Wait, let me find my weed…” In a car park behind the tiny east London recording studio where Tobias Jesso Jr has just played his fourth ever live show, a teenager rummages through his coat, looking for something to make his friend’s roll-up more interesting. A few minutes earlier, at the piano inside, Tobias, a Los Angeles-based, Canadian singer-songwriter who describes himself as “a loser and a hopeless romantic”, finished an emotional half-hour set to a gaggle of onlookers – including the two smokers – grimacing painfully as he sang. The 29-year-old is on his first trip to Europe, primarily to play a festival in Paris, but also for three unusual, low-key performances: two at a rented flat with creaky wooden floors and one at this studio.
The kid’s joint is only half-smoked when a smiling Tobias strides into the car park and beckons him back inside. “I’m gonna play another song for him,” Tobias says to me as he goes by. They sit together at the piano, Tobias twinkling his way through a beautiful Lennon-esque ballad called ‘Leaving Los Angeles’ as his admirer’s eyes redden. Afterwards, he admits he was recently dumped by his girlfriend while they were listening to Tobias’ demos, of which there were just two online: ‘Just A Dream’, uploaded in August 2013, and ‘True Love’, last July. “I’ve cried to your music a lot,” he says. “Erm, you’ll have a whole album’s worth soon,” Tobias replies bashfully.
Those two tracks were followed by five limited-edition, one-song vinyl flexidiscs available by mail order from Tobias’ label True Panther, and footage of him playing another tune, ‘Without You’, in a Los Angeles deli. All eight songs are warm and instantly familiar, pitching simple, high-pitched lyrics over drifting piano chords. ‘Just A Dream’, written about a dream Tobias had about a new father, sounds like it’s been dusted off from the ’70s, while ‘Without You’ and ‘True Love’ are stark, teary and compelling. As well as making their author’s love life sound catastrophic, they’re perfect for wallowing in. No wonder the fan was so keen on getting stoned and having Tobias serenade him.
Since that night, Tobias has played similar shows in New York (in the kitchen of a Brooklyn apartment) and Los Angeles. He’s also just finished his debut album, ‘Goon’, due in March and produced by former Girls bassist and producer Chet ‘JR’ White, Ariel Rechtshaid (Haim, Vampire Weekend) and Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney. The album documents two years of heartbreak and failure. In 2008, while playing in The Sessions – a Killers-style rock band – at home in Vancouver, Tobias moved to Los Angeles with one objective: to make it.
He didn’t. After playing bass for unknown pop singer Melissa Cavatti and starting a relationship with Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keough (“The Elvis thing was never a point between us,” he says), his Hollywood life juddered to a halt. In 2012, shortly after that relationship had ended, he collided with a Cadillac on his bike, badly cutting his hand. He looked up to see someone stealing his bicycle. The next day, he found out his mum had cancer.
“Man oh man, LA kicked me in the butt and told me to get lost. There was no place I could go but home,” he explains. Unhappy and bored stiff, Tobias began to write songs on his sister’s old piano (“It was a romantic idea, I fell in love with it and played for 12 hours a day”). He uploaded his first demo, ‘Just A Dream’, to YouTube and, a week later, emailed White after stumbling across his address on a blog. Girls had recently broken up, so Tobias sent his condolences along with some demos. White replied, inviting him to San Francisco to make a record straight away. ‘Goon’ (so named because, to Tobias, “a goon is a hopeless, dumb guy who can’t express love. Plus it’s a lovely word”) fleshes out those piano demos with guitar, bass, drums and strings, and players include drummer Aaron Sperske, who sued Ariel Pink in 2012 over songwriting credits for Pink’s ‘Mature Themes’, and Danielle Haim, who Tobias hopes to collaborate with further (see box, below).
With titles including ‘How Could You Babe?’ and ‘Can We Still Be Friends’, it doesn’t exactly sound chirpy. On ‘Hollywood’, Tobias sings, “I think I’m gonna die in Hollywood”. But ‘Goon’ isn’t as desperately sad as that sounds. “I just like being as romantic as possible,” he says. “I thrive off unrequited love. I’ve been in love in one way or another since I was 14. I go full-on in and get obsessive.” He’s not in a relationship at the moment but he says that even if he was he’d still be pining.
All this love stuff could come off as cheesy but he channels it into something grittier, writing intelligent, brutally simple, careworn music that sparks comparison with some of the most singularly talented (and coolest) songwriters ever – from Lennon to Elton John, Harry Nilsson and Nick Drake.
“I don’t know anything other than hopeless romance,” he finishes, proving his point by referring back to his east London studio performance. “Did you see the beautiful brown-haired girl there? That was my friend.” He explains that they connected in Los Angeles and became penpals when she moved to Paris. Knowing he was coming to Europe, Tobias saw a chance. “I invited her to come with me. Man, she’s a real heartbreaker. Nothing ever happened, but she knows how I feel. It’s an unrequited crush… London was hard.” As it turns out, the lovesick teenager Tobias serenaded wasn’t the only one feeling blue that night.
Tobias Jesso Jr is one of NME’s artists to watch in 2015. Read this week’s magazine and check back on NME.com throughout the week for more interviews with the most exciting new acts this year.