There are those who say that writing a hit song requires a formula or a method. Others will tell you it’s pointless to try to force it – the song will come to you or it won’t; it’s as if songs are floating about in the ether and the writer’s job is simply to be open to them – writer as receptacle, as medium, as dream catcher.
Tobias Jesso Jr. has been trying to catch a dream. His dream: to write songs that would be heard on the radio. But his initial attempts amounted to little more than a rude awakening.
The 30-year-old Vancouverite started his music career playing bass in local band The Sessions and then for pop singer Melissa Cavatti, a gig that relocated him to Los Angeles in 2008. The end result was… well, not much. When that project folded, Jesso found himself living in an apartment in L.A.’s trendy Silver Lake neighbourhood, where he spent the next couple of years trying to write songs he hoped other artists would record. He had a method: model his songwriting on what was currently successful.
“Adele was the first person who ever asked me to write a song with her.”
“I would just listen to the radio and challenge myself to write a song that could compete with whatever I was listening to,” says Jesso. “I was probably listening mostly to Adele, or whoever was on the radio at that time.” His method proved unsuccessful. “I don’t know if I had the right idea or not because it didn’t work. It was more trying to challenge myself to write any kind of song, rather than the right kind of song.”
In 2012, after four years in L.A. trying to nudge into the music industry’s fast lane, his music career was stalled on the on-ramp. Then, in the space of one week, he had three big hits – but not the kind he was hoping for. The first hit he took was a painful break-up with his girlfriend. Then came a literal smash when he was struck by a hit-and-run driver while riding his bike. The very next day he received another bullet: news from back home that his mom had been diagnosed with cancer.
The Universe seemed to be delivering a pink slip. At 27, he said goodbye to Hollywood and retreated back to his parents’ house in North Vancouver to lick his wounds, his music biz dream receding in the rear-view mirror.
With his instruments still back in a storage locker in L.A., his only musical outlet was the piano his sister had left behind – an instrument he’d never really played before. When he wasn’t working for a friend’s moving company, he sat his lanky 6’7” frame in front of the keys and explored.
“I usually play the guitar or the bass,” says Jesso, “so when I went home, there was a piano there, and I just started there.” As he began to find his way around the black and white keys, chord progressions and melodies started to materialize. Things began to take shape. The pain and the disappointment were stirring something that found voice at the piano. He followed his feelings. “I think I had my first song after playing for about a week,” Jesso says. That first song was called “Just a Dream.”
Meanwhile, Jesso learned that one of his favourite bands, Girls, had split up. He tracked down an e-mail address for the band’s bassist, Chet “JR” White, and sent him a sympathy note, appending the demo song. White responded almost immediately, and the two talked on the phone. With White’s encouragement, Jesso continued to write more songs on the piano. A month later, he had written a tidy collection of demos – sincere, heartfelt piano ballads.
White loved the songs. Not only that, he offered to produce an album and guided Jesso to sign with Matador imprint True Panther. For the recording sessions, Jesso got production help from White and other notables including Patrick Carney of The Black Keys, John Collins of The New Pornographers and Grammy-winning producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Vampire Weekend, Haim, Usher). Danielle Haim (of Haim) played drums on the plaintive track “Without You.”
His debut album, Goon, was released in March 2015. Accolades started rolling in from publications like Pitchfork and Spin. Jesso got invitations to appear on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Conan and Jimmy Kimmel Live. In April, he signed a publishing deal with Universal Music Publishing Group. In July, Goon was named to the Polaris Prize short list. He set out on his first headlining tour.
The songs on Goon have been compared to those of 1970s singer-songwriters like Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Todd Rundgren and Emitt Rhodes – “Without You” bears the same stamp of sincerity and heart-rending directness as the song of the same name brought to No. 1 by Nilsson (and written by Badfinger’s Pete Ham and Tom Evans) – even though most of these names weren’t even on Jesso’s radar. “There’s a lot of different comparisons that I’ve heard, that I’ve been like, ‘I didn’t even know that person when I had most of my songs written,’” he says.
Perhaps what Jesso shares with these kinds of songwriters is the tendency to go straight for the heart in the music and lyrics, and get his feelings across as directly as possible in a way that moves the listener.
“When I’m writing the songs, when I hit a chorus that I really think is cutting me, like ‘Without You,’ I’m really, really thinking ‘Man, this chorus really moves me.’ It’s something I felt. So when you give that into your writing, it’s almost like putting love into cooking or something; people can feel it when they eat it, or feel it when they hear it.”
Apparently the songs Jesso had cooked up were being felt and heard all the way across the pond. Back in January of 2015, before Goon had come out, British superstar Adele tweeted a little tweet to her 20 million followers. It was a link to Jesso’s YouTube video for his song “How Could You Babe” accompanied by five words: “This is fantastic, click away.” It received over 130,000 views in two weeks. To say that Jesso was over the moon would be an understatement. He must have gone simply supernova when Adele’s management later reached out to ask if he’d be interested in co-writing with her.
“She was the first person who ever asked me to write a song with her,” Jesso says, still a bit incredulous at that fact. “That’s been a dream of mine since I started writing songs and heard her music,” says Jesso. “Ever since then I was like ‘This is the type of thing I would love to do, is write a song for someone like this’ – that sort of naive dream.”
Naive or not, the dream became reality when the two met up in L.A. to write songs together. Over the span of a few days they worked on a lot of ideas. One of the fruits of their collaboration, “When We Were Young,” will appear on Adele’s new album, 25, due in late November. It’s rumoured to be the album’s next single, a follow-up to the record-breaking “Hello.” The British songstress has said it’s her favourite track on the album. Another song they co-wrote will appear on a limited edition of 25 that will be available through Target.
As if collaborating with Adele wasn’t remarkable enough, during one of their writing sessions they were joined by another pop music heavy-hitter: Sia, the Grammy-nominated, million-selling Australian artist who’s also penned many hits for the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Britney Spears and Katy Perry. The three of them ended up writing the song “Alive,” intending it to be a song for Adele’s album. When Adele’s camp shuffled it to the back burner, Sia recorded it herself. It was released in September as the lead single for her forthcoming album, This is Acting.
“Just imagine me in that room with these two voices as my first experience in collaborative songwriting,” Jesso says, his voice sparkling with the memory. “It was amazing.”
Somehow Jesso has managed to occupy a unique spot where the hip intersects with the Hot 100. Critically acclaimed album. Darling of Pitchfork. Friends with Haim. Hangs with Adele. (The day before this article was uploaded, Adele interviewed Jesso in British newspaper The Guardian.)
But best of all, his dream of being a hit songwriter is coming true. How has this happened? When he first tried to write hits, back in that apartment in L.A., his method was to try to write tunes like the ones on the radio. That method got him nowhere.
“It wasn’t until I moved back home to Vancouver and started writing the songs that were really more personal to me, and writing them the only way I could at the time, that it started to resonate in a real way,” Jesso says. “I do think there is something to that. I don’t know whether it’s vibrations or the way something resonates, or honesty, or whatever it is, but there’s some unseen, unheard thing that people can just pick up on, and I think it has to do with authenticity.”
When he found his authentic writing voice, his songs found an audience. Their acceptance opened doors that ultimately got him invited to collaborate with two of the biggest artists and songwriters in the business. The results so far: a song on the most anticipated album release of the year and a Top 40 single. Not bad for a guy who never thought he’d catch his dream.
“When I was writing my demos [for Goon] back in Vancouver, I had about one percent hope of being in the music industry,” Jesso says. “I was 99 percent sure I was not going to be in the music industry for a career. But maybe that one percent is a spark that I kept lit – who knows? Now it seems very likely that I can.”