“It seems crazy, but the preferred method for my music to come out would be for it to completely fail,” says the songwriter behind stars like Sia, Adele and Pink of his solo music.
Tobias Jesso Jr. has the kind of laugh that can light up a room -- it’s inviting, warm, entirely goofy, much like him. It’s early July and he’s currently situated in his adopted home of Los Angeles, hours after his flight from Australia, where he had spent the past 10 days, touched down. “I was taking some time away,” he says. “I like to do that now.”
Three years ago, Jesso Jr. was doing the opposite -- he had reached a professional peak. In January 2015, Adele had discovered him on YouTube and tweeted a link to his aching torch song “How Could You Babe,” an early preview of his March debut Goon, a piano-heavy critical hit that reached No. 7 on Alternative Albums. He would go on to co-write “When We Were Young,” a smash single from her blockbuster 2015 album 25, and soon booked appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel Live!
It came as a shock, then, when he cancelled his Australian tour that same year and told his managers no more interviews. “I just said, ‘I gotta hang this up.’ It was a heavy, heavy suit I wanted to take off,” recalls Jesso Jr. in his first conversation with a journalist since 2015. Since then, he’s been trying to live his “best life” out of the spotlight, becoming the go-to songwriter for artists like Sia, Pink and John Legend.
So far this year, he’s added Charlie Puth and Florence + The Machine to his resume. Next up: writing sessions in Nashville with top-tier country acts. “I'm treading water everywhere I go,” he says, “but I'm super blessed to get these opportunities.”
The 33-year-old, who grew up in North Vancouver, British Columbia, and currently lives in L.A., was always wary of fame. He played in various bands but nothing ever stuck. (“I call it the history of failure,” he says.) But it wasn’t until the days leading up to his 27th birthday that he found inspiration once he sat down at his sister’s forgotten piano at home in Vancouver. He wrote and soon after posted his first song on piano to YouTube -- one of many demos that landed him a record deal with True Panther Sounds and led him down a path towards solo stardom. One that he would, sooner than later, need to move off of.
He made his intentions clear from the start: “I talked to my manager very realistically about my prospects as an artist, which was that I don't want to be an artist,” he says. “Whenever the question of making a song mine or having somebody else sing it [comes up], I prefer almost everyone's voice to my own. I would always opt for that.”
But that’s not to say Jesso Jr. didn’t give his solo career a fair -- though brief -- shot. In support of Goon, he played the 2015 edition of Chicago’s Pitchfork Music Festival backed by a full band. The combination of his balladry with his mess of curls, tall frame and ever-present smile won the crowd over -- he even appeared at ease. “Yeah, well, that's what two bottles of wine will do,” he now says, reflecting on that performance. “I've had people say, ‘Hey man, great show’ and stuff like that, but for me, there's always this inner shame or something attached with having to drink and then go on stage. It's not healthy, it's not rewarding.”
And so, even though his own career was just starting to grow, he had his sights set on a way out. “The end goal was Adele. So it was funny that [her discovering “How Could You Babe”] was the first thing that happened. Once it did, I was like, ‘Great, if this works out, I’m quitting the artist thing.’ And here we are.”
Jesso Jr. has since found and developed a much more comfortable way to foster community with the launch of his own publishing company, Orange Publishing, named after his favorite color. “There's a space in the industry that I want to help fill,” he says. “When I was 26, I would've loved to sign with me. And I'm not trying to look for like 10 of me, but I'm trying to find people who are in a similar position and just want a break. If I can do that, I'm giving back -- and that feels amazing.”
He admits to not checking emails much, but he does listen to demos all the time that people mostly send him on Twitter -- he just signed an aspiring artist who did just that, to which Jesso Jr. replied, ‘Hey, come over.’ He says: “People send demos all the time because that's how I got my start. So, obviously, I kind of opened the floodgates for people to be like, ‘You owe the world one.’ Which is true.”
Today, Jesso won’t write off the prospect of new solo music entirely (he jokes that a sophomore solo record could be called Still Gooning), but it would, of course, be on his own terms. “It seems crazy, but the preferred method for my music to come out would be for it to completely fail,” he says. “So no one's really interested in it, but people can still listen.”
“Maybe when I need more songwriting material I'll go into that world [again] so I can get a treasure trove of suffering,” he adds with a laugh. But for now, he’s content living in the liner notes. “[My first] record was a learning curve -- its micro-success was a little much for me at the time,” he says. “Most people I meet, they love performing. They love getting onstage. They find that it’s their true selves up there -- that’s just not me. I’m very scared. Maybe I’ve changed a little bit, but I just have so much fun writing. That’s what I try to be good at. Talk about me as a songwriter -- that’s all I want.”