Tobias Jesso Jr. has new album, ‘Goon,’ and rising cred as songwriter
At Sunset Boulevard and Alvarado Street in Echo Park, just past the American Apparel outlet and right behind the Burrito King, Tobias Jesso Jr. stands about 30 feet tall.
His forlorn expression and tangly mop of brown hair dominate the street scene, and pedestrians are in the shadow of this new giant of contemporary songwriting.
To be fair, Jesso is actually only 6 feet 7, and this is just a goofy billboard campaign tied to his new album, “Goon,” which will be released Tuesday on True Panther Sounds. But it’s also a sign of how quickly Jesso rose from an unknown 29-year-old session bassist into one of the year’s most talked-about songwriting finds.
If you’re in Echo Park, Jesso’s face is practically inescapable. But when one of Adele’s two tweets of the year touts his single “How Could You Babe” and he’s played “The Tonight Show” and top producers like Ariel Rechtshaid and the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney are working on his records, ,it’s clear that the attention — and hype — have arrived. Does Jesso still have room to grow?
“I’ve never gone along with the idea that music’s meant to be cool,” Jesso said. “It’s always been about getting as many people to love a song as possible. Think of how many people were in the grocery store today and were moved by [Adele’s] ‘Someone Like You.’”
On an afternoon last week, Jesso was hanging out at his manager’s house in Beachwood Canyon. The place is a young bachelor rock dude’s Eden — hot tub in back, vintage Rolling Stone covers on the wall. Despite the wan look on Jesso’s billboard, he has a Muppetty friendliness in person and immediately puts on a demo from a couple of teenagers whom he wants to play with on his eventual second LP.
“Just listen for the bass on this,” he says, putting on their demo and pantomiming its McCartney-style walking bass line with exacting precision for a full five minutes.
It’s a world away from Jesso’s first go-around in L.A., when he played bass with a slick rock band called the Sessions and with an aspiring pop starlet (neither achieved much lasting fame). In 2012, he mangled his hand in a bicycle accident and had to return home to Vancouver, Canada, when he found out his mother had cancer.
“I don’t know if I’d be here if I’d gotten success the first time,"Jesso said. “Before, I was just looking for good packaging. But it wasn’t until I threw the idea of ‘success’ out the window that I could start writing about my fears and have a real message.”
During that stay at home, he found his sound — warm piano ballads filled with artful chord transitions and arrangements that didn’t disguise his reedy but earnest vocals.
He sent demos to Chet “JR” White, the producer and former member of the indie rock band Girls, another act built around a charismatic and model-complexioned lead singer. White liked what he heard and helped him craft his demos into a contemporary take on a particular time in ‘70s L.A. songwriting, back when John Lennon and Harry Nilsson were getting thrown out of the Troubadour.
“A lot of bands put up a kind of a front, but he comes across as so totally honest, and he’s not keeping anything apart,” said White, who produced most of “Goon.” “You can tell that he’s just a guy who is really nice and well-rounded and whose songs could be as big as Adele’s.”
It’s not the most likely sound for a pop sensation, but after Adele’s nod of approval and an early embrace from tastemaking sites like Pitchfork, “Goon” already looks to be one of the year’s defining indie albums. He’s still finding his sea legs as a live performer, but his many dates at SXSW are some of the fest’s hottest tickets.
Like his ‘70s-playboy sonic influences, however, Jesso has also become an unlikely gossip-rag staple with some A-list connections. At various times he’s been romantically linked to Alana Haim (of the acclaimed L.A. pop crossover act Haim) and Elvis Presley’s granddaughter Riley Keough. In another celebrity connection, his friend Dakota Johnson from “Fifty Shades of Grey” introduced him to his eventual producer Carney.
Jesso wouldn’t discuss the particulars of any romantic entanglements, but did admit that it’s bewildering to be on the other side of those cameras.
“I went home to Vancouver recently, and I got off the plane, and it was like I was Godzilla,” he said, deadpanning. Then he laughed it off. “If I was younger, it might have gotten to me, but I know what it all is now.”
For now, though, he’s trying to enjoy the ride and figure out what his follow-up will sound like. He writes music every day and wants a long-term career as a professional songwriter as much as a performer. “How old was Randy Newman when he wrote the ‘Toy Story’ song?” he asked. “That’s the kind of career I want.”
But for the time being, whenever he drives down Sunset, there’s a 30-foot tall sign that it’s going according to plan.
“I know I’m not going to be ‘cool’ for a very long time at all, so it’s something I can laugh at when I’m 50,” he said, shaking his head and grinning at a mention of the billboard. “My friends like to take pictures under it and send them to me.”
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