The "Without You" singer talks about who he's excited to see at Pitchfork and learning piano from YouTube

By Alex Heigl
Updated July 16, 2015 05:00 PM
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Credit: Robin Marchant/Getty

Tobias Jesso Jr. has the kind of backstory you used to see on Behind the Music. After trying to make it in L.A. (Jesso is from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada) for years as a bassist and songwriter, Jesso had one of those weeks.

He was hit by a car while riding his bike, and then a homeless person made off with his bike. Later that week, he and his girlfriend broke up. Then his dad sent him a Facebook message, asking him to call home. When Jesso called, he learned his mother had cancer.

“And I was like, Okay, there’s a sign,” Jesso told NPR in April. “I got to move back to Vancouver, you know.”

After moving back home, Jesso started playing an unused piano, composing songs on what was then for him a relatively new instrument. The result was Goon, a collection of sparse, fraught tunes, mostly piano-based, one of which ended up catching the eye of one very prominent fan.

Flash forward a few months and some rave reviews and late-night talk show appearances later, and Jesso’s hitting the road over the summer and fall in support of Goon. He talked with PEOPLE in advance of this weekend’s Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.

You made Goon while dealing with a few heavy emotional situations. Is it hard to sort of relive those each night through song?
I don’t really feel like it affects me much anymore – sometimes on a night I’ll connect with a song, but I see it as just the performance more than the song’s material. After playing the song enough it’s just like having a conversation with someone about a specific thing – the more you do it, the easier it is to deal with. I have more problems dealing with my voice when performing.

You weren’t a piano player for most of your early musical career in L.A. How has your approach to songwriting changed since switching instruments?
It’s opened up a lot, piano is one of the only instruments you can literally put your hands on and hope for a good sound, and sometimes it happens, too. Some of my best songwriting choices started as mistakes or learning curves, when I accidentally hit a “wrong” key or something. I try not to lose that the more I learn the how’s and why’s of piano.

People tend to mention Harry Nilsson and Randy Newman when talking about Goon. Who are some of your less-obvious songwriting influences?
Hiking in Vancouver weather. I’d say that played a big role in these songs.

What’s your favorite part about touring?
When it’s over.

How about your least-favorite part?
I’d say my least favorite part is right before and everything up until it’s over.

Which city are you most excited to visit on your tour?
I’d like to get to Italy. I didn’t make it last time, so I’d really like to go there.

You told Pitchfork you’d love to collaborate with Adele – who else is on your "dream collaborator" list?
There are so many artists I’d love to write with. I think I’d be equally excited for just about anybody who wanted to sit down and figure something out, as long as they ended up singing the song.

Anyone you’re excited to see at Pitchfork?
I’m really excited to see Wilco. Also, I saw Mac DeMarco at Coachella and that was pretty wild. Mac was just soloing and drinking beer, at his leisure, wearing overalls in 100-degree weather. I’ll probably catch that show.

You told NPR that you’re actually a "pretty happy guy," but a lot of press photos – and the recent Saint Laurent shoot – have this brooding, dark quality to them. Does that ever get weird? Like, you see these shots and think, "Is that me?"
I don’t really pay attention to the shots, if I’m being honest. There are so many photos of me performing I can’t even look at. I’ve learned with this record, and not only just photos but press in general, there’s a story, and then there’s a whole story. I don’t think there’s any way to get the whole story with me unless you’re a close friend of mine. Besides that, people can think what they will, I don’t think many photographers given the chance would choose a picture of me smiling – although there have been a couple who have – shout-out to Tom Spray.

You have sheet music and tutorials for your songs up online. What made you want to take that extra step to reach out to fans?
I learned piano off YouTube, and still do a lot. It’s hard to find contemporary indie music on there, at least lessons, because the reach is smaller. I did it so people like me out there could learn my songs if they wanted to, and maybe in a small way to pay forward all the free lessons I’ve had over the years.

Goon is out now. You can catch up with Jesso on his tour or at his tumblr.