High school is where many young musicians form the foundations that carry them into their careers.
The same goes for Tobias Jesso Jr., an alumnus of Ecole Argyle Secondary in North Vancouver who won one Grammy last week for his contribution to Harry Styles’s Album of the Year, Harry’s House, and a second as the inaugural Songwriter of the Year, Non-Classical.
Also like many career artists, Jesso’s path to success was a winding one. Before his song writing credits were printed on albums from the likes of Adele, FKA Twigs and Orville Peck, and his excellent 2015 solo album Goon garnered critical acclaim, Jesso spent years struggling to gain traction as a song writer in L.A. Before that, his role as a bassist in promising Vancouver indie band The Sessions ended when the group broke up due to personal clashes. And before that, a teenage Jesso preferred praise as an entertaining storyteller than as a star saxophone player.
Retired music teacher Ken Osterreicher, who taught at Argyle for 30 years, described Jesso as a very intelligent young man whose mind was constantly in motion.
“He couldn’t sit still very well, and he was an attention-getter,” said Osterreicher, known to his students as Mr. O.
So a method was devised to help Jesso calm down for class.
“It was called Toby Time,” Osterreicher said. “Toby would tell a story of some kind at the beginning of the class or he wouldn’t settle down.”
Apparently, these funny anecdotes were so appreciated by his peers, that classes outside the band room demanded Toby Time as well. Jesso was happy to oblige.
'Music hit him in a certain way'
As a band student, Jesso was in the middle of the crowd. He was good at his instrument – tenor sax – right from the get-go, Osterreicher said, and could have excelled if he wanted to.
But upon reflection, what the music teacher recognizes as the initial sparks of Jesso’s true talent was the young student’s constant creativity. “I remember him sitting down at a piano when he couldn’t play piano and trying to create stuff – trying to create melodies and new things,” Osterreicher said. “That’s where he really stood out.”
“Music hit him in a certain way,” he added, drawing a comparison to another famous Argyle grad, former Soul Decision lead singer Trevor Guthrie.
Osterreicher takes no credit for either’s success, however, saying that he and the school gave students opportunities to perform in various groups. For Jesso, that included electric bass in the jazz choir. But his first bass-playing gig didn’t last very long due to the early morning rehearsal times.
“He wasn’t a morning person,” Osterreicher said. “I don’t know if he is now – probably isn’t.”
After retiring in 2010, a beloved Mr. O moved to Calgary, where he continues to run band camps. Being out of the North Vancouver loop, he wasn’t at all aware of Jesso’s increasing fame. Osterreicher didn’t connect the dots until he was contacted for an interview last week.
“I was just blown away,” he said, adding that he has been listing to, and loving, all of Jesso’s catalogue that he hadn’t previously heard.
“I just listened to Boyfriends again,” Osterreicher said. “Just beautiful.”
“It’s always really, really, really gratifying to have somebody go through and take their talents with them. Because my main reason for teaching was: I have a love for music and athletics, which is what I taught and coached,” he added. “I just wanted to pass that love on.”
Watch Harry Styles perform Boyfriends, co-written by Tobias Jesso Jr.