Jesse Saint John Talks Songwriting, Uplifting Queer Voices & His New EP 'Don't Stop Dancing. Life Gets Sad.'
Jesse Saint John is anxious to pick up the phone -- after Kim Petras lovingly leaked his number in the lyrics to her song “Got My Number,” he has been inundated with calls and text messages from the pop princess’s fans. “You look at a phone number now and you’re like, ‘Ugh, god,’” he tells Billboard with a laugh. “Whatever, I set my phone to contacts only now, so it’s all good.”
It’s understandable why Petras would shout out Saint John out in her song -- the singer-songwriter has regularly written music with the up-and-coming pop star, along with out-and-out superstars like Britney Spears, Charli XCX and Lizzo. But now, Saint John is ready to seize his moment in the spotlight.
On Thursday (May 9), Saint John released his debut EP Don’t Stop Dancing. Life Gets Sad., a trippy, experimental pop album that makes sharp twists and turns where other pop songs would just give a catchy hook. The star set out to break rules on his debut solo project, resulting in a truly unique sound outside of the concept of genre.
Saint John spoke to Billboard ahead of the release of his new project about his songwriting career, making music that revels in its weirdness, and the state of queer artists in the music industry.
Where did the EP's title come from?
Well, when I started to make this project, I was...I was really depressed. I go through phases, we all do. But I was really depressed, and I wanted to talk about it. I was like, "What do I say that I don't write for other people? What would I say that I wouldn't give to Nick Jonas?" I have darkness inside of me, but that's not who I am. So I'm like, that's what I would love to talk about, and all of the ways that I try to distract myself and push away that sad side. I'm generally known amongst my friend group, and the people I talk to, as really funny and pretty even-tempered. I am those things, but that doesn't mean I don't have that darkness.
This project is experimental and different. As someone who writes so much music for others, as you said, what was it about this sound that made you want to make it your sound?
I write so much for other people, because I love doing that and it's a big strength of mine. I love channelling and working with people and helping them express their art. But, for me, I want to do a two-minute song that changes halfway through, and I want to do songs that go completely a capella just because that's a lot of the creation process. Like, "What if this song just changes halfway through?" Not a transition, not just a tempo change. The music that I love is stuff like that. I love straightforward, by-the-numbers pop songs, which I am constantly a part of. But for my project, I was asking myself, "Why is pop just this three minute 'verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus' formula?" Why? So many Beatles songs are so short and they're just one chorus repeated over and over. If you listen to Britney Spears' "Slave 4 U," that has no actual chorus, really. "Bodak Yellow" is just this bizzare pop-hip-hop song, so I was just like, "Why do we all have to do it the same way?"
How do you balance these two careers, of songwriter and solo artist?
I don't balance it. [Laughs.] I just don't go to sleep! At this point, I think of it all as one thing, which makes it a lot easier, just as far as taking it hour by hour. I have some days where I'm doing a photoshoot for myself, and then I have artists signed to me for creative direction, so I'll go work with them for a while. For me, it is all just one expression, and it feels really cohesive in that way. I think it is just a matter of having a strong identity, and working with people who have a strong identity, so it doesn't get blurry. I think the only way to do all of this is to just compartmentalize it in my head, while also viewing it as one large thing.
There is this very prevalent trend I've noticed, where queer songwriters, like you, MNEK, Wrabel, Leland and others, are kind of coming to a place where you're able to start stepping out on your own. What does that say to you about the direction the industry is headed toward in terms of inclusivity?
Well, if you want me to be completely honest, I actually think that it's so sad. Because I never really wanted to be a solo artist, but I always knew I had talent and artistic ability and artistic drive, as far as my style and my creativity. I think because we are all LGBTQ, we just told ourselves, or the world told us, "Use your creativity to uplift heteronormative, cisgender girls." If you really look at it, all of us have that in common, we all are writing and working with these mainstream pop people. I can speak for myself that I for sure would not even be talking to you, or having this platform, if it wasn't for my work with other people. There are so many other people that I am obsessed with, like Bronze Avery or Sakima, who I think are just as good, if not better, but they don't seem to have the same platforms. And I think it's because it's easy for somebody like me or Leland to be like "Oh, Britney Spears writer," or "Selena Gomez writer releases their own single."
What, if anything, can be done to change that?
I don't know. I mean, I have a playlist on Spotify called "Saint's Sinners" that I update every week, and I literally scour through friends of friends. Because I'm in the industry, I'm usually hearing a lot more stuff that isn't mainstream yet. It's either stuff that friends of friends show me, or stuff that I find just scouring the timeline. It's not only LGBTQ talent, but I have an extra special ear out for it because that's important to me, and I wish someone did it for me. I'm all about helping the next person.