Talking with JP Saxe you feel his love for writing. Whether it’s songwriting or poetry his passion for words is very evident. And that is apparent in his superb new album, A Grey Area. The album’s eloquence and elegance is a homage to his enthusiasm for literacy.
It has made him a favorite of artists like John Mayer, who he is currently opening for on tour. Artists and songwriters, as well as fans, appreciate Saxe’s authentic songwriting and candor. I spoke with Saxe at length about poetry, his love of songwriting, his friendship with Mayer and much more.
Steve Baltin: You played a show last night? How’d it go?
JP Saxe: I had the time of my life. It’s always a bit of a crapshoot for me emotionally, in what I expect to happen in places that I’ve never lived. ‘Cause if I’m in Toronto, Los Angeles, New York, places I’ve been to, I know people are gonna show up to the shows and I know technically on the internet, I have fans in other places. But, it’s just my insecurities are loud about this. So when I have a show and I’m at a place like London, I’m like, “No, I don’t know anyone here. No one’s gonna come.” So then when it’s a room full of really friendly British people, the distance between my expectation and reality makes the joy of it particularly lovely.
Baltin: How much of the new material are you doing?
Saxe: Well, these have been the album release parties, so I’m playing a lot of the new material. Yesterday I did a little chronological set list for myself, in the name of nostalgia. I didn’t stick to it because I have quite a people pleasing problem. So if people yell out songs in the audience, I’ll just do them immediately. So my intended game plan for the set list and the set list that I played were dramatically different. But the original plan was to just go through little favorites from the catalogs, starting at the first EP and then throwing in new music as I went. I played five or six of the songs.
Baltin: So if people yell out “Free Bird,” do you play it?
Saxe: Oh no. It has to be one of my songs. My people pleasing does not circumvent my narcissism.
Baltin: One of the reasons I wanted to do this, by the way, because I am a huge poetry fan, and so I actually grew up writing poetry. So who are your favorite poets?
Saxe: My favorite poets are Yesika Salgado and Edwin Bodney and Tonya Ingram and Alyesha Wise. My first community in Los Angeles was the poetry community. I moved to LA in 2013 and stumbled into a poetry venue called Da Poetry Lounge, which is in Melrose in Fairfax. And was so moved by how brilliant these writers were. And I had been part of a poetry community in Toronto before that, a poetry community called Rise. And I thought when I was in LA and didn’t really have friends yet, didn’t really have community, I was like, “I wonder if I can find something like that.” And I ended up finding people that would become my family and listening to poets. I wanted to be a songwriter that could write as well as my favorite poets. ‘Cause there’s a lot of amazing songwriters obviously. I am so inspired by so very many songwriters, but you can also put some bulls**t in the song. And if you make the melody pretty enough, people will still be about it. As a poet, if it’s bulls**t, it’s just bulls**t. There’s nothing to hide it in. And I love that about poetry as an art form.
Baltin: So who are the songwriters you feel have achieved that level of poetry?
Saxe: There are the classics, the Joni Mitchell’s, Carole King’s, Stevie Wonder’s, more recently people like Jason Isbell, more modern younger songwriters like Holly Humberstone, I think is really upping the lyrical game. But honestly having poets in my community and in my life daily and as the first people often hearing my music, it raised the bar for what I expected of myself as a lyricist because I knew if they didn’t f**k with what I was saying they were gonna tell me, and they didn’t really give a s**t about the production of the melodies. If I played a song for my poet friends and it wasn’t well written, they were gonna tell me that I was being lazy and impressing them really mattered to me. And I’m grateful for their honesty, for their brilliance and their friendship and making me want to be a better writer.
Baltin: If you could set any one poem in history to music, what would it be?
Saxe: There are some Buddy Wakefield poems that I think are pretty lyrical, that would be fun to write melodies too. That’s the first one that comes to mind. I always wanted to write Yesika’s poems into melodies because I think she writes in a way that feels like my internal voice better articulated. I really relate to the way she speaks. But she says things in ways that I would never arrive at. So that’s why it was particularly special to be able to turn that to melody. Tonya Ingram is one of them too. She’s got some poems that I would love to convert into songs.
Baltin: I also love the line, and you talk about this on Instagram “You make me wanna lie about my reading habits” because there’s a great quote that I read years ago. It said, “No question starts more lies that have you read.”
Saxe: Yeah, this is true. Especially when you’re talking to someone you want to flirt with and they’re talking about their, [chuckle] library and their favorite books, and you want to come off sophisticated in order to be desirable. I don’t think anything is more helpful for me in my pursuit of self-growth and self-growth in the direction of the approval of someone I’m attracted to.
Baltin: So what’s the last book you lied about reading?
Saxe: That’s a really good question. Probably The Bible [laughter].
Baltin: What was the last book you read to impress someone not lied about, but actually read to impress someone?
Saxe: The last book I read to impress someone was Many Lives, Many Masters. It’s a book about reincarnation or it’s a book about someone in therapy getting hypnotized in order to remember their past lives.
Baltin: Do your songs trigger a lot of memories for you?
Saxe: Yeah, it acts like a little time capsule. That’s one of the things I’m grateful to songs for. They let you bottle up little feelings and revisit them whenever you want. So I’m in London and it’s around the time of year that I pick a new perfume because I like every year to pick a new perfume and then use it for that year. ‘Cause when I want to remember what that year felt like, I can go back to that perfume. And songs are kind of like that, except if you attach a song to a feeling and you do this as a listener, but I also do this as an artist. Like I use that feeling, that song as a way to put a feeling in my bottle and then revisit when I want to. And sometimes I put them in those bottles ’cause I don’t want the feeling anymore. And sometimes I put them there because I wanna hold onto them forever.
Baltin: Are there things on this album that you think are a feeling and then they become something entirely different?
Saxe: Something that I have learned about past songs in performing them from a different emotional space than the emotional space I wrote them in, is that the feeling I have when I revisit these songs isn’t the feeling I had when I wrote them. It’s the feeling of recognizing how far I am now from that feeling. You ever read back on a journal you wrote when you were really f**king heartbroken and it makes you chuckle a little bit ’cause you’re like, “I really thought that would never change. I really thought I was gonna feel that way forever. And look at me feeling this completely different version of life now.” And it’s almost endearing to recognize how wrong you were about the temporal nature of your emotional experience. That’s what I feel now. I feel that when I sing these songs that are from a different emotional era, I almost feel charmed in the recognition of the distance I am from that emotional space.
Baltin: But are there ones then that surprise you when you go back to them and find that you are still closer to that emotional space?
Saxe: I’ve written songs about different situations that ended up coming back around and now I’m relating to my songs from a different relationship or a different moment or a different experience kind of in the way a fan would. Because when you listen to a song and you attribute your own experience to what’s being talked about in this song, even though what the artist is talking about isn’t exactly what you’re going through, I’ve had that experience with my own songs because I wrote them about a different experience, but now I’m in a new experience that reminds me of that one. So I now I’m relating to my song from this moment in the future. That’s always cool. My favorite version of that is “If The World is Ending” because that song is about something so different for me now than it was when I wrote it. It relates to my life in a way that is so different than what it was originally written about.
Baltin: Funny how songs evolve in the world, like “If The World is Ending.” Do you find the song changes for you as the world ends?
Saxe: There’s been a lot of comments around the prophetic nature of that song. Like in 2020 I was accused of having some insider information because I wrote that song well before the pandemic and then stumbled on some relevance beyond what I would’ve ever anticipated. But I think that’s the blessing of writing from an honest place. Sometimes if you really root your art in your own honesty, sometimes that honesty is way bigger than you could have ever anticipated. Now that’s obviously an extreme version of that anecdote, but I’ve seen it happen in other ways too. Like, I met a couple last night who asked me to write “A Little Bit Yours” down on a piece of paper for them because the husband wanted to get a tattoo of it. And the reason he wanted to get a tattoo is they had a couple years ago gotten a divorce, or they had gotten separated, they’d been married for years and have a child together, a young child. And they had gotten separated. They were in a really dark place and it was him sending her “A Little Bit Yours,” that’s what started their process back to one another. And I got chills listening to this whole story. I’m getting chills recalling the story. But that song from my life was about the inability to let go of someone who felt so intrinsically a part of me. And never really getting to return to that love in the way I wanted it, despite that person’s grasp on me. So, to hear a story about that song now playing a role in someone’s life where they got the version of an outcome that I wanted but didn’t get, I don’t want it anymore and I was right to not get it. But to see that song played a role in someone’s life where they got the best case scenario was pretty cool.
Baltin: Are there those songs and albums for you that become “old friends?”
Saxe: I had this gig at Rough Trade for the album release party. And I was signing things and meeting fans, and a song called “59th Street Bridge Song,” by Simon & Garfunkel came on at the record store. And I probably haven’t heard this song in 15 years. But when I was like 14, I was obsessed with “59th Street Bridge Song,” obsessed. I used to sing it all the time. I thought it was the happiest song in the world. And I just thought Paul Simon saying “Hello, lamppost,” was just as quirky and charming as a lyric could possibly be. I recently revisited Miguel’s album, Kaleidoscope Dream. And I hadn’t heard that since I first moved to LA. And it’s crazy not only how much that album felt like driving around Los Angeles in my 1994 Chrysler LeBaron with the broken convertible top, I also realized how much I am subconsciously influenced by that music that met me at such a critical time in my life. Like, I’m still chasing the feeling that music gives me in my own music. I feel it with Gershwin, because I learned how to play the piano, learning the Gershwin songbook. So, those songs feel like my childhood. I feel it with the Beatles, because throughout high school, I would have different albums that I would listen to every morning on the way to school. And there was a Rubber Soul era, there was a White Album era, and then I jumped away for a second. And there was a jazz era where I listened to The Köln Concert every day on the way to school by Keith Jarrett. And then there was Oscar Peterson, and I was listening to that every day on the way to school. And then I came back to the Beatles, and then I found The Roots and John Legend, and then it was that every day on the way to school. So I think those drive to school albums are probably the ones that are the most notably time capsules for me.
Baltin: I love John Mayer. What I love about him is he’s always just been his own dude. I respect that immensely. So talk about some of the coolest things that you’ve learned.
Saxe: Well, like you said, John is the kindest version of charismatic that I think I’ve experienced in really anyone. He’s been so generous and gracious with me. And I forget when I’m hanging out with him sometimes that he’s John Mayer. The majority of my life, John Mayer is a songwriting hero of mine. It’s only been a few years since he’s been my friend. So interacting with him I kind of bounced back between I’m comfortable and I’m being silly and myself. And when we’re together, it’s a lot easier. But then he’ll text me and his name will pop up on my phone, I’ll be like, “What the f**k? [laughter] What is happening right now?” At the end of the day what I’ve always wanted is a sense of community. I’m an only child, I grew up in a small town. I never had community automatically. And I realized it was with music that I was gonna get to create my own family. And being at a place in my life now where that sense of community that I’ve built includes some of my heroes, is one of the things that I’m the most grateful for, because I admire the f**k out of John. So, him being a part of my life, a part of my community means I have someone that I admire and look up to in my world. That’s what makes it so cool. But it’s a similar type of cool to some of my best friends who aren’t world famous pop stars, but who are themselves in a way that I really admire. So, I guess what I’m getting at is John fits into the category for me of the things about my life that I feel the most grateful for. Because it’s people who show up in themselves and in their life in a way that not only brings me joy but makes me want to be more myself. And John has become one of those people for me.