Usually when a musician turns heads without showing their face, there’s a reason. They’re taking their time, executing step one of a grand plan, matching mysterious music with an equally enigmatic aura. When it comes to Tobias Jesso Jr., this now Los Angeles-based newcomer is the very definition of direct. “I like to cut to the point a lot. In life and in song,” says the Canadian in one of his first ever interviews. He’s the opposite of an enigma.
Instead of hiding under a comfy reverb blanket or opting to lay out musical clues as part of an online treasure hunt, Tobias sings songs about real stories, real people. He puts himself in other people’s shoes, or he’ll dive straight into personal experiences. “I have songs that are about what it would be like to be a performer at sixty. I have songs about an artist struggling in situations that I might not have been in,” he lists off. Whatever he’s writing, there’s a nagging familiarity. A track like ‘True Love’ could’ve been lifted straight from a series of lost recordings from the sixties, slightly detuned vocals dancing with simple piano lines. Debut ‘Just a Dream’ opens with the line “yesterday, I had a baby - now she is one day old, and looks just like her old lady.” And off he runs with this distinct tale of his, stories etching into the conscience.
It sounds like a tired cliché stripped of fact, but Tobias Jesso Jr. comes off like so many existing songwriters at once, without provoking any direct comparison. John Lennon’s been cited a few times, but it’s fairly wide of the mark. He isn’t trained in piano - sheet music “doesn’t make any sense to me at all” - and his first big break came after struggling as a “bassist in a back-up band for a pop singer that no-one’s ever heard of.” When Girls broke up, he had producer Chet ‘JR’ White’’s email on file, and fired over a quick message: “‘Sorry to hear about the band. I’m a big fan of your production.’” Attached were a couple of songs, including ‘Just a Dream’. “After that, just two hours after, he wrote back and said: ‘Please call this number’. He asked if I had any more songs, I only had the four. He asked me to write more and from that point on I was playing piano about twelve hours a day. He called me and was like, ‘Just stop’ by the time I had forty-five,” he laughs.
What was the purpose of your first LA visit? Music-related?
The first time I ever came to LA I was visiting a girl that I was interested in when I was eighteen years old. That was the first time. It was an amazing experience! I got the opportunity to move down to LA to play as a bassist in a back-up band for a pop singer that no-one’s ever heard of. I took the opportunity, moved down and lived here for three and a half years.
Up to now - at least for a while - I thought you were an elusive musician. I take it that wasn’t on purpose?
The whole image… That piano picture. I’d moved back to Vancouver at the time and I’d started playing piano. I was writing these songs - the demos that you’ve heard - and when I wanted to put it up on Youtube it needed an image or something. That was the only image I found of me playing the piano. I didn’t want to have a new photoshoot of me playing the piano. That was the only one I had, the easiest thing. So I just used that picture. I think people think I don’t want to show my face. I was trying to show my face!
So that’s when you first started learning piano?
Ah no. I think that was when we had a Japanese student living with us and she had bought a Casio keyboard that I’d started tinkering with. I didn’t get into piano in terms of songwriting… I mean, I’d try to play a Coldplay line when I was twenty or something. But I didn’t use it as a real instrument until I’d finished trying to make it in LA and moved back to Vancouver to spent time with my Mom who was sick. My sister had left her piano at home. I’d left all my guitars in LA. That’s really when I started. This is about two years ago now. ‘Just a Dream’ was the first time I wrote a song, sang a song I was proud of. First for a lot of things. But that was when I started playing piano and then from there, because it felt so good, I dove in and started playing all the time. Now it’s pretty much what I write on. I’d never wanted to show anyone music before unless someone else was singing it. That was the first one where I thought, ‘Well it’s me. It is what it is’.
"I like to cut to the point a lot. In life and in song."
The songs I’ve heard so far from you are very direct. Is that something you’ve struggled with before?
I didn’t even think about lyrics before ‘Just a Dream’ to be honest. When I was writing songs, I was thinking about melody. My dream in my head was I would go to LA, somebody would find me and say, ‘Play me a good song and show me what the melody will be and then I’ll write the lyrics’. I can figure out the chords, what melodies would go over it and somebody could take it from there. When I went to finally write them, I just wanted to be as simple as possible. At the time, when I wrote ‘Just a Dream’ which was a dream, I wasn’t planning on showing it to anyone. I was writing, as cliche as it is, for myself at the time. When I think about it, I'm definitely not a very obscure guy. I don’t leave much room for interpretation in a lot of things. It’s easier to relate to something that’s direct. I have some terrible lyrics too. You would not believe. The most embarrassing stuff. It’s like you go to write your diary, then you go back and look at it when you’re feeling less emotional, and you’re just gut-wrenched by what you actually wrote on paper! I have those too.
Do you write stories about other people, as a songwriter? It feels like you do on ‘True Love’.
I’d say that ‘Just a Dream’ and ‘True Love’ are two songs that are about something else. Written as a story instead of a direct experience. I have a lot of direct experience songs. Those two are pretty narrative-based, though. But I go back a forth. I have songs that are about what it would be like to be a performer at sixty. I have songs about an artist struggling in situations that I might not have been in. But for the most part I try to root it into experiences that I’ve had. If I can relate to it, someone else might be able to - hopefully.
Are you an observational person? Do you look at strangers in the street and imagine what their lives are like?
If I was honestly interested, I would be the type of guy to go up and ask, ‘Hey, what’s your life like?’ I don’t sit back and think about situations. I’m the guy that asks a lot of questions. Once I find the answer then I can talk about it myself.
You’ve also been publishing piano sheet music for fans, which is a very inclusive idea.
The sheet music - I mean, I can’t read sheet music. That came about because when I went in to do the record with Chet ‘JR’ White, I had two guys come in to play strings on it. There was a fantastic composition written out, so when I saw ‘Just a Dream’ written up, I scanned it and put the thing up on Youtube. And ‘True Love’ - that’s what I learned on piano. That’s me playing the piano and taking a photo of myself playing it. You know those old beginning ‘How to Play’ picture books where it shows where your hands need to be placed? I learned a lot from Youtube, actually. But that method for me was a lot easier. It’s got a picture for each note and you can go at your own pace. With sheet music, I can’t begin. It doesn’t make any sense to me at all.
As a person, as an individual, are you quite old-fashioned?
Oh my god, so old-fashioned. I’m the opposite of someone that’s into technology. I just got my first sort of like, smart phone. Three months ago. I went without a phone for years. And now I have it, it’s way too complicated. I had a phone back when those LG phones would flip. Everyone had a phone at that time. Then I stopped being able to afford a phone, so I stopped having a phone for a long time. I’m still using an iPhone like you would use a house line that doesn’t even have ‘Caller ID’. For me it’s just a tool to get in touch with everyone. I don’t do it to the extent as a lot of other people. To me, it’s not only complicated, it’s just not as interesting as being outside, even. Going on a hike. Last time I was in London, I arrived during that huge terrorist scare in 2006. And I was stuck in an airport for a year. Somebody tried to do something. The plane I was on was the last to land. I was buying tuna fish sandwiches for like 14 pounds, you know. My friend just got back from England, he was like, ‘It’s so expensive’. We’ve already got the AirBnB sorted, so as long as we can sort out food and a can of beans.
Is an album around the corner?
We’re mixing today. We’re finished mixing by the end of this week. I think I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get comfortable with the fact I have to sing in public. People have to hear my voice. I’ve worked with a few producers on it, jumped around, had time to reflect. But the album rollout is beginning of next year, right? And the first song out should be around the corner. I’ve already filmed the music video for one. Things should start happening soon, I think.
Taken from the November 2014 issue of DIY.