Tobias Jesso Jr. is learning to push past the pain

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      With Tobias Jesso Jr. being 2015’s most buzzworthy pop-rock pianist, it’s only fitting that a sonorous piano chord is the first thing to come through the line when the Straight reaches the artist at his home in Hollywood. His own friendly voice quickly chimes in to explain he’s currently without a laptop, and using his smartphone to lay down demos. On this particular day, he’s working on his first-ever western-tinged tune.

      “I’m doing writing exercises, I guess. I had a piano lesson last week and I learned a couple country licks,” he says. When grilled about his general cowboy know-how, the North Vancouver–raised musician admits: “I’ve never actually been steeped in country culture, to be honest. I’ve been to Calgary before and seen all the bucket hats.”

      Though Jesso’s stint at the Silverlake Conservatory of Music was brought on to spice up his repertoire, critics and fans alike have been flocking to the lovesick sounds he delivers on his debut LP, Goon. Impressively, the elegant collection was written as the musician was just learning how to handle a keyboard.

      As the story goes, Jesso left North Vancouver for L.A. in the mid ’00s to make it big in the music biz. While he landed a job playing bass for singer Melissa Cavatti, that teen upstart’s career didn’t exactly take off. Spiralling professional options and a brutal breakup sent Jesso back to B.C. in 2012.

      “I felt pretty defeated going back. Not that I don’t love Vancouver—I do. [But] I left Vancouver with the goal in mind to set myself up into adulthood. I came back an adult with none of the success.”

      Feeling low, Jesso wandered down into his parents’ basement to tinker with the family piano. While sharpening his songwriting skills, he uploaded a demo of his “Just a Dream” onto YouTube. Featuring no more than gently plunked chords and fragile, reflective vocals, it was a raw and honest performance that pushed him forward with a new sound.

      “The whole thing was written the first few months of me playing—I definitely wasn’t very good, but the songs turned out,” he says humbly of Goon, which includes a redo of “Just a Dream”.

      Elsewhere, the AM Gold standout “Without You” starts with the heartbreaking question “Why can’t you just love me?” “Can We Still Be Friends” further explores fractured relationships, while mixing Let It Be balladry with the theme song to Cheers. The sarcasm-stained “Crocodile Tears”, however, adds a bit of dark humour into the mix via Jesso’s self-deprecating “boo hoo hoo”.

      Though the record presents an often painful look at Jesso’s life, his songbook is helping him push past the bad times. Mostly.

      “Like a really scary movie you watch a million times, it’s not so scary anymore,” the songwriter explains, “But, yeah, I definitely have drunken moments when I click into the song I’m playing live and I remember what it’s about. It’s hard sometimes.”

      But while Jesso’s out in the open with his first batch of songs, he’s keeping the tracks on his iPhone under lock and key.

      “Maybe later on, 10 years down the road, when I’m more comfortable with the whole thing, I’ll release all my demos,” he says with a cautious chuckle. “ ‘Here’s 200 songs, now stop bugging me.’ ”

      Tobias Jesso Jr. plays the Pemberton Music Festival on Sunday (July 19).