L.A.-based music writer and singer Jesse Saint John grew up participating in choir and school plays and writing rap for a performance art group with his brother and sister—all things that might suggest he was born for pop stardom. And he’s not denying that his career feels predestined. Saint John, a self-proclaimed alternative-pop artist, is in control of his own narrative, and embraces the power of femininity. As his career has transitioned from writer (he's worked with everyone from Camila Cabello to Brooke Candy) to solo artist with his first two singles “Move” and “Fake It”—both released earlier this year—he feels like his childhood dreams are finally coming true.
“I think it's only happening for me now because I didn't start the year by saying, 'This is my year, I'm gonna kill it,'" he says of his sudden success. "I feel like when I told myself that in the past, I would never live up to my expectations.” Planning to release his first EP later this year, Saint John is becoming the cool, gay pop star he's always wanted to be.
Below, he talks with us about working with icons like Britney Spears and Charli XCX, his mission within the queer pop music movement, and why 2018 is his year.
First off, I'm obsessed with Charli XCX. What's something about working with her that would surprise people?
She's like this perfect dichotomy. She loves to party. She makes that no secret. Like, "Get fucked up and party," you know, rage and all that stuff. But she's such a businesswoman, and she is just really smart. When I talk to her, I recognize me in her, something in her that I enjoy in myself. She has this bigger picture idea of what her career is gonna pan out to be, so she makes all these really smart moves to stay perfectly underground while being really mainstream.
You post a lot about embracing femininity with who you are and your music, as well as in your work with female artists like Charli XCX and Britney Spears and Camila Cabello. How has that shaped who you've become as a pop artist?
In my art, I'm really obsessed with maintaining [that] kind of queerness and femininity, and kind of pushing it to the forefront and building an identity around that. It's funny because, in my personal life, people who know me really well are like, "You're not really that 'fem' in a way." But I think that's important for my art, just because that to me is something that I think is lacking in the queer pop narrative. It's sort of like, "Oh, this person is so heteronormative, you wouldn't even know they're gay." And that's why they're a pop star. I think it's important to kind of be like, "Oh, I know for sure he's, like, a big faggot and that's why I want to support them as a pop star." So I think it's really important to maintain that sort of ambiguity. I also write for Lauv and Andy Grammer and Nick Jonas, too. But I think, in my narrative, it's more appealing to focus on Camila and Charli and Britney because it's like, "Edgy gay guy writes for these big pop girls." I love that narrative, but I'm also equally as balanced, just writing for straight guys and whoever I think wants to be honest and tell a cool story.
What do you look for in an artist when you're approached to write for them, and what's the process of writing for someone else like?
I think it just has to personally excite me. Luckily, I'm in a position now where I don't feel like I need to prove myself or try to wriggle my way into every room. I'm kind of like, "Okay, what do I want to write, who do I want to write with, and who has a story that I really wanna help be a part of?"
Also, it just has to be something that I think I can contribute to. There are certain people who I've been asked to write with, and I'm like, "That would probably be good, but I don't feel useful to that project." I like to look for projects that I think I could be a good fit for and it would make sense for me to try to help them tell that story. It's actually interesting... my two singles are both songs that I kind of wrote thinking they would be for somebody else. So I kind of stick to this plan of, I wouldn't give somebody another song that I wouldn't be happy singing, and I wouldn't sing a song that I wouldn't be happy giving to somebody else. Just because, if it's too personal, it won't relate to everybody who's listening to it, and if it's too broad, it won't relate to people who are listening to it. You need that perfect mix. People should hear it and feel like, Oh yeah, that's something that I've been through, or that's my life, or that's how I'm feeling. I think it should be personal enough that you're kind of revealing a little bit about yourself, but it should be broad enough that you're not, like, just singing something that nobody understands what you're talking about.
When did you realize like, "I wanna do this, I wanna be a pop star"? What was that moment like?
Every time I would go into a session and start writing for somebody else, a lot of times producers would be like, "So, what's your artist project like?" And I'm like, "Oh, I don't have one," and they're like, "Wait, what?" Because so many writers also do an artist project, [but] that was never the goal for me, to be a solo artist. But, the more I started doing sessions, people were like, "You know, you could be an artist, you are as good as the people that we're writing for." So I just would think about that a lot, and then when I wrote the first one, "Move," I wrote it to pitch. I sent it to a couple people, and the more I listened to it, I was like, "You know what, if I ever did an artist project, this would be somewhere in the world of what I wanna do." Definitely pop, but alternative and kind of having that little yearning energy. And then I also had "Fake It" at that time, an early version. It didn't have the same verses, but it had the same chorus. And I was like, "This would be a good second single." It kind of happened by accident, and then the more that I listened to it and thought about it, I was like, "Okay, how do I make this an intentional artist project that has a meaning and a narrative?" It ended up being really fruitful, and I'm so grateful. I can't believe people listen to my songs, which is insane. It's just like, it's all kind of finally falling into place. And, I'm having the most fun I've ever had and actually enjoying my life.
Is there a certain pop star persona you have up your sleeve?
I think the vibe of me as an artist, all of my songs have this kind of unrequited yearning. There's this whole longing for something more, because I've always kind of been that kind of person who's like, "Okay that's cool, now what's next?" And my career has been really satisfying so far, but I always think there's another level. So I think it's this concept of yearning that's in my songs. And then, I think aesthetically, I'm obsessed with horror movies. I have a very scary type, visually.
I was gonna say, your Instagram is so weird, but I love it.
Yeah! I think there's this running theme of, like, putting yourself out there and being rejected is kind of like getting stabbed. You know? It's kind of cool to be like, life is like a little horror movie, let's just do it together and keep dancing.
Was L.A. Pride your first big gig performing? How was it?
Yes! That was my first time doing three songs in a row. I did three, just to test it out and kind of feel what it was like to be in front of an audience. I hadn't performed in, like, seven years maybe? So that was my first time kind of getting out there and testing out the music. And, it was amazing! Twenty-thousand people. I literally was like, "Wow, I've definitely peaked really early. I'll never play with 20,000 people again, so I better slay this."
The queer pop scene is so in its prime right now. What do you hope or want to add to it?
I love working with fellow LGBTQ people. I think that we're really strong together. I think this is the first time that we've been looking around and being like, "Oh, we're all here together, let's be friends and reach out and hang out." I think I'm unique and I'm not a twink, and I'm not super-accessible. I think I'm definitely a little weird, and growing up, I never saw myself represented in the media. The closest thing I saw was Sam Sparro. He was this amazing gay singer, he sings "Black and Gold." When I was maybe a freshman in high school, I saw him on MTV, and I was like, "Oh my god, there is hope for me! I can be that cool gay that I wanna be." So, I wanna be that for somebody else. I think there's such amazing gay and queer LGBTQ talent out right now, and I just wanna be one of them. But, like, their scary little brother.
Who's your dream artist to work with?
I would retire, for sure. I'd be like, "Okay that's it, for real." I thought performing at L.A. Pride was amazing, if I got to be somehow musically with her, I would just for sure retire. She's so inspiring to so many people, and I think we would be friends. I work with a lot of the same producers as her, and whenever I mention that I like her, they're like, "Oh yeah, you kind of remind me of her." And I'm like, "Really, why? Tell me more. Make us be friends."
You've been mentioning your first EP recently. Is there anything you can tell me about it and the message you want to send with it?
"Last Dance," I sang at L.A. Pride, and as of now, that's the first single from the EP. I'm working on it now. I wrote a bunch of songs for it, and they didn't age that well, so they don't still feel good. I'm kind of in the re-thinking process. But I definitely have a few songs for it. It's cool, it's alternative pop. It's what I want to do. It's definitely pop, and it has big hooks, and you can dance to it. But, it's freaky and weird. I think [the message is that] it's just all your little weird things that you don't like about yourself that actually what make you cool. And everything you're ashamed of is actually your superpower, and everything that you're supposed to think of as a guilty pleasure is not guilty because it's just your pleasure.
Where do you want to be in five years?
I used to always make these big grandiose [statements], like, "In five years, I'm gonna be blah blah blah." I think in five years—I mean, I already have development artists signed to me and writers and stuff—but I kinda wanna have my own label. I think within five years, I can definitely do that. And I just wanna be happy. I wanna be able to make my art and be proud of it. I want to be able to be really selective with the things that my being is attached to. I want to be able to just make people feel good and reach huge audiences. I want to be performing, I wanna go on tour. But, also help other artists develop and create their vision and take them to the next level. So, I think, I just wanna do exactly what I'm doing now, but just, more. I wanna keep it going.