Upbeat and welcoming in his energy, US musician Justin Jesso, has a shining presence. From the very second he walked through the door, an easy-flowing conversation sparked up instantly between us. The Chicago-born artist had arrived in London just hours before we sat down to chat, hitting the city fresh from an overnight trip to Amsterdam with his mate and ‘Stargazing’ collaborator, Kygo—the huge hit single that propelled Justin’s crossover from songwriter, to his dream of being a solo musician of his own. He fills me in on the antics which kept the pair awake until four in the morning, along with their videographer JL. It is far from the heavy partying lifestyle you would imagine a couple of musicians to lead. Instead they amused themselves into the early hours by telling each other “Dad jokes”. “We got into the car this morning and were still doing it. We’re still scrolling looking for the funny lines. I would rather do that with friends than go out and get wasted”, Justin tells me. As well as sharing some of his favourite one-liners from the night before. As he clicked open a can of energy drink, chatting to Justin Jesso felt more like a catch up between pals, rather than an interview. Despite us only meeting each other four minutes prior.
Throughout the conversation, Justin’s appreciation for the rise that he is currently on with his music remains firmly present. However, most of all, the singer-songwriter is thankful for the positive impact his art is making on the lives of other people, and the connection it is bridging between him and his fans. Halfway through our interview, Justin takes his phone out of his pocket and opens up a message he recently received from a guy from Brooklyn, praising his tune ‘Getting Closer’ for helping him through a tough time in his life. “It’s so special. That’s the coolest part”, he reflects. No doubt there will be more moments like those to come for him, especially with the release of his heart-warming new love song ‘Let It Be Me’, featuring Nina Nesbitt. Just one of the talking points of our enjoyable chat, as well as discussing collaborations and the musical influences that have shaped his sound up to now. Read what Justin had to say about it all below.
What brings you to London?
I’m about to release a song called ‘Let It Be Me’ with my friend Nina Nesbitt. I’m super excited about it! That’s the reason I’m in the UK at the moment; we are gonna do some promo over the next couple of days. I love London, it feels very much so like home.
What was it like working with Nina?
I love Nina, Nina’s great! I met her for the first time at her concert in LA, I saw her perform and I was like “Oh shit, she’s great.” We were looking for a feature to tie this ‘Let It Be Me’ song together and make it better. I heard her voice and was like “well that’s perfect”, so it just came together in a really great way. It wasn’t difficult. I met her that night and she was excited about the record. We got in the studio a week or two later. She’s just a pro and really sweet and lovely and wonderful.
Your Kygo collaboration ‘Stargazing’ was a massive release for you! Is it hard to follow up a track that big?
Oh yes, one hundred percent! Yeah I got so lucky with that and obviously, the eyeballs and the ears were all there for that one.
You made your way onto the scene as a songwriter, how does it feel to finally be getting yourself out there performing your own material?
It feels amazing! This is what I wanted to do my entire life. So even on days where I’m not the happiest… like a couple of days ago, I was having a bit of an existential crisis, where I was in Vienna and I called my Mum and I was like “I’m not sure I’m happy.” It’s not that I’m unhappy to be doing what I’m doing, I love what I’m doing. It’s just, am I doing it the right way? To make it in the music industry is the most insane mountain in the world that you could ever try to climb, and you get one shot, maybe two if you’re super lucky.
What are some of the obstacles you have faced and how do you remain motivated?
The biggest obstacle was getting people to take me seriously as an artist. I would write songs and I’d send them to A&R’s as pitches for other artists—this actually happened three different times, at three different labels—I’d sit down with the A&R and they’d go “Oh my God you’re songs are amazing, your voice is amazing! Why aren’t we signing you?” and I’d go “Why aren’t you signing me? Let’s go!” So I’d follow up and two weeks later they’d go “Erm, actually we just wanna buy this song off of you and put it on this kid who has 1.8 million Instagram followers. So let’s give them what you have to say, cos your words are interesting to us, but not through you.”. That happened first at Lava right out of college, off of a song that I wrote in Norway. It happened again at Warner, then it happened for the last time at Epic.
That’s so frustrating!
It was really frustrating, but at the time I was broke and they offered me ten grand to buy the song for six months. But it was really heart-breaking. I looked at myself in the mirror and said “Ok, I hear the universe, I’m supposed to be a songwriter. I’m not gonna put my dream away of being an artist and singing my own songs, but the universe is telling me I need to focus in another direction right now”. And so I did that. Three months later I wrote ‘Stargazing’. I wrote it on a Monday and on Tuesday it was sent to Kygo. On Wednesday he sent us back a version and on Friday it was a confirmed single. It came out two months later and in those two months the label fought really hard to put another artist, with a bigger name and a bigger audience on the track. It was Kygo that stood up to the label and said no. He didn’t know me at the time, he just respected another artist. I’m forever grateful to him for that, because that gave me the opportunity to have a career.
It can be a tough industry. When was the moment that you felt like having a career in it was within your reach?
I always wanted to be an artist, but I knew kind of early on—after I was playing little clubs in New York, and I had a small career with Disney—nothing seemed to work out and no one was taking me seriously. But as a songwriter, I could get into rooms and write for other people, so my plan was to always pull a Julia Michaels, a Bruno Mars, a John Legend and write for other people first. Then people would take me seriously enough to hear what I have to say through my voice. I knew that being a songwriter was a viable career when I started getting offered publishing deals. Being an artist was more difficult. It’s my dream and I feel like I’m still fighting to solidify any sort of place, you know? I’m really fortunate that I get to do this now and because of ‘Stargazing’, I gained some attention and kind of crossed that boundary of “Ok, you’ve written hits for others, now it’s your turn.” Then was lucky enough to follow it up with a song called ‘Getting Closer’, which did really well on radio in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and other countries in Europe. That’s all kind of propelled me forward to continue doing this. I still don’t feel like I’ve gotten anywhere close. I want to fill Stadiums, you know?
What’s the best part about doing what you’re doing now?
The coolest part about what I’m doing is that people will now reach out to me on Instagram and tell me how my song has changed their lives. The songs I write and I put out myself are very emotional, based off of heartbreak and relationships I’ve had, or haven’t had. I want people to feel something from my music.
You grew up in Chicago and have also lived in New York and LA, how have your surroundings influenced your sound as an artist?
Oh that’s a good question! I grew up listening to old soul music; Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, James Brown, Bill Withers, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston. Then my Brother was listening to Blink 182 when we were growing up, so I got a little bit of that in Chicago. When I went to college, I ended up interning for EMI Publishing in New York. Living in New York but doing a lot of travelling and I ended up doing a lot of internationally based writing, so I kind of got a little bit of everything.
When did you know that music was the route that you wanted to take?
Kind of always. I was the kid that went for the plastic microphone toy instead of the football. My Mum actually tells a story of when I was a one-year-old, I was crying my face off and she put on Whitney Houston singing the National Anthem and I shut up immediately. The second it was over, I would start crying again, so she’d have it on a loop. Then I stepped on the stage for the first time when I was five, because my Grandmother put me in a talent show; like a local old people’s talent show. They were like “Oh Justin likes to sing, he’s cute, let him go onstage.” And I never wanted to leave!
Your debut EP ‘Let It Be Me’ was fully released in March, are you pleased with the response it’s had?
Yeah! The single off of it ‘Getting Closer’ was a top 10 on radio in Germany, Switzerland and Austria. I think that it would be great, obviously, if more people heard it. But you know, it’s my first thing. So I was kinda grateful that anybody listened and I didn’t know what to expect. I’m pleased with where it’s all at and excited for where it’s going.
As a songwriter, there are certain people in your life who have become the subject of your work…
*laughs* So now you’re gonna ask me about all my ex’s?
Actually I’m not, I was going to ask how you would feel to become the subject of somebody else’s songs?
Are you writing a song about me?
Who knows, maybe in the future.
I hope you do! I would love that!
What do you think a song about Justin Jesso would sound like?
Wow, erm… they’d probably talk about how short I am *laughs*. How much I love my dog. Hopefully nothing too bad. I’ve never dated another artist. I would hope that if someone were to write a song about me, it would be relatively positive. Like “Oh my heart is broken, but at least he treated me right” *laughs*. You know, something along those lines.
You’ve spent some time on the road touring with the likes of Kygo and Tears For Fears, what have you taken away from those experiences?
Well Kygo has been the last year and a half of my life. We’ve gone around the world together. He’s a good buddy of mine. I’ve gotten to play some of the biggest stages in the world with him, it’s been a really cool ride! I’m really grateful to him for it. I remember the first couple of months touring, no one knew me. So I had to get on stage and convince them that they should like my song and pay attention and this was a cool part of the show. It started changing around February or March of last year, where I would come on stage and people would be like “Oh shit, it’s ‘Stargazing’.” So that was cool! Tears For Fears was really cool too, just being on my own and getting to do my own show for the first time felt like a progression for me. That was crazy too, we did like 15,000 in France; all 60-year-olds. It was fun. I like the older audience. I love piano ballads, I’m a singer-songwriter, not an EDM guy. So older audiences will actually sit and appreciate that, which is really cool.
What are your plans for the rest of this year?
This week I’m doing promo, next week I’m doing promo in different countries. Then I’m prepping for a tour in Europe in September and October, that’s going to be my first headline tour in Europe. I’m super excited! Then I plan to release another single, probably around the same time and then hopefully an EP by the end of the year.
A quote you try to live by?
May the best days of your past, be the worst days of your future.
What was you like at school?
I was the kid who ran into the bathroom to take a phone call with his manager and got caught by the teacher. Then the teacher was like “That’s okay, it’s Justin.”
Who are your idols and have you met any of them?
Stevie Wonder. Yes! In fact, I took a class in college and it was on Stevie Wonder. It was the first day of the class and the teacher goes “Oh I have a little present for you guys, let me go outside and see if it’s here.” I was thinking he’s gonna bring in CDs or something and in walks fucking Stevie Wonder! He talked to our class for 45 minutes on himself. It was very cool. It was mind blowing!
Tell us about a pinch me moment you’ve had?
I played my hometown show at the United Center. That was a bit of a pinch me moment. My favourite was I got hired to play a wedding, I was doing soundcheck and got to the final number, which was of course ‘Stargazing’ and I started playing on the piano and I just started sobbing, because I realised for the first time that I had made something that affected people to the point they wanted me to play at their wedding. That was really cool. I’m still getting emotional thinking about it.
Interview by Demi Leigh