I meet Tobias Jesso Jr. for the first time in front of The Pantry in downtown LA. He’s not hard to spot; he’s got a shaggy head of curly brown hair, and he easily has a foot on me in height. A few months later, a billboard in Echo Park will joke about his stature, reading, “You can’t miss Tobias Jesso Jr. He’s six foot seven.”
Though it’s our first conversation in person, Jesso greets me with a hug, wrapping his thin arms all the way around me. We quickly reject the line at the famous Los Angeles breakfast spot and walk down the street to a Denny’s. Sitting with the songwriter is comfortable and easy. Both of us enjoy coffee while he wolfs down an early afternoon breakfast of eggs. He speaks with me the way he does to his audience when he’s performing, like old friends, taking advantage of the fact that we are already charmed by his music, aware that the rest of him is a pretty easy sell.
If you are in Tobias Jesso Jr.’s presence, physically or musically, he has already won.
More than a year earlier, producer Chet “JR” White, formerly half of the band Girls, was won over firsthand.
“I sent JR the demos, and he wrote me back and said, ‘Call this number,’” Jesso recalls. “It was kind of like a dream come true. I never really talked to someone I admired before. I never really got the moment to say something to somebody I was a fan of until that point. The first 10 minutes I was probably just laughing and being a fan boy. He was more interested in talking about doing an album, so when he asked, I was like, ‘Oh man, that would be incredible.’ I told him I’d book a ticket, so I did. He asked me how many songs I had. I was like, ‘I only have the ones I sent you.’ I had sent him the first four that I wrote, and then he was like, ‘OK, well, do you think you could write six or seven or eight more?’”
White doesn’t exactly remember things the same way, but his life was at a much different point than Jesso’s. Girls had just broken up. To hear White tell it, he knew the end was coming, but he didn’t know how or when. To have someone like Jesso send him songs at that specific time was, well, unbelievable.
“I remember at the time I was super touched and moved,” White says. “Not necessarily by Tobias, but I just felt like the luckiest kid in the world. When I received his demos, I had borrowed my girlfriend’s car, I was stuck in traffic, and I hadn’t checked my email, and there was this email from Tobias saying, ‘I heard your band broke up, I really like the production, that’s why I wanted to send this to you.’
“There were four songs attached, including ‘Just a Dream’,” White says, “and it was like one of those ‘stop in my tracks’ moments when I played it. Just the tonality of his piano, I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ I had to pull over 45 seconds into this song.”
That song would also be the first I heard from Jesso when White sent me the demo in the midst of an interview we were doing about Girls’ breakup. I had the same reaction. I remember sending the song to every editor I knew and a bunch of writer friends. That would be the first song anyone would hear from Tobias Jesso Jr.
The track was soon posted on Paste, Pigeons & Planes, and other notable sites. By the time Jesso shared his next song, “True Love”, CoS and Pitchfork were also on board.
It didn’t take long.
After breakfast, Jesso and I awkwardly stumble around the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles. We’re unsure exactly how to navigate the terrain, but we’re intrigued by the landscape.
“I want a Juno,” Jesso admits, though he says a Grammy would be nice, too. “It’s literally easier to get a Juno.”
Jesso engages with everything he sees. At an exhibit with a keyboard and guitars available to use, he shows me how to play “Just a Dream” and “Hollywood” on piano. He makes it look remarkably easy. At the temporary Taylor Swift exhibit, Jesso is in awe of the finality of her handwritten lyrics up on display.
“I don’t understand people who can write lyrics like that without like crossing stuff out all over the place,” he says. “Mine are just completely crossed.”
We joke about his friendship with the Haim sisters and how slim the separation is between him and Swift.
“My dream is to work with people who are going for the Grammys,” he says. “I don’t know if my voice could ever really hope to win a Grammy. But something like writing for someone that could win would be like a dream come true. For me, it’s all about the song. It’s not about me singing. It’s not about me playing piano. I could care less about that stuff. It’s just about having a song and it living in whatever form it needs, and if somebody has a wonderful voice, then I could play with the range and stuff like that.
“Eventually, I’m going to write the best song I can possibly write, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be someone else singing it. I can’t imagine the best song I could ever write with me singing it, you know?”
Jesso’s insecurity about his vocal range isn’t new. It stems from the very beginnings of his childhood growing up in North Vancouver in British Columbia.
“I never sang,” he says. “I don’t know what it really was, but somewhere in high school, somebody must have told me that I shouldn’t sing, or I can’t sing, or whatever, and I just was like, from then on, I’m not going to. Maybe I wanted to be a singer, but never in my life would I.”
He wasn’t Tobias as a child, but rather “little Toby.” Now, at 6’7”, he isn’t exactly little, so Tobias Jesso Jr. is the name he dons. Jesso doesn’t come from a particularly musical family, and his early exposure to music was common for anyone growing up in the suburbs during the ’90s. He speaks of learning Green Day on guitar but capping off his growth before he could play solos. He generally has a grounded view of his own abilities.
“I have a very limited range,” Jesso says about his voice as we bounce from exhibit to exhibit. Sam Cooke inspires the most emotional response from him. “I can’t sing very low, and I can’t sing very high — I sing in the middle somewhere. You don’t know how many choruses I’ve written that I thought were really good that I couldn’t put on the song because I couldn’t sing them. I’m sure I’d have two or three better choruses on my album if I had a bigger range.”
Jesso’s first brush with professional music wasn’t as the songwriter he is today, or even at the piano, but at bass. Even now, when we see a bass at the Grammy museum, Jesso’s eyes widen. “Bass is the first one for me,” he says. “I really loved the instrument … whenever I hear music, I think about the bass line.”
After Jesso graduated high school, he went to school for photography and fell in with a band after taking their picture. Jesso must have endeared himself to them, because soon there was an opening in the group, and he was asked to join. He was asked to play bass.
“As a bassist, I had to buy a bass,” Jesso says, laughing, “so I went online and bought a Tobias bass. They were friends, and they kicked their bass player out. It was really secretive and this big sort of deal, and I was 18 or 19, and I was taking it seriously. I dropped out or stopped going or stopped caring at school and started playing bass.”
The Battle of the Bands phenomenon that Jesso then describes to me is not something I was privy to in California. Maybe it existed; I wasn’t aware of it. But according to Jesso, it was very much something you could do to find massive musical success. He recalls having to write and rehearse six songs over a month with his band, The Sessions, for their brief set, and that wins were determined by crowd support. Because Jesso and his friends were just out of high school, finding 200 people to come root for them wasn’t an issue. Jesso’s band wound up winning the first two rounds because their friends wanted to come out and get wasted. It all sounds a lot like the 1996 Tom Hanks movie That Thing You Do.
“You realize later it’s all about ticket sales for them,” Jesso says. Eventually, The Sessions won Battles of the Bands in Calgary and then Montreal. Jesso was named the second best bassist in Canada, racking up a collection of basses for his winnings. The adventure saw The Sessions go to England and finally Germany, where they won the world competition.
“They took us back into the dungeon of the competition,” Jesso says, “and they were like, ‘We’re going to put you in the studio, we’re going to record for two months, and this is your producer.’ They showed us this guy, and he was like, ‘I will make any song a hit.’ We had managers by that time, and they were kind of like, ‘We’re not going to sign anything right now.’”
The Sessions ended up rejecting their grand-prize record contract, much to the disappointment of the organization that hosted the events. Still, The Sessions had garnered enough attention to wind up with Bob Rock producing music for them in Bryan Adams’ Canadian studio.
This part of Jesso’s tale caused some backlash from people involved in his career at that time when he relayed it to Pitchfork. “I feel weird talking about it,” he says now. “I’ve had some problems mentioning the past, talking about it, and feeling like I should feel guilty about it. The people who were around at that time feel like I’m taking their story, but it’s strange. It’s my experience. So, to make a long story short, the band just dwindled out.”
Jesso doesn’t keep in touch with the other members of The Sessions. He describes them as the people you know at a young age and just fall out of contact with. But the experience did launch the next phase of Jesso’s music career in an unexpected fashion. Their original singer left, and the rest of The Sessions moved to LA to back pop singer Melissa Cavatti after Cavatti’s father discovered a Sessions music video. Up until that time, Jesso had tried numerous styles of music, just trying to find his voice.
“The different styles of music I’ve gone through over the years is staggering,” Jesso says. “It’s crazy. From electronic beats when MSTRKRFT came out to folk before that whole big Mumford and Sons wave with the banjo happened. Before the Mumfords, I had a banjo thing. From a pop band to rap — I wasn’t rapping, but writing beats, just exploring every part of what I liked. Whatever came out that I was like, ‘Wow, this just blows me away,’ I would get into that. Hercules and Love Affair came out, and that album was so good, so I was like, ‘I have to do this.’ My interest would change all the time, and I feel like that’s part of finding out what you like as an artist. You change as your interests change, and then your taste level changes. Songwriting is just based off of your taste level.
“I’d been doing my underground grind,” Jesso says, “but it was time to go to a place where things actually happen. We found a keyboardist on Craigslist, and we all moved down like a month later, straight to the Valley. We did that for a year; we just sort of plugged away at these same 10 songs that were on [Cavatti’s] album or whatever. The momentum just started off where we were trying to improve it, and it was a really family-run thing. I don’t think anyone had much experience. So we did that for a year; we had a year contract, and we played maybe two shows in that time.”
The year spent backing a pop singer flamed out almost as suddenly and completely as The Sessions’ first run. Jesso says mishaps like getting the wrong kind of audience to see their initial pay-to-play showcases and making printing errors on the CDs took the air out of Cavatti’s sails, but he stayed down on visas for a couple more years with the pop group. It never really went anywhere.
You can hear the remnants of this time in Jesso’s “Hollywood”, where he sings, “I was looking forward to see where I was going, but I don’t know if I can make it.” Full of self-doubt, Jesso returned to Vancouver defeated, about to hit upon some of the biggest lows in his young life.
“After four years, I went back home a failure,” he recalls. “I mean, I didn’t know whether to go home or not. I was out of money. I was out of visa time. I was scared to death to stick around and see what would happen. I went back and I started working for my friend’s moving company. We were old friends, and he had this whole life.”
For the first time ever, Jesso had a job with some stability, even though it was far from where he had seen himself when he quit school to pursue music. He points out that it might be hard for me to fully grasp where he was coming from. “The difference between you and me is I didn’t get an education,” he says. “A degree makes you feel guilty for not doing anything.”
Still, Jesso admits it was “really depressing.”
“Not depressing enough where I was actually depressed,” he says. “It was really hard to go back and see old friends and have nothing to show for it. I was supposed to be coming back victorious. I didn’t really want to see anyone. I didn’t want to hang out or go anywhere. I was just in this embarrassment phase, and then I started worked for my friend’s moving company. I’d finish work, go home, and play piano for 10 hours, then catch some sleep, then wake up and do the exact same thing.”
“Tobias is … I always think of him like a golden retriever or something,” White tells me, laughing. “He’s just the sweetest guy, and he wants to please everyone. He’s really well-adjusted, a really nice human being, you know? He’s like … he’s Canadian.
“It’s a purity thing,” White adds. “It’s not contrived at all. He’s putting himself out there 100 percent.”
That eagerness to please was on display when White and Dean Bein from True Panther flew out to meet Jesso in person in Vancouver. Jesso laughs about it now, because he didn’t realize that Bein was there to sign him. Jesso thought it was his job to impress Bein, not the other way around.
“I thought he was just coming to see what I could do or something,” Jesso says. “When he first came in, I sat down and played him, like, 25 songs on the piano, and he just sat there politely. He was like, ‘Wow, that was really good’ after each one. It wasn’t until months later that he told me, ‘That was so funny that you did that. You thought you were auditioning, but really I was there to audition for you.’”
That eagerness to sing in person is surprising given that Jesso’s been shy about his vocals his whole life. Never one to be afraid of talking to a stranger, Jesso was also never one to just sing songs in front of people he didn’t know.
“I didn’t consider myself a performer or anything,” Jesso admits. “I understand the feeling that people can get from the demos, but I didn’t consider myself a performer. I was like, ‘Wait until they see me live, and if they still want to do it, then maybe that’s fine.’
“It’s a hard step,” he says. “Seeing somebody on stage is one thing, but to tell the difference between an artist and just a person who writes songs is a tough thing. I never considered myself somebody who was able to impress somebody by playing them a song. I thought the songs were impressive, but I didn’t think that I was the one who would be performing them.”
The decision to sign to True Panther turned out to be an easy one: White asked if Jesso wanted to meet anyone else, and Jesso plainly responded, “No, I’m good with Dean.” He then encountered numerous visa issues. White blames Jesso’s puppy-dog honesty for getting him in trouble at the border multiple times. Border officials would ask Jesso how long he intended to stay in America, and Jesso wouldn’t have an answer. He kept getting turned away, especially when officials found out how long he had extended his visas on his first American stay. But, eventually, the recording with White commenced.
“I went down to San Francisco,” Jesso says, “and stayed with JR. I was sleeping on the couch at his place, and we would just go to the thrift stores and stuff like that. We’d just talk a lot. He knew a lot about music and would really introduce me to what he thought, his idea of the record. I’d have my input, too, but mostly it would be like, ‘Oh, what about this Beatles thing?’ We explored making a contemporary record that didn’t just fall into that sort of nostalgic thing. People talk about the obvious comparisons, but not influences, because I wasn’t really influenced by much of that until I was already writing the record.
“We did that for four months, and it actually got to the point where I thought when I left we’d have a record done,” Jesso says. “It was silly of me to think that. After four months, I went back to Vancouver, and it was really sort of a low time. It should have been a really exciting time, but it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”
That break from recording, which mostly happened because of a lack of funds to complete the mixing, resulted in Jesso going to Nashville for a week, where he recorded his songs “Can’t Stop Thinking About You” and “The Wait” with The Black Keys’ Patrick Carney. The obvious question was how White would take the news that Jesso went somewhere else for help.
“It was just an opportunity,” Jesso says, “and I took it. [White] didn’t feel bad about that. He’s never said that at all. If anything, he has been supportive of each choice I’ve made, even if it goes against something he believes.”
“I was jealous as hell,” White says, laughing, “but in the end, I believe that the artist is always right. That’s what I tell Tobias.”
“I try not to let it go to my head,” Jesso says, “because he just really believes that. So, if it’s a decision I wanted to make, I think he’s proven that he’d just say ‘do it.’ When it gets to recording and production, he has a heavier hand. I’ll say, ‘Why don’t we try this?’ and if it’s a ridiculous idea, he’ll be like, ‘No, I don’t want to,’ because that’s his art, the production.”
Jesso’s opportunities didn’t end there. He wound up recording with The New Pornographers’ John Collins back in Vancouver for sessions that didn’t wind up on the album. At one point, Jesso met Ariel Rechtshaid through Chris Coady, who was mixing the record, and recorded “Without You” with him, featuring Jesso’s new friend Danielle Haim on drums. In the end, the album featured more than just White as producer, but Jesso highlights White’s willingness to remain a part of the process.
“JR flew out from San Francisco to oversee the mixing process,” Jesso says. “That was another testament of how great JR was through the process. I mean, it was his album, too, so he wanted to make sure it was being done right and getting to the point that we both wanted it. He was fine with all the other songs being on there. He was fine with Pat Carney’s songs and Ariel’s song. I recorded that song the day before he came out, and when he got there he was like, ‘Cool, sounds good.'”
Nothing about Goon, Jesso’s debut album, seems disjointed. I have to ask him who recorded which songs when we talk about all of this, because no casual listener could hear the seams. Goon may have been a long road, a lifetime in the works, but the experience Jesso had in making it has paid off. The resulting album may go down as a classic.
And the rewards aren’t limited to the album. At Denny’s, Jesso receives texts from the youngest Haim sister, Alana, admitting that he spent the prior evening bar-hopping with the pop sensations. Whether being tweeted about by Adele or hobnobbing with Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner outside an Angel Olsen concert, Jesso just might have his songs sung by Grammy-caliber artists after all. For now, though, it’s all speculation.
“I’ve sat down with the girls from Haim at the piano and stuff like that,” Jesso says, “and we’ve jammed out a bit. Nothing concrete, nothing set in stone, nothing for sure. I’m trying to get into that world pretty heavily in the meantime. I realized I write too many songs for me to just put out my own albums, so hopefully I can start writing some pop songs for other people or with other people. Obviously, there’s a lot of artists out there who want to collaborate, and I’m into that, just as long as it’s something that I’m passionate about. I can’t imagine writing a song I don’t like. I wouldn’t do that.”
As for himself, the positive reception his music has been receiving — from opening for Foxygen to performing on The Tonight Show with The Roots as his backing band — has Jesso finding a new level of confidence in his own singing.
“The stuff I’m doing now is trying to branch out, trying to explore my voice a bit more, and trying to see if I can think of myself as a singer in any way,” Jesso says. “The first album was … I felt like I didn’t belong in front of a mic. The second album, we’ll see. I mean, there’s an unprecedented amount of support. The positive feedback I’ve gotten and the messages from people, those are the ones I really take seriously.”
The support continues to pour in. Weeks after our interviews, I get a text from White, asking if I had wrapped the story. “Not yet,” I reply.
“I was realizing if there was anything I wanted to say,” White said, “it was that Tobias is the most naturally talented musician or songwriter I’ve ever been able to work with, with a work ethic to match his talent.”
White, and probably Jesso too, would tell you that the music industry is sometimes a cynical place. As much as we are all celebrating art, it’s easy to feel jaded when your band suddenly falls apart, when you return to your hometown a failure. But these days, White and Jesso aren’t sounding too pessimistic. They have an album that gives them reason to be excited — and the feeling is contagious.
Photography by Philip Cosores. Artwork by Steven Fiche and Cap Blackard.