Singer-songwriters singing sombre songs about heartbreak and heartache are ten-a-penny. It’s trendy to pen tragedy and put it out to the world to a backdrop of pitter-pattering piano and gentle giant guitar tones. Every now and then though, someone comes along and breaks the mould, bringing songs of love (and loss, it’s unavoidable these days) to the masses. Ed Sheeran gave us ‘Thinking Out Loud’. George Ezra gave us ‘Budapest’. And now, JP Saxe gives us the pre-pandemic penned, post-apocalyptic anthem, ‘If The World Was Ending’.
“It’s hard to tell when you’re locked in your house,” he muses, reflecting on having the spotlight shined on him from the confines of his home. “I’m watching the same TV shows and pacing about my living room in the same fashion, and honestly it doesn’t feel that long ago to me that the only people who knew my songs were people who were either in my family or in my friend group.”
If there was a time when his music was only reaching those around him, he’s now living in a completely different world where a single song of his has racked up 450 million streams and 94 million views. While he’s not averse to the success its bought, the fact it’s come during a global pandemic has been a bit odd.
“When I first recognised the song was resonating with people because of Covid-19,” he says, “I was originally rather conflicted about it. I wasn’t sure if it was within my moral compass to be enthusiastic about the silver lining of my song reaching more people in this situation.
“It took a couple of weeks of figuring out that the reason it was resonating with people is that the song speaks to putting love before anything else. If there was ever a time to want to connect to the part of ourselves that wants to put love before anything else, then it’s certainly now.”
Love, it seems, is at the centre of JP Saxe’s universe; whether it’s international heartbreak (’25 In Barcelona’) or homegrown happiness (‘3 Minutes’). This year’s ‘Hold It Together’ EP slipped between the happiness of new-found love and the heartbreak of a breakup, but his latest offering, ‘Hey Stupid, I Love You’ is him well and truly opening his mind.
“It’s my way of wanting to make sure my career isn’t just singing gruelling, nostalgic, emotional heartbreak songs,” he laughs. “I’ve found a lot of music that feels like me at 3am, just in it, but I wanted to make sure that when I get up on stage, I get to perform songs that feel like who I am in the middle of the day being a silly loving dork with my girlfriend.”
Whether he’s being a ‘Sad Corny Fuck’ and professing his love, or stripping back his soul to sell his heartbreak, JP Saxe puts honesty and relatability at the heart of his writing, especially now he’s working with other artists.
“The only way to be relatable is, to be honest. I always used to argue with writers in sessions, when they say about having to be less specific so we can be more relatable. That’s totally valid for some songwriters, and it certainly has a place in music, but my argument, for my own music, is that my favourite movies have nothing to do with my life really, they’ll be protagonists who are having experiences I’ve never had. You know, I’ve never lived on Tatooine, and yet I will still relate to those stories and find myself in them. I don’t see why songs have to be any different.
“I can talk about spending my 25th birthday in Barcelona right after a breakup, and I don’t expect anyone to have had that exact experience, yet by speaking so specifically about that experience, people feel closer to their own experiences in it because it feels real.”
Ironically, it’s through finding that feeling of realness in a session with a writer that lit the spark that spawned his super-hit, ‘If The World Was Ending’, which he co-wrote with Julia Michaels, and produced with Finneas. An experience, he admits, is one for the books.
“It’s quite something watching her [Julie Michaels] work, she’s as good as it gets, and when we were first talking about that idea, and I sang her that line ‘if the world was over, you’d come over right?’ after our conversation, she just went ‘you’d come over, and you’d stay the night, would you love me for the hell of it?’ Those next two lines came right outta her right after I sang the first line, and I just chuckled at her, like ‘how did you do that?’
“It was an honest conversation that led to an honest song, which is the only way I’ve ever wanted to make music. I didn’t necessarily have much of a different relationship with this song than any other one – I wrote it, I loved it, and I wanted all my friends to hear it.”
It’s safe to say that there’s way more of the world listening to his music than his friends, and yet it’s still providing JP with a reality check. Through the success of his song, he’s been able to reflect on who he truly is as an artist and where he would like to go by staying true to himself.
“If there’s anything I try to take personally from ‘If The World Was Ending’ doing as well as it has, it’s the encouragement that I don’t have to be anything other than myself for this music thing to work. I think that it’s a really scary thought, as an up and coming artist, to think ‘does who I am match the success that I want?’ and do I have to be a different kind of artist to have the kind of artist career I want, and I always rejected that, but I certainly worry about it.
“I think if ‘Hey Stupid, I Love You’ was the song that did what ‘If The World Was Ending’ is doing, I would be scared, and that would be worrisome because that song isn’t as at the heart of who I am as ‘If The World Was Ending’ was. I think if that was the song popping off, I’d be like ‘oh shit, I can’t make another 100 songs like that’.”
Although writing 100 versions of ‘If The World Was Ending’ seems like a mammoth task for a man with a mammoth heart, it’s actually something JP views as nothing more than a trip through normal human behaviour. Throughout his growing catalogue, his songs strike a chord with everyday emotion, and it’s here he truly feels at one with his growing fanbase, and with grounding himself as a person.
“It’s one of the wonderful contradictions of being an artist. On the one hand, there’s this uniqueness in sharing your experiences in songs and having people sing-along and listen, but on the other hand, in order for the songs to resonate, there’s this acceptance that my experiences are not that special, my take on my emotions is not that special, my feelings are not that special, and that’s why they connect.
“I think that was part of the understanding that enables me to only write about my own life, because I trust that if I really make it feel like the part of my life it came from, my life is not so unique that other people are not going to find their lives in it. I’m just the same person going about the same basic emotions everybody else goes about.
“Throughout the day, you feel a sense of love, sadness, pain, anger, joy, longing, we all have the same Rolodex of feelings to go through. I don’t have any extras or any less, if I just access those through the parts of my life that are real, I know that they will be human in other ways that people will find relevant to them as well.”
Being human, at the end of the day, is all JP Saxe knows how to be. In a year that’s seen him fall in love, he’s also experienced devastating loss, all in the wake of a global pandemic that’s truly put things in perspective for him. His experiences, as ever, have informed who he has become as both a human and an artist.
“I’d been writing in LA, but I was back in Toronto, because my mum was sick. I literally finished the EP on my laptop sitting beside my mum in the hospital, and it integrated itself into my life in a really meaningful way.
It came out only a week or two after my mum died, which was right before my first European tour where I did a few dates with Lennon Stella. This was all right before Quarantine, so when I say my life has changed a lot since January, there’s been all kind of readjustments to what it means to be myself.”
Through readjustment has come reflection, and on reflection, JP Saxe has set his sights on an even shinier spotlight than the one he’s currently standing under.
“I’d like to be playing in football stadiums around the world – if that’s the number of people who end up liking this music, that’s amazing. Most of my favourite artists are massive pop artists, so I don’t think it’s entirely fucking impossible, but I haven’t got to where I am now by aiming for the goal. I’ve got there by aiming for the art that I want to make and see where it takes me. If it’s 40 people in a cafe in Canada and that’s the only people who will genuinely like listening to my music, I will still make music for them.”
JP Saxe isn’t a singer-songwriter chucking out meat-and-potatoes fodder for the chart show massive. He’s a human being hitting up the human heart and putting his pen to paper to pop down his thoughts and feelings and feed them through the rest of the world’s lives. While he’s got lofty ambitions, he’s also got a songbook of stories to tell, and as long as he stays true to himself, he’ll keep wondering what would be if the world was ending.
Taken from the September issue of Dork.
Words: Jack Press