Interview by Zach Grossfeld
This past year, Justin Jesso has set the stage ablaze. From touring the globe with Kygo to releasing his debut EP, Let It Be Me, he continues to add more dimensions to his artistry. As a solo artist and a songwriter, Justin’s drive to master his craft may be unmatched.
Justin Jesso attacks songwriting from the perspective of both the artist and the craftsman. He stays conscious of emotional connection while continually studying the elements of what makes a good song. From Post Malone to Michael Jackson, Justin has taken notice of how hit tracks come together and incorporates certain pieces into his own art.
For years he has made waves as a songwriter, crafting smash tracks like Ricky Martin’s number one hit ‘Vente Pa’Ca’ featuring Maluma. In 2017, Justin co-wrote ‘Stargazing’ and then toured the globe with Kygo to sing his song in front of hundreds of thousands. Now, on the heels of his debut EP, Let It Be Me, he looks to keep pushing the boundaries of the main stage.
Auxoro: What are the most difficult parts of trying to make people take you seriously as an artist versus a songwriter?
Justin Jesso: I’ve always felt like I was in the wrong place in a weird way. I loved and still do love writing for other people. Whenever I was in a room with an artist, on some level, I was thinking “this should be me.”
Now, I am the artist, and it's funny because when I'm in the room, I try to divorce myself from the “artist” mindset. I channel the songwriter mentality because it makes people in the room feel more comfortable. To get people to take me seriously as an artist, I need to write something that is seriously great, and the way to do that is to not take myself too seriously.
What are some of the biggest practical foundations of songwriting that the general public may not be aware? How is songwriting a craft beyond just the art form?
When I was 17, I went to Nashville and met this woman who was a songwriter, and she goes, “songwriting is craft!” There is this idea of song structure, that as a pop songwriter, I paid attention to pretty succinctly. The idea that the chorus should technically hit harder than the verse, and the pre[chorus] should be in a different tonal range than the verse, etc. Today, in modern songwriting, we're in a different place. Many songs that are popular now, especially in the American urban bubble, don't follow the traditional mode of song structure.
For example, take ‘Better Now’ by Post Malone. He starts with two choruses and he varies the production in the second chorus, so it feels fresh. Then, he breaks down the production on the first verse to where, even though it's in the same tonal range as the chorus, it’s different enough to feel like a verse. Then, his pre[chorus] does something else melodically that takes you back into a double chorus. The songwriting tropes that have always been there still exist. But now more than ever, people are taking liberties and twisting things in cool, interesting ways.
Speaking of the rap-urban bubble in America, you recently signed to Sony Music in Germany. Artists like Lana Del Rey, Dua Lipa, and James Arthur, first gained real traction in Germany. What about the overseas environment allows more melodic artists like yourself to gain traction more quickly?
I signed to Daniel Lieberberg who just took over Sony Music in Europe. He broke Dua Lipa, James Arthur, and discovered Lana Del Rey. Because ‘Stargazing’ was so well received in Europe [#1 on radio in Germany and France], it seemed that Europe made the most sense to start.
I'm from America, obviously, and I would love for everybody here to know my music. The audiences in Europe, at this point, may be a little bit more receptive to vocals, slower melodies, and a more pop-centric style. That's why I decided to go with Sony Music Germany. I saw the path more clearly from there than I did the US.
Also, America is a crowded space. A lot of people are vying for that top spot and to get their music heard. Most of my friends in the industry aren’t pushing that path, trying to explore avenues in another country. That gives me a leg up because I’m unique over in Europe. Here, I'm just another American kid trying to sling one into the Billboard Top 40.
Have inspirations from traveling the globe and touring with Kygo worked their way into your EP, Let It Be Me?
Of course. For example, Londoners, to me, are much more soulful. The writing and music coming out of London and is very soul-based. The rest of the world, people are still listening to 90s R&B in a way people aren’t in America. Being immersed in different cultures, even for a day or two, I absorb things that people who are sitting in New York or Los Angeles or Idaho or Chicago may not be seeing. Subconsciously, those influences work their way into the music that I create.
What type of things do you think about when you’re taking a widespread emotion, something everyone feels, and focusing it into a four-minute track? It must require certain techniques or thought processes to take a loaded feeling and carve it into a concise, relatable piece of art.
Right now, my brother is doing his business school application. I haven’t written a paper in years, but I've been sitting with him to help rewrite and edit. The same principles apply to good writing, whether it's business school applications or music. It's about being specific and personal. Then, you organize your thoughts in a way that the reader or the listener can feel the maximum impact. The biggest thing that I try to do from a lyrical perspective is to be specific and give examples true to me.
What are some of the inspirations behind the ‘My Body’ music video?
I met the director, Darren Craig, in Paris while on tour with Kygo. We had an awesome discussion about art, authenticity, and how to move in a subversive way. For the ‘My Body’ music video, I called him up because I wanted his eye on the project. The song is about your body wanting one thing, but your mind knowing that it's not going to happen. In those moments, I get this tingling feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s truly intense.
We translated that feeling into the music video through this idea called “temptation testing.” For the visuals, I was in a lab being “tested” for how much temptation I could take before I break. The woman on the bed was essentially tempting me knowing that I could never get to her. The idea started with the exploration of temptation and how it would manifest in a lab setting.
I loved the synergy of science and attraction in the video. So, I know you’re a bit of a fan of Michael Jackson.
Just a little.
I was listening to an interview with Siedah Garrett, who co-wrote ‘Man In The Mirror.’ Garrett says that she always tries to put a signature on the songs she writes. For you, what would be the identifying characteristics of a Justin Jesso song? If someone had their iPhone on shuffle, how would they know it was you without looking?
The first thing that I try to do is make songs that move people, that spark emotion. Whether that’s ‘Stargazing’ or ‘Getting Closer’ or ‘One Good Reason,’ what gets me excited is when people write me back and say, “this really helped me get through the difficult time” or “this helps me think of someone that I lost.” Hopefully, that pang of emotion combined with a soaring melody, whether it’s up-tempo or downtempo, is a defining characteristic of the songs I write.
In the same interview, Siedah Garrett says that ‘Man In The Mirror’ was a phrase that she heard someone use while speaking on the phone. She wrote it down and used the phrase two years later when she spotted it in her lyric book. What’s a recent time where you heard someone say a word or a phrase in conversation, then saved it as a possible lyric?
I have an iCloud memo called “Idea Songs,” and every time I hear something interesting, I write it down. Recently, I was watching my best friend's of wedding video when he came to visit me over the holidays. My father made a speech at the wedding. At the end, he said, “May the best days of your past is the worst days of your future.” I wrote it down immediately.
Things don’t always have to be that deep. I wrote a song a couple weeks ago with the hook line “We should get married or break up.” I thought it was an interesting two extremes. Are the emotions running too hot? Is it too much to handle? What does that mean?
Early on, you had an internship with EMI Records. What are the best ways you can make yourself invaluable in the internship role?
To become invaluable, you need to do what you’re supposed to be doing and be on call 24/7. For me, the label told me, “If you have somebody that you think we should sign, pitch them to us.” Every week, I would bring them two people on Tuesday and Friday.
One time, an EMI writer’s hotel room fell through and I volunteered for him to crash on my floor. Another time, my boss asked me to get him a pair of Nike Frees the day before they were released. I called every Nike store in the New York area and finally found one that had a few pairs in a day early. So, I drove in last second, and before my boss left work that day, he had a pair of Nike Frees on his desk.
That reminds me of the scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Meryl Streep tells Anne Hathaway to get a copy of the unpublished Harry Potter manuscript for her grandchildren, and then she pulls it off [laughs]…As a songwriter and an artist, what are some things you do everyday that have had a huge return on investment in the long run?
I warm up every day, usually in the shower. I have a tape that I practice from my vocal coach to keep me healthy. Also, I should be practicing piano and guitar every day, but I haven’t been as consistent. Though, I do practice them when I'm leading up to a show.
What's a negative experience, something that you never wanna have to repeat, that has changed your life for the better?
For years, as a songwriter, I always wanted to be an artist. My thought process was “I will write songs for other people, and eventually, people will take me seriously as an artist.” I had interviews with record labels all the time. I would sit down, play my songs, and they would say, “You're great, we should sign you as an artist.”
Then, two weeks later, one by one, they all come back to me and say the same thing: “We think that at this point you're more of a writer, and you don't have a social media following. But, we’d like to buy your song off of you and give it to this other kid with millions of followers. You just keep writing.” That happened three different times with three different labels. Each time, I felt like someone was about to hand me my dream, and then watched them rip it away.
Also, as a kid, I had a career as a Disney artist. I was opening for Corbin Bleu, Jesse McCartney, Jordin Sparks, and Raven Symoné on tour. It was great but I had a manager who wasn't a good guy. When that went south, my whole career halted in that space. But, I'm glad that happened because it got me here. Who knows where I would be if I kept going in that lane? It was a different sounding project and, at this point, not who I am. All of these experiences, negative and positive, got me to who I am today and gave me the freedom to choose how I make music.