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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

Justin Jesso's journey from writing for Ricky Martin to radio play

After penning songs for stars, US singer-songwriter is going out on his own

Justin Jesso has released his debut single. Picture courtesy of Sony Music
Justin Jesso has released his debut single. Picture courtesy of Sony Music

You may not know who Justin Jesso is, but if you’ve listened to the radio in the past year, you will have heard him. The 24-year-old ­singer- songwriter is that yearning voice delivering the sky-scraping chorus on Norwegian DJ Kygo’s global hit Stargazing.

With more than 300 million views on YouTube, and a recently released classical version with the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, he is in awe of the song’s success, especially considering it was co-written in a speedy manner. But Jesso is a seasoned songwriter – he was nominated for Song of The Year at last year’s Latin Grammy Awards for Ricky Martin’s No 1 single Vente Pa’ Ca. – and he had a hunch that Stargazing would do well due to its immediate industry response.

“That song was a complete anomaly. Very rarely do you write a song and within the week get a response as to whether it’s going to get picked up or not,” he says. “The Ricky Martin song came out six months after we wrote it. I had Katy Perry hold on to one of my songs that she was supposedly cutting, and I haven’t heard anything about that. That was eight, nine months ago and it probably won’t happen. We wrote Stargazing in about three hours. The next day it was sent to Kygo and the day after that he sent us back the produced version, the next day it was announced as a single and two months later it was out. It never happens that fast.”

Stepping out solo

Born in Chicago and now living in Los Angeles, Jesso recalls writing songs from the age of 10 and participating in local talent shows, churning through covers of soul and pop classics from artists including Michael Jackson and Ray Charles. After studying songwriting at the Clive Davis Institute in New York, he began participating in writing sessions, with Martin’s Vente Pa’ Ca eventually becoming his calling card.

Reflecting on that education, Jesso states that good songwriting is all about making a connection. “You have to have an idea behind what you’re saying. There has to be a context and you have to evoke an emotion,” he says. “As a singer, you also have to know how to deliver it in the way that is going to connect to people. If you can’t, then you will be just rambling and spewing your emotions without anyone understanding.”

The writing space

However, after years of using that knowledge for others, Jesso is now honing his talents to further his own career. His recently released debut single, My Body, is the work of an assured hand.

Sleek and shimmering with a club-ready sound, it features Jesso’s vocals transitioning from a fine croon to a radio-ready anthemic chorus. When it comes to its construction, he says the challenge lay in finding the ideal mental space for writing.

“It’s harder to be objective when you’re writing for yourself,” he says. “When I am working with writers, I tell them: ‘don’t worry about writing for me. Let’s just write the best song we can.’ That’s a good exercise that allows me to say the things that I’m scared to say. I try to break down my walls and get to what I’m really feeling, and I think ‘that’s not something I would say, but there might be some merit there. I should explore this idea a little deeper.’”

Lessons from the heart

This subconscious approach was responsible for the songs that became My Body and Stargazing, which both revolved around Jesso’s previous relationships. Where My Body is about unrequited love, Stargazing is about the wisdom that heartbreak brings.

“It’s a super triumphant song, basically saying: ‘I’m here for you, but it doesn’t actually matter what you do because I’m still going to be OK’,” he explains. “The core of the song is about loss, being OK with it and understanding that even if something is ending, it’s not necessarily your end. I think that was felt really deeply by people who love the song.”

Jesso is set to release more singles this year, and we can also expect him to take on a string of international dates. He confirms that a Dubai show is in the works too: “There’s talk of getting me over there in February to perform, so hopefully that happens.” In fact, the pop-music weekend RedfestDxb is slated for the same time, so that could be another key moment for the grounded artist aiming for the stars.

My Body by Justin Jesso is out now through Sony Music

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