Justin Jesso, the voice behind Kygo's uplifting track 'Stargazing,' broke through as a songwriter long before collaborating with the Norwegian powerhouse. Also a co-writer on 'Stargazing,' Justin has worked with dozens of top-tier artists in the industry. He recently received a Grammy nomination for his writing efforts on Ricky Martin's number one single 'Vente Pa' Ca.' A vocalist at heart, the Chicago native now sits poised to breakout behind the mic.
“Being out of control is a struggle,” says Justin. “The song is your child, you’re attached to it, then it’s out of your hands.” Justin Jesso, a 24-year-old songwriter and vocalist, broke into the industry by writing music for other musicians. He would hatch an idea, spend hours writing, then pitch the song to interested artists. An artist’s label can purchase the rights to a song for a set period. If the song remains unreleased, the label then relinquishes the rights back to the writer. In other instances, a song can get put on hold. Months can pass, even years before a writer hears back about their lyrics floating in limbo. “I’ve given away songs that I love that haven’t gone anywhere,” says Justin, “or I’ll see a track released by another artist that I wrote two years ago.”
The waiting game can fluctuate depending on the size of the artist. More established artists can take their time. They may release a song as a single or as part of a forthcoming album. “A lesser known artist may be more adamant about one of my songs...saying we’re ready to go, let’s make this now,” says Justin, “and then we end up going with them.”
Before Justin wrote his first song, he connected to music as a toddler. At one year old, he sat crying in front of the television as the Super Bowl was set to kickoff. When Whitney Houston belted the first note of the national anthem, he ceased crying for ninety-four seconds, captivated by the velvety voice erupting from the speakers. As her last note faded, Justin’s tears recommenced. “I always remember feeling the urge to sing,” he says. In kindergarten, Justin sang at his grandmother’s talent show held at the community center. Over one thousand pairs of eyes locked onto him. “When I walked off stage, I knew I wanted to keep capturing that feeling.” As teenagers, Justin and his younger brother listened to Green Day and Blink-182. Their parents played Earth, Wind, & Fire, and Stevie Wonder around the house. His influences evolved as a mesh of powerful soul and alternative rock.
The First Stage
Later on, Justin would enroll in the theatre program at New York University (NYU). The first year focuses on stripping away the preconceived social constructs of the self. This allows the actor to access the deepest parts of their identity on stage. The barrier between true emotion and memorized lines dissipates. “Going through that was eye-opening,” he says. “I became more in touch with myself and started expressing that through songwriting.”
Justin would soon switch gears to the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. He harnessed what he had learned from acting and translated that growth into music. “I’m a melody guy,” he says. “Usually, I start on the piano and hum the melody above the chords.” Spending hours each day learning to tell stories, he began to craft lyrics more naturally. A steady songwriting process surfaced. “Sometimes, I’ll wake up with an idea, record a line on my phone, or hear a stranger say something lyrical,” he says. “Then I get in a room and start vibing with collaborators.” Justin often flips through flecks of inspiration with various writing partners. JHart and Martin Garrix recently collaborated with Justin in a writing session. “We were jamming and Martin pulled up some things he was working on,” says Justin. “J Hart started humming a melody and added lyrics. I thought that he said something he hadn’t...like oh yeah, that’s really cool...even the idea of him saying something I misheard - one word sparks another.”
The idea for ‘Stargazing,’ Kygo’s smash track surpassing a quarter-billion streams, sparked in a room with Justin, Jamie Hartman, and Stuart Crichton. “I came in with lyrics about all of the crazy, fucked up things going on in the world,” says Justin. “I originally wrote down a line about how we used to be looking up at the stars.” He said the word “stargazing,” and Jamie honed in on that concept. In less than two hours, they laid down the track. “J Hart and Stuart are pros,” says Justin. “We always end up on the same page.”
Writing ‘Stargazing,’ Justin drew on a past relationship. He dated someone for four and a half years before the song was released. “It’s about the push and pull of me trying to get her to stay...caring for someone who is breaking your heart,” he says. “I didn’t realize I was over her until the song came out.” He sings:
I'm trying to save us, you don't wanna save us
You blame human nature, and say it's unkind
Let's make up our own minds, we've got our whole lives
Let's see and decide, decide
The original stargazing concept carries over into love. “Even if things don’t work out, I still believe in love,” says Justin. “Weirdly enough, the song comes full circle, putting the period on the end of a relationship.”
The team finished ‘Stargazing’ on a Monday, sent the track to Kygo’s team that night, and by Wednesday, Kygo mastered a finished product. The single dropped two months later. “I gave away this song and it ended up coming back to me,” says Justin. “Kyrre [Kygo’s given name] asked me to sing on it.” Justin has always admired artists like Bruno Mars and Julia Michaels who broke into the industry as songwriters and lept under the spotlight. “I got into songwriting because I wanted the chance to sing how I thought a song should be interpreted,” he says.
At the end of last year, Justin and Kygo recorded an orchestral version of ‘Stargazing’ with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra. “I wasn’t even supposed to be there,” he says. Nominated for a Latin Grammy, Justin planned on attending the awards show in Vegas. He received a nomination as a writer on Ricky Martin’s single ‘Vente Pa’ Ca’ for “Song of the Year.” Then, Justin’s manager, Randy Jackson, called to tell him that a one hundred piece orchestra was waiting to record in Bergen. Missing the Grammys, Justin flew to Norway. “We knew we were going to lose to ‘Despacito,” he laughs.
Line by Line, Brick by Brick
In the orchestral version, the video opens with Kygo pacing down a boardwalk towards the Bryggen Wharf, bells ringing. He stands among the colorful cityscape, gazing upon the water. The screen fades black. Kygo brushes the fall of the grand piano with his fingertips, breathes deeply, and plays a D minor. Justin emerges from the shadows into a dim spotlight. “You’re saying it’s hopeless,” he sings, as a showering light pulls back the curtain of darkness shielding the orchestra. “I was pretty focused on giving a great visual performance,” says Justin. “It doesn’t matter where you’re looking, as long as you feel it and control the breathing.”
Leading up to the final cut, rehearsal with the orchestra lasted longer than expected. Practice ran into shoot time. Every sound needed to unfold in synch. Songs are built line by line in the studio, but the crew shot the live performance in one take. “By the time we were ready to shoot, my voice was raw from the extended rehearsal,” says Justin, “but when the camera started rolling, everything felt natural.” The orchestra exhaled power. Justin matched the vigor with outstretched arms, commanding vocals, and fingers pointed towards the sky.
Grateful to sing alongside Kygo and the Bergen Philarmonic, Justin has battled obstacles amidst the opportunities. In high school, his father was diagnosed with cancer. “I had to focus on staying strong for my mother so that she could be there for my father,” he says. During this time, Justin trekked to the holiest place on earth, the Western Wall of Jerusalem. He thanked God for the opportunities he had grasped up to that point. Leaving the wall, he broke down halfway back to the bus. “My Dad was in the middle of fighting cancer and I forgot to ask God to help him,” says Justin. He has since gone back to the wall to pray for his father. In the fall of 2010, Justin’s father beat cancer and remains in remission. Struggling with depression these past couple years, Justin has leaned on his father and the rest of his family. Staying tight with family and focusing on songwriting keeps him grounded. Work breeds a purposeful happiness. Soon, Justin will release his own original project. “Writing for other artists, bits of my own story can creep in, but ultimately it’s about them,” he says. “With my own music, I want to stay simple, clear...singing my own stories in a different way.”