With Hits for Adele, Harry Styles and Haim, Tobias Jesso Jr. Is Pop’s Go-To Therapist Songwriter

The Songwriter of the Year nominee discusses his journey from indie artist to behind-the-scenes co-writer.

Tobias Jesso Jr. at home 2022.

Tobias Jesso Jr. at home, 2022.Courtesy of Justin Chung

A week before Thanksgiving in 2021, Adele posted a video to   her Instagram account, in which she was reclining on a sofa in a black Nike ACG hoodie and a loose bun, delivering an early version of “To Be Loved,” the penultimate track on her then-new divorce album 30. The song finds the singer at her most confessional, laying down the terms of her “divorce, babe, divorce” in a sparse, almost seven-minute ballad. This rough, slightly distorted preliminary take feels far more raw than the one on the album—part aria, part primal scream.

The clip is startling, like walking in on someone crying by herself. But Adele wasn’t alone in the video: the song’s co-writer, Tobias Jesso Jr., was just out of frame, playing the piano. In 2015, after they first worked together on her slow-burning ballad about the ache of nostalgia, “When We Were Young,” Adele called Tobias her secret weapon, declaring “He will be writing songs with me for the rest of my career.” 


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Seven years later, the list of people who feel the same way is long. The 37-year-old Jesso Jr. has become one of pop’s most reliable songwriters and perhaps its most in-demand therapist, helping larger-than-life artists from Pink to King Princess, and John Legend to Lewis Capaldi, turn inner pain into soul-baring cuts that often turn out to be the centerpieces of their respective albums. He has become known for pop confessionals that find larger-than-life superstars honing in on intensely personal, even traumatic experiences and setting them to sturdy, Brill Building-caliber melodies. And his accomplishments were publicly affirmed last month when he nabbed a nomination for the Grammys’ new Songwriter of the Year category, for his work with acts as wide ranging as Adele, Harry Styles (“Boyfriends”), FKA twigs (three cuts off Caprisongs) and Omar Apollo (“No Good Reason”).

When I meet Jesso Jr at a swanky diner in downtown Manhattan, he’s attempting to cram his six-feet-seven-inch frame into a booth as Paul Simon sets the mood on the jukebox. The man behind some of contemporary pop’s most elegiac ballads turns out to be an enthusiastic, upbeat presence, easy to smile and quick to quip. (“He’s kind of just like a big friendly giant,” FKA twigs will later tell me.) He’s in town for sessions with Dua Lipa, as they work on the anticipated follow-up to her quarantine blockbuster Future Nostalgia. “She’s just been blowing my mind,” he says. “I mean, she would, mid-session, record [an episode of her] podcast. We’d take an hour break then she’d come back and we’d just continue with the song. I couldn’t believe the hustle.”

Fans of mid-2010s indie music might remember Jesso as the acclaimed singer-songwriter behind the 2015 breakup album Goon, which was blessed by a holy triumvirate of indie royalty: producer Ariel Rechtshaid, Patrick Carney of the Black Keys, and the late JR White of the band Girls. Goon was a major 2015 album for the Pitchfork set, with a sound that garnered favorable comparisons to Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman and Paul McCartney, and set up Jesso as an artist on the verge of a major breakthrough. They were songs that felt both out of time and timeless, clearly referencing classic ‘70s balladry but with taste and perspective that elevated the project beyond pastiche. It also got him through a breakup, he cracks.

The actress Dakota Johnson met Jesso a few years before Goon’s release, when he was initially trying to make it as a songwriter and musician in L.A. in the late 2000s. He was in a band with Johnson’s ex-boyfriend and ended up crashing on her couch “for a long time.”

“When I first met Tobias, I found him incredibly annoying,” Johnson says in an email. “That was probably mostly because his giant body was literally always on my couch in my tiny apartment; but it was also because not only did he notice absolutely everything about everything, everything became a ‘bit.’ I soon came to see the incredible gift in this. I think this is what makes him a magical songwriter. He sees tiny pains, little joys, sweet details that never knew they were sweet and shines a hot spotlight on them with great wit and great talent.”

But just as his career as an artist started to take off, Jesso decided to walk away from it all. “My gut was telling me I was on the wrong path,” he says now. “I was really having a hard time. I was drinking a lot because I had so much stage fright every night. I was having a bottle of wine before I went on stage, and then I’d make a fool of myself and just embarrass myself and then it would all happen again the next day. It just felt very destructive to what I was trying to become—which was just a songwriter who still had a life.” 

He has said that he was in the “middle of a breakdown” when Adele reached out to his management, wanting to meet. She had already publicly professed her love for his ballad “How Could You Babe.” Now, she wanted to see if they could work on something for 25. That session eventually birthed “When We Were Young,” which became a worldwide hit, and he was on his way.

A lot of Jesso’s early sessions produced songs that largely adhered to the Goon sound, sweeping piano ballads that stood in contrast to what was happening on pop radio. Today though, his range is clear in the diverse set of artists he’s worked with, emerging as one of pop’s top songwriters—an occupation that has allowed Jesso to stay behind the scenes while doing the work he loves.

But this year, it seems the spotlight has found Tobias Jesso Jr. again with his Grammy nomination: A win could put him up on music’s biggest stage. “I think if a songwriter really wants the limelight, they’ll just be an artist,” he tells me. “And so for the most part, I feel like it’s kind of an awkward group to put a little bit of light on—not that it’s not deserving.” He seems torn, not wanting the attention, but appreciating the recognition. “I really feel like [songwriting is] where everything begins… When you’re producing, it’s a bit of a different thing—the song’s already been found. You’re more the chef. [This new Grammy category] is giving the farmer credit for the meal on the table. And I think that that’s long overdue.”

Tobias Jesso Jr. at home, 2022.Courtesy of Hannah Ofczarzak

While the last few years have seen Jesso incorporating new sounds in his songwriting—going beyond the classic balladry of Goon and contributing melodies that are more rhythmic, more playful, even sexier—his speciality has remained helping artists reach new emotional depths. His searching, open-ended approach to songwriting might have something to do with this.

“I’m just going into these sessions and trying to get to know them as best I can first,” Jesso says. “It’s a different kind of relationship where I don’t feel beholden to write. It’s more of a connection-based thing that I just hope that we’re getting closer, even if it’s closer to them going into the next session and writing the song that they need to or coming up with a thing… Like, [the artist] coming to [some kind of personal] realization on a day where we don’t get a song is just as good as us getting a song, you know what I mean? Because it’s going to lead to that eventually. Like a therapist, you’re trying to just get to the golden nuggets, even if they find them on their own.”

“A lot of time when the song’s being created, there’s a lot of inspiration and feelings,” he continues, “but it takes a couple days to sink in for you to hear and go, ‘Oh yeah, this is actually good,’ So I fear a lot of stuff might get lost on the cutting room floor that is just truly authentic, vulnerable stuff. So I just try to say, ‘Let that live because it doesn’t matter what people say. Your gut’s going to know.’”

In conversations with Tobias’ collaborators, the concept of “safety” comes up a lot. “He created a safe space for us to express our feelings,” the band Haim collectively writes over email, referencing the 2018 sessions with him that resulted in “Hallelujah,” a song about loss and sisterhood, a sentiment Haim had been trying to capture in song for a while but could never get right. “We called Tobias, who is one of the only co-writers we ever work with, and we fleshed out [the song],” they said in an email. “He has an innate ability to put anyone he’s with at ease, immediately… We love how willing he is to just jam and throw the spaghetti against the wall.” 

“Truthfully, he just makes you feel really comfortable,” FKA twigs says. “He listens, he’s available, he’s in it for the right reasons—and that can be rare sometimes. The music industry’s hard and it’s full of a lot of bad people—we don’t talk about it [enough]. It’s a lot of very bad, selfish, narcissistic, kind of clout-and fame- and money-hungry people. And Tobias is a gem. He’s a rare fruit in that you do sessions with him and you feel safe.”

That quality has made him the ideal partner for artists to navigate rocky emotional terrain, from Florence Welch confronting her teenage struggle with anorexia nervosa on the stomper “Hunger” to FKA Twigs starting off “Thank You Song” with the line: “I wanted to die, I’m just being honest.”

Adele and Tobias Jesso Jr. worked on “When We Were Young” and “To Be Loved” in a room with “with brilliant natural reverb,” according to Adele.Courtesy of Tobias Jesso Jr.

Adele’s “To Be Loved” is the prime example of his approach. Working once again in the room where they wrote “When We Were Young”—in a Brentwood house loaned to them by Jesso’s friend’s grandparents, “with Philip Glass’ old bloody grand piano…[and] natural reverb,”according to Adele—they didn’t have any recording equipment, so Adele recorded each take on her MacBook, the best of which was the video she eventually uploaded on Instagram. “She had that version, which she sort of fell in love with,” Jesso says. “And it made it hard for us to record it. We went to Henson [Recording] Studios to try a version of it, but it just wasn’t right.” 

At one point, it seemed like the song wouldn’t make the final cut. “I knew I loved the song,” he says. “I was like, ‘This song for me is probably the best of my career.’ But for me, even her having that video and knowing how much it meant to her—because she would tell me—was enough.”

The pair worked on songs together using Philip Glass’ old piano.Courtesy of Tobias Jesso Jr.

It wasn’t until the 11th hour that Adele wrote to him and asked if they could try to record “To Be Loved” in the Brentwood house. Jesso eventually produced the song with Sean Everett, who set up the room in a way that would allow them to get the right sound. “[Sean] set up all the mics and blankets everywhere, over the piano,” Jesso says. “It was just us playing live and together. And so in the piano tracks, you can hear vocals and in the vocals, you can hear the piano.” It ended up becoming 30’s most acclaimed track, one that is routinely cited as one of Adele’s career highlights. 

That open-ended approach similarly helped a non-starter of a session for Harry Styles’ Fine Line to bear fruit later. After doing a session for the 2019 album and finishing the day without a song, Jesso Jr. was surprised to find out that one of the ideas they worked on eventually became “Boyfriends” on this year’s Harry’s House. “After the session, because we didn’t really make anything at the session, Harry texted me, ‘Can you send me those chords?’ Two years later, he sent me a text [that it was a song on Harry’s House]. I mean, big up to him. Most people would just use the chords [and not credit me]. You know what I mean? That’s not even a lie. It would’ve been very easy for him to have just used the chords or some of the chords.”

30 and Harry’s House are both top contenders for Album of the Year, which illustrates Jesso’s current status in pop music.

“I’ve never conspired with the labels on what they think the artist should have,” he says. “I always just try to get to what the artist wants. I never liked a song because it was the most popular song or it made the most money. So why would I want to write that? It’s not really why I got into it. It’s the therapy that helps me.”

Two weeks ago, when Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie passed away, Stevie Nicks, her bandmate and best friend, paid tribute to her on social media with a letter that talked about a song she had hoped to sing for McVie: Haim’s “Hallelujah.”


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That Nicks, one of the all-time great songwriters, paid tribute to McVie, another all-time great, with a song that Jesso co-wrote felt like a milestone to him. And from the outside, it reads as a confirmation—maybe even a benediction—that he belongs in a tradition and lineage that so inspired him. “As a songwriter, it feels weird to celebrate in any way something that comes from grief and sadness,” Jesso says. “But that’s the point of a song sometimes, to access the emotions that you need to say.”

Recently, Jesso found a song that did just that for him. He was driving in his car when, for the first time, he heard “Nick of Time,” Bonnie Raitt’s gently funky 1989 meditation on aging and the passage of time. “I’m just driving down the road, 37 years old and I’m just like, ‘Where the fuck has this song been my whole life?’” . He starts aping the song’s distinctive heartbeat rhythm, tapping on the table. “The chorus is not a chorus and there’s all those special things that sort of tickles musicians’ ears,” he says. “I’m just very thankful to these songwriters who have soundtracked more [of people’s lives] than I’ll ever imagine.”

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