In another life, JP Saxe would love to be an astronaut drop-out. “I don’t think I’m nearly good enough in most things required to be an astronaut, but I think I’d have the enthusiasm covered.” True to his Canadian roots, he’s as humble as ever about his alternative career plans. In fact, when I bring up the possibility of a celebrity version of the BBC show Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes? he laughs that he’d first actually have to become a celebrity.
“It’s on my list of personal goals to be on Celebrity Jeopardy and to play in the Celebrity All-Star game in the NBA All-Star weekend,” he jokes. “Being a celebrity is a means to doing all the other things you really wanted to do as a kid that you weren’t nearly talented enough to do.”
Saxe is incredibly down to earth. He’s also incredibly talented and most definitely well on his way to becoming a household name. While only a few artists have managed to make 2020 work for them, Saxe is lucky enough to have found multiple silver linings in the ongoing pandemic. First of all, there is his debut album that he’s been working on finishing. “I’ve been having a blast doing so. It’s something I’ve wanted to do my whole life,” he shared. Second, he received his very first Grammy nomination and a big one at that — Song of the Year for “If the World Was Ending” with Julia Michaels.
Saxe and Michaels weren’t really expecting the nomination, even though they had been watching that morning. “It was the last song to be announced, and it really made me think this was an absurdity to think it would even happen. But then it was announced and we sort of immediately went into a state of shock,” he tells me. “It was rather surreal.”
It’s especially so when you consider the circumstances in which the song gained its second wave of popularity after having first been released in late 2019. Saxe dryly informs me that he and Michaels have been “accused of some insider information. But people forget that the world felt a lot like it was ending in 2019 too. When we wrote it, it was much more of a hypothetical situation than it was in 2020. It suddenly got a bit more real for everybody.”
Saxe is pretty nonplussed about whether or not it’s forever going to be a footnote to his first major success. Rather, he’s glad that the song has helped people cope during these strange times. “I’ve never had a big song, not during a pandemic. This was my first experience with this kind of thing, so I don’t have much to compare it to,” he shrugs, seemingly practical. “But I think there’s certainly something special about the fact that, during a time when we are all simultaneously more apart and yet more connected than ever, I got to sing a song that is about who you want to be with more than anyone when you feel surrounded by chaos.”
The song’s success lies in both Michaels’s and Saxe’s abilities to convey emotion and vulnerability in their delivery. In fact, it’s his own lyricism that Saxe prides himself on the most. Rather than taking inspiration from other musicians, Saxe turned toward poetry early on in his career. “I think I fell in love with music, and then I fell in love with poetry,” he explains. “My first group of friends in LA was a group of poets. If I wrote bullshit lyrics in my songs, they’d judge me really hard because they didn’t give a shit if the melody was pretty or if the chords were cool. If I wasn’t saying something I could speak, and that would hold up as just lyrics, they didn’t care about the song.”
It’s advice that he still sticks to with every single song he writes. “If I can’t tell you the lyrics separate from the music and melody, and have it still hit hard and feel sincere and powerful, then those words aren’t worth the effort of putting music to them. I really believe, for me, a really incredible melody can be ruined by lazy lyrics. But an incredible lyric over one note can move you. The simplest melody can be powerful if the lyrics are sincere.”
Saxe comes from a family that’s rooted in music. But contrary to Saxe’s own proclivity for lyrics, his grandparents mostly played instrumental songs. “My grandad was a cellist, my maternal grandmother was a classical pianist, so as much as I didn’t go into classical music, the concept of building a life in music was not entirely absurd to my family. Which I’m grateful for. I didn’t have to fight the same battles that a lot of my colleagues did, having to convince their families that going into music as an actual career wasn’t going to ruin their life.”
If anything, Saxe’s choice to pursue music has led him to a strange full-circle moment because Saxe isn’t the first in his family to receive a Grammy nomination. “My first memory from childhood is actually my mom getting a phone call that my grandad in 1997 won a Grammy for Best Solo Instrumental Performance of his recording of the ‘Bach Cello Suites.’ The day we found out about our Grammy nomination, I swear I could hear my mom screaming down the phone when I was 4 years old, finding out the news from her dad,” he smiles.
And while Saxe might not excel at the cello, he does play both the guitar and piano. Though Saxe insists he’s “never not started with lyrics,” the instruments are just as important in the beginning stages of a song. “Part of the fun of being in the studio is just bouncing around and playing a bunch of different instruments to see what sounds right.”
For his debut album, Saxe is teaming up with the same people he’s collaborated with in the past — Ryan Marrone and Benjamin Rice and production by Josh Gudwin. There will be some “very brilliant collaborators” for a couple of songs, but for the most, it’ll be just the three of them, like it’s always been.
Their collaboration is essential to the songs Saxe wants to create. “The people I work with, for the most part, are my best friends. And these songs come from stories that anyone would tell their best friends as you’re trying to figure out the parts of your life that are on your mind the most. We do the same thing, except those conversations turn into songs.”
And it’s the feelings attached to those stories and shared conversations that Saxe then tries to capture in the sound as well. “The song usually starts with a phrase, and as I start singing it, I’m doing it on different instruments, trying the same parts out on different instruments and seeing what it inspires. A big part of the creative process is matching the feeling of the music to the feeling of the moment that the song is written about.”
His reliance on instinct has been one of the main drivers of choosing the songs that make the cut on his debut album. “The creative process gets confusing if you’re aiming for anyone else’s taste. You’re never going to understand someone else’s gut like your own. What makes people love a song is such a mystical, intangible thing. So if you try to figure out what makes someone else love it, it’ll get really stressful and convoluted. But if you’re just listening to a little part of yourself, the part that isn’t the part of my brain that understands chord structure and music theory or lyricism or melodies, rather, it’s the part of me that responds in this gut-reaction way. If I can really connect to that and figure out what that part of me loves in the music on every part of the album — if it’s something that makes me feel something in the way ‘If the World Was Ending’ did and does — that’s what makes this album special.”
If anything, his experience with the now-Grammy-nominated song has emboldened him, making him more confident in just creating something that he loves, rather than aiming for anyone else’s bar. “It made me a little more fearless,” he confesses. “It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever done. It’s a scary thing to have the song that first propels your career to be a song that isn’t exactly the kind of music you want to make. With that being said, to have the first song be exactly the kind of song I’ve always wanted to make, it’s actually a very freeing thing. I now get to go into this album, not trying to aim for anything else than just like, what’s going to be my next favorite fucking thing? Because ‘If the World Was Ending’ was my favorite fucking song. When we wrote it, I thought, ‘This is exactly the kind of music I want to make, that’s it, that’s me in a song, yes.’”
It’s unclear if the song will be included in his debut album as well, given its appearance on Saxe’s EP earlier this year. Saxe himself admits that in a lot of ways Hold It Together felt like his debut album. “There were two singles released before that weren’t on the EP but could’ve been on the EP, and then I had a couple of standalone songs between that and the album. So in my head, it kind of feels like that was the first era of my music. And I’m still incredibly proud of that EP, and I wouldn’t change anything about it, it said everything that I wanted to say, in exactly the way I wanted to say it.”
Still, there are different expectations when it comes to a debut album. The immense success of “If the World Was Ending” certainly could set Saxe up for some challenges. It could make it harder to create new material that measures up to it, or it could end up pigeonholing an artist. It’s one of the reasons Saxe wanted to put out “Hey Stupid, I Love You” in the meantime. “I really wanted to make sure that I was putting out music that wasn’t just the way I felt at 3 a.m., alone in my living room at the piano,” he grins.
“I often think about songs as representative of who I am at certain times of the day. ‘If the World Was Ending,’ ‘A Little Bit Yours,’ they’re definitely me lamenting in the middle of the night. Whereas ‘Hey Stupid, I Love You’ is more like 3 p.m. being silly with my girlfriend. And the truth is, I spend a lot more of time being a loving, silly dork with my girlfriend than I spend being recklessly nostalgic at 3 a.m. at the piano.”
It’s important to him that the album also reflects a wide variety of feelings. “One feeling can get boring, you know? We’re all having complex human experiences where all of those things can coexist, and I think there’s no reason the album can’t be all of those different things. If they’re all sincere, then they all fit.”
Sincerity is a recurring theme in his love for music and the artists he looks to for inspiration. In fact, he’s been actively trying to revisit the music he grew up on — before he knew anything about music theory. He names an eclectic mix of records like TheMiseducation of Lauryn Hill or early Killers and Coldplay albums and material from The Beatles and Stevie Wonder. “It’s something I’ve been doing more recently, toward the end of the album process — going back to the music I loved before I knew how to analyze it and connecting to that feeling. Like, what was the music I loved before I understood why? Before I could be like, ‘Oh, I loved that chord change, or I love that pre-chorus,’ all the nerdy shit, you know? And that’s been cool for me because it’s helped me to get to that part of myself that I want to be listening to my own music with.”
He’s found that the common denominator is an emotional honesty that usually stems from a personal perspective. “I think the more personal, the more universal. It’s a principle filmmakers have understood for a really long time, and I think songwriters are finally starting to really adopt that as well. You don’t have to be relatable to everyone to be emotional. My favorite movies are about situations that I’ve never been in, and yet the humanity of those stories is what moves me, and I really think that applies to songwriting too,” he explains.
Essentially, he wants his album to be a representation of his own humanity — all the versions of JP Saxe that he’s been in the past and present. Referring back to what he said earlier about him at 3 a.m. and 3 p.m., he jokes that the album is essentially him “at different times of the day over the last three or four years. In different kinds of relationships, feeling different things, but all coming from the same sort of internal dialogue.”
In fact, this is perhaps most apparent in one of the tracks on his debut album that Saxe wrote years ago. “It’s actually the song that the line ‘if the world was ending, you’d come over, right?’ was originally written for. Often, my next song will start as a failed attempt at finishing the previous one. And I’d written that line to try and finish the song. Remember what I said earlier about matching the feeling and emotion? I liked the line, and I liked the section, but it just didn’t fit. It didn’t match the emotion of [that song]. So it just lived in my journal, and it was probably like a year and a half later when the earthquake hit in Los Angeles and reminded me of that lyric. It was two weeks before my session with Julia. I brought that lyric to my session with her and then, well, all of the things you know happened, happened,” he laughs. But it’s because of this connection to the song that, in a way, has made his album possible and that confirmed that he wanted the song to be part of his debut LP. Plus, “it’s still one of my favorite songs,” Saxe says.
“There’s a little bit of a metaphor in it, that the beginnings of the next song are so often a failed attempt at finishing the previous one. I don’t know exactly what the metaphor would be in there, but it just feels like that’s indicative of something bigger than just songs,” he contemplates out loud. It’s a little bit like saying life happens while you’re busy making plans. Or perhaps it’s a bit more like a phoenix rising from the ashes and emotional growth. That different parts of who you are and what you feel bleed into each other as you evolve.
Saxe also emphasizes that not everything he sings about is necessarily true to this day. “You can feel one way in a day, and that feeling becomes a song that encapsulates that moment in time, but the next day you may feel a different way. It doesn’t make the feeling insincere; it just makes it temporary, which most feelings are.”
Songs based around sincerity are really all he knows how to make. “Every time I made a song that doesn’t quite feel like it’s exactly the kind of transparency that I want my art to represent, I never end up liking the song, even if other people think it’s good.” What is more, Saxe confesses he’d probably struggle to perform them. “It’s an investment in the happiness of my future self on tour when I get to go up on stage and tell the truth every night. Lying stresses me the fuck out, and if I feel like these songs aren’t sincere, then I just imagine myself being up on stage like, presenting falsities every night, and that just seems like it would mess with my mental health.”
However, it doesn’t mean Saxe needs all his creative output to be 100% realistic, especially when it comes to videos. For “A Little Bit Yours,” Saxe got to live out his dream of playing an astronaut in space himself. “Videos are a fun part of my career,” Saxe says cheekily. “I care about them very deeply, and I have no idea how to make them. Caring about the creative integrity of the elements of your craft that you have no agency in is a very different process than caring about the music’s creative integrity, which I actually know how to do. So with videos, it’s a lot of trust and outsourcing.”
His director came up with the idea to take the concept of the song literally. “We could represent two people who were completely separated and yet in their own individual lonely moment, still connected more than anything else. Like being worlds away, him taking that and putting two people literally worlds away from each other– I thought it was fucking cool. And I’m a dork, and I like space, and that video gave me an excuse to interview an astronaut. I got to interview David St. Jacques, who is an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency, and I think he spent the fourth most time at the space station of anyone in the world.”
While he certainly had some thoughts on whether or not having koi fish on a spaceship like in the “A Little Bit Yours” video was realistic (spoiler: it’s not), Saxe says it was easily one of his favorite things that have happened in his life. “I got to interview him on my Instagram, and I asked him mostly about his feelings. I figured that lots of people ask him about life on the moon and water on Europa, and not many people ask him how to maintain a long-distance relationship between Earth and space. It was one of the most fun conversations I’ve had in 2020.”
Aside from interviewing astronauts, Saxe has also been performing on Instagram Live from time to time. And while he did enjoy doing it, he’s not sure if it’s something he’ll take with him for when touring returns eventually. “Maybe. I’ve always loved the spontaneity of being on stage and letting every show be a little bit different than the other ones. Letting those conversations with the audience happen, letting the versions of the songs or the setlist be a little different because of the energy in the room or just the mood you’re in. I think it’s one of the leftovers from my jazz influence growing up. That feeling of spontaneity on stage, even though I’m a pop singer-songwriter putting on a pop singer-songwriter show.” He continues, “It’s a treat for fans but also for me. I want something new every night. I don’t have the attention span to do the same thing over and over.”
It’ll be an interesting experience for him nonetheless, as the initial tour based on his EP release earlier in 2020 was canceled. When touring is deemed safe again, it’s very likely Saxe’s debut album will already be out by then, and he might be the proud owner of a Grammy.
“Quarantine has been a career incubator for me, as I’ll be coming out of quarantine with a bit more of an audience than I entered it with. So in terms of touring, I think I’ll be skipping some steps, which is both exciting and intimidating because there are like two tours that I would’ve done during this time. Having not happened, I’m still optimistic that the tour I would’ve been doing in the summer of 2021 will be the same size that I’m still going to do at the end of 2021. Just without the build-up in between. We’ll be diving in headfirst into a little bit different of a career,” he smiles.
As with the success of “If the World Was Ending” during those early months of quarantine, Saxe just takes things as they come. “This is the only version of my career growing this way that I’ve experienced, but from conversations with colleagues and friends, there are elements of recognizing the way your career grows that you don’t really get when you’re locked in your house.” He pauses, then jokes that “it’s hard to feel like a big shot who’s career is growing when you’re sitting at home in your PJ’s watching Jeopardy.”
It seems hard to imagine Saxe will ever not be as humble and introspective about his career, but it’s certainly not hard to imagine Saxe as a successful musician. Above all, he wants people to see his music in the same category of music that he loves: Music that comes from a place that isn’t trying to impress you, but just an album that the people making it themselves would’ve loved. “If I were to put together my own festival, and I’d get to be in the middle of the bill, I’d include Carole King, John Mayer, Stevie Wonder, Maren Morris, Sam Smith, Labrinth, and Alessia Cara. It’ll be a good one, let’s book it for 2025,” he jokes.
It’d definitely be a festival that I’d want to buy tickets for, but until then, there’s still much to look forward to for Saxe and his fans, starting with the release of his debut album early next year. Taking into account the material he’s put out so far, it’s sure to be an album built on emotional sincerity, rather than a specific genre — and that’s really exciting.