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Musician Tobias Jesso Jr. becomes one of the first songwriter Grammy nominees

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

OK, music fans, what do these songs have in common? Orville Peck's "C'mon Baby, Cry"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "C'MON BABY, CRY")

ORVILLE PECK: (Singing) I don't want you to be afraid.

SHAPIRO: ...Adele's "To Be Loved"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TO BE LOVED")

ADELE: (Singing) To be loved and love at the highest count.

SHAPIRO: ...And from Harry Styles...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOYFRIENDS")

HARRY STYLES: (Singing) Boyfriends, are they just pretending? They don't tell you where it's heading.

SHAPIRO: ...These are just a few of the songs that earned Tobias Jesso Jr. a Grammy nomination in the brand-new category Songwriter of the Year. Besides those superstars, he has also worked with Diplo, King Princess, FKA twigs and many more.

TOBIAS JESSO JR: It's unbelievable to me that here I am, you know, working with these artists. I feel like I'm in the documentaries I used to watch. And it's just, like, surreal. I can't believe it.

SHAPIRO: Jesso, who's 37, got his start in the industry by recording his own songs for a solo album. So while lots of artists can name the reason they were inspired to perform, I asked why he instead felt more driven to pick up the pen to serve others.

JESSO: I think that's just probably where I'm more comfortable, but I actually didn't really, like, get very good at playing any instrument, which was sort of my mistake for a long time. You know, I didn't pick up piano until I was 27. And so I think that, you know, a lot of people kind of feel like they want to be in front of an audience and sort of have fans. And for me, it was sort of more of a love of being with the people who want that. I think it's sort of like falling in love with the process of it.

SHAPIRO: Is there a typical how things work? Is there a sort of - I don't know - formula that you tend to follow, whether you're working with Adele or Harry Styles or FKA twigs?

JESSO: Well, I think as a songwriter, it's sort of your job to be, like, obsessed with the artist's process and be able to kind of go with whatever they want to do, you know? Like, obviously, I had the best experience in the world because the first sort of major artist I ever worked with was Adele, and she kind of gave me the masterclass of, you know, what her process was. And I sort of used that as a blueprint in all the work I did afterwards. But...

SHAPIRO: And was that first song "When We Were Young"?

JESSO: That was, yeah. That was the first co-write I ever had.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN WE WERE YOUNG")

ADELE: (Singing) Let me photograph you in this light in case it is the last time that we might be exactly like we were before we realized we were scared of getting old.

SHAPIRO: So this was years ago. But just to get a sense of how something like this works, do you walk in with a melody? Does she say, I want to write a song about youth? Like, what's - how does that evolve?

JESSO: Well, you know, it's really funny because I had no idea how it worked because I'd never done it before. So she came in, and at the time, you know, she was smoking. And I was like, great, I smoke, too. And we went outside, and we just kind of ended up talking for a long time until eventually she kind of, you know, looked at her watch and was like, should we go and write a song now? And I was like, sure, like, you know? And so that really works for me, getting to know the artist before we launch into melodies. I kind of want to get a sense of who is this person and maybe what do they want to say? And my biggest sort of buzz of being a songwriter is just being of service to whoever I'm with, you know, and feeling like I left that day going, I really, like, feel like we got somewhere, even if it wasn't a song.

SHAPIRO: I feel like part of being a songwriter is being a chameleon, right? So how do you operate differently when you're working with somebody who might have a totally different style from someone like Adele?

JESSO: Yeah. I mean, like, a very polar sort of experience to that would be more like twigs.

SHAPIRO: Sure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANK YOU SONG")

FKA TWIGS: (Singing) Tears were falling like rain. I must have cried out 'cause you were awake.

JESSO: You get in the studio with twigs, and it's just, like, I mean, the most abstract creativity you can imagine, you know? And she's just, like, rattling off ideas or playing songs or these melodies are coming.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THANK YOU SONG")

FKA TWIGS: (Singing) Love in motion. My heart's open.

JESSO: You know, her process is very much like she takes time to put things together and sort of collage her ideas into, you know, the beautiful songs that she does make.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the chapter of your life when you did step out from behind the curtain. You released your own solo...

JESSO: Oh, my God.

SHAPIRO: You say, oh, my God. What? Is this, like, a trauma that we're unearthing?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW COULD YOU BABE")

JESSO: (Singing) How could you baby?

SHAPIRO: This is a 2015 album called "Goon" that was really well received. What's the, oh, my God?

JESSO: The anxiety. Like, you know, I can't even tell you. Like, my chest is burning and like, my - everything about, like, putting yourself out there for me is just so anxiety-inducing. It's like...

SHAPIRO: Even though it was a success by any measure.

JESSO: Oh, my God, especially because it was a success. I mean, I think - I wouldn't say I got pushed into it. I willingly went into it and did everything I did. And I'm so grateful I did because it, like, created the body of work that sort of launched my career. I just think, like, when I think about it, it just feels like that was me on the wrong path. And then as soon as Adele came along, in the beginning, I was like, oh, great, now this is - now this feels like the right path.

SHAPIRO: Despite the heart palpitations that it might cause, is there one song from that album that you just really love, that you're happy the world can go back and hear?

JESSO: I mean, I think "Without You" was sort of the song I thought is the most real. And then it wasn't one of the singles. And then over time, I've seen that "Without You" has kind of become the favorite. And so I was really in that zone when I wrote that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WITHOUT YOU")

JESSO: (Singing) I can hardly breathe without you.

SHAPIRO: It's nice that the song that you really did care about the most ultimately found its way kind of to the surface.

JESSO: And I think you find that that's true for most artists. You know, like, whatever feels the most authentic to them is going to register the most authentic to other people. It doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be the biggest hit, but I tend to search for the songs that mean the most to the artist so that their fans have those songs that mean the most to them.

SHAPIRO: That idea of being there to serve the artist seems so essential to the way that you see your role. And I was trying to figure out sort of what the secret sauce is, what makes you what Adele calls her secret weapon. And I wonder if that's it.

JESSO: Yeah, I think the way I've kind of described it is sort of like a porter who is, like, helping somebody up a mountain. Sometimes you'll have somebody who is like, can you carry all my bags and, you know, drag me up the way that you always go? Or there's people who are like, I want to do this myself. You know, like, I'm paving the way. Just make sure we don't get lost, you know? And once you get to the top, if you're really true to being a songwriter who is there for the artist and not for yourself, it's truly like, now it's time for me to disappear. This is your - this is your time. I truly celebrate most when the artist is happy.

SHAPIRO: Tobias Jesso Jr., nominated for a Grammy in the new songwriting category, thank you so much for talking with us.

JESSO: Oh, thanks for talking to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOTTED LINES")

KING PRINCESS: (Singing) I think I'm tied to the bed, pray I wake and... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.