Tobias Jesso Jr.‘s debut album, Goon, out March 17 on True Panther Sounds, has sold only 8,000 copies, according to Nielsen Music. But if there was a chart for hype, he’d be vying for No. 1. The 29-year-old Canadian is selling out shows on his national tour, drowning in critical praise, getting co-signs from both A-list stars like Adele and the hipster set, and just signed a major publishing deal. So what’s all the buzz about?
1. He’s having a great 2015 — but after a horrible 2012, he deserves it. Sad ballads like “Hollywood” were inspired by an awful week during Jesso’s fourth year as a struggling bassist and songwriter in Los Angeles. “I broke up with my girlfriend,” he recalls. “Later that week, I got hit by a car on my bike. As I turned around, blood going down my body, a man stole my bike! The next day, my mom was diagnosed with cancer.” Jesso saw it as a sign “to get back to reality. I moved back in with my parents in Vancouver, got a moving job and thought, ‘This could be the next few years of my life — or the next 10.’ ”
2. He’s got fans in high places. Jesso’s career got a second life when recordings of simple ballads he wrote while teaching himself piano in his parents’ basement found their way to Chet “J.R.” White, of defunct indie band Girls. White produced new demos and hooked up Jesso with label True Panther Sounds, which led to The Black Keys‘ Patrick Carney and producer Ariel Rechtshaid helming songs on Goon. But the top co-sign came on Jan. 21, when Adele tweeted that “How Could You Babe?” was “fantastic.” “Since my first interview, I’ve been saying how much Adele’s music meant to me,” says Jesso. “My jaw just dropped.”
3. He’s the shortest-seeming 6-foot-7 guy you’ll meet. Jesso doesn’t tower, despite what the tape measure says. He’s got an underdog, root-for-me humility. “I’m a piano player and singer who can’t play piano very well or sing very well,” he says. “That isn’t a recipe for success. I have to get better.”
4 He’s a tabloid crush for the indie set. Jesso is in a rare sweet spot where music-nerd blogs and gossip sites intersect. Why? For some reason, the Internet was convinced he was dating Alana Haim, and that he left her for her friend, Taylor Swift. But, he says, none of it is true. “Alana is one of my best friends. I went to a Grammy party with her and met Taylor, who can give someone a hug and it’s a new-couple alert.” (In reality, Jesso is single.)
5. But it’s all about the songs. Jesso writes instantly familiar classic-pop songs that have drawn comparisons to Randy Newman. It’s easy to imagine a big star covering one and turning it into a huge hit — which is likely exactly what Universal Music Publishing Group chairman/CEO Jody Gerson, who signed Jesso earlier this month, has in mind. “I’ve had the privilege of developing some talented songwriters,” says Gerson, who signed Lady Gaga and a 15-year-old Alicia Keys, among others. “Tobias is truly one of the most gifted I have ever known.”
This story originally appeared in the April 18th issue of Billboard.