15 Minutes with JP Saxe

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JP Saxe press shot-minToronto’s JP Saxe has already experienced an insane amount of success in a very short period of time.

From a monumental nomination at this year’s Grammy Awards, snagging Breakthrough Artist of The Year at the Junos and stealing the heart of singer Julia Michaels, life for the “If The World Was Ending” singer is good.

Things should get even bigger as the Canadian singer/songwriter unleashed his debut album ‘Dangerous Levels of Introspection” on Sony Music earlier this year.

Part of the plan is a tour of Halls and Theatres across the US starting in Calgary in October.

The closest he gets to the 519 area is a hometown show in Toronto on Nov. 2.

Congrats on the Juno win and the release of the debut album. Not many actually start their career with a Juno win and a Grammy nomination before their debut album ever comes out. But the truth is, your story actually didn’t start right now. How has your journey been so far?
Yeah, it’s a good question. In a lot of ways, this feels like the very beginning and something I’ve been working towards for 15 years. I had my first weekly gig in Toronto at a piano bar called Statler’s, when I was 14 years old. They hired me to play at their Sunday brunch. So that was my first gig. Then, for five years, I played every possible open mic I could find in the GTA. And I had a dad who was lovely enough to be driving me around all of those places and enjoyed hanging out at these singer songwriter clubs. So every night I could find one, I was at one.

Then at 19, I moved to Los Angeles, which felt like a huge adventure. It might have been just a reckless dive into the uncertainty. But it all felt so exciting. It’s been nine years now since I moved to Los Angeles, and I’ve just put out my debut album. So as you said, it feels like the beginning of something. But yes, I’ve been working towards this for a very long time.

Is there a statement or vibe that you wanted to accomplish with the “Dangerous Levels of Introspection” album?
My priority, with my songs is always just being sincere for a lot of reasons. Songs have always been where I feel like I’m figuring myself out and where I feel closest to myself. So if I can figure out what being honest means in my song, that is cathartic for me. First and foremost. If I’m not being honest in the songs, it’s confusing for me to go back and play those songs over and over again, if they’re not fully myself. If they’re not fully truthful, it feels like I’m lying every night singing them, and that messes with my sense of self. So both because of my creative philosophies, but also just as a person,  I really want to be candid in the songs. For this first album, I would say that these are songs directly out of my journals from the last five years.

jp saxe album cover-minHow about the song itself? Tell me about that.
We just talked about being 19 and moving to Los Angeles, and how that was this grand, uncertain, scary thing, but also this extremely exciting adventure. I think,  with a ton of uncertainty also comes a ton of possibility.  I wrote that song with Amy Allen and Greg Kurstin. The morning of the session, I was kickin’ it with my friend Chris, who was one of the first producers I’ve worked with in L.A. When I met Chris, he was signed to Babyface. He brought me in for a session, and it was the first time I was in a really big, beautiful L.A. studio, and it felt so fancy. We did a session, and then he was like, all right, this was great.  I might text you to come back. Literally, I was sleeping in my car outside the studio the next few nights hoping you would text me to come back to the studio because I didn’t have an apartment yet. That was the time in my life when I was going to open mics in L.A. and trying to make friends so I could sleep on their couch.  I would wake up, not knowing how any of the days were gonna go, to the point where I’d be sleeping. So we were talking about this, and in retrospect, it was just poetic, romanticized, exciting memories that were entirely inaccurate from what it actually was. Sure it was poetic and beautiful and exciting, but it was also fucking terrifying. But, the danger of nostalgia is that you cover up a lot of the memories that made it bad sometimes when you’re looking back. So that song “Dangerous Levels of Introspection” is sort of my take on that. You get too caught up in analyzing a memory for all of its beauty and you can start taking all the magic out of the present because you’re comparing it to a past that didn’t actually occur.

Usually a debut album is the culmination of years of songs, is that so with this one? Or did the songs all come together quickly, currently?
The first writing of this album was in spring of 2018. So spring 2018 till now is a song on the album called “4:30 in Toronto”. And “4:30 in Toronto” is actually the song where I first wrote, “If the World Was Ending, You’d Come Over, Right?” It was the chorus for that song. But it never felt totally at home in that song. I love that line, but they just didn’t fit perfectly together. So, that line stayed in my journal, and a year later, an earthquake in L.A. reminded me of that, so I brought that to a session with Julia, and it became another song on the album. So there’s a lot of thorough lines throughout it. I think often my next song will start as a failed attempt at finishing the previous one, which I’ve always thought of as a little bit of a metaphor.

Your songs seem to have, not necessarily a complete song of storytelling style. But it feels like it’s a pouring of thoughts. Is that kind of accurate?
Yeah, I think songs move me the most, when I don’t feel like someone is trying to tell me something specifically, they’re just letting me in on their thought process a little bit.  It feels disingenuous for me to write songs that feel like finished thoughts, because I have very few finished thoughts and to write songs that feel like answers, because I have very few emotional answers. What feels the most sincere to me, is to write songs that feel like a moment of the process, a moment of a very confused, emotional, human process.

Music seems to be all around you. Your grandfather, Grammy Award winner, and then there’s Julia. It feels like music was your destiny?
I see why you would say that, yes. I am extremely grateful for my grandfather for a number of reasons. He was a classical cellist. So that’s a different world entirely from the one that I have pursued. But having the lineage that I have, and having a grandfather who had the kind of illustrious life in music that he had, made the idea of me pursuing music as a career, slightly less absurd to my parents, as I think it is, for most people who make the decisions I’ve made. There were the hurdles of convincing my family that I wasn’t entirely ruining my life by skipping college to write songs, I think it wasn’t quite as high of a hurdle as it is for most of my colleagues. Another way that my grandfather inspires me to this day is his philosophies about music making, although with a solo classical instrument. We’re this endless pursuit of beauty. What are the most minute intricacies of playing my instrument that can create the most subtle, nuanced moments of beauty? Like how deep can I get into it? He talked about the process of getting better and better at the Cello finding smaller and smaller points of tension and release. And that’s an endless pursuit. I don’t play a solo instrument, but I do try and be as uncompromising with lyricism and storytelling in pop songwriting, as I admired my grandfather to be with his cello.

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JP Saxe and Julia Michaels in the video for “If The World Was Ending.”

Tell me about Julia and how it went from simply writing and singing together to becoming a relationship.
It all happened quite simultaneously. Julie and I met the day we wrote “If the World Was Ending”, so that was a very good day for me. I highly doubt there will ever be a day in my life that will be quite as impactful as getting a girlfriend and the Grammy nomination. I asked her to be my girlfriend, like a gentleman, nine days after meeting, in that we are coming up on our two year anniversary in a couple of weeks.

I want to get her something really nice. Any suggestions? Because if you came up with something really good, I don’t think she will see this interview, just because she’s not super on top of her Windsor publications. So if you had a really good idea, and you shared it, I think we could keep it a secret, huh? What’s the best gift you’ve ever given someone?

I’ve taken my wife on surprise trips, we just kind of jump in the car and go. Those are some of our most favorite moments.
Julie and I did that a ton during quarantine, that was our move, we would hop in the car and just pick a direction and go.

Yeah, it’s so special, especially when you reach that destination that you didn’t know you were going to.
Yeah, I love that. We do have a specific destination in mind for our anniversary. So I know where we’re going to be. I just need to find something to put in the box, even if it’s an invitation to an adventure. But I think an invitation to adventure might be a good idea.

You spoke a bit about the pandemic. You’ve had a lot of activity in the last few years throughout the pandemic. Some people just sit there, eat chips and watch Netflix. But you accomplished, 1 billion streams. Tell me about that song itself “If the World Was Ending?
Well,  don’t get me wrong, I did a lot of eating chips and watching Netflix. (laughter)

I think 15 months in, it’s hard to summarize any 15 month period, with one emotion, one tone, I feel like there’s been many areas of the last 15 months for me and most of my friends. So yeah, some of it was quite productive. Because I had just happened to write a song six months prior to the pandemic that was about what was on a lot of our minds.

When we wrote “If the World Was Ending”, we were thinking about a hypothetical catastrophe that would get in the way of your reasons not to talk to the people you love. It was real when we wrote it, it was a real relatable feeling for a lot of people because when petty bullshit gets in the way of the relationships you have with the people you love, it’s a natural thing to imagine some scenario where your reasons wouldn’t seem so big anymore.

Now, we had no way of anticipating, obviously, that we would stumble upon a world where it just wasn’t the hypothetical to be imagining that situation and we would just be in that situation. We saw the song relating in a much more present immediate way, which at first was a little confusing. It was a new experience seeing a song taking on that sort of universal relatability that fast.

But ultimately, I think the song at its core just speaks to putting love first. I was grateful to that song for putting me in the middle of a conversation about something that I care about during an otherwise extremely confusing period.

 

We actually spoke with Micah Barnes (formerly of The Nylons in our July 2021 issue) and your name came up. Tell me about working with him?
He was one of my first songwriting and singing mentors when I was 13. My dad used to run an art gallery in Toronto. He now still, once again owns an art gallery in Toronto because we reopened it together.

It was called The Saxe Gallery he had it in the 80s and now we have a Saxe Gallery again, there’s just two Saxes now. But back then, Micah would play in my dad’s gallery. So he and my dad were old friends.

When I started showing interest in singing and playing the piano, my dad introduced me to Micah and he brought me into a little studio when I was a kid, and I played him some songs, and he became my teacher.  I did all his workshops, and played him all my songs, and he was just the most supportive, loving, kind mentor I could have possibly had.

Then, when it looked like I was starting to take it on as a profession, he became even more involved in my life and helped me get over being terrified of playing on stage and feeling comfortable in my own voice and still a really important part of my life to this day.

He seems very proud.
That makes me happy.

Speaking of working with others, here’s the name dropping section of the interview. Tell me about John Mayer and how he ended up on the album.
John Mayer is one of my favorite songwriters on the planet. When I found the album “Continuum” , as a teenager, it honestly changed my life. I didn’t know what it felt like to get punched in the heart by a lyric, and when I heard John, do it on “Continuum”, I thought, that’s what I want to do. That’s how I want to make people feel songs.

Almost a decade after listening to that album, to be making my first album and invite John to come listen to it in the studio, for him to say yes, for him to like it enough to want to play on one of the songs was just one of the most fucking unbelievable days of my life. Meeting John, have him play on the record, he was just the most gracious, kind person. You know, they say, don’t meet your heroes, but if your heroes are John Mayer, meet your heroes.

Then getting to performing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,  just the two of us, that was just entirely surreal to me. Because,  he’s been a part of my life longer than he knew he was part of my life. So just to have him have my back for this album, it’s been really special and really encouraging. Occasionally, don’t tell him this, it’s embarrassing, but occasionally in moments of insecurity, I will read back texts that he has sent me saying nice things to remember that John Mayer thinks I’m doing something valid, then it must be true.

There’s also Maren Morris on the album, was that collaboration really as simple as just a tweet?
Well, it began that way. I tweeted that I was quite a fan of Maren Morris’s songs, and she responded that she liked my songs too. So I went to Nashville, my first ever session in Nashville was with Maren Morris, which was fun because it took me a very long time to get into a session quite that good in Los Angeles. So to arrive to Nashville at the top of the Nashville songwriting circuit was pretty cool. And Maren’s just a brilliant writer, a brilliant singer, just a genuinely wonderful human being.

I loved meeting her, and like a lot of my favorite songs that have been a part of it came so directly from the conversation, we just enjoyed kickin’ it with one another and talking and out came a song that is free flowing, just like meeting each other and having a conversation.

You appeared on The Lights for Canada Day Special. Tell me about Canada and what it means to you, because our country is struggling at the moment.
Yeah, you know, living in America, for the last 10 years, I think can create a skewed perspective on Canadian pride. Because my Canadian pride has been in indirect contrast to living in a country, especially over the last four years that represented my values, so vastly differently than the way I felt they’ve been represented by Canada.

With that said, moments like these when we are reckoning with our own very dark Canadian past, is a reminder that painting any country with one broad brush is a mistake.

I think this Canada Day, just like this Independence Day, and just like any moment celebrating the heritage of a country, a blind celebration is inappropriate, but rather a conversation about where we have entirely fucked up. But also where we intend to do better, is an important thing to recognize. I thought a lot about whether I was going to participate in this Canada Day celebration but we looked at the lineup of people and decided that if the First Nations artists who were a part of the event, felt they still wanted to be a part of the event, we would still be a part of the event too, and vice versa.

Check out JPSaxe.com for more music and upcoming tour dates.

Photo: Martin Hausler
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