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Justin Jesso talks pain, songwriting and using his platform for good

Justin Jesso

Pain is probably the most interesting thing to write about, says US musician Justin Jesso. Now in isolation, he’s had a lot of time to sit with his emotions. So, what’s been keeping him busy? “Writing, writing, writing, writing,” he says. 

But surprisingly, under quarantine – back at home with his parents and dog, Elvis, in Jupiter, Florida – valuable family time has distracted this productive brooding. It’s a plus for Jesso but a minus for churning out tearjerkers, he suggests. 

In the meantime, there’s enough to go around. Pain courses the veins of his summery heartbreak pop: his catalogue, including the 2019 EP, Let It Be Me, features poetic confessions of perilous relationships, loneliness and yearning, all wrapped in sometimes twinkling, often upbeat, trop-pop and dance pop-influenced melodies. On the surface, it’s optimistic, but underneath, bittersweet: pain is a sting Jesso has grown skilful in expressing with somewhat of a smile on his face. Often, however, it’s not through his own music. 

For the last few years, Jesso has lent his voice to co-writing and writing for an impressive list of artists. As a newcomer to the industry, a writing credit on a Backstreet Boys or Ricky Martin or Seeb track is already a success in itself – even without the Latin Grammy nomination that Jesso received as a co-writer on Martin’s “Vente Pa’Ca (feat. Maluma)” in 2017. 

Now empowered to solidify his own musical journey, Jesso has been busy penning a sophomore EP, led by previously stand-alone single “If you’re meant to come back”. It’s a stripped-down ballad that pays homage to his classic soul influences as opposed to his contemporaries – figures like Otis Redding, Bill Withers and Stevie Wonder, he says – by embracing instrumental rather than electronic sounds. 

House of Solo spoke with Jesso about his time in isolation, new musical endeavours and how he intends to use his platform to support community-based and global initiatives. 

How are you doing?

I’m doing OK! It’s hard to be OK in this crazy time, but I am very lucky. 

Where are you now?

I’m quarantined in Jupiter, Florida with my dog Elvis and my parents. It’s actually pretty nice to be home with my parents. It makes me feel like a kid. My mom and dad cook almost every meal. For the first 14 days I was quarantined to my room, and [because of all the travel] my mom was so scared I might have the virus, so she would knock on the door, put the food down and run away super fast before I could get the food. I’ve also been writing a lot and trying to not be anxious or get depressed about the current situation. So far, I’ve been able to keep my head above water and be productive. It’s been around 100 days of quarantine now!

Have you been listening to anything interesting?

Not a lot, unfortunately! I should probably change that. I have a huge backlog of things I want to check out. OK, I’m putting on the new Jack Garratt album (Love, Death & Dancing) [now]. I also need to check out the new John Legend record (Bigger Love) – I’m a big fan!

For people new to your music, how would you describe it?

Emotional bangers. I hope my music makes you feel and dance. If it does either one of these things, then I’m happy!

As a songwriter with a growing catalogue, you’ve amassed some great writing credits. Songwriting for other people tends to be about lending yourself to another experience or putting yourself in other people’s shoes – what is the songwriting process like for you?

It’s different every time. I always try to write for me, and at the same time I always just try to write the best song and not worry about the “me”. I try to write from experiences or pull from the experiences of others to try to tell the best or most interesting (but ultimately the most honest) story. Sometimes, it starts with a melody, or a lyric, or me sitting down at the piano and just playing to see what comes out. 

Your songwriting was nominated for a Latin Grammy for the Ricky Martin track “Vente Pa’Ca (feat. Maluma)”. As the co-writer, how did it feel to have your work recognised like that?

It was an amazing feeling! I actually didn’t end up going to the Latin Grammys because I was in Bergen, Norway that weekend shooting the Orchestral version of “Stargazing”. I wish I could have gone, but I couldn’t miss shooting that performance.  

Your recent single, “If you’re meant to come back”, is a deep confessional about the courage it takes to let a partner go, and it ditches the more upbeat sound present in your catalogue. What inspired the song and its sound?

I am a huge fan of ballads. I love emotional music, and I love real instruments. I love classic timeless sounds. I originally wrote the song thinking about my ex-girlfriend […] but it took on a bigger meaning than that. The song [is] this emotional catharsis. I want people to feel all these emotions about past loves; past friendships; people you haven’t been able to see; and at the end of the song, realise that if these things are meant to come back to you, they will. The universe has a way of working itself out. This song is about trusting the universe.

Does this single act as part of a larger body of work? 

I think it will tie into an EP, but it wasn’t originally designed to. It definitely telegraphs a change in sound – stepping further away from electronic dance music and into a more authentic, timeless sound steeped in classic songwriting and real instruments. […] I expect to release another single in August and hopefully the EP by the end of the year. 

With regards to Black Lives Matter, I feel my place is to amplify other voices who have experienced racism directly and listen. I also feel I need to speak up for what I believe is right.

Who were some of your early inspirations?

I love old soul music. I grew up listening to Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind & Fire, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Bill Withers and Otis Redding. 

After a few years writing for other artists, has it been a validating experience to prioritise your own work?

Hell yes. It’s funny [because] as much as I love writing for others, most of the time I always felt I was in the wrong chair, so to speak. I was in sessions thinking I’d rather be the artist in the room. 

You have a reflective and emotional edge to your songwriting. Many tracks examine the hurt associated with loneliness – I think isolation has led to a similar reflection for a lot of people. Has this been the case with you? How has the lockdown affected your songwriting?

The lockdown has given me a lot to think about and a lot of time to think about it! I feel isolated from many people I love; I feel isolated from real life; I feel isolated from the road. 

But at the same time, I have my parents here and it has been wonderful to spend so much time with them as an adult. We’ve had some great fights, some great laughs, and some great talks. I don’t know if that will work its way into the music, but it’s definitely worked its way into my sanity – maybe even to the detriment of my music, because I’m not [alone] just toiling. I’m really lucky. I’m able to access that hurt and pain but I’m also able to step out of it because I can cuddle my dog, Elvis, or bug my dad, or ask my mom for advice. I’m lucky to have their insight and their company.  

Right now, there is a whole lot of pain in the world. I’m fortunate that I haven’t felt the sting of racism that is so pervasive in America, so right now I am trying to amplify voices that have.  We need to listen to that pain.

What are your thoughts on that?

There are really important things happening in the world – Black Lives Matter and the pandemic. With regards to Black Lives Matter, I feel my place is to amplify other voices who have experienced racism directly and listen. I also feel I need to speak up for what I believe is right. There is so much division in the world right now. I feel it is important to let people know where I stand: for the Black Lives Matter movement; for wearing masks to stop the spread of Covid-19; for voting nationally and locally; and for actively taking steps to continue the conversation [around] systemic racism in America. There’s a lot of very important changes happening right now and I’m keeping busy [by] listening and trying to positively contribute to making the world a better place.

Finally, you’ve been using your platform to raise attention to BUILD Chicago. For your birthday, you’re raising money for the organisation to help at-risk youth in Chicago’s inner city. Could you tell us a bit about the initiative and why you have chosen to support it?

I am so glad you mentioned this. BUILD is an amazing charity that I’ve been involved with since I was little. They create programs for kids in the inner city of Chicago. BUILD serves thousands of at-risk youth in Chicago, providing guidance and services to young people in underserved communities.  BUILD […] prepares them to become positive leaders in their communities. Their work is more important than ever right now, and I am proud to be working to support them. If you have anything to spare, please donate! The link is in my Instagram bio!

Justin Jesso’s latest single “If you’re meant to come back” is available to stream now. BUILD Chicago can be found at www.buildchicago.org

Photo: Marta Literska – @martaliterska)

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