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Keep your eyes peeled for the name Tobias Jesso Jr. in 2015 because this Vancouver-born singer-songwriter is about to become a really, really big deal. Jesso has had quite the journey to reach where he is today – a critical darling ready to release his highly-anticipated debut album, Goon, next week – and it’s a story that has undoubtedly made its way into his brand new music.
Long story short: Jesso joined a band in his teens, won a string of Battle of the Bands, rejected a record contract, moved to Los Angeles to back up a pop singer, failed, stayed in L.A. for as long as his Visa allowed him to then moved back home to Vancouver before finally stumbling upon a piano and writing the songs that have catapulted him into the position he’s in today. Crazy, right?
Jesso’s music now is worlds away from his first musical life. Stripped down to just him and a piano, Jesso’s music is simple, straightforward and often times utterly heartbreaking. It’s nostalgic without sounding dated, it’s exciting and new and songs like How Could You Babe and Hollywood sound like instant classics. It’s a sound that you will instantly fall in love with, guaranteed.
We got the chance to talk to the up-and-coming artist about his love of pianos, performing with The Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and his not-so-hidden ambitions to win a Juno Award one day. (We think he can totally do it.)
MUCH: Well first off: did you watch Much growing up?
Tobias Jesso Jr.: Oh, hell yeah! Music videos were so big. It was so many years ago now, but back then, being Canadian, of course. I actually went bowling last night and they were playing all these music videos and I knew them all, from No Doubt to Three Doors Down. I remembered all of these videos!
What was your favourite music video back then?
I thought Sum 41’s In Too Deep was pretty cool. You watch it back now and you’re like, ‘Oh man, how did I love this?’ I still like the song and everything, but the video is a little cheesier and I didn’t notice any of that back then. I just thought it was the coolest thing ever, like this is what happens when you go to college! I have zero shame about this, though. If I met Deryck Whibley today, I’d be like, ‘Legit, man; you did a good job.’
I read in an interview with Consequence of Sound that you want to win a Juno. Is that true?
Are you calling to tell me I’ve won a Juno?! Because it’s Juno week??
I wish! Did you secretly record a duet with Michael Bublé? If so, I think you have a good chance.
I love Michael Bublé! I was just telling my manager, ‘Man, how cool would it be if I hosted the Junos?’ and they were like, who would want to do that? They don’t know much about it, which is like a big rift in our relationship, but I told them Michael Bublé did it. So they were like, you want to be like that? And I said absolutely. Could you imagine me hosting the Junos?
I want to hold five Junos like Sam Smith (at the Grammys). Anyway, I’m getting way ahead of myself, people are going to think I’m presumptuous thinking that I’m going to win a bunch of Junos. It’s just all speculations, hopes and dreams, which I’m allowed to have, right?
Definitely! It’s great to have ambitions like that. Do you find yourself being that ambitious all the time with your music?
I’ve never been shy about wanting to make my music accessible. If I walked into an old folks home and my record was playing, I would be so happy. I just want as many people to hear my music and enjoy it, love it or hate it. I have limitations as well, I don’t think I can make it on Canadian Idol or something like that, and I think my piano playing is also a limitation, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to show what I can do to as many people as possible because I’m proud of it.
You say that a lot, that your voice has limitations, but you do have a great singing voice.
Well, I don’t have a particularly low voice and not a particularly high voice. So it can be hard for me whenever I’m writing a song where I have to sing in falsetto and I have to change my songs three or four times for them to be in a range that I’m comfortable singing in. Like, the chorus for How Could You Babe is the highest I can possibly sing.
But Jimmy Fallon said you had “one of the coolest voices” when you were on The Tonight Show!
Jimmy Fallon is just the sweetest guy I’ve ever met. I hadn’t met him till that very moment I was performing so to hear him say that stuff before I played was definitely nerve-racking, but I was very thankful that he liked it and that he had heard it. It’s not often that hosts go off the cue cards so it was really special.
And you performed with The Roots!
How amazing is that! We just went over it once, they are such pros. They’re the best band in the world and they just killed it. You could pull Questlove out of any audience and he could do a better job than whoever was up onstage, probably.
When did you first start playing the piano? It’s not your first instrument, right?
No, it’s not. I was 27 when I started playing the piano so two and a half years ago and I guess it has worked out, now I’m a piano man.
What drew you to the piano?
Man, I can talk your ear off about it. The size of it, the shape; the fact that it’s probably one of the most complicated instruments to make, but the simplest to play. It’s limitless; it can take a shaky, out-of-tune voice and give it a basis for a great song. My voice doesn’t work as well with a guitar, but with a piano, you can have any kind of melody over it with any kind of voice and it’ll sound good.
You’ve expressed an interest in songwriting for other artists as well; who do you ideally want to work with?
Anyone who wants to work with me, obviously I would love to write music for anyone I listen to on the radio, from Ed Sheeran to Sam Smith. Adele is, of course, my favourite artist of all time. It’s a dream of mine, but I know it’s a slow process and I haven’t really explored it yet. I tried to get into this business for a long time and now that I’m here, I’m just trying to make the most of it. I’m going to try and fill out my time as much as I can. It just leaves little time for personal things like relationships and stuff.
What is a pop song that you wish you had written?
Britney Spears’ Toxic. I listen to it and I can’t believe it, it’s so good.