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Tobias Jesso Jr.

Interview — Mohamed Sqalli
Photography — Charlotte Robin

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Before meeting him, we thought Tobias Jesso Jr. was this mom-caring, Jesse Eisenberg-looking boy next door blogs sell you all day long since he was propelled to the forefront of the indie scene. This interview reveals sides of his personality that remained unknown (and unexpected) until now. Beware, Adele and Sam Smith are involved.

Hi Tobias, welcome to Paris, the city of love!

Well, I’m sure there are some single people in Paris…

Right, what is yours then?

LA I guess… Well, I don’t know yet. I haven’t found it.

You say a lot of things about your musical abilities like « I have to explore the piano », « It was one of my first attempts at singing » or that production is not your thing. But yet, you wrote one of the most beautiful albums of this year. Don’t you fear to sound pretentious?

I don’t know if it’s pretentious to be self-deprecating… I’m just saying I’m not a bad songwriter or that I’m here for no reason. The production, the voice, the piano playing, playing live, all that stuff is just added on to what I’m good at: writing songs. When I finish that, my investment in that song is over. If some people want to produce it, I’m going to leave that up to them.

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Did you think about writing songs for others?

I’ve thought about that for years! I would think to myself “I’m going to write a song for Lana Del Rey” and then I would listen to her songs and I would write a song that sounds like that. I never explored writing a song that sounded like me because I wasn’t singing at the time. There was a little voice in my head that was saying “you can’t do it”, maybe it’s because the way I was raised too. You know, in Vancouver it’s hard for people to understand the quality of a song if it’s produced poorly and sung by somebody who doesn’t sing as well as … they would expect. It wasn’t like “man, this is a great song”, it was more “man, you need singing lessons”. For me, LA was a better place to realize that and it was just in my mind. When I was a kid, I listened to the radio, to pop stars. Those people don’t make you feel like you can be a great singer and then I found Girls’ Christopher Owens! I was like “ok, this is more like it”. This is somebody who doesn’t have a voice like Paul McCartney or something like that and he’s still going for it. I started taking the value of the song as its own thing. I was in LA for 4 years and I stopped believing in a career in music. I was the songwriter who couldn’t play an instrument very well and sing very well, and hadn’t written any songs for anyone. It’s a hard sell, you know. (laughs) I wanted to skip so many steps… I wanted to go from having no songs to writing for Katy Perry or something. I didn’t understand there was the music industry right here and between it and me, there was an impossible amount of space.

And what, in your opinion, gave you these illusions?

I don’t know… It was a feeling. It’s like when you’re at a party and look at somebody across the room. You don’t know that person but for some reason, you’re like “that’s a good person for me to be around because I know we’re going to be friends or something”. I would get that feeling when I saw certain artists like Lana Del Rey. The first time, I saw her video I was like “there’s something more than just me watching this video”. A universal feeling telling me “you might write pop songs for stars”. And I would be like “great! Tell me when!” (laughs)

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How did you get to give that much importance to songwriting in a time where nobody cares about it anymore?

The attention has changed. People have shorter attention spans. You could play a drum beat and as long as you do something that sounds different, wacky, people are just going to digest it in a couple minutes and move to the next thing. Songwriting takes much more time. 

Did you really write 45 songs after JR White asked you to write songs?

I wrote 46 of them. And then they picked the songs. There will be a box in the end of my life where you could listen to all of them. 

What kind of feedback do you receive from the new arrangements of the songs?

People have just said it’s cool or whatever. Well, I like the arrangements. I just didn’t want to like them too much. I didn’t want the record to be about the production. And I didn’t want the live show to be about the produced record. The record is a stand-alone thing. There’s something that is bigger than the records: the songs.

When entering the studio, didn’t you fear to maybe impair or betray the songs?

No, because I had full faith in the producers. JR would say (imitating him) “I think that it should sound like a jazz band behind you or something, loose, organic…” I’d say “great”. Me and JR had a lot of conversations about it, playing a lot of records from the 70’s: Todd Rundgren or Jackson Frank for example. I would say “let’s make something contemporary but let’s play around!”. Basically, I was helping him realize his vision of what he wanted to do with my songs. It’s not the other way around. Everything is simple: the cover, the name of the songs, the layout of the record, and production-wise too. When we were in the mix, we took out entire sections.

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Do you identify with the image of Tobias Jesso Jr. that shows through the Internet ? The image of a Jesse Eisenberg-looking romantic man who seems to come from the 70s.

(Laughs) Jesse Eisenberg, wah! I think I’m a little sillier than that. My clothes are whatever I get from the closet. Well, I think Jesse Eisenberg probably does the same… But the 70’s, well… I identify much more to now than to the 70’s. Of course, when I use a lot of the same chords because when you try to learn piano songs, a lot of Carole Kings or Randy Newmans are going to pop up. My favorite decade in music is probably right now! Adele is my favorite of all times.

You kidding?

No.

This was unexpected.

Yeah. I don’t know much about Paul Simon. Randy Newman? I like to cook to his stuff. All these guys, JR brought them in but I listen to the radio. I love Sam Smith’s album, right on point. I like those big stars. I don’t care about searching through garbage bins to find the last guy from 1941, you know. I like the big stuff. It’s so easy. I’d love to write songs for them. 

In order to break your image of ideal son-in-law, tell us about the most subversive thing you ever did. 

I hitchhiked from LA to San Francisco with no wallet. It took me 7 days and I slept in the street most of the time. But I also went crazy.

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