Honeybears and Goons: Tobias Jesso Jr., Matthew E. White, and the State of the Singer-SongwriterTrue Panther Sounds
Four years is an eternity in pop. In 2011, two of the most indie-famous acts on the planet were Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver. Together they set a standard for introspective beardos everywhere — indie folk codified as retreat music, wintry-themed1 and cabin-bound. It was ideal for vulnerable, licking-of-wounds anthems that swell like bonfires against cold, oppressive winds.
Now, in 2015, Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver are on extended hiatus, and the genre they popularized seems so ancient that it might as well be electro-clash.2 In their place, a bumper crop of promising singer-songwriters has transplanted indie folk from the wooded North to the funkier, freer West and South. Instead of homespun rusticism, these artists aspire to the lush romanticism and technical proficiency associated with the soul and soft-rock records of the ’70s. Rhodes pianos have supplanted acoustic guitars as the instrument of choice. “Holing up in studios” is the new “holing up in cabins.”
The most obvious example is former Fleet Foxes drummer Josh Tillman, who left the band in 2012, relocated to Los Angeles, and affected the louche, fallen-angel persona of Father John Misty to revitalize his solo career. It clearly worked: On the new I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman playfully commingles irony and sincerity with a wised-up sophistication that would’ve confounded his fellow Foxes in the late ’00s. The pained vulnerability of old is still there; if anything, the put-upon smarm of “Bored in the USA” and “The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.” only heightens the singer’s perpetual sense of dislocation. Tillman is just wilier now; he guts you with jokes that wrap gaudy velvet around sneaky body blows.
With his former band, Tillman made music so perfect-sounding that it registered as sterile; on Honeybear, he undercuts his honeyed vocals and sturdily crafted tunes with laugh tracks and lines like “the malaprops make me want to fucking scream.” This has prompted endless Harry Nilsson comparisons, but Tillman is part of a larger tradition. Whether it’s Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, or even the (fuckin’) Eagles, there’s a long tradition in SoCal pop of the most slickly produced pocket symphonies delivering the sourest of aftertastes.
In my mind I’ve taken to grouping I Love You, Honeybear with two of my other favorite records of 2015’s first quarter: Tobias Jesso Jr.’s Goon and Matthew E. White’s Fresh Blood. These albums all sound like product that David Geffen would’ve used to infiltrate radio airwaves 40 years ago, while also conveying a certain “lost world” poignancy that’s unique to 2015.
Had Tobias Jesso Jr. gotten his big break in 2011, he might’ve been sold as the next Justin Vernon. Their origin stories are strikingly similar: Boy leaves home to pursue a career in music. (Vernon went to North Carolina, Jesso to L.A.) Boy has moderate success but comes close to quitting his music career in the wake of a romantic breakup. Boy returns home (Wisconsin for Vernon, Vancouver for Jesso), and in despair starts stockpiling really sad and really pretty songs that are also somehow the best tunes he’s ever written. Acclaim and success unexpectedly follow.
Jesso is still working on that last part. The process began when, on a whim, Jesso sent some demos to Chet “J.R.” White of the defunct indie band Girls, who heard echoes of Nilsson, Newman, and Todd Rundgren in Jesso’s simply drawn, piano-based songs. White subsequently agreed to help Jesso make his winsome debut LP, Goon, due March 17. Other big-name producers (including Ariel Rechtshaid and Patrick Carney of the Black Keys) known for recontextualizing classic record-making techniques in a modern setting signed on later.
The doe-eyed innocence and elemental melodies that White and others must’ve heard in those original demos are presented more or less unadorned on Goon. In terms of guile, the 29-year-old Jesso is the inverse of Tillman — tracks like “Just a Dream,” “Without You,” and “Can We Still Be Friends?” are on-the-nose expressions of a freshly wounded psyche. Likewise, his take on El Lay mythology can ring relatively callow. “I think I’m gonna die in Hollywood,” Jesso says with a simpering lilt in “Hollywood” — Tillman surely would’ve sung it like he was ordering one more round at the bar.
Overall, however, Goon is a quite lovely and often moving record. Most of the songs are just piano, Jesso’s reedy voice, and an understated rhythm section; the record has the sparseness and stateliness of Newman’s Live or Browne’s Late for the Sky. But while Goon seems like a deliberate invocation of all the great bards of ’70s singer-songwriterdom, Jesso says he was pointed in that direction only after White got involved. He actually prefers current MOR pop singers like Adele and Sam Smith, and you sense that he sees himself eventually moving more in that direction.
“Everyone asks me, ‘Are you a big fan of Todd Rundgren and Randy Newman and all those guys?’ And the truth is, no I wasn’t,” he tells me over the phone last month. “I like contemporary stuff. I think listening to old music is great because it’s perfect and you can’t change it, but I’m more excited by stuff that comes out now and either brings elements of [that] in or just discovers it in a new way.”
One week after my conversation with Jesso, Adele returned the favor, tweeting out a link to his gorgeous torch song “How Could You Babe?” to her 22 million Twitter followers. Not that Jesso has been hurting for attention lately. A steady drumbeat of hype for Goon began in earnest last fall, with a myth-building feature posted on Pitchfork followed by breathless accounts of intimate, private performances for the NYC press corps (among Jesso’s first-ever live gigs anywhere) on influential blogs like Stereogum.
Jesso seems a little bewildered by the attention, though that could just be his general goofiness coming through. Unlike the sad-dude persona of Goon, Jesso in conversation is quick to giggle or overshare. (“I can’t believe there hasn’t been a negative story,” he said of his recent press coverage. “I’m pretty candid.”) As is often the case in these situations, Jesso is better-connected than he might initially appear. For instance, he casually mentions a friend named Dakota who introduced him to Carney. When I press for a last name, Jesso admits it’s Dakota Johnson, currently starring in the country’s top-grossing movie.
“She’s doing the movie Fifty Shades or whatever,” he says. “She was up there filming in Vancouver. I was friends with her way back in L.A.”
Hype can be a cruel mistress; as well as the buzz has set up Goon as one of 2015’s most anticipated indie releases, it could just as well overwhelm what is essentially a modest, ingratiating mood record. If you approach it in the right frame of mind, Goon will enter your life as a fine soundtrack for coffee drinking and housecleaning. Expect a life-changer, and it is bound to be a letdown.
“It wasn’t a planned thing. It was just the best way I could describe the making of the record. I don’t know that it’s as important as I think it may come across,” Jesso says of Goon’s burgeoning mythos. “I was a complete failure who hated my time in L.A., but it’s sort of written in a romantic way as well. Like, Here’s this hopeless romantic writing about his love life. Now I have to challenge myself to find other things, which is exciting, as much as it is scary. I can’t really rely on the whole ‘hopeless romantic’ thing all the time. It’s like, every time I see ‘hopeless romantic’ or something [in my press], I’m like, Oh man, I gotta get out of this.”
Whereas Goon is an archetypical “guy writes heartbreaking would-be classics in isolation” record, White’s Fresh Blood (due March 10) is born of lots of people playing together in a small space. Like White’s 2012 debut, Big Inner, and the critically adored debut by Nashville singer-songwriter Natalie Prass (which White produced), Fresh Blood originated at Spacebomb, a studio and record label that White operates out of Richmond, Virginia. Spacebomb, like Motown and Stax in the ’60s and ’70s, employs a sizable house band that includes horn and string sections. The musicians give Spacebomb productions a distinctive sound — roomy, groovy, lived-in, smooth, and without a speck of “amateur” punk or indie rawness — though not at the expense of the artist’s personal voice.
“The process doesn’t matter if the record isn’t good. That’s not the story. The story is the record, at least the long-term story,” White says. “So Natalie’s record, although it’s close to mine, Natalie’s record is good not because of any sort of process that went into it, it’s good because it’s a good record, and she writes really, really good songs. And working together with her, we sort of enabled something to happen that neither of us could have done on our own. That’s what makes it really unique.
“My records are particularly individualistic,” he says. “They’re my records, and I have no problem putting my name on the front of them and calling them Matthew E. White records. But it takes a lot more than me to make those records, and that was the case of Stax, that was the case in almost all the reggae records, that was the case in Motown, that was the case in [’60s-era L.A. studio band] the Wrecking Crew.”
White’s music sounds like a cross between ’70s Philly soul and homey Americana deriving from the Band and Leon Russell. White’s professed touchstones include Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which he considers the pinnacle of recorded music. But Fresh Blood also sounds a little like yacht rock, which in the ’70s and ’80s was typically R&B music filtered through a white-guy studio rat sensibility, à la Steely Dan or Hall & Oates. I love that sort of stuff, but I make sure to qualify this comparison when I bring it to White, because I suspect he won’t take it as a compliment.
“I don’t particularly like Steely Dan. Like, I mean, I do, I respect them, and if their record’s on, I’m not going to turn it off or anything. But that particularly white, mid-’70s aesthetic is not at the forefront of my mind at all when I’m making music. And I definitely don’t listen to it a whole lot,” he says.3 “I don’t really see myself as a rock-and-roll guy. I see myself as a soul and R&B guy — that’s the music that I listened to growing up. There’s not some punk-rock version of Stevie Wonder. Stevie Wonder is deep music, on a lot of levels.”
White might not be a rock-and-roll guy now, but he did once play in a four-piece psych-rock outfit, Great White Jenkins, while simultaneously heading up an avant-jazz combo called Fight the Big Bull. “There was a good six-year period where those two things were interfacing in unique ways,” White says, like branching out to writing arrangements for other artists. White’s ambitions to make records with a big house band were crystallized when he was tapped by Duke University in 2010 to reimagine Alan Lomax’s early-20th-century field recordings for a concert that also featured Vernon, Sharon Van Etten, and the excellent North Carolina band Megafaun.
“I have a notebook, actually. I write down thoughts, and if you flip through, you can really see it,” White says. “It’s like, Make records quickly with a lot of musicians by writing out music. You can save money that way and make a lot of great records over a course of time.”
On Fresh Blood, White does a lot of questing for transcendence, whether it’s finding joy in “Rock & Roll Is Cold” or searching for higher meaning in the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman in “Tranquility.” This yearning is the source of the album’s poignancy — as well as the heartache of I Love You, Honeybear and Goon. They’re all reaching for some kind of grand, mystical feeling that seems to have largely dissipated in the culture. Like the indie-folkers of the distant early ’10s, it’s a pilgrim’s impulse that seems destined to end in crushing disappointment. But in White’s case, it’s possible that he’s already found what he’s looking for.
“I say it all the time, but string day is the best day of the recording session, you know? Sixteen people come in, and we all make music together. That’s cool,” White says. “That’s a really cool thing to be involved in, and I think that sense of humanity really makes its way to the microphone. I really believe in that. In a world that increasingly has the ability to codify things and make things tangible and make things measurable, there’s an intangibility and an immeasurability to that element that I think is easily pushed aside because so many things are measurable. There’s a warmness there and an invitation there that I believe comes across.”