Barely a minute of my phone conversation with Tobias Jesso Jr has elapsed before the wheels come off. I've just thanked him for taking the time out of his sunny Los Angeles morning – he's sitting in his back garden, a pot of coffee on the table beside him – when he gasps. "Oooh, my gaaaaawd," he giggles in his Canadian drawl. "You sound just like Minnie Driver in Good Will Hunting. Tanks."
Conversations are easily derailed with Jesso. He will happily spend 10 minutes talking about the strange incidents that seem to follow him around: a $3,000 hat being stolen off his head; being pulled over by the cops for unwittingly driving a stolen car. He is the lovable goon that the title of his debut album suggests.
That said, it is true that the 29-year-old owes his career to a series of fortuitous coincidences. He played piano and saxophone as a kid, but not with much intent. “I didn’t take it seriously until I graduated high school,” he says. “Then I actually ended up dropping out [of college].”
A potential career in photography may have been scuppered, but one in music awaited. He moved to Los Angeles with his first band, The Sessions, and they inadvertently ended up as the backing band for teen pop singer Melissa Cavatti. When that went belly-up, he thought he might have a career as a writer-for-hire.
“That was the best job I ever had, because I was getting paid to play music and it wasn’t particularly demanding,” he says of his short-lived pop career. “Everyone was kind of nice, and it was a really cushy job, you know? But it made me real soft. I didn’t really need anything else, but I still hoped for my own success; I always wanted to do something, stake my own claim. Not to be big in the public eye, but maybe in memory – like when I died, somebody would go, ‘Oh shit, that guy had a lot of songs’, or something like that.”
Jesso’s debut album was informed by heartbreak after a break-up and the dejection of having to move back to his native Vancouver when his mother was diagnosed with cancer (she has recovered).
“I thought, well, there’s the end of my music career, I’m just gonna be one of those guys who played in his early 20s and maybe has a covers band at the local bar in his late 40s’,” he says. “I’m glad I’m playing music instead of moving pianos, which is what I was doing before.”
All roads led to Goon, the piano-based collection of tunes that borrows from the songbooks of Randy Newman, early Elton John and Harry Nilsson.
“When I started writing on piano, I thought that maybe it would be ‘adult contemporary’, or something like that; maybe, like, elevator music or something,” he says, laughing. “I wasn’t thinking, This is a cool thing to get into. I like to know what is good about a song and what is not good about a song, and how to write a song; all those things are very important to me. It’s like somebody who makes shoes, or something. They know what type of leather to use, and they know what kind of stitching to use, and they can make a real good shoe. But beyond that, I’m pretty clueless.”
Goon has taken off in an unexpectedly fast way thanks to songs such as the swoonsome, slinky How Could You Babe, the dreamy Without You and the playful piano stomp of Crocodile Tears. So fast, in fact, that he is having trouble adjusting to the fact. He says that he prefers talking to performing live, and is "not a big traveller". Getting used to seeing and hearing himself in videos and on TV has been a challenge.
“Well for one, I can’t get rid of the damn ‘piano faces’. I’ve tried everything – from filming myself to trying to keep eye contact with myself in a mirror, but I can’t take what I see when I perform seriously. I think a lot of people who are expecting to be artists get over that uncomfortable stage early on, because they listen to themselves a lot, or whatever. For me, it was one of the first demos that I’d ever put up and sung on that got attention, so I didn’t really have time to adjust to getting used to it. I listened to it, like, 15 times before I had somebody who wanted to produce the record.”
After recording that first demo, he sent an email to Chet “JR” White of the band Girls, solely because he loved their music. White replied and asked him down to San Francisco to record (which almost didn’t happen because of problems with Jesso’s US visa).
Other connections were made through friends – some of them famous (such as his ex-girlfriend Riley Keough, aka Elvis's granddaughter, and actress Dakota Johnson), which led to Patrick Carney of The Black Keys producing several tracks. Producer Ariel Rechstaid worked on Without You, and enlisted his girlfriend, Danielle Haim, to play on the track. He is, I wager, a man with a lot of friends. "I like to hope so," he says. "I don't know if they'd call me friends, but I'd call them friends."
With songwriting, he says, “I strive for simplicity and I strive for things that you can’t really put a time and place on, because those are the things that don’t get old. Whether it’s the clothes I wear, or the car I drive, or any number of things, I apply the exact same rules throughout my life, which is just simple, not too flashy and not too tied to any period. It’s a lot more relatable. And I try to be the most relatable person I can.” Mission accomplished.
Goon is out now. Tobias Jesso Jr plays Dublin’s Unitarian Church on May 10th