Tobias Jesso Jr.
Vancouver native Tobias Jesso Jr.’s Hollywood story is of the oft-untold but too commonly lived kind. The kind where a kid moved to Los Angeles full of hopes and dreams, only to be chewed up and spat out a few years later, moving home broken and beat by the City of Angels, dreams shattered, head down, morale through the floor.
Were it not for Tobias Jesso Jr.’s L.A. misfortune, though, we would not have Goon, his debut album, and that would be a damn shame. A shame because Goon is a record so irreverently out of step with the times it might just be, by some kind of magic, completely in sync with them. A collection of plaintive piano and voice reflections on emotional terrain we’ve all covered. A record so delicately emotive and brimming with a kind of universally touching lovelorn melancholy that deities like The Beach Boys, Todd Rundgren, Randy Newman and Electric Light Orchestra so effortlessly mastered, it’s odds on favourite for record of the year for hopeless romantics.
It’s a record that sounds like the physical and mental states in which it was written. “The whole record was written in my parents’ house in Vancouver. A piano in the middle of a big open room. I went back and I renovated the floors, I put hardwood in, did the kitchen up, made it a little station, like a basement suite. Not a lot of furniture, just a piano, a Polaroid of my ex-girlfriend on it, and a bed,” Jesso Jr. starts to explain, all the while monitoring some baking bread he has in the oven.
Jesso Jr.’s L.A. escapade began when he was offered the opportunity to move down and play bass in the band of an aspiring pop starlet. “It was the best job I could have had at that moment; to get paid to play music and move to a major US city. I felt like it was a big opportunity, ‘I gotta make the best of it and make it into something!’ because, when you move you’re kind of committing to succeed somewhere else. There was some opportunity in Vancouver, and I was trying to get together with some people and write songs there, but the opportunity came to move to L.A. and the job was just too good. I thought, ‘Well, maybe, I can do it on a bigger scale now’ but I was pretty wrong.”
Rather than setting down in the kind of creative utopia he’d imagined, he found himself in a competitive environment zapped of inspiration. “You get here and you realise how many people are trying to do the exact same thing. Somewhere like Vancouver, there’s people doing everything. My friend owns a moving company, my other friend works in stocks, or whatever, but in L.A. it’s like everyone’s doing arts, or trying to anyway. Everything is sort of music business or film business, everyone is here for a reason, whereas in Vancouver everyone is just living it and doing their own thing and it’s kind of easy to separate yourself more, like, ‘Oh, I’m a musician’ and they haven’t heard it 20 times that day.”
Starting out at the bottom of the food chain allowed him to experience life in a range of L.A.’s different areas, though not necessarily by choice. “First, I was in Tarzana, then I moved to Silver Lake, into a 400 square foot apartment with four guys, and two of the guys started a DIY venue in Echo Park so I moved there. I lived with my girlfriend in Calabasas, and then I moved to the Beachwood area, and then I moved to West Hollywood, then I was in Studio City for a while. I just jumped around, I would move every, maybe, five or six months. I was jumping around a lot and that’s not me, you know? I got to know the storage locker life very well. I was thrift store shopping, too, trying to make extra money, buying up old guitars and stuff to resell.”
While he did the backup band thing, Jesso Jr. was simultaneously trying to kickstart a career in songwriting for others. His progression was handicapped though, because he didn’t sing the songs he was selling. “It’s kinda hard when you’re a songwriter who doesn’t wanna sing. You know, the test of a songwriter is when he’s like, ‘Hey let me show you my song’ and he sings it for you. I was more like, ‘Hey I’m a songwriter’ and it’s like, ‘Cool, let’s write a song together and you sing’. I don’t have a great voice, I have a pretty limited range, and back then I think I was thinking that if you wanted to be a singer or a songwriter who sang his own songs you had to have that voice that everyone said, ‘Wow! This is great!’ And I don’t think I really ever heard that, I never really felt that about myself. I still don’t, but it’s a little different now. I feel more comfortable, I guess, now I’ve had time to get used to it, or get to the point where I can write songs that I’m able to sing. Whereas at the time I think I was sorta reaching for the stars and being like, ‘Well, I’m definitely not one of those singers.’”
A small psychological breakthrough came when Jesso Jr. heard a new band out of San Francisco. “I heard the band Girls, and there was Christopher Owens doing his thing. And I just thought, ‘Oh my God!’ I wasn’t very cultured in music, I didn’t really know too much about the Lou Reeds and the anti-voice heroes, so Chris was sorta the first one where I thought, ‘Oh I can play these songs and he’s just owning his own voice whether it’s able to show off or not, he’s showing it off regardless’. That motivated me. And the idea popped into my head that maybe I would try that one day, but I wasn’t ready right then.”
Around four years in, the pop project dissipated and his songwriting efforts stalled. Tired of treading water and seeing a succession of signs, Jesso Jr. decided to call time on L.A., “for a lot of reasons. Visa reasons, family reasons. Sort of … Universal signs. There were a lot of reasons why I left. I was sort of leaving it up to signs and stuff like that and I had just a pretty weird week … That just said, ‘It’s time to go’.”
If he’d come down from Canada with a head full of hope, Jesso Jr.’s state of mind heading back was a sobering reality check. “When I moved down, it was a super hopeful vibe and when I left it was the complete opposite. When I said goodbye in L.A., it wasn’t like I was leaving a bunch of screaming fans behind or anything, it was more just, ‘All right, see you later’. So when I went back to Vancouver and it was my high school friends and elementary school friends, and I arrived back after four years and they’re expecting me to have something to show for it and I come back, and I didn’t even want to identify as a musician at that point, I just came back and was like, ‘Hey, I’m back’ and they were like, ‘Oh, what happened?’ ‘A lot, but I’m back so I need to find a job’.”
Back in Vancouver, down and despondent, Jesso Jr. arrived at a career nadir. “I felt like I had lost four years, in moving down (to L.A.) and trying something, and it not working out. When you’re in that position it’s easy to feel like it’s time wasted.”
Scratching for cash, he found a job, and eventually his own voice. “I worked for Crown Mountain Movers. It’s a moving company that my best friend since I was in grade two started when I was in L.A., and he built up the business so when I got back there he was the first guy to come over and give me a big hug and I just said, ‘Man, I need a job’ and he said, ‘Well come work for me’ so I started as a mover. Within the first week I started wearing the moving outfit and started thinking to myself ‘Yeah, I can do this’. You get outdoors, you feel like Ryan Gosling in a movie or something. I was like, ‘Yeah I could get used to this’.
“I started playing piano at the same time, and he had me moving pianos and I started to sit down at people’s houses and play a little bit of whatever, something I had done, so when we had a break I’d be like, ‘Do you mind?’ and I’d sit down and play a bit, it was cool, I liked it. I worked there almost two years. Having your best friend as a boss … Talk about one of the best jobs I’ve
“I would wake up and go to work, come home and just stay down there and do piano. I wasn’t interested in rebuilding a group of friends or going out to parties or anything. I was partied out. It’s not like I’m gonna ask my friends, ‘Hey come over to my parents’ house’, or, ‘Hey, I hear your business is doing really well, I’m back from L.A., come over to my parents’ house’. I stayed down there … It was dark and just what I needed.”
With nobody listening, Jesso Jr. passed his time studiously tinkering in the basement and his self-imposed social isolation began to show positive side effects, as Goon started to take shape. “It’s funny what you come up with when nobody cares except for you, and I think that’s when I really started taking it seriously for myself. To just do the best I could. Not the best that is out there or the best that I want somebody to hear, but just the best I could, for me. Because I always loved writing songs, I never thought I was gonna stop writing songs, I just thought, I’m not gonna have a career at this. And you know when something’s a hobby, like my bread, which I’m doing right now, it’s really easy to take chances and take risks and to better yourself for the sake of the craft, and not necessarily for the sake of business, or success.” It’s precisely these same motivations that give Goon such a deeply personal and singular resonant voice and will more than likely afford him the opportunity to tinker for some time to come now.
And in spite of his less than ideal experience the first time around, with an album in the can and things looking up, Jesso Jr. moved back to L.A. “as soon as the government said it was OK”.
“I love LA, the sun, the easy livin’, relaxed atmosphere. I’m really glad to be back.”