Before he plays to a room of insiders at his label's headquarters in Silver Lake, Tobias Jesso Jr. can be seen pacing outside the building on a rainy December night. It's one of his first solo shows and he's nervous.
“I never really liked the idea of playing live,” he confesses a couple weeks later over the phone. “But playing these parties or little things where the drinks are flowing, where I can jump on the piano and casually show people what I’m working on is a lot less daunting.”
Once he gets behind keys, the small crowd at the Beggars Group office gives him their undivided attention for 35 minutes. After playing his set and sharing stories about his checkered L.A. past, the lanky 29-year-old breathes a sigh of relief and lets out a big grin that didn’t seem possible not too long ago.
In the middle of 2012, Jesso was at a career crossroads. He was living the classic L.A. story of a low-level musician trying his best for a taste of the big time. He had found middling success as the bassist for The Sessions and pop singer Melissa Cavatti. By the time his visa was about to expire that year, the Canadian musician was looking for any sign that he should stay here.
“Instead I got a week of absolute hell,” he says.
In that make-or-break week, Jesso was the victim of a hit-and-run, didn’t have a place to live, found out his mother had cancer and got dumped by his girlfriend.
Returning to Canada, the singer-songwriter struggled with the notion that he’d be working at a friend’s moving company for the next 10 years. Jesso went from playing instruments to moving them.
But during these trying times, he continued writing and sharpening his songs.
Down but not out, the songwriter used his downtime honing his craft instead of giving up. Though he wasn’t confident in his wispy vocals — and still isn’t — Jesso put together a batch of demos on his sister’s piano that he felt comfortable sending out. He just needed a reason to.
In early 2013, one of Jesso’s favorite bands, Girls, broke up. Upon hearing this news through message boards and music news sites, the songwriter stumbled upon the email address of Chet “J.R.” White, the band's producer/bassist. Describing himself as being in “a weird headspace,” he finally mustered up the courage to send White a “hail Mary email” containing four demos of his songs.
An hour later, White not only responded, but told Jesso to call as soon as he received the message. Startled, Jesso spent a few hours agonizing over his response before calling White back.
To his amazement, White offered to produce his first solo album.
That debut, Goon, is slated for a St. Patrick's Day release and also features Patrick Carney of The Black Keys and Ariel Rechtshaid, the producer/multi-instrumentalist known for his work with everyone from Haim to Vampire Weekend. Many of the songs Jesso first sent to White are on the album, which still prominently showcases the fragile vocals and pretty, piano-based melodies of those demos.
Looking back at those lean years of his first L.A. stint, Jesso recognizes his mistakes and naivety. At the same time, he realizes it was a necessary step in order to find himself as a songwriter.
“I probably wasn’t working as hard as I should have been,” he admits. “The way I think about it now, there’s two types of people in L.A.: the people who have got it and those who are delusional and think they have it… I was one of the delusional people during my first time in L.A. because I hadn’t put the work in yet.”
Tobias Jesso Jr. opens for Foxygen at the Roxy this Friday and Saturday, Jan. 2-3.