TORONTO — You may assume Toronto singer-songwriter JP Saxe is as intensely acquainted with his innermost emotions as anyone could be. He insists you would be wrong.
Despite his pandemic-era Top 40 hit “If the World Was Ending” introducing him as a deeply contemplative ballad writer, it only takes a few minutes into a morning chat to reveal Saxe is still on a quest to figure himself out.
“People mistake the emotional transparency of my music for me having my emotions readily available,” the 30-year-old says as he sits on a couch in the offices of his record label.
“I value vulnerability,” he adds. “But I don’t have that strength yet.”
As he talks about shattered romantic relationships and picking himself up again, Saxe describes his sense of being successfully vulnerable as not having to spend months perfecting a song to convey his true emotions. He’s admittedly not there yet in his personal life, he notes.
Last year, Saxe split with U.S. songwriter Julia Michaels, whom he met in a studio session that led to them co-writing and recording “If the World Was Ending” together. It began a whirlwind romance that blossomed around the start of the COVID-19 pandemic as their song took off on the charts and led them all the way to the Grammys, where they were nominated for song of the year.
In some ways, those experiences seem like a lifetime ago.
Saxe moved out of the Los Angeles living space he shared with Michaels and wrote the album “A Grey Area,” released in September, which finds him considering “how seemingly opposing emotions can exist at the same time" — in particular the end of a relationship and the fondness for what once was.
“Love can be deeply valid without ending in death,” he suggested in an interview in late June.
“Do we really like saying as a culture that unless you die together that love is useless?”
Saxe lays out those sentiments throughout his second full-length album, with tracks like “Fear & Intuition” detailing a fractured relationship as it teeters between two fates and “The Good Parts” pulling on specific threads of a past romance.
"I Don't Miss You" sees him co-writing with John Mayer about his lingering memories.
Each song is written so precisely as to suggest that Saxe took notes on every day of his love life and its subsequent fallout. He hopes those details are universal.
“My best-case scenario is that my art does for people what my favourite art does for me, which is it makes me feel more human and connected to myself,” he said.
“I appreciate songs (that) can get to a part of myself I don’t really know how to look at – a part of myself that’s frightening or buried under trauma.”
Unearthing and communicating those feelings in his own songs has taken years.
Growing up as an only child with an alcoholic mother, Saxe found language was key to winning or losing his late mother's approval, he said.
“If I did it in a way that upset her even remotely, any number of bad things could happen, whether that be she would break (stuff), hit me or leave," he said.
"But if I could do it in the right way ... if I could show up and really say what I was feeling in (a way) that wouldn’t upset her — and was still honest — then I could get through the maze of any of the land mines of (things) that would go wrong."
“I learned how to filter intense emotion,” he added. “And that’s what I do as a writer now.”
Saxe rekindled his complicated relationship with his mother before she died of cancer a few years ago, just as "If the World Was Ending" was rising in popularity.
Saxe has surrounded himself with poets in recent years and has started to channel their influence into his work. "A Grey Area" opens with an epigraph by American poet Yesika Salgado, performed by Saxe on piano.
Outside Saxe's work, his ex-girlfriend has released her own recordings that seem to express the raw emotions she felt as their relationship fell apart.
Six weeks after Saxe released his aching ballad "When You Think of Me" last fall, Michaels dropped “Sorry to Me Too." The piping-hot rebuttal presents her as struggling to get over a relationship before she turns to the sharpest of takedowns that posture her as a hitmaker whose coattails another person rode in on.
“It’s funny,” she sings amid electro-pop beats. “How I made you all your money.”
Saxe hasn't heard her recent songs and he says he’s not sure he ever wants to.
“I deeply respect Julia and her perspective,” he said.
“And I also want to protect mine.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 30, 2023.
David Friend, The Canadian Press