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Songs We Love: Tobias Jesso Jr., 'How Could You Babe'

The Vancouver singer-songwriter Tobias Jesso Jr. hasn't released an album yet, but you'll likely find him on a lot of "best of" lists by the end of the year. His songs, which are just starting to trickle out, fall somewhere between '70s soft rock and classic baroque pop, which is to say they go down easy and linger. It's the kind of music you find yourself weeping and singing to in the car after your heart's been crushed, grateful for the company of his voice.

Jesso's latest release is the pleading "How Could You Babe," a simple piano ballad that's both wistful and urgent, spare and majestic. Jesso can forge an anthem just by crooning along with a few quarter notes at the keys.

The song, like the rest of the cuts on his upcoming debut Goon, was inspired by his time trying and failing to break into pop stardom in Los Angeles, a period that included (of course) a bad breakup. After a couple of years trying to write hits for other artists, Jesso learned his mother had cancer, so he called it quits and returned to Vancouver. While she recovered, Jesso wrote songs at the piano in his childhood home and finally found his voice.

"'How Could You Babe' was written around the chorus," Jesso tells us via email. "I just came up with the line and then wrote more words in that theme. It was an experience I had gone through but it wasn't something I thought I needed to say or get out, it just came out that way."

In a new video for the song, Jesso sits at the piano, lost in his thoughts, reflecting on a bad breakup. A series of simple snapshots unfolds: Jesso playing in an empty swimming pool, at the beach, against the city skyline or in a dusty old den. It's a very literally reflection on his time in the city, the emptiness he was left with and his eventual return home.

It's impossible to hear Jesso's music without thinking of classic piano ballad legends Harry Nilsson or Randy Newman. But Jesso, who's not quite 30 years old, says he never listened to either singer until people started making the comparisons. "When I was younger I listened to things like the Fugees and Aretha, along with all the other radio hits of the time. My favorite song was 'Give Me One Reason' by Tracy Chapman. I remember going to listen to it in the vegetable section at the grocery store because they played it all the time and I didn't have it on tape until I got lucky one day and snagged it off the radio."

Jesso's debut full-length, Goon, is due out March 17 on True Panther Sounds.

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