This time last year, Tobias Jesso Jr. was living at his family home in Canada, working for a friend’s moving company and helping his mother through cancer. It’s a stark contrast to his current situation. We meet the afternoon between two late-night shows; one in Manhattan and another at Williamsburg clubhouse Baby’s All Right. They’re both long-since sold out, reflecting the fact that the singer-songwriter has recently received endorsements from Taylor Swift, Haim and Adele, who tweeted in January: “This is fantastic, click away,” in support of Jesso’s song ‘How Could You Babe’. Her admiration, Jesso says, is mutual: “She’s my favourite, and that tweet was one of the highlights of my career.”
Jesso began writing his debut album in 2012 after enduring a breakup and road accident in quick succession in Los Angeles, where he’d been trying – and failing – to launch a music career. He found rich, heart-in-mouth material in picking over the former experience. “When I went back to Vancouver, it was no girlfriend, no more routine, not riding a bike – it was just alone time for me,” he says. “Other than working for my friend, I was just sitting in my house writing with the piano. Complete isolation.” Jesso hates being by himself. “When l write my own stuff, that’s my only alone time. From wake-up to going to bed, I’m with someone. I don’t like to do anything alone. I guess it’s insecurity. When I travel, I won’t go anywhere without people to go do something. I’m happier around people; the more people the better.”
We meet in Jesso’s agent’s Brooklyn flat, where he’s sorting and folding clothes. The protracted process seems to be a form of communication to the journalist sniffing the detergent in the air next to him, as if to say, ‘l’m a good ol’ guy, just like you—l just got a lucky break.’ When he says, “l’m a househusband—l’m just sitting here folding laundry,” what he means by “house” is a beautiful apartment, and what he means by “laundry” is actually merchandise touting his music, name, and face. He offers me a T-shirt, and sheepishly says, “’m not a model,” as though l had made mention of his height (he’s 6ft 7in) and Clark Kent-ish good looks, which l had not. Pompous-but-also-true statements about Jesso’s music run beneath the portrait on the shirt: “He sings from the heart,” and, “He’s your new best friend.”
In person, if not on a shirt, Jesso is very mindful of seeming boastful. He says he doesn’t consider himself “very impressive”, and dismisses anecdotes relating to his success as the effect of “beginner’s luck.” His debut album is filled with earnest, straightforward songs about heartbreak, but he jokes them away with the record’s title: ‘Goon’. He explains, “A goon is somebody who doesn’t take things too seriously. A goon is a dumb thug – a guy who doesn’t ever express love or anything, and he’s kind of fine with it. I’ve met a couple at my shows, for sure. I’ve had like a football player – I think a professional one; I didn’t know his name, I’m not sure. I never would’ve thought a football player would get down with the sentimental ballads.” He glances at my green hair as he continues, and seems to be figuring out how to appease or flatter me: “But, then again…I don’t know many football players, so… I was happy he came.” Jesso Jr just wants to be liked, which does not separate him from any of the rest of us hanging out on planet Earth. Not all of us have the charm to make it happen.
Jesso’s apparent anxieties are perhaps exacerbated by his late-breaking success. “Music careers don’t last forever,” he says, grinning. “I’m 29, I’m not probably gonna be a hyped person for very long. Once people get to know you, then it’s kinda like the people who like you stick around,” On stage at Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge the night before, he openly talked about his perceived musical ineptitude, his predestined career failure, and the woman in his life – which is his mother. The last fact didn’t prevent him flirting with every girl present after the show, and ending up in a game of tonsil hockey that looked almost surgical. Jesso’s need to publicly explain away his role in his own life can read as an obsessive self-awareness that’s a bit off-putting, but it’s the crucial foundation on which his success is staked. The music he makes is unquestionably egalitarian: classically American piano ballads with names and lyrics that are each a blank canvas on which listeners can impose their own romantic ensnarlments – ‘For You’, ‘Without You’, ‘Can’t Stop Thinking About You’, ‘How Could You Babe’. lt’s difficult, listening to these Hallmark-ready schmaltzathons, not to catch yourself thinking, Could this be about that awful person l used to love and kind of always will? How could you babe?! Wait… am l crying? “Whenever I used to play in my room for my friends, I always wanted to make sure they understood that it’s just about the song,” Jesso says. “‘Just listen to the song and imagine something a lot greater, someone with a big voice singing it.’ I don’t have the opportunity to explain that to people now: ‘OK, I know you’re here to see me, but pretend it’s not me…’”
The everyman appeal of Jesso’s music is evidenced in his correspondence with his fans. “People write me about their own music, so I try to hit them back,” he says. “If there’s a cover of one of my songs [on YouTube], I’ll put it up to kind of show it off. People have sent me whole entire movie screenplays that they have written listening to the music, and I read them and I write back as much as I can. My guest list yesterday had five people from Facebook who reached out asking for tickets. That’s the people who you want there. I went to a lot of shows like that too. I’ve been going to shows since I was 14 years old. My email address was ‘supermusicfan.’” He laughs, knowing how charming this is—but in a self-denigrating “goon” way, so it needs no explaining away this time.
Despite this long-running music fandom, Jesso oddly didn’t pay much mind to the presentation of his own record. When l ask about his choice to open the record with ‘Can’t Stop Thinking About You’, a murmured piano ballad dedicated to an ex, he says, “To be honest, it wasn’t my choice. I didn’t do the song order. I’m not that precious about this stuff going into it.” Rather, he let his label, Matador, decide how to put the record together: “They’re real particular… l just left it up to them.”
Even though Jesso’s constant self-surveillance about not saying the wrong thing can feel exhausting, you can’t help but like him—because you have those worries, too. At the show later that night, he realises l didn’t take a shirt, and wraps me in a sweatshirt stitched with the album’s title. Despite myself, l’m just like him, according to both my updated outfit and my participation in a singalong of a track called, simply – typically – ‘True Love’. When l ask him what he takes pride in about his music’s reception and his career, he says, “I feel better about I guess being able to pay rent, at least. Having something to show for my work, which was always sort of something I had trouble with before.” Aw, shucks. Tobias Jesso Jr. is the perfect everygoon.
Amy Rose Spiegel