Tobias Jesso Jr. interview: “Like going into a witness protection program.”

27.03.15

Los Angeles is a beast like many: hailed as the mecca for those who piously believe in its healing powers, it's a clean slate for some, a blank canvas for others. For Tobias Jesso Jr., LA is the place that both began and ended it all. 

Coming to LA from Vancouver to be a songwriter, Tobias moved back to Canada in 2012 after being struck by a car while riding his bike. The car sped off, and while still on the ground, bleeding, he saw someone peddling away with his bicycle, waving back at him as he rode off. The next day, he found out that his mother had been diagnosed with cancer, making home seem like an even more pivotal getaway. 

It was in his mother's basement that Tobias began working on what would later become his debut album, 'Goon', as a healing process for the wounds sustained in LA – both mental and physical. Not knowing if he'd be able to use his hand again after the accident, Tobias turned to the piano, an instrument he could play through his bandages. 

"The doctor didn't have any bedside manner," Tobias says with a crooked smile, showing a large 'J'-shaped scar on his hand, "When I asked him if I'd ever be able to use my hand to play [guitar] again, he said, 'Maybe', and walked out of the room."

We're meeting, three years on from the accident, in a Spanish-style mansion in an affluent Los Angeles suburb, the walls adorned with MoMA-quality art. A gold Lichtenstein sculpture sits next to my left shoulder, dramatic geometric paintings in primary colours surround me, and a grey suit on a metal hanger overlooks the whole scene. There's a baby grand piano in the room, which Tobias begins to play – he can't help it. I lean against a sofa, unsure of what to do with my arms while I watch. Laughing to himself, he says that he's working on a song for a friend's kid all about being yourself and liking yourself. Soon we're both standing, practicing our echoes and coos, testing the room's natural reverb. Tobias points up. "You hear that?" he asks with a grin, as if the reverberations are a secret that he's sharing.

What's it like coming back to the city that started it all?

Tobias Jesso Jr.: "Ugh, it was good the first time. It was almost like returning to Vancouver was the bad part, because I was going back after all that time. You're supposed to make something of yourself in your 20s, and I was kinda clueless about the whole process. I was 26/27, with no idea what I wanted to do. 

"So I guess reality started to set in back in Vancouver. That was the low point – just being back and not having anything to show for it. I had a lot of songs, but no one in Vancouver really wanted to sit down for two days straight and listen to them all. Coming back to LA was returning back to the place where I became an artist in the first place. No one in LA would ever think of me as anything other than a songwriter. I identified myself that way from the very start. It's like going into a witness protection program and calling yourself 'Dan' for two months – people are like, 'You're Dan!' in that town. For me, I was a songwriter in LA. I wasn't making any money, I wasn't writing any songs for anybody, I wasn't writing songs for myself, I wasn't singing them, and I wasn't playing them too well – but I was still a songwriter. 

"So coming back and making a career of it was super exciting. I dove headfirst into the deep end with the whole thing, agreeing with everything that goes along with it – and quickly realized that there was a lot more to being an artist than I thought I'd signed up for."

"I was a songwriter in LA. I wasn't making any money, I wasn't writing any songs for anybody, I wasn't writing songs for myself, I wasn't singing them, and I wasn't playing them too well – but I was still a songwriter." – Tobias Jesso Jr.

In what ways?

Tobias Jesso Jr.: "Performing. I mean, obviously I knew I was going to perform, [but] it wasn't relevant to me as I was signing a contract in my room. All of those things become very real – photo shoots, press, the whole nine; these are all things I'm still trying to get used to. At the same time, if someone says, 'Here's an opportunity, and in it is everything that you want – there's just a bunch of stuff you don't – well, I wasn't thinking about it. So now I'm at a point where this is what I signed up for, and I better get used to it, or get my act together. 

"With practicing, I never played the same song twice in my house – why would I do that? I'd write a song and record the demo, and then I'd be done with it. I wouldn't have to even think about it again. Now, I've gotta play the same song hundreds of times. And I've gotta be good at it! I might be on TV for it, or radio stations – these were things I never would have thought would happen! I wouldn't have imagined I would ever be on TV. Maybe for some other reason, like something bizarre happened to me and I'm on the news, but not performing. And especially not before my first record! Well, it happened."

Do you see LA differently now that you're back?

Tobias Jesso Jr.: "You know, an Uber driver here in LA was the first person who ever recognized me as an artist. He didn't really know – I had to kind of coax it out of him."

Was it from Fallon?

Tobias Jesso Jr.: "No, it was from Spotify! So the Uber driver looked at me and said, 'Have you driven with me before?' And I said I didn't believe so, but then he said he knew me from somewhere and asked if I was a musician. I said, 'Yes….', thinking, 'Please, sir, go on.' Then he said, 'Wait, do you have a song called Hollywood?'

"He didn't know my name, but he said he saw the picture [album art] and looked me up. I thought that was really sweet."

So is coming back to LA like coming home?

Tobias Jesso Jr.: "No, it's not. I feel like I'm coming home when I'm going to Canada, 'cause I think to myself, 'There's no way I can get booted out of this country.'

"When I'm in LA, it feels like I'm getting closer to my independence. In a way, that's a really strong tool for somebody who wants to feel like they're doing something different for themselves. Nobody wants to follow in somebody else's footsteps. LA was that for me – no one in my family had spent much time in the States. I think I've travelled more now than my entire family combined."

The city not only shaped 'Goon', it shaped you and what you took away from it and brought back to Vancouver. Would it be fair to say the album was a mixture of what you were feeling in LA, and the feeling or setting of being home?

Tobias Jesso Jr.: "Yeah, 100%. The music is very Vancouver, the lyrical content is very LA. With the music, it was raining a lot, I was in my room playing piano – very beginner – and the fireplace was in the corner, very cabin-like. When it came to the lyrics, I wasn't going to write anything about Vancouver. I'd been back for maybe a week? I was going to write about the things I knew, the things I'd been experiencing the past couple of years for no other reason than just the joy of writing the song. It wasn't trying to stick it to anybody or trying to impress anybody, I was just writing because I like writing songs, no matter what."

Does the album carry more weight in a different way to when you first wrote it?

Tobias Jesso Jr.: "It carries a lot less weight. When I first wrote the songs they carried a lot of weight – wait, do you like these shoes?"

I do like them. I see that they're extremely clean.

Tobias Jesso Jr.: "Yeah, I'm going to Nike and going to get a bunch. These will be my only pair of shoes. I just like to know what I'm going to be wearing for the next year. Or two. Or three. Or however many they can give me."

All the same colour?

Tobias Jesso Jr.: "Yeah, I'll get them the exact same so that when I change them up it'll just be a slightly cleaner version. I just like them being however they are naturally – I wouldn't try to dirty them up and I wouldn't try to clean them. I'd just put them on until they're ready to be taken off. Wait, I was answering a question…"

…about the weight of the album for you. 

Tobias Jesso Jr.: "Right! So the way it works for me is that the last song I write carries the most weight. Actually, the song I'm writing in the present moment, that's not finished yet – that has the most weight. As time goes on, the songs grow older and they lose a little bit of their magic. I've played the first album a bunch now, and it's… I can't tap into it as much. But I haven't really done it in front of a crowd who want to hear it."

"Here's the thing. I wrote a lot of songs. The producers chose the ones they wanted to work on. They wanted to work on the ones where I was embarrassing myself or talking about personal shit. They didn't really care too much about the ones concerning what kind of chips I was going to buy." – Tobias Jesso Jr.

You haven't played it live yet?

Tobias Jesso Jr.: "I've played little apartment things, a couple of shows, opening slots and stuff, but no one really knows the music. With this tour, I think people will at least know a couple of tunes, so I'll tap into whether or not someone's into it and I'll go along with that."

I think you'll be pleasantly surprised. I think, well, something's stirring, and I'm excited for you.

Tobias Jesso Jr.: "Or they'll just be stirring their drinks – ting, ting! No, but honestly, the shows are going to be such a mystery to me. I'll go through them and I'm sure they'll be good and bad, but what I meant was that I can't play those old songs in my room with much enjoyment other than just for the sake of practicing them, imagining myself in a place where I'd want to be."

So you didn't write the album to intentionally be as drenched in heartbreak, as dramatic as that sounds.

Tobias Jesso Jr.: "Well, here's the thing. I wrote a lot of songs. Some about going to the grocery store, some about a high school dance, some about going to the fair, some about a girlfriend, some about this. The producers chose the ones they wanted to work on. They wanted to work on the ones where I was embarrassing myself or talking about personal shit. They didn't really care too much about the ones concerning what kind of chips I was going to buy.

"But everyone says this: 'Is this what you were going for? Are you this hopeless romantic who was down on his luck?' And it's like, yeah, all of those things – mixed up with a bunch of other things as well! That's just the more interesting thing to talk about. That's what the producers wanted to focus on and that's what journalists want to focus on. It's fine by me because it's true and not a marketing plan. But there was a lot more to it. I don't want to pigeonhole myself as if that's all I was feeling, as if I was a hermit pining over his ex-girlfriend. I was very much myself."

True Panther Sounds released 'Goon' on March 17th 2015 (buy).