If you haven’t heard Jesse Saint John’s music yet, you have. The singer-songwriter, who made his mark on the industry penning Brooke Candy’s “Das Me”, has spent the past few years stacking writing credits on some of the biggest pop moments to drop. Britney Spears’s “Love Me Down”, Aquaria’s “Burn Rubber”, Kim Petras’s new EP, TURN OFF THE LIGHT, VOL 1… the list goes ON, kids.
After turning the mic on himself with debut singles “Move” and “Fake It” (and breaking a million streams in the process), Jesse celebrated his birthday with the release of his upcoming EP’s lead single “What Do U Like” and is already soaked in acclaim. Here, listen to it before you read this. Listen again during. As he gears up the release of don’t stop dancing. life gets sad., I caught up with him to get his take on accidental origin stories, working with some of pop’s top power players, and why every good songwriter wants to quit (or at least should).
Let’s get the perfunctory background stuff out of the way. Where’d you grow up? What was home like?
I grew up in Orange County, but we weren’t rich. We were the non-rich people. People are always like, oh, you grew up in the OC, you were on the water. No no no, it was on the other end of the spectrum. My mother and siblings are my best friends in the world. We’re this tight little unit, they’re really creative and so, so smart. I’m really lucky to have them. If I wasn’t in their family, I’d still just be, you know, friends with them.
What do they do?
They’re these amazing musicians and artists. My brother has a charity and he works in VR, my sister is this amazing artist and author. When I was 19, we toured all over as this musically-inclined performance art group.
When did you realize you were musically inclined?
Well, I sang in elementary and middle school because… I’m gay. I did musical theatre and then towards the end of high school, I started doing touring productions of musicals and stage shows.
I never thought I could write. I never thought I had any musical abilities. I wasn’t sitting at the piano playing scales or making up arpegios, I was just in the show and in the thick of it.
When did you start writing?
The first song I ever wrote, start to finish, was “Das Me”. I just sat down and thought, I know I can do this. It was a good first one. It had a good sentiment that people really gravitated towards and that’s how I met Sia.
“I never went to Juilliard or anything, it just kind of happened.”
Were your initial career choices always in music?
I always thought I’d be an illustrator. I do drawings, watercolors, all of that stuff, and it’s where I started making my name. It was like, my first life, I had this really poppin’ Tumblr where I was getting commissions and stuff.
It all kind of happened at once. I was doing illustrations when I moved here, which got me into fashion illustrations. That got me more into fashion and I started styling, doing creative direction, pulling clothes and all that. I was still writing here and there, but it was really an amalgam of different talents.
Writing is obviously my bread and butter, but I still do it all. I drew my single cover for Move, I did the watercolor promo picture for What Do U Like. I keep it all going, but songwriting called me. I never went to Juilliard or anything, it just kind of happened.
You’ve got a very particular aesthetic. Have you always been that way? Do you ever try to be WeHo?
Kind of. There was a blip in 2014 where I tried to be normal and that was… not fun. I did a tank top and snapback phase, but it was super short. I don’t know, I think I’m hot, but I hide it with color and headpieces. There’s an art to being hot but hiding it.
“People ask me how to become a songwriter and I’m just like, ‘Quit.'”
You’ve always been a part of L.A.’s scene, whatever our equivalent of a club kid scene is. Do you feel like the vibe in L.A. is different than it is in New York?
I use to hate that, to be honest. I used to say “I’m not a club kid, blah blah blah”, but if that’s how people see me, that’s amazing. As I’ve entered the mainstream world more, it’s cool to be recognized as someone who knows what’s going on in the underground scene. Trust me, when I was in middle school and first saw Party Monster [available now on WOW Presents Plus!], that was a very big moment for me. I feel weird without the things that I like. It’s not always about making yourself look crazy or having to stand out, it’s about going for whatever vibe suits your energy that day.
Have you ever wanted to quit music?
Oh my god, every day. People ask me how to become a songwriter and I’m just like, “Quit.” You just have to stop and then if you can’t do anything else, I mean, anything else, then become a songwriter. Writing for other people is so fulfilling but it takes a very strong will because you’re kind of at the mercy of others. I personally enjoy it, I feel like channeling other people’s emotions and helping them articulate what they want to say is a superpower. But you’re not really in control, you’re not on the stage, and you don’t always know when your song will come out. You could write the most amazing song that you put your whole heart into and have it just live on a laptop. But if you know in your heart that that’s what you want to do, do it.
You’ve had a lot of big moments in the past couple years, specifically this year. What was your first big one, in your opinion?
The moment that I think set me apart was writing Love Me Down on Britney’s Glory album. It was a personal goal because she’s one of my idols and it put me in a different category as a writer. Before that, I’d had these amazing projects with Charli and Brooke, but the Britney song showed people that I can do these massive projects too.
And it didn’t feel like a pop star trying to tap into a subculture, it was just a good song.
Exactly, and that’s what you try to prove as you’re coming up. “Look, I can follow direction and play in your league and still bring myself to the table.”
What’s it like going back to smaller projects after doing a big one?
That’s something I’ve been really aware of. You have to do a variety of projects, do just as many smaller projects as you do major ones. There have been a few people that I’ve worked with before they blew up and once they did it was like, cool, now we have this relationship established and we know we can work well together. Luckily, I’m in a position where I can work on things that I like.
Do you usually form solid relationships with the people you write with?
I’m not friends with Britney. [laughs] But usually, yeah. We’re in an era where the songwriter and the singer aren’t separated as much. When a lot of us get together, we’re just writing and we don’t know who the song is for, we don’t think about it. Like, Charli XCX writes hundreds of songs and then decides which is for her and which she could see someone else working on. I’m so lucky to have a ton of amazing artist friends for us to just be collaborating and flowing. I’ve made some of my lifelong friends from sessions and getting to learn about each other in the studio.
Is that how you met Brooke?
We met in San Francisco. It was when I was touring with my brother and sister, she was a photographer at this party and everyone kept saying we would get along. You know how people always say gay guys and cool girls will get along and you’re like, yeah, sure, okay. So I met her, and, well, we obviously got along. We stayed in touch via texting and Tumblr, we lived together a bit, and then we just got really close.
We’ve been on some really cool writing vibes lately. She’s in a great space to create amazing sonic ideas right now, we’ve got this single coming out with Boys Noize coming out that I’m really excited about.
“Everyone knows she can do this amazing dance music, so it was about doing that but covering it in slime and cyanide.”
Everyone is gagged over what you’ve done with Kim Petras. What’s the process like there?
With Kim, I heard her demos for Hillside Boys and I Don’t Want It At All a long time ago and was just like, “This girl is a PSYCHO, her music is INCREDIBLE!” We got connected through a manager or something and met at a party, met a few more times, and just really clicked. She moved to LA to be a songwriter and studied pop. We’re both like, students of pop, so we bond over things like old Danity Kane cuts. Her voice is absolutely insane and she’s got this cute style and all that, but she’s really a songwriter first. She never runs out of lyrics, she’s got these amazing ideas from start to finish.
You worked with her on her first EP that just dropped, TURN OFF THE LIGHT, VOL. 1. What was it like taking her in this direction?
One of the first things we bonded over was a love of horror movies. Slasher, thriller, B-movies, all the different genres of scary cinema. We wanted to make a Halloween EP to come out around October, but not like spooks and frights and Frankenstein stuff. Just dark, edgy pop full of double entendres for partying and giving yourself to the night. We have a lot of the same references for it, from Rocky Horror to Death Becomes Her and all that. It still has these big hooks and dance beats, but it’s got this darker flair to it. We were both really into German techno, Kavinsky, Boyz Noize, but we still have the big pop moments. The intention was never to like, change up her style as much as it was to showcase her versatility. Everyone knows she can do this amazing dance music, so it was about doing that but covering it in slime and cyanide.
Speaking of EPs, yours is on its way. How far away?
The next few months, maybe. Soon. There’s another release coming before it drops. The first few singles I did were an amazing jumping off point and I was so excited to find this pop sound that really inspired me, but this EP is really me honing in on one sound. I worked with one producer, Lars, and he just got my sound. It’s like lo-fi, disco, sad but with these happy chords.
So “Move” and “Fake It” aren’t on it?
No, those were stand-alone singles. They really showcased where I was sonically at the time, they both did really well, but this EP is its own little body of work. There’s a little flavor of Justice, Britney, Depeche Mode, it’s all a little bit of what you’ve heard before but mixed up and new.
What subgenres of pop haven’t you dabbled in yet?
I literally think I’ve done everything. Right now, I’ve got two albums on the alternative charts, five on the pop charts, I’ve done rap… What haven’t I done? COUNTRY!
When’s your Joanne moment?
I’m actually going to Nashville next month. I’d do like, Nu Country. Like, cool LGBTQ country. I don’t know if that’ll ever happen for me. I’m a city girl!
What do you feel this your career is gonna bring to pop that hasn’t been brought?
I feel like it’s really grandiose to be like, “I’m gonna bring something that’s missing!” But, I love big pop. I love those big pop, rap, rock sounds that penetrate and make you feel something. I think we’ve been through this phase which I love and have contributed to that’s been this cool background music full of rambling melodies. I’d love to bounce back to those big, visceral moments that make you really feel something sonically. And just, you know, honesty in music and those moments of wallowing in feeling like you’re not cool enough.
“I think I felt heartbreak before I’d actually had my heart broken.”
Speaking of honesty in music, how has writing about love and sex evolved for you in your writing?
Well, I’m not in love. I love my friends and my dog and my family, but I don’t have that romantic notebook love…
Have you ever been in love?
Totally! It’s funny, I haven’t dated in a really long time but once I was a little while out of love, I kind of looked back and wondered if I’d actually been in love or if I was just trying to emulate what I thought was love. I felt really deeply, especially in my first relationship. It’s always a lot, because you don’t really know what you’re doing. I think I felt heartbreak before I’d actually had my heart broken. When I was little, I’d be listening to Fiona Apple, lying on the floor and smoking cigarettes and thinking, “That’s me!” Very rarely do I write songs that are just about love because that feeling of “I just want to wake up next to your face” doesn’t really drive me.
How is writing about sex different?
Well, I was having a lot more sex when I first started writing. I had more time, more of a life outside of the studio.
Does spending that much time in the studio take a toll on your ability to write and create?
Definitely, and that’s been a learning experience. Once you start getting these amazing opportunities that you’ve been waiting on for years, all of a sudden they’re all available and you want to do these 2AM sessions. You try to squeeze in as much as possible because it’s all you’ve even wanted. Now that I’m at a place where I can have more leeway and choice in what I take on, it’s important for me to make sure I have time for my life outside of the studio to fuel my work inside the studio.
So, everyone wraps with “What’s next?” but that’s reductive after this big chat we’ve had. What isn’t next? What have you been there and already done did that you don’t want to repeat in your career?
This comes with growing up as a person, but I used to be really intrigued by unstable people and now I know how to spot those signs quickly and… avoid them. I’ve also outgrown the theory with my writing that what I do is gonna suck. I used to worry about writing a bad song but the truth is, you’re gonna write a ton of bad songs and a ton of good songs. You can’t be afraid. Sometimes, you’ve gotta write a bad song to get the good song, just get the bad out of your system. We’re all really, really, truly human, so we’re all gonna make 1,001 mistakes before we die. Maybe you’ll die making a mistake. But you have to be okay with failing and flopping and sucking. I’ll flop. But right now, I’m having this moment, so I’m going to take it.