Photo Credit: Marta Literska
Written By Kelly Holm
Growing up, Chicago-born Justin Jesso was always the kid who would choose to play with the plastic microphone over the toy football. At sleepaway camp, he was more concerned with penning lyrics for his crush than with archery and fishing: “Leah, would you meet me by the pier? You bring the lettuce, and I’ll bring the beer…”
While his love for Leah didn’t quite work out, his passion for music certainly did.
“The first time I stepped on a stage, I was five years old. It was a talent show at my grandma’s community center,” Jesso recalls. “I stepped offstage and knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
And in one of his latest releases, “Bigger Than,” Jesso pays tribute to both his lifelong dreams and his deepest fears. The music video features children illustrating their future goals and Jesso popping balloons meant to symbolize life’s obstacles, interspersed with childhood home footage of the singer himself.
“I want a life that’s bigger than/All of the houses I want to buy for my friends/A life that’s bigger than/Every person who ever told me I can’t,” he belts as this imagery unfolds.
Jesso’s journey to achieving the sort of life he sings about, however, was not so straightforward. Before he got to shine in the spotlight, he spent several years working behind the scenes as a songwriter for other artists.
“I started writing songs professionally in college; that’s when it became a career path,” Jesso said. “I ended up interning for two A&R executives at EMI music before it got absorbed, and when I graduated I asked my old bosses to put me in sessions at Warner Chappell and Sony Publishing. That’s how I got started as a songwriter.”
Jesso never intended this position to be permanent. Rather, he decided he would “write his way in” to the industry before recording music of his own, much like his inspirations Bruno Mars and John Legend. In 2017, Kygo tapped Jesso to be the vocalist on his single “Stargazing.”
“I always wanted to be singing my own songs, but… the universe wasn’t really ready for me to do so for a while,” he says. “I think I knew, driving to Vegas to sing ‘Stargazing’ for the first time, that I was finally going to get the opportunity to sing my own songs and not just write them for others.”
Inspired by the pipes of Stevie Wonder and Lady Gaga and the business savvy of Charlie “Rocket” Jabaley, Jesso dropped his debut EP, Let It Be Me, in 2019. Even in the midst of COVID-19, he’s continued to put out new material, including “Bigger Than” and one of his latest releases, “If You’re Meant to Come Back.” The track deals with the decision to take a chance on love even when the future is uncertain.
“I wrote [‘If You’re Meant to Come Back’] about a year and a half ago… with three friends of mine… in London,” Jesso shares. “I was personally writing it with my ex-girlfriend in mind. We had just broken up and the sentiment resonated with me. I felt like I had to let her go, and if we were meant to be together in the end, then it would be.”
The song remained unreleased for more than a year, but when COVID-19 hit, Jesso thought its message was relevant for the times. The music video for “If You’re Meant to Come Back” was shot while Jesso was quarantining at his parents’ house in Florida. In it, Jesso lets go of a heart-shaped balloon, which proceeds to travel all over the globe before returning to him.
“I used a production team in Berlin, a videographer in Chicago… stock footage and clever editing to get the balloon to fly all around the world during COVID,” Jesso explains. “I just felt like it was the right time for the world to hear this one. We are all meant to come back together, and will, when this crazy time is over.”
Otherwise, Jesso’s been spending his time participating in Zoom songwriting sessions, prepping for new releases and working hard to secure his future.
“I definitely plan to have a bunch more music out by the end of this year,” he says. “I just want to be able to perform my music for the rest of my life. If I can do that, I’ve made it.”
Check out Justin’s most recent release, “Too Good To Lose.”
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