TOBIAS JESSO JR. PHOTO COURTESY OF JAMES MARSHALL.
As you round the corner of Sunset Boulevard and enter into the Echo Park neighborhood of East L.A., you’ll come face-to-face with Tobias Jesso Jr. There, above the Burrito King, the floppy-haired singer/songwriter gazes out from a billboard that speaks to the merits of honest advertising: “You can’t miss Tobias Jesso Jr.,” it reads. “He’s six foot seven.”
The very tall, boyishly good-looking Vancouver-native may be sitting pretty now—his much hyped-about debut, Goon, drops early next week, and last month he gave a headline-making Tonight Show performance—but less than three years ago, Jesso’s story wasn’t quite so monumental. In 2012, Jesso was a struggling songwriter in L.A., slinging coffee and playing bass in someone else’s pop band. He was broke, tired, and second guessing his desire to make it in as a musician. Then the bottom fell out: Jesso’s girlfriend dumped him, his mom was diagnosed with cancer, and he was hit by a car while riding his bike and the driver fled the scene. Less than a week later, he moved home to Vancouver, where things eventually worked out. Jesso reconnected with old friends; his mom’s cancer subsided and is now in remission; and somewhere in dealing with everything, the young, lost musician found his voice.
Sitting at his sister’s piano, with no one to answer to, Jesso started pounding out songs. The subjects were simple—love, loss, family, heartbreak—and the structures were rudimentary, but the deliveries were so sincere and so authentic that they couldn’t be ignored, and they weren’t. When Jesso sent a cold inquiry email to Girls producer/bassist Chet “JR” White, White quickly became the first on a long list of Jesso’s many collaborators, a list that now includes the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney, The New Pornographers’ John Collins, and Ariel Rechtshaid. As for Goon, it lives up to the hype through its beautiful, modest, and heart wrenching songs.
A few months ago, we phoned Jesso, who was at his new Los Angeles home, to talk about aspirations, life lessons, and why your best friends are sometimes your worst critics.
ALY COMINGORE: I know you wrote the songs on Goon at your parents’ house. Was music a big thing in your family growing up?
TOBIAS JESSO JR.: No, not at all. Everyone in my family is pretty much tone-deaf. [laughs] I don’t think I ever heard music playing when I was younger, other than the radio. My parents got me a Walkman and stuff like that, but I was always way more into listening to music than they were. Still when I go home now it’s not a music place; there aren’t records or CDs hanging around. I think my demo CD from when I was 14 has been in the player for the past 10 years.
COMINGORE: So they were encouraging of your musical pursuits.
JESSO: Oh yeah, for sure. I don’t know how encouraging, but definitely the normal amount of encouraging, and maybe a little extra. They’ve been really good about it. It was a pipe dream for a long time, but now I think they’re more on the side of, “Okay, great! Good for you! You stuck with it and it worked out.” Or it is working out. Who knows how long I’ve got before I have to get a real job again. [laughs]
COMINGORE: What kind of jobs have you had?
JESSO: When I was in Vancouver writing the album I was working for my friend’s moving company. My first job, though, was at WalMart. I worked at Little Caesar s, I worked at a lot of coffee shops in my early 20s. It was the typical stuff, [moving] job to job every year or so.
COMINGORE: So you know the grind.
JESSO: Oh, I know the grind. [laughs] I’m still coming to terms with not knowing the grind. I wake up and feel unproductive if I’m not heading to work.
COMINGORE: What made you want to start playing music?
COMINGORE: Not the band? [Both laugh]
JESSO: No, not the band—girls in general. When I was in high school, my info-tech teacher had a guitar that I bought off of him. I was a really fast typer, so I would get my exercises done and then I would fiddle around on guitar. I was listening to bands like Green Day and Oasis and stuff, so it was sort of the natural way any teen gets into music. I think the first song I learned was [Tracy Chapman’s] “Give Me One Reason,” and from there I was hooked. Guitar was the cool instrument to play to impress girls and “be an artist.”
COMINGORE: Did you start writing songs right off the bat?
JESSO: Not at all. I would write joke songs with my friends about our other friends and that kind of thing. I think the first time I tried to write a romantic song it was just horrendously embarrassing. I remember thinking, “Okay, I’m not going to do that anymore.” I think that sort of embarrassed me for the next 10 years. I progressed on guitar to the point of knowing four or five chords and then I moved over to bass guitar and fell in love with bass. It’s still one of my favorite instruments to play.
COMINGORE: Prior to moving back to Vancouver, how did you like L.A.?
JESSO: It was great. I loved it—the sunshine, the going out, the Mexican food, and friends. My problem was I just wasn’t getting anywhere. That’s the thing: it can be fine and it can be fun, but at the end of the day you’re reading articles about other bands and going, “Well, I’m not that.” I was also very broke, living with a bunch of Canadians, sort of going, “What are we gonna do?” I feel like some people know what they’re good at and I thought I was good at writing songs, but at that point I still wasn’t convinced. I started thinking maybe I was going to be a writer, or a reality TV show developer. I didn’t know.
COMINGORE: What do you think ultimately convinced you?
JESSO: I think it was a bunch of things combined. It was really the combination of a new instrument—so almost a new inspiration—and me singing, and writing, and feeling like I had all the time in the world to do whatever I wanted. In L.A., I’d be doing music a lot of days and I’d think, “I need to get it done right now. Tomorrow I’m going to show my friend.” I would rush the process. It was really the ability to have all the time I needed to get used to what I was doing and really believe in it. I didn’t have the production capabilities, but you have to live within reasonable means of what you have, so I did the best I could. Those songs were literally the best I could possibly do, and because of that I believed in it. It was all those things combined that brought me to the moment where I thought, “Okay, I would actually listen to this if it wasn’t me.” I don’t know that I’d ever thought that before.
COMINGORE: I know your mom got sick right around the time you moved back to Vancouver. How was it to return home to that? And to try to write in it?
JESSO: You know, she handled it pretty good. There wasn’t much difference. It wasn’t like there was a huge cloud over the house. I mean, obviously she was going through some stuff and it was tough, but ultimately I think it was just being there. I was out of touch with old friends, so just being back and feeling a little less creative in your home changed things. Like if you write a piece, it’s a different thing to show it to an editor than it is to show it to your best friend. You think, “Maybe she’ll see through this or she’ll see through that.” That happened to me with my best friend back in Vancouver. I showed him “Just a Dream” and he took off the headphones halfway through and said, “Man, this is kind of garbage.” He told me I needed to get singing lessons. [laughs] And he had all the freedom to say that, too, because he was my boss at the time.
COMINGORE: Were there certain records you were listening to during that time?
JESSO: I was on a Beatles kick. I resonate with Paul a lot, but then everyone that’s written about the record has made this connection to Lennon’s demos. I was going for Paul, though. [laughs] When I got back [from recording with JR for the first time], the Randy Newman Live album was a really important record for me. JR was the one who sent me Todd Rundgren, Harry Nilsson, Jackson Browne, all those guys, and I resonated with all of ’em, but I also tried to stay conscious of not going all ’70s. I didn’t want to be the guy with the classic ’70s pre-chorus.
COMINGORE: Have you been reading a lot of the press about the album?
JESSO: I struggle to try not to read it. It was great when the first stuff came out to hear that people liked it, but at the same time at this point it’s almost hard for me to read because as much as I’m uncomfortable with my voice, trust me, I’m more uncomfortable with the things I say. [laughs] To see it on a written page, it’s like, “Oh my god. I told that guy I’m a hopeless romantic! What am I doing?”
COMINGORE: Looking back on this whole experience, what do you think was the biggest takeaway?
JESSO: Just being proud of what you do, and knowing that it’s okay to do your best even if it’s not the best. That’s sort of the theme. I mean, obviously I’m not the best singer, obviously I’m not the best piano player or the best songwriter, but I’m doing my best on all of ’em. Once you have all those things in place, then I think everything falls the way it should.
GOON IS OUT MARCH 17 VIA TRUE PANTHER. FOR MORE ON TOBIAS JESSO JR., VISIT HIS WEBSITE.