Tobias Jesso Jr. doesn’t mess around. He’s about as direct as a suckerpunch to the chest, from songs to sense of humour. As tall as Peter Crouch (#indiepete), as likeable as your next best friend, his early days were defined by smoky demos, detuned pianos and just enough mystique to lure in a loyal crowd. Now the cards are on the table, first album ‘Goon’ being the most pronounced, heartbroken debut since Bon Iver dusted the snow off his laptop and cried in a cabin for several weeks straight.
Serious isn’t his style, mind you. The draw of Tobias Jesso Jr.’s music is the honesty factor, truths flung out song after song. Emotions are wrung dry, the odd tear guaranteed, but behind the music is a good-humoured guy just looking to get by. Case in point: A new video he’s thought up by himself to help promote a tour in Asia. “It starts with a marquee, saying “Tobias Jesso Jr. plays live tonight” in Japanese writing,” he begins. “It shows everyone running away, screaming, bursting out of the marquee. And then it shows me and I’m taller than the buildings.”
The punchline? “It goes: ‘Tobias Jesso Jr. - he’s huge in Japan!’”
By this point he’s guffawing, almost rolling on the floor in fits of laughter. “Huge in Japan!” he repeats. “That’s so funny. I love that stuff. That’s just silliness.” He’s serious in saying that it’s being commissioned.
Going on the music alone, it’s an instinctive reaction to imagine Tobias as a slightly reclusive, torn up soul, someone who can only project his true thoughts in song. Nobody would have known better when things started out a few years back. So the story goes, following an unsuccessful fame chase in LA, he moved back to home town Vancouver to help look after his mother, who was ill at the time but has since recovered. During that period, he started penning songs on piano, scratchy demos recorded in one single take, which he then sent on to Chet ‘JR’ White (formerly of Girls). It was this that helped put a music career in motion. Back he went to LA to record what would become ‘Goon’, a fuller-sounding, direct-as-hell introduction that topples the hype. Now he’s hanging out with Haim, picking up praise from Adele and being dubbed as a potential songwriter of his generation.
It’s a sentiment that he shrugs off. Compared to Randy Newman and 70s stalwarts from day one, Tobias says he “can’t compare to those guys - they’ve had the time to wear into people’s hearts.” The parallels crop up, he says, simply because his producers were sending him seventies classics at the time of recording. “I’m not gonna lie about the music I grew up listening to,” he starts. “I’m not gonna go, ‘My parents played me Bob Dylan when I was three years old.’ No - I was listening to Vanilla Ice. Sum 41, Goldfinger, Blink-182, Red Hot Chili Peppers - that’s what me and my friends were listening to.” Shunning the seventies for a second, the one song he’d always play in the studio as a reference point was Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’. “I was like, ‘This is it. This is the one. That’s got it’.” The guy shouting “How could you babe?” in sky-reaching hysteria? The songwriter who says he thinks he’s “gonna die in Hollywood” over gloomy minor keys? That’s one side of Tobias Jesso Jr. - here’s the rest.
Those early songs, penned way back when in the Vancouver days, became a source of refuge for anyone discovering Jesso Jr. online. Creaky, intimate takes, they’re a huge reason why the Canadian is where he is today. Listening to a song like ‘True Love’, which didn’t make the full-length, it sounds like someone’s peering into a stranger’s living room, hearing him pour out his soul like nobody’s watching. With that in mind, ‘Goon’ is a risk. Tobias ditches the demo quality for something richer, backed by strings and booming horn sections. “I’ve seen it already, people asking why I’ve added more to songs they already like,” he says. “People going, ‘I think he’s mucked it all up’. These guys might get demo-itis. And it’s a way of saying, ‘I was listening to the demos before you’. But I was proud of how the record came out. Same with JR, same with the mixer. And if the label likes it, fuck it, people don’t have to like it.”
"I’m not gonna go, ‘My parents played me Bob Dylan when I was three years old.’ No - I was listening to Vanilla Ice."
— Tobias Jesso Jr.
There’s a surprise in store for anyone approaching the album like they know Tobias Jesso Jr. inside out. And it’s easy to get that kind of impression from someone who writes so honestly as a default mode. That’s not to say ‘Goon’ isn’t as heart-on-sleeve as early material. “I thought this was my last shot,” he says, referring to the second trip to LA, when things finally began to come good. “I thought things might just blow into smoke and disappear all of a sudden.” With that, there’s an anxiety to the record, an urgency that sweeps up the demo cobwebs and produces a nervous, excitable debut.
For the first time in memory, he seems to know where he’s heading. Since recording the debut, he went straight into writing fifty more songs. One of these is called ‘Where Will I Be’, a self-explanatory extension of the album’s self-doubt. “It’s something that for me was a big issue when I had no idea of where things were going. I was 27 and I had no idea. I think a lot of people feel that way. So a song that goes into that is a pretty universal theme.” Now, things are falling into place. “I kind of know what my next year looks like,” he understates, still buzzing from just hearing the news that his first London show sold out in an hour. “If we have to grow the venues already, I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I’m just getting used to playing for thirty, forty people. I don’t want to play for three-hundred yet. I’m just making sure it’s good enough to stick by it for a long period of time. I’m playing my first tour solo, just because I don’t want these people coming to see this big band with huge expectations. I’m introducing people to me first.”
Photos: Emma Swann. From the March 2015 issue of DIY. Tobias Jesso Jr.’s debut album ‘Goon’ will be released on 16th March via True Panther Sounds. He plays Live at Leeds (1st-4th May) and The Great Escape (14th-16th May), where DIY is an official media partner. Tickets are on sale now. Visit diymag.com/presents for more information.