Q&A: Tobias Jesso Jr. On His Mythic Backstory, Sounding Like The Cheers Theme, And His Debut Album Goon
Tobias Jesso Jr.’s era of futility ended with whimpers that felt like a bang. Jesso’s origin story has already been recycled to the point of myth: Kid from Vancouver moves to L.A. in search of rock stardom, strikes out, and hits rock bottom after his mother comes down with cancer and a hit-and-run leaves him with an injured hand and a stolen bicycle; upon returning home with his dreams crushed and his tail between his legs, he switches from guitar to piano, starts writing wide-eyed heartbroken ballads, and distributes them to as many of his favorite musicians as he can; famed producer responds to kid’s email, invites him to San Francisco to record, and helps him secure a record deal; the extra industry muscle helps the world catch on to his humble YouTube demos, and a new songwriting legend is born.
Jesso’s story continued unfolding in the public eye throughout 2014. Charming lo-fi home recordings gave way to stunning lead single “Hollywood,” news of a debut album helmed by an all-star lineup of producers, and intimate solo gigs in venues as big as a festival and as small as a kitchen. After all that, there was no doubt Jesso’s Goon would be one of the most anticipated albums of this year, and as someone who’s heard the album, I can assure you the anticipation is warranted.
This morning Jesso released the video for “How Could You Babe,” a grand slam ballad about finding out your ex-lover has moved on to someone else. Directed by frequent Sky Ferreira/Ariel Pink collaborator Grant Singer, it’s a simple and effective clip of Jesso purring and howling at a piano in an empty skate park, on the beach, and elsewhere. “How Could You Babe” was one of many subjects I discussed with Jesso when we talked on the phone last week. We also talked about his experience with Chet “JR” White of Girls, Patrick Carney of the Black Keys, and Ariel Rechtshaid, why he’ll be performing without a backing band for now, and why he’s not as much of a sad-sack as his music suggests. Watch the new video and read our conversation below.
STEREOGUM: So judging from your area code I’m guessing you’re back in L.A. now?
JESSO: I’m back in L.A., yeah. I’m living here now. I live with my manager.
STEREOGUM: How long have you been back?
JESSO: I’ve been back for maybe like three months. I mean, I’ve been scooting around. I went to Europe, and I went to New York a couple times for shows and things like that, but I’ve been back for maybe three months. I got my O visa so I’m allowed to stay.
STEREOGUM: Oh right, because you’re from Canada.
JESSO: Right, I’ve had visa problems so they wouldn’t really let me stay unless I had a visa, so it just took a long time to get.
STEREOGUM: I imagine your second stint in L.A. is going a lot better than the first one.
JESSO: Yeah, it’s going good. I mean, the first one wasn’t bad you know. I had fun. I wasn’t like depressed all day or anything like that. I was just, you know, regular hanging out kind of thing. I wasn’t thinking about business and interviews and stuff like that.
STEREOGUM: OK, because I got the impression from reading about your backstory and even listening to “Hollywood” — everything I’ve read and heard just makes it sound like it was soul-crushing the first time around.
JESSO: I know, I think that’s where most people focus on. It’s like, “He was completely crushed and a failure,” and all of that is completely true. That stuff did happen, but I think it gets focused on more. I was in L.A. and I was just walking around like a regular guy. I was trying to be a songwriter; I really was, you know? I just don’t think I was going about it the right way. And then when I went home, I started working for my best friend’s moving company, and then I was like, “OK, I’ll figure it out here. I’ll be a mover or something.” And then it was within a week or two that I started writing on piano.
STEREOGUM: Before you had been writing on guitar?
JESSO: Yeah, guitar. But I left them all in a storage locker in L.A. and I couldn’t get back because I had overstayed a visa accidentally. You can put accidentally.
STEREOGUM: How different stylistically was the stuff you were doing back then?
JESSO: I mean, pretty different — I think reminiscent of what I was listening to. Probably nowhere close to Girls stuff now that I think about it, but it was kind of like guitar and drums and that kind of thing, sort of like more of a band thing. But I’ve been in a few bands and each one is completely different. I’d just never gone on my own, you know? So that was exciting.
STEREOGUM: “Hollywood” obviously seems semi-autobiographical. Are there other songs on the album like that too?
JESSO: Most of them. The way I write songs doesn’t always work out that way. I think usually what will happen is I’ll come up with a line just in singing the melody, and if the line fits and I know it can’t be changed, then I’ll kind of write around it and build out from there. You kind of feel what works and what doesn’t with a song. So for instance, with a song like “How Could You Babe,” when I did the chorus to that, I just sang that, “How could you babe!” It just fit the syllables, and it was certain — when I get high on my register, because singing has always been sort of a learning thing for me when I get high there’s only certain words I can sing. I can’t say “read” up high or something like that, you know what I mean? So “How Could You Babe” is one where I could kind of go “Hooooow!” and so I was like, “That can’t be changed.” And then I’ll think, “OK, ‘How could you babe’ is obviously the theme around someone who did something.” And then I was like, “OK, I got one of those,” and then I just fill it in.
STEREOGUM: That song was one I was wondering about. So that’s based on real-life heartbreak?
JESSO: Yeah, I mean that was like a few weeks back, or a month or so back in Vancouver. I found out that the girl that I had been with in L.A. was with somebody else telling him she loved him and what not, and I was like, “I didn’t even know” — kind of like one of those, “Geez I thought we had another shot when she was back in Vancouver.” But anyways we’re friends now, so it’s fine. But yeah, I mean, I try to write something that will hit me, you know? I try to sort of make myself emotional in the moment when I’m writing, and that always translates better. When I’m writing, I can’t do abstract. I mean, I’ve tried to do something that is like, “Looking out the window and into the rain” or whatever, I don’t know, and then whenever I cut it to a more simple approach I find it helps me believe in the song a little more. I’m not a very abstract guy, so it just feels like if you met me I’d probably tell you how it was and what was I going through pretty point form. So that’s sort of how the songs turn out.
STEREOGUM: Of the demos that were going around before the studio work started coming out, “Just A Dream” made it on the album, but not “True Love.” What ended up happening with that song? Did you record it again? Will you?
JESSO: Well “True Love,” there’s a bit of a story behind that one. I had probably 40 demos on YouTube at one point, of piano stuff. That’s when I was in Vancouver and was going to shows handing out my demos to the people who were passing through town and all of the artists I was listening to. People who I knew were coming through town, I would go and give them a demo CD from the songs I had written that week, like Foxygen and How To Dress Well and Sky Ferreira and Chris Owens, and all those people coming through. I would go up and say, “Hey, here’s a demo,” you know. So when I did the record I was down in San Francisco and went back to Vancouver because my visa was only for a certain amount of time. We were trying to figure out when we could mix it, and it kept feeling like it was going to be months away, which it did turn out to be. I put out “Just A Dream” again on YouTube when I was in San Francisco — because I took all the demos down when I signed the contract. They didn’t want all the songs out in demo form and stuff like that. So when I went down to San Francisco they were like, “OK, we can put up a song just to sort of like get people introduced” or whatever. So I put up “Just A Dream,” and then I went back to Vancouver and it was kind of like, “Well here, I’m back.” And I think the label was like, “OK, well if you’re getting bored you can put up another one.” Kind of like for me things died down a bit, and I was like, “OK, well, what songs should I put up?” ‘Cause we were doing a flexi series, and some of the flexis weren’t on the record either, and my view on the songs was that I wanted to get as many songs out there as I could. I don’t know much about production or anything like that, I just care about the songs, so as many songs as I can have out, I will try, you know? So I tried to think of a song that wasn’t recorded for the record and wasn’t on the flexis, and there was a handful of them, and I just chose “True Love” and put it out there. At that point it was too late. I had not recorded it. And then it seemed to catch on or whatever, and I was like, “Oh man, I was not expecting that, I really was not.” I talked to my managers before, and I was like, “I’m going to put up ‘True Love,’ it’s definitely not going to get like thousands of views like ‘Just A Dream’ did.” And I was wrong.
STEREOGUM: That was the first one I heard, and that’s the one that hooked me.
JESSO: Oh wow, that’s awesome. And it’s crazy because “Just A Dream” and “True Love,” those are two that aren’t written about me. “Just A Dream” was a dream I had, and “True Love” was about a suffering couple that I thought about in the moment. I sort of tried to describe two people in one of those movie relationships, you know? And so that was strange that it worked out that way because most of my songs are pretty true to me. “True Love” is not the record, but I think we’re going to put it on something so people can get it. But I think it’ll live as a demo, you know what I mean? There are certain songs that, OK, people like it, I don’t feel the need to go in and reproduce it or anything like that. I think it’s fine how it is.
STEREOGUM: Yeah, I agree. So you mentioned not knowing a lot about production. I noticed that the first three songs on the record were from three different producers, but they all hang together. I just looked at the credits today, but I was kind of surprised to find out that –
JESSO: That those three were different.
JESSO: Yeah, wow, that’s crazy. I’m glad to hear that, man. Because all the producers I worked with, they’re so different, you know? They all have different approaches. I had different times with them, a different amount of time, and they each had a different sort of view on how it should go. And obviously JR was the most involved. I was with him for four months, and Pat I was with for a week, and then Ariel I was with for five hours. So yeah, I mean it sort of came to the point where, because those were all sort of new songs, each time I wrote a new one they would be like, “OK, this should be on, let’s get it recorded,” and I would go and record it. And the opportunity to work with Pat, and the opportunity to work with Ariel was just kind of — it just happened, you know? It just happened naturally. So I went and did that, and then JR was sort of there through the whole process to kind of say like, “Oh, I think this song should go [this way], and this song.” We did a couple like that. But when I went to record “Without You” it was basically because I had done that on La Blogotheque so it wasn’t recorded yet. So they were like, “Oh, you should go and record this.” So I did that while I was mixing. I don’t know if you heard the flexi series with a song called “Bad Words” on it, and it’s very different from the “Bad Words” that’s on the record because I ended up changing all the chords and the melody.
STEREOGUM: The chords and the melody? So that’s pretty much the whole thing.
JESSO: Yeah. I just kept the words. I liked the words but then, I was driving one day and that melody popped into my head [sings melody], and I was like, “Oh, that’s good.” And I was using the words for “Bad Words” in there. And then I just went home and figured it out, and I was like, “Oh, I like this better,” and then that was the last song we recorded. We just did it live in the mixing studio on the second to last day of mixing, and then that just snuck on the record there at the last minute.
STEREOGUM: I know you said that those producers all had different approaches, but did you communicate anything to them about what you wanted it to sound like?
JESSO: JR was there from the very start, so he was sort of like helping to I guess flesh out what it should be or what it could be, you know? Because I was at the point where I went through phases where I was like, “Man, it should just be piano and me.” JR would send me all these songs. That’s how I figured out all these ’70s references that I get. JR would send me a Harry Nilsson song, I’d be like, “Whoa!” He’d send me a Todd Rundgren song and I’d be like, “Whoa, man!” Sort of just from that, I got the idea of where he thought the song should go, and I started warming up to that idea, and by the time I went down to San Francisco we were like, “OK, let’s go record drums first” and went in and recorded a whole bunch of drums, I think 20 songs’ worth of drums or something like that, and then we just fleshed out the ones that sort of were working naturally. When we’d be in the studio, we’d have a certain musician there, and strings or horns or guitar or whatever we had, and we’d just add it to each song that needed it kind of thing as we went along. And then it turned out to be the way that it sounds sort of on the record. But I wouldn’t say that it was sort of a conscious thing, but I was definitely involved in the whole thing, like helping to write the string parts and helping to sort of add things, and that was fun. I had a good time doing that. But the whole time the main thing was just keeping it as minimal as possible. And it’s funny because “How Could You Babe” is probably the most instrumental song. It has pretty much everything. It has organs and guitar and drum and bass and backup vocals and all that kind of stuff. It’s funny because that song, the demo of that song is the same. It has all the strings, and it has all the “oohs” and “ahs” and everything. I literally took the demo version of that, which was something I did in my parents’ room, and we just made it with real instruments instead of MIDI instruments that I was playing with there. But all the other ones, it was kind of touch-and-go, like play another thing, sort of stack it up and take away as much as we possibly could. I remember when we went to mix I ended up taking out sometimes big chunks of songs — like huge parts that I had just naturally kind of gotten used to — I took them out and was like, “Oh wow, this speaks better.” So in terms of production I mean like we’re going to use this mic going through this compressor, like that. I have no idea about that kind of stuff, but when it comes to instrumentation and the mood of the song, the tempo, and how it should lay out, yeah, I was very much involved with that stuff with all the producers.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned that you weren’t familiar with a lot of the guys you get compared to.
JESSO: I knew Randy Newman. Randy Newman was like – I had his live record and I loved it. It was one of those ones that touches you. Actually, I’ve had a handful of those, like the Tracy Chapman record when I was younger, and the Billy Hughes record, and then I had Sam Cooke, I remember I was painting one day someone played Sam Cooke for me for the first time, that blew me away, and then Randy Newman was another one, and I mean that was definitely – it wasn’t a completely unconscious thing when I was playing piano, I thought like, “Oh, a little Randy Newman vibe.” I knew that it wasn’t completely out of the blue like, “This is a totally original idea,” or anything like that. But when it came to all the ’70s guys like the Harry Nilssons and the Todd Rundgrens and those kind of guys, I wasn’t aware of those guys until JR started putting them in my ear. Obviously he started doing that as I was writing and I got a lot of chord ideas from those guys and stuff like that, so it translates too. And of course I love the Beatles. I always loved the Beatles. Like, this is a very Paul McCartney kind of song — not to say that it’s as good or anything, but it’s definitely Ram-influenced.
STEREOGUM: I listened to the album on a road trip with my wife, and she’s not deep in the ’70s singer/songwriter discography or anything, but she definitely heard the Paul in there. Actually, I played it for my dad too, and it reminded him of an old sitcom theme song.
JESSO: Like Cheers or something? Yeah, I got that. My mom told me that actually. I wrote a song “Can We Still Be Friends?” and I played it for my mom and she was like, “That’s the Cheers theme song,” and I was like, “No it’s not.” But I played the Cheers theme song and I was like, “Oh my god, it is.” But whatever. I didn’t mean to do that, so obviously it was kind of an unconscious thing, but I think that’s funny. I’m okay with those references, Cheers theme song and stuff. I hope he liked it. I hope it wasn’t an insult!
STEREOGUM: No, it was totally positive, I think. So some of the lowness that you were feeling definitely shines through on some of the songs on Goon. Have you written much since you started getting more attention for your work? Are you worried that as you move out of that sad period that you’ll lose your spark?
JESSO: No, man. I write every day, so every day I have time off I’ll go to my friend’s grandparents’ house, and he’s got a big Steinway piano and I’ll just write there. But I’ve written tons since the record. I have enough material for a few more albums I’d say. Definitely the whole “alone” thing, now that I see — and I’m still single — it made me see that records can’t be so much of this hopeless romantic sort of like pining for lost love or something like that. You can’t help the things you write about sometimes, like I was saying earlier, but I definitely find that it’s an easy well to go to, which is why I want to change it. I’ve written songs now about all kinds of stuff, and a lot about the things that happen in relationships and stuff that seems more sad, because I just naturally like to write ballads and sadder chords and things like that. I like to play around with those ideas, but I really like things to have a lot of differences, you know? Like, the record has songs about friendship, and it has songs about relationships, and it has songs about getting dumped or whatever, and the feelings that you have. And it’s obviously revolving mostly around that, but that’s sort of where I was at the time of writing all those songs. But now I’m in a much different place, not because of the press or anything, but just because I’m back in L.A. and things are different. So I’m finding different things to write about. I do notice that when I go to find a melody or something, I don’t know why or how, but love is just such an easy thing to sing, it’s such an easy word to sing, so it just comes that way. I can’t tell you how many songs I had “true love” in that I’ve had to take “true love” out. You know what I mean? It’s just one of those things. But I’m not finding it hard. I love writing. If it were up to me I’d just be writing all day every day, and maybe having a relationship on the side.
STEREOGUM: You mentioned you wanted the record initially to be really paired down. Obviously your first few live shows doing this material was just you and a piano. Are you going to keep it like that or are you putting a band together?
JESSO: I think the tour is going to be a solo thing. I really want to introduce people to the songs. I would consider myself much of a performer. I’m definitely nervous up there alone and a band would probably help that a little bit, but the most important thing for me is the songs and for people to be able to hear them. At least on the first tour just to introduce people to it when they see me live, I think that is what’s going to happen just because you’ve got to think if I was going to the show myself, and I knew everything I know about myself objectively from another person’s point of view, what would I want? And I think I decided I’d like to go see it solo. Someone like Cass McCombs I would just love to see him with a guitar you know? Not comparing myself to his genius in any way, but it’s just one of those things to get into you know? I think it’s easier to get into something if someone is just playing you the bare bones.
[Photo by Sandy Kim.]