was really cool.”
Sundby doesn’t know why, exactly, he won Music Producer of the Year. He submitted himself for the award, along with his label Hero Song (which was also nominated).
Maybe it was the veterans and first responders he records through Hero Song, he says. Or maybe it was how he opened The Fort Studios after Hurricane Ian and let out-of-work musicians record songs there for free. Those songs and videos were posted on social media to raise money for the musicians or promote upcoming gigs.
“It was cool,” Sundby says. “It was emotional, too. … We’re just trying to rebuild the music community.”
‘The kind of guy who always keeps his musicians in mind’
Martin of Blackbird Anthem was the first military veteran recorded for Hero Song – a project that gives veterans, soldiers and first responders a place to record songs about their experiences and also deal with the emotions from those experiences.
“The project is amazing,” Martin says. “There’s such healing and therapy that happens in music.”
Martin describes Sundby as a musician’s producer – someone who cares deeply about their craft and making the songs the best they can be.
He said he looked all over Florida for a producer, but felt an immediate connection with Sundby.
“It was just a very, very natural fit,” Martin says. “Julian is always trying to help enhance and push his artists forward. … He’s the kind of guy who always keeps his musicians in mind.”
That’s why Martin’s glad his longtime producer got one of the biggest JMA trophies of the year.
“It’s well-deserved and a long time coming,” he says. “And I’m so proud of him.”
— Connect with this reporter: Charles Runnells is an arts and entertainment reporter for The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. For news tips or other entertainment-related matters, call him at 239-335-0368 (for tickets to shows, call the venue) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also connect with him on Facebook (facebook.com/charles.runnells.7), X (formerly Twitter) (@charlesrunnells), Threads (@crunnells1) and Instagram (@crunnells1).