In October 2019, the world got to know JP Saxe after the release of his collaboration with Julia Michaels – “If The World Was Ending.” The song continues to climb the charts across the world and to enthrall new people with its sincerity every single day.
When I speak to JP Saxe, he tells me it’s “hard to say” when he first figured this song was becoming something really special and big. “It’s the first time I’ve had the experience of having a song that’s known by this many people. But there was definitely – the song came out while I was on tour – there was definitely a shift from show to show, when, you know. There’d be a few songs in my set that people would know in the audience, but then after that song came out, then every single show there’d be more and more people who’d sing along to that one particularly. And it happened faster than it ever had happened before, and it just kept happening.”
In just over four months, the success of the song has led to the release of JP’s first EP under Arista Records – Hold It Together. The common denominator of the album is that each song seems to be incredibly personal in its portrayal of an emotional journey of finding yourself in and out of love. JP adds that “the six songs on the EP are songs that I’ve written over the last two years. There are connections between some of the songs that I didn’t really think of on purpose, but they’re just there because they were written at different points of my life and different points of different relationships.”
“If The World Was Ending” sits only at #2 on the tracklist. The opener of the album is the oldest song; a fan favorite of sorts called “25 in Barcelona.” The final song on the album is the title track, “Hold It Together.” As I speak to Saxe, it’s very apparent that a lot of thought has gone into the selection of each separate song on the album, as well as the placement of them on the overall tracklist. It affirms my own belief that this EP is meant to be listened to from start to finish at least once. He explains that the beginning and end of the EP are essentially tethered together. “I think ’25 in Barcelona’ was a song rooted in me trying to feel connected to myself and have an experience of myself that wasn’t still rooted in a past relationship and ultimately failing in doing so. And ‘Hold it Together’ was the first time I really was able to connect to myself and someone new, in a way that was in no way still burdened by all of the ways I used to connect with someone else. All of the ways I thought I had to be, in order to connect with someone new, were kind of slipping away. I think there was a tether between the two songs that made them feel like appropriate bookends for the EP.”
It’s a true reflection of the philosophy that JP Saxe holds dear when it comes to his songwriting and what it means to be an artist. “I am committed to telling true stories. They all come from journals, so creating a consistent storyline isn’t something I have to come up with creatively – it just kind of happens, because they’re all coming from the same world, which is mine. And all the stories use my voice and my perspectives. There are no stories on the EP [that aren’t true to me], nor do I ever intend to put out songs that won’t be connected to my life.”
Another example is “Explain You,” a slow ballad that centers around processing and accepting a former relationship, and swells in sound and conviction as the song progresses. The first verse starts with a conversation between Saxe and his therapist, as he tries to wrap his head around why the relationship ended, and how hard it can be to let go of love.
What always intrigues me about singer-songwriters who wear their heart on their sleeves – is whether or not it sometimes becomes a thing they dread. Sharing yourself through art can be therapeutic, but it also means you expose yourself to commentary from complete strangers on how you’ve lived your life. Saxe considers for a second, before telling me that it’s not something he’s been worried about “yet.” The fact I’m talking to him about this whilst he’s getting into an Uber, only further emphasizes that mentality.
He adds that it’s just one minor drawback of having this job, compared to a lot of advantages. “There are risks to any career, and there are a lot of beautiful benefits that go with being an artist and getting to share for a living and getting to feel emotionally connected to others and getting to travel the world. The fact that me having a thoughtful relationship with myself is imperative to my art, is something that I’m really grateful for. I don’t think that everyone has the same incentive to pursue those connections and I think it makes my life a lot better.
One of the downsides I have to deal with is having to overshare at times and figuring out the balance about what people know about me and what people don’t, and what the line is to prioritizing sincerity.” He pauses for a second. “If that are the challenges that come with my career, I will take it.”
Another element that Saxe tries to prioritize in his songs, is humor. Particularly when that song would otherwise be traditionally considered as quote-unquote sad. “Even in our darkest, most painful situations there’s often a moment of laughter. And to be able to represent that in a song is something I really love because it humanizes the experience of the emotion.” He points to the song “Sad Corny Fuck” as a prime example of this. “I was writing those verses, sitting with my guitar in my bedroom and just thought to myself – man, I’m such a sad corny fuck right now. I kind of laughed at myself, I was judging how emotional I was being in those verses, and then I thought – fuck it, I’m gonna make that the chorus. So the chorus is me reflecting on what I’m saying in the verses.”
It’s an interesting song, one full of hesitation and self-doubt. While the sound of it would lead you to believe otherwise, it’s actually quite angsty. Saxe explains that the song actually came together because it simply didn’t exist yet. He explains, “when I wrote it, it was an evening where I just was, wrongfully, feeling heavy in me the fear that all of those moments in my past relationships– where I thought this is the best that love can possibly be, [what if that was true?] The moments that are incredible, that feeling of “oh my god, this is the best love could possibly feel, you are the best.” Like, looking at someone and feeling like that is so special when you’re in it. But the memory of those moments afterward become the most terrifying thing, because what if you were right? What if it doesn’t get better? And I was really feeling the juxtaposition of the feeling of the moment and the feeling of the memory. I was looking for a song that already existed, that would articulate that for me. I was listening to old blues records, old country records, singer-songwriter records – trying to find this song, but I couldn’t find it. And then I got home and wrote myself that song. And it was a special creative experience for me because I never really thought about it that way. Because that’s all I wanted that song to do, start with verse one, then in the first half verse two, and then ending with that line “love don’t get better than you” when you’re in the feeling and it’s great. Then I wanted to get to the end of the song and have ‘love don’t get better than you’ mean “holy fuck, what if it doesn’t?”
Now Saxe knows, years onwards, that “the song is just objectively untrue – it was an incorrect feeling. It was a real feeling, but it was false. The idea that love couldn’t better than a love that didn’t want you back was a super faulty thought process. And I think in the process of the EP, by the time you get to ‘Hold It Together,’ it really solidifies like how incorrect that feeling was.”
Because of the fact that so many of his material is based off of his own personal experiences, it may come as no surprise that all songs on the album were made with just one or two other writers. Ryan Marrone is JP Saxe’s main collaborator and has been for a long while. I ask him if that’s what he prefers, working with people he knows versus new collaborators. He explains very carefully that there are two sides to it. “I definitely think there’s something special to have an overly close-knit group of friends that do all of the music together. And I really love everyone who was a part of the EP and it was a small group and I’m proud of it. But at the same time, I love working with other artists, especially if I’m inspired by their music, so, I’m not going to turn away from those opportunities and I’m excited to expand what my artistry and music can look like.”
His latest collaboration with Lennon Stella, as well as the one with Julia Michaels, proves that once more. Going back to “If The World Was Ending,” Saxe tells me that the song was actually recorded in just one day. “We wrote that song the day we met, it probably took us only two [hours to write the song]. And then I went in and recorded my parts of the vocals. Julia had to leave and I was having trouble getting the second verse right, but then she came in and just sang the second verse. All the final vocals on the recording of the song were done that day, and Julia only sang the song through two times.”
The writing style of both Michaels and Saxe are quite similar – intentionally confessional and vulnerable, with the music there to guide the feeling and emotion coded into the song. In fact, the song “3 minutes” seems to be an ode to Michaels and what she’s accomplished so far – in contrast to the people who’ve treated her badly. It’s very specific, and yet the uplifting message of knowing you’ll go on to do bigger and better things, with or without the person you once felt so consumed by is one that a lot of people will be able to relate to.
Funnily enough, that specificity in writing is something that JP Saxe says wasn’t always appreciated by the people he worked with professionally. “There is a school of thought in songwriting that you need to be general in order to be relatable. I’ve always sort of felt like my favorite songs didn’t do that. And it isn’t a way of thinking that we apply to other artforms. We don’t look at movies and say, it has to be general in order for it to be emotionally attached. My favorite movies are about people’s lives that are vastly different from my own. And I think that’s probably true for most people, and yet you still find the humanity in it. That’s why they become our favorite movies. I never understood why that wouldn’t or couldn’t apply to songs. Why I couldn’t talk about turning 25 in Barcelona two weeks after a breakup that was very close to her birthday. There are a lot of specific stories in there and I don’t expect people to have had the exact same experience. But I think somehow by being that personal it makes the emotion of it feel more real. When you’re listening to it, you take your experience and you apply it to that feeling. I never thought that the specificity was going to be distracting in a way that I was told off that it would be.”
That’s why, he adds, it’s such a relief to have the EP out and see so many people discovering the music and enjoying it. It’s a reaffirming experience. “This EP is definitely the first time that I have felt this much validation in that way of thinking because I’ve gotten so many messages about how much people relate to these songs. And it just makes me feel really good about continuing to make music that doesn’t have to compromise on sincerity.”
JP refers back to “If The World Was Ending” as a prime example of that philosophy. “I’m happy it exists and I’m grateful that the song that is starting my career is a song that’s based in sincerity and musicality and just, something really loving and personal. That’s the kind of music I love to make. It’s encouraging for me as an artist to see the song that is very much exactly the kind of song that I’d like to always do. And for that type of music to resonate means that I can hopefully keep doing what I love and know that there’s an audience for it that keeps getting bigger.”
In fact, Saxe takes great care to ensure his music can also resonate with those who can’t actually hear it. “There was a comment on the original music video [of If The World Was Ending] by someone saying that they loved the video, but they were deaf and wish they could hear the song. Me and the team saw that comment and thought it would be cool to make a sign language-specific video for the hearing impaired. The response to that video was honestly more than I could’ve ever imagined. It was actually really cool to see how many people had a friend who is deaf, or were part of that community in some way. That video meant something to them – that we were prioritizing accessibility. It wasn’t even my idea originally, it was from the team at the label, and when they pitched it to me I immediately said: “yeah, I’d love to do something like that!” And seeing just how it resonated and allowed the song to connect to people who maybe aren’t necessarily always feeling like music is being targeted towards them, made me really happy.”
The team he talks about are the people at Arista Records, the major label he’s recently been signed to. He tells me that his experience of working with them has been nothing but positive, and that he carefully chose where to sign after encountering various iterations of labels whilst working as a songwriter. “The reason I wanted to sign with Arista in the first place, is because I believed that the people I would be working with, were people who believed in why songs matter for the same reasons I did. I would not only be able to continue to create the vibe I wanted but actually, enable it and do it on a much higher level – and to this point that has only been the case, honestly, above and beyond my expectations.”
Interestingly, hours before our conversation it’s confirmed that Arista Records achieved their first Top 10 album in the US since 2011 with Louis Tomlinson’s Walls – an album that also relies on emotional sincerity and personal storytelling. When I tell him it’s nice to see male artists, in particular, taking a more introspective approach to acknowledge their emotions, the conversation derails into a discussion on sexist expectations of female artists, as well as toxic masculinity where men are expected to suppress their emotions. “It’s a shame,” he agrees. “I think music and songwriting is a unique opportunity to feel powerful in the expressions of emotions that are often associated with weakness. Because just by putting an emotion in a song, it becomes more powerful. Because if it’s good, then people sing along to it, they’ll be affected by it. So whatever emotion is connected to that song, is therefore associated to a sense of power, or at least that’s how I see it. So if I’m able to take emotion and take experiences like vulnerability, and fear, and weakness, and a sense of transparency about my emotional experience – and put those in songs and have that resonate with people, I’m excited about the possibilities. We get to acknowledge, associate and connect those emotions all of a sudden when they’re often so disconnected or absent from male music – in a self-aware and humorous way, not by just glorifying sadness.”
It’s finding strength in showing vulnerability, and recognition in other people’s experiences. Which is exactly what JP Saxe finds so amazing about finally getting to release the EP. “It’s certainly been really special to see people that I don’t know having an emotional experience with songs that have very much been just for me and some of my friends for a while now. To let it exist outside of us is cool, and to see people having such a personal experience with songs that are so specific to me.”
I ask him if he’s already thought about what’s next, and if there’s a headline tour waiting to happen in the near future. He’s very honest as he reports there will be a tour once there are enough people in enough cities to actually put on a full tour. It’s clear that there’s no rush, and that he’d rather take his time to do things right – build his audience and catalog properly. “I’m not in a rush to put things out faster than what enables them to reach as many people as possible. If I had put out a lot of the songs on this EP a year ago, there would’ve been far less people to hear them. But because they came out after If The World Was Ending, a lot more people are finding it and that makes me really happy. And I fully intend that by the time the next batch of songs comes out there will be even more people listening than there are now. Right now, it’s just about figuring out the best way to release those so they are heard by as many people as possible.”
Reflecting on the EP, he confesses that it could’ve easily been a collection of six completely different songs. “These six songs felt like they rounded out the story in a way that felt right to me. It felt like the right amount of each emotional ingredient. But, right now, I could put out a second EP with six songs that I love just as much. They could’ve subbed out any one of those songs, I still intend to put them all out anyway. I imagine some time they see the light of day, it might be in the form of an EP, it might be a bunch of singles, it might be an album. But regardless of how it comes out, they exist and they’ll be for people other than me and my friends, surely.”
I’m sure it’ll be worth the wait, judging by the clear talent and artistry showcased in these initial six songs. Until then, you can listen to JP Saxe here:
Words: Saskia Postema
Photography: Sam Leviton