A few years ago, Tobias Jesso Jr. was living in L.A., trying to make it as a guitarist and songwriter, when, as he recalls, “everything went to shit.” The Canadian’s visa expired, and his relationship with his live-in girlfriend started crumbling. Then, in the span of a week, Jesso was hit by a car while riding his bike, slicing open his hand, and he found out his mother had cancer.
Jesso moved back to Vancouver to live with his parents, picking up a job at a friend’s moving company. As his mom recovered, he started tinkering with his sister’s piano — an instrument he’d never played before — and wrote songs to work through his breakup. On a whim, he sent the tracks to Chet “JR” White of the now-defunct band Girls, who encouraged him to keep writing. Soon, Jesso had a batch of songs good enough to persuade White and the Black Keys’ Patrick Carney to co-produce an album for him.
The result was Goon, Jesso’s debut, an album of simple, sparkling piano ballads. Now 29, the six-foot-seven Jesso seems more surprised than anyone that he pulled it off. “To be 27 and start to play an instrument that becomes the instrument you’re known for?” he says. “It’s out of this world.” Carney was blown away by the simple power of Jesso’s tunes. “His writing abilities are insane,” he says. “There aren’t many singers that could strip their songs down and have them hold up the way his do.”
Goon has earned Jesso comparisons to Harry Nilsson and Todd Rundgren, though Jesso insists he’d never heard of either until recently. “It just happens to be a bit throwback,” he says. Then he adds with a goofy laugh, “I wanted to be a tiny, bad-voiced version of Adele. But a guy.”
Adele herself helped launch Jesso’s career in January, when she tweeted the video for his single “How Could You Babe,” saying, “This is fantastic, click away.” (Jesso is rumored to have another pop star in his court: Taylor Swift, whom he was rumored to be dating. Jesso denies it.)
Now, Jesso is figuring out how to translate his songs live, despite his still-growing piano and singing skills. At SXSW in March, he was midway through “Can We Still Be Friends” when he hit a sour note. “Oops, first mistake,” he said, then smiled. “It was bound to happen!