Tobias Jesso Jr. Piano Man
Published Mar 26, 2015For an old-fashioned guy, Tobias Jesso Jr. sure knows how to get people on the internet talking. Since posting his demos online in the summer of 2013, the 29-year-old Vancouver native has signed a record deal with Arts & Crafts (and True Panther in the U.S.), been tweeted about by Adele (a hero and dream collaborator of his), and rumoured to be (or have been) in relationships with Taylor Swift and Alana Haim, all before the release of his first-ever solo album, Goon.
He'd been proclaimed the voice of a generation before most had even heard his full-length. That's why it's so refreshing to hear the Canadian singer-songwriter say — while cruising around L.A. with his manager — that, outside of some great songs, part of the secret to his success is fairly simple: "I just didn't give a shit anymore. I really didn't care."
Jesso Jr. is talking about the events that led him to emailing producer Chet "JR" White out of the blue — following the dissolution of San Francisco pop group Girls in 2012 — and his mythical rise from backup bassist for a wannabe pop singer, to creating one of the most anticipated debuts from a piano-playing solo artist in recent memory.
Growing up in BC, Jesso Jr. was always interested in music. He began playing saxophone in high school, and dabbled on an acoustic guitar in his spare time, "writing joke songs about my friends to, like, Green Day chords.
He joined local band the Sessions, who rose up the ranks of the Emergenza battle of the bands circuit. The Killers-loving crew won competitions in Calgary and Montreal before finally being flown to Germany and taking first place at the 2006 finals. The win would score them studio time with legendary producer Bob Rock (Metallica, Simple Plan), but by that point the band had already moved on from the early 2000s dance rock craze.
In the end, only a six-song EP would come out of the partnership (the mostly forgettable The Sessions Is Listed as In a Relationship), but it gave Jesso Jr. his first real taste of musical stardom and, better yet, a job.
After wannabe pop singer Melissa Cavatti's father discovered the band, Jesso Jr. was recruited to play bass in one of her music videos; thus began a four-year stint in L.A. in which Jesso Jr. and Cavatti's band played just two shows, yet lived like rock stars.
"It's not every day that a person who can play bass — and not much of it — can move down to a different country, a different city, and have a salary, a house and a car the first year," he says without a hint of regret. "It took me a couple of years scraping by with no salary and no money trying to write songs… to realize that life wasn't that soft."
Things came crashing down in 2012: first, he was hit by a car and had his bike stolen; then his mom was diagnosed with cancer; after that, his girlfriend broke up with him. He came back to North Vancouver, lived at his parents' house and made ends meet by working for a friend's moving company, composing songs by night on his sister's old piano mostly out of necessity (he left his guitars in a storage unit in California). He'd pass off his CD-R recordings to touring musicians, including How to Dress Well and Christopher Owens. With nothing left to lose, he emailed White after finding his contact info on a blog the day Girls officially broke up.
"I was in a weird place, just having moved home to Vancouver and stuff, and I said, 'Don't worry about it, man. It's going to be cool and you're a great producer,'" he remembers. He included links to a few of his songs, including future Goon cuts "Can We Still Be Friends" and "Just a Dream," his first-ever recorded attempt at playing piano and singing solo.
"I was just a fan of his and wanted him to hear it, you know? It was songs about loss and songs about where I was at during that specific time, and I felt for some reason maybe he might be there too," he says. "It turns out he was. He wrote back immediately."
White agreed to work with him and Jesso Jr. flew down to San Francisco to record his debut. Through White, a number of other producers entered the fray: the Black Keys' Patrick Carney, Haim collaborator Ariel Rechtshaid, Foxygen's Jonathan Rado and the New Pornographers' John Collins.
Even with all those people in the studio, Jesso Jr. kept the songs on Goon close to his original demos, with most of the album's 12 tracks consisting of piano and vocals, evoking the same plaintive, plainspoken and stripped-down Harry Nilsson-meets-Randy Newman vibe he originally laid to tape in his parents' home a year or two before.
Part of that has to do with his piano playing, a nuanced and spacious style that emphasizes the chords he plays rather than the melodic trills and intricate harmonies that could easily fit in between. (Listen to Goon loud enough and you can even hear the 6-foot-7 artist muscling his sustain pedal and alternating slowly between his left and right hands, giving each chord and variation ample room to resonate.)
According to Jesso Jr., that wasn't so much a conscious decision, but simply the result of being a novice at the piano (he's been playing for a little over two years now). "I'm a balladeer because I'm not good enough to be a rock guy. I can't play very fast," he says. "I'm trying to now, but back then, when I played 'Just a Dream' or 'Hollywood,' I couldn't even play to a click half the time. I'd just have to wing it."
He may play more smoothly and with more confidence now that he's become an in-demand performer and spent some time in the studio, but one thing that hasn't changed is his passion for writing and composing songs. "I got 60 demos that are unheard at this point. I'm not sure what I'm going to do with them," he says, adding that once touring behind the album is over he'd like to get back in studio and begin co-writing and collaborating with other artists (maybe even ghost writing for some of them). "I'm more interested in what I'm going to do next than what I have done."