JP Saxe

On his new album 'A Grey Area (Live Sessions),' JP Saxe Flexes His Musical Muscles

“I think artists have always made their best work when they were taking risks and when they were trying to make something that moved people, not impressed people,” said Canadian singer-songwriter JP Saxe. “I think we perform very differently when the intention is to be emotionally present and moved and human than when it’s to be ‘impressive’ or competitive.” The quote came from a pre-interview discussion on the decline of the cultural importance of reality singing shows, though it could be applied to much more.

Saxe’s most recent album, called A Grey Area, was released this past October as the highly anticipated follow-up to 2021’s Dangerous Levels of Introspection. Dangerous Levels… featured the Grammy-nominated hit “If The World Was Ending” with Julia Michaels, and established Saxe as a star in both mainstream pop and adult contemporary. A Grey Area, still pop in nature with tracks like “Moderacion (Con Camilo)” feat. Columbian singer-songwriter Camilo, “All My Shit Is In The Car,” and “Someone Else’s Home,” saw Saxe lean into the crossover appeal with a more refined pop. A more musically comprehensive pop.

Following the theme of taking risks by trying to make art that moves people, an album of acoustic interpretations and reimagining of songs from the new record, called A Grey Area (Live Sessions), is out now.

A Writer’s Process

“On this project, it was important to me to do all of the writing separate from the production because I didn’t want to trick myself into liking something because I liked ‘the record,’” said Saxe, referring to the fully engineered product of a song as opposed to its skeletal beginnings. “I wanted to really like the sincerity of the writing first. I almost wrote the album before I did any music… it was lyrics, then melody, then chord structure on the piano, and then production. I really segmented it.”

“It’s a lot easier to be candid when you’re not imagining anyone reading it yet,” he continued, on his stylistically adaptable writing process that often starts with journaling. Usually, there will be a line that scares me a little bit, and that, to me, is indicative of it being something that should become art. I’ll have that line, then I’ll expand. ‘What’s the next thought?’ ‘What’s the world of that idea?,’ I always write the lyrics first, because there are melodies in them already. If I try to write a melody first and then fit the words in, it always feels less real.”

A Grey Area (Live Sessions)

“The songs I’m doing solo sound like the way they did when I wrote them,” he said, on the updated renditions. “Then there’s the songs with the band that have this kind of musical exploration and things grow in that way. It’s just sort of me nerding out on how many angles you can look at the feeling of a song, then reshape it.” Not every song experiences a complete revamp… “Anywhere” and “If Love Ends,” the latter of which could have been swapped out for the melodically engaging “The Good Parts,” remain generally static beyond the addition of strings. 

The reshaping most effectively enhances “When You Think Of Me,” which shifts from a resentful vocal performance to a more resigned one, and “Caught Up On You,” mostly for its substantially grander instrumental arrangement with both jazz and gospel elements present throughout. Snarky Puppy musician Cory Henry is featured on the former, while Australian multi-instrumentalist Tal Wilkenfeld is present on the latter.

“’Caught Up…’ was always about letting shit be fun without having to analyze why,” he said. “I have a habit of detracting from my joy by trying to figure it out right away. Like, ‘Oh shit… I’m happy. But why?’ It’s just ‘eff it, imma feel it.’ I think there’s a way to capture that in a studio recording and there’s a way to capture it in a live moment. The way to capture it in a live moment is letting it be free and fluid and fun.”

The lead single “I Don’t Miss You” is spry and groovy on the original record, then gets the fancy hotel cabaret treatment on the acoustic. Saxe, for the most part, maintains the vocal tempo but slows his piano playing considerably to reflect the ache of the post-breakup omission that he is still thinking of an old flame after moving onto a new one: “I don’t miss you, I just fantasize about you being someone who loves me / I can’t help it, how I dream as if you’re painted on the back of my eyes.”

“Everything Ends” featuring in-demand singer-songwriter Lizzy McAlphine and indie pop trio Tiny Habits on the original, is stripped back to Saxe solo on the acoustic. The solo version loses its aethereal nature but gains the engaging factor of Saxe singing what could be seen as his assumption of the female response: “Remember when we’d still been in more cities than weeks? / A few minutes at most would go by between times that we speak / And I’d fly across the country to spend just a night tryin’ to keep quiet on a tour bus bed.”

In a time of many of today’s most popular songs being packaged in a streaming bundle to maximize their reach and exposure, Saxe’s project is, at least, milking this music in a way that challenges both him as the performer and the listener, tasked with disregarding what they think they know about these songs and allowing new, inspired elements to occupy the space, as the observer.

Life on the A Grey Area World Tour

Saxe admitted, during this conversation from mid-December, that he was already working on his next album which has seen him take “a complete left turn in how the songs are coming together.” He says he was doing so, at that time, since he’d be on the road on his A Grey Area World Tour, which is now fully underway, for the majority of 2024. “When I’m making an album, I like to be all the way in it. I wake up thinking about it… I fall asleep thinking about it. But also, when I’m on tour, I get very obsessive about the show. About how I’m projecting the emotional integrity of the music to an audience of 1,000+ people every night.”

While some artists find tour life prime time for writing and recording, Saxe does not. “I’m on the bus after the show thinking about how the arrangement of a song in the middle of the set didn’t allow me to be as present with the audience. I get very obsessive about the minutia of the performance, so I’ll be in that world.”

“I’m sure there will be some songs that I lock into an arrangement, but we’ll always leave room for spontaneity,” he continued. “I like the energy of a show that won’t be the same every night. I want it to be impacted by the mood the artist is in that day. What happened that afternoon. I want to feel the spontaneity… the integrity of a moment, a space, that’s allowed to be flawed and messy.”