Anatomy of a break: Mapping the rise of Tobias Jesso Jr.

By John Crossingham

April 13, 2015

On March 17th, 2015, Tobias Jesso Jr. gained his 5,000th Twitter follower and entered the Buzz stage on the charts over at New Canadian Music. To the average person, the baby-faced 6’7” Vancouverite is still relatively unknown, but for those who follow music closely the buzz around the Canadian singer-songwriter has been building for at least the last 24 months.

His recent arrival in the indie music world, punctuated by the release of his praised debut, Goon (Arts & Crafts/True Panther), has been as deafening as his actual music is understated. To be fair, Jesso has some friends in high and cool places (see: members of Haim, The Black Keys, and, most crucially, defunct underground darlings Girls, whose ex-bassist Chet “JR” White was Jesso’s main producer and lifeline to a label and career). But in about a year, he has gone from a nobody posting demos on YouTube to a guy who is masterfully (if somewhat inadvertently) riding celebrity tweets, late night TV, and hip critical praise.

What follows is a breakdown of the key events that led to one of the most talked about debuts in years.

Photo via Facebook

Jesso’s backstory—affable dude whose first attempt to break into LA’s music scene in the late aughts ended in a literal car crash—only really gets trackable on social media once he has returned to his childhood home in Vancouver. After moving from guitar to piano as his main writing tool, he begins to post demos on YouTube. Over time, these demos peaked at around 40 songs. Still, with very little recognition and no advocates, Jesso was just another guy posting tunes to the web.

That all-important advocate would eventually arrive in the form of White, who received an email from Jesso linking to his demos only a few days after Girls’ unexpected implosion in July 2012. Though White excitedly got back to Jesso right away and agreed to work with the fledgling talent, progress was quite slow.

It would not be until March 2013 that Jesso would sign a record deal with True Panther (a NYC label that was home to Girls), and the songwriter’s visa issues made getting him into the States to record a headache. But at least the wheels were now turning.

One of the keys to his ascent on social media was a reset of his YouTube account. Shortly after signing to True Panther, he was asked to remove his demos and be more selective about what he posted. The first thing he reposted after this decision was a demo of “Just A Dream,” today a late-album highlight on Goon. On August 13th, 2013, music blog Pigeons and Planes posted an excited review about “Just A Dream” —on January 7th, 2014, P&P would revisit the song, calling it one of the best of the year. Though a drop in the ocean of social media, by January 9th, this praise has given Jesso what is easily his biggest single day on YouTube thus far: the video gets 2,620 views.

In the meantime, Jesso was quietly working behind the scenes on his craft and recording sessions for his debut. Nearly a year after “Just a Dream,” a second demo, called “True Love,” was posted on July 24, 2014. In Toronto, Cameron Reed, the marketing and label manager at Arts and Crafts, received an email from an industry colleague in New York. “He sent me one of the YouTube demos for ‘True Love,’” Reed recalls today, “just saying, ‘this guy’s going to be huge,’ but not much more. The video had a few hundred listens. I contributed a few hundred more.” This gesture was the start of an eventual licensing deal for the LP in Canada through A&C.

More press now got on board, as well. Thanks to a warm mention on the music/film website Consequence of Sound on July 27th, “True Love” received almost 15,000 views in a single day (Pitchfork followed suit, reviewing the post a day later). He also garnered a few hundred Facebook page likes. Though those aren’t internet-breaking numbers by any means, it was a significant jump from the attention given to him by Pigeons and Planes—Jesso now found himself on the radar of a pair of influential music sites.

Over the course of late summer and fall, a couple things quietly happened in his favour, a testament to the connections he was building. The Blogotheque’s hugely credible Take Away Show released a session with Jesso on September 10. Though the boost to his social numbers was small, it’s telling that he got a session ahead of any major release or tour. Similarly, an October 22nd “Rising” profile on Pitchfork only further confirmed that he had the music intelligentsia’s ear.

When on November 17th “Hollywood,” the first actual track off of what eventually becomes Goon, was released, media outlets and blogs like Pitchfork and COS were now firmly in his corner. The effect on his Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube was comparable to what occurred with “True Love.” Thanks to the fact that the media is paying attention, he’s slowly gaining pockets of a few hundred fans and followers with each post.

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Presumably, this slow build of previewing songs was always the plan. And the end result would have probably been a decent but far more modest one if not for some divine intervention. After releasing the video for lead single, “How Could You Babe,” on January 20th of 2015 (with his usual media outlets announcing it), the effect is actually fairly muted compared to the previous one-day peaks for “True Love” and “Hollywood”: it receives about 5,000 YouTube plays for the day.

Then, on the following day, Adele tweets about the video.

The internet responds tremendously to her endorsement, giving his YouTube nearly 25,000 views in one day and well over 100,000 for the week (as well as 1,000+ new Facebook page likes). It’s a huge day.

Only a month later, on February 26th, Jesso plays “How Could You Babe” with the Roots on Jimmy Fallon, a highly unusual appearance given that his debut record still hasn’t been released yet. (Unfortunately the video is no longer online.) As Fallon says in his introduction, “I heard this song on the internet or something, and it just blew my mind.” Though it’s a leap to suggest that Fallon found out about Jesso because of Adele, there’s little denying the manner in which her little gesture changed the type of people who were paying attention to him. Jesso’s Facebook gains another 1,000 odd fans over the week. And now it’s starting to happen for real.

Flush with some real world cred, Jesso now previews a third song from Goon, “Without You,” on March 5th. The next day, Consequence of Sound also writes a very favourable early review of the full album. This time—with many new Facebook and Twitter followers piqued by his endorsements from Adele and Fallon—his YouTube account gets nearly 40,000 views on the 6th.


Finally on March 16th, the eve of Goon’s release, everything harmonizes beautifully with a pair of bookends for which most young artists would kill. The day begins with a ringing Best New Music review on Pitchfork, and closes with him performing “Without You” on Conan (with Danielle Haim playing drums, no less). His Facebook page likes leap by nearly 700, part of a several-day peak, with Twitter following suit by nearly the same amount on the day of release.

In the end, Jesso’s story is marked with plenty of good fortune. But, much like the appeal of his songwriting itself, it’s intriguing how his ascent is a mix of slow-bubbling critical praise and old-fashioned celebrity muscle. Though the latter probably would not have happened without the former, its the celebrity endorsement that sent him into an entirely new conversation. When Jesso originally wrote “Hollywood,” it was clearly from the perspective of a befuddled outsider. Wonder if the town makes any more sense to him now?

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