JP Saxe writing about
How writing about the apocalypse changed my life

Eleven years ago, JP Saxe volunteered for a job as a “crowd enthusiasm human” at the Juno Awards, Canada’s equivalent to the Brits.

That night, he stood in Newfoundland’s Mile One Stadium and cheered as Michael Bublé, Barenaked Ladies and Justin Bieber took to the stage. But it was Drake, who won best new artist, that left the biggest impression.

“I think he might be in my top three, if not my favourite, songwriters of the last 20 years,” says Saxe.

Fast forward to the 2021 Juno Awards. Drake was named artist of the decade and Saxe was no longer a seat filler. In fact, he inherited the new artist prize, accepting his award from “the same house where I was a 21-year-old living on ramen”, thanks to Covid-related restrictions.

“So things are looking up,” he says. “All I can say is that, 10 years from now, I’m trying to be Drake.”

He owes his victory to If The World Was Ending – an eerily-prescient pop ballad, in which a couple wonder whether the apocalypse would force them to reunite.

If the world was ending, you’d come over, right?/ The sky’d be fallin’ and I’d hold you tight/ And there wouldn’t be a reason whyWe wouldn’t even have to say goodbye.”

Written and released before the pandemic, it resonated hard as the world shut down, eventually going platinum in December 2020; and earning a song of the year nomination at the Grammys.

The title dates back to 2018. Saxe wrote it for another song called 4:30 In Toronto, but edited it out and stored it in his journal. Then, on 5 July 2019, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck Los Angeles, the biggest in the region for 20 years. Saxe, who was stuck in traffic, remembered the words and dug them out as soon as he got home.

Around the same time, he received an Instagram message from Julia Michaels, one of pop’s most in-demand songwriters, with credits for Justin Bieber, Dua Lipa and Britney Spears. She’d heard one of Saxe’s earlier songs and wanted to hook up. He knew instantly what song they should work on.

“I really wanted to bring my A-game because she’s my favourite songwriter and I wanted to impress her,” he says.

By the time they hit the studio, Saxe’s emotions were stripped raw. Days earlier, he’d been in Toronto with his mother, as doctors told her she had terminal cancer.

“There’s a kind of reverence that that comes with that sort of life-altering news,” he says. “Without that, I don’t know how that song would have turned out.”

Sat side-by-side with Michaels at a piano, the music and lyrics spilled out “magically quickly”. Then she ended up singing the second verse, turning it into a duet, because Saxe couldn’t get his timing right.

“Julia got all frustrated, and came into the [vocal] booth and said, ‘Let me show you how to sing it and then you can copy my phrasing’,” he recalls.

“And I was like, ‘I’m not coming back, you’re singing the whole song’. And, like a rock star, she sang it two times and left.”

The track did moderately well on its first release in October 2019, but lockdown turned it into a smash.

“Suddenly we were all thinking, ‘those reasons that I don’t talk to my parent don’t matter anymore’,” says Saxe. “Or that the petty argument with one of my best friends, that led us to not talking for the last four months, seems stupid now.

“That was such a present emotion for me, and for almost everyone I know. We had just happened to write about it when it wasn’t quite as relevant yet.”

Over the last year, he’s been contacted by dozens of fans who repaired relationships after hearing the song, as well as conspiracy theorists who accused him of having advance knowledge of the pandemic (“I don’t even know what the Illuminati is,” he jokes).

But his most precious memory is that his mum got to see his success before she died.

“If there’s anything a parent wants for their kid, it’s to know that they’re going to be loved, and that they’re going to be OK doing something they love,” he told the Switched On Pop podcast earlier this year. “And my mom got to see both of those things at the end of her life.”

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A Canadian native, Jonathan Percy Starker Saxe comes from a musical background. His grandfather was the Hungarian-born cellist János Starker, who won a Grammy for his 1997 recording of Bach’s cello suites, and who Saxe calls “my hero to this day”.

János told his grandson to give up cello in his teens, saying he’d started too late to make it a career. Instead, he took up piano and guitar and, by the time he left school, was booking benefit concerts around Toronto, while posting songs online. One of those, a cover of an Allen Stone song, landed him a gig in LA.

“I moved out there when I was 19 and lived out of my car, sleeping outside the studio, hoping I would get a call from the producer to come in and write the next day.”

His first recordings weren’t up to much – “I hadn’t lived enough life to know what I wanted to say” – but he kept at it, honing his skills until the release of his debut single, Changed in 2017.

Unsurprisingly, the single takes centre-stage on Saxe’s debut album, Dangerous Levels Of Introspection. It more than delivers on that title, as the musician explores heartbreak, insecurity and loss of innocence, parcelling up his own life experiences in atmospheric, R&B-influenced pop.

The music littered with one-liners: “All I do is get over you / And I’m still so bad at it,” he sings in the disarmingly-honest piano ballad A Little Bit Yours.

On 4:30 in Toronto, he’s making late-night confessions in a hotel room: “I just want to hold you / It doesn’t have to mean anything / I don’t think it can not mean anything / But I still want to hold you.”

A moral code for pop?

Throughout, there’s a sense of someone yearning to be understood and searching for connection. Saxe says the album’s theme is “understanding myself in and out of relationships with other people”.

Four separate women populate the lyrics – but Saxe says he’s developed an ethical code for writing about other people, while respecting their privacy.

“I think a lot about the morality of songwriting,” he explains, “and the line in the sand I’ve arrived at is that sharing your feelings about someone is totally above board, but when you start talking about their specific personal details, you’ve crossed the line.”

Saxe thinks about songwriting a lot. Like, a lot a lot. He favours ultra-specific, personal lyrics (one song addresses erectile dysfunction) and rails against albums that skip between genres, to maximise their playlist exposure.

“I don’t think, as an artist, you should be trying to make music for every moment of someone’s day,” he says. “I recognise that my music is probably for your one a.m. alone time – and I’m ok with that because, the truth is, that’s where I wrote most of it.

“I mean, if I’m going out dancing, I certainly don’t want to listen to my music.”

But while his lyrics delve into love and its consequences, he’s aware that melancholia can be a trap.

“One of the reasons it’s harder for songwriters to get over a heartbreak is because we start identifying with the pain of it,” he says. “We meet others through the turmoil of exploring our own heartbreak, so our identity can get wrapped up in that – and we start wondering who we are without the pain and the angst of losing someone.

“As a songwriter, there’s a responsibility to be as analytical about our joy as we are our pain, so we can represent the emotions we want to have as well as the ones we don’t.”

As it happens, he’s not short of inspiration right now: Saxe and Michaels fell in love shortly after writing If The World Was Ending, and he’s conducting interviews from the bedroom of the house they share in LA.

“Honestly, meeting Julia was such an example of love being better than my capacity to imagine what it should be,” he says. “As soon as I met her, I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is different’.”

So how does living with a fellow musician affect his moral code? Does Michaels get a veto over his lyrics?

“I don’t run necessarily run lyrics by Julia for her girlfriend approval,” he laughs. “I run lyrics by Julia because she’s my favourite songwriter and I want her notes.”

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