JJ Bassette is a 21 year-old University of Southern California senior and singer/songwriter based in Los Angeles, California. Bassette has graciously chosen Tom Lohrmann Music to exclusively premiere his new single ‘help me get out of my head’ from his latest record “21” (an album which, for the first time in his career, features his fully realized string and horn arrangements); we interviewed Bassette earlier this week about the Los Angeles music scene, his musical background and progression over the years, and what the future holds for him after he finishes his studies at USC this coming December.
Could you give us some insight into your musical background? How long have you been playing piano? How long have you been writing music?
“I’ve been playing the piano since I was 6; my parents supported a local missionary who taught piano lessons. I hated them and quit. Started writing songs, loved it ever since. So 15 years on Piano, 12 as a songwriter, and 3 as a vocalist now. I’ve always arranged my own stuff, though.”
What can you tell us about your experiences in the Los Angeles music scene? What are some of your favorite venues to play in Los Angeles?
“I love playing around USC. We’ve had a blast performing around Ground Zero, at The Artist Network, at local coffeehouses, and filming all over the place. We have a headlining show at AMPLYFi Hollywood next Saturday on the 3rd of May, actually, that we’re super excited about.”
Could you tell us about the band you’re currently performing with? How did you all meet and begin creating music together?
“I had another iteration of the “JJ Bassette Band” in 2012 that was short-lived yet released a well-produced EP. I’d only been singing for 5-6 weeks at the time of recording, though. The band disbanded and I went back solo for a year, honing my writing and voice. From that lineup, my guitarist and longtime collaborator Alex Flagstad has stayed since, and was joined by two others from his class within USC Thornton’s Popular Music Program. My drummer (Mike Harper) and my bassist (Nikki Brisson), both of whom are incredible musicians in their own right, perform together in other projects as well, so I don’t have to worry about keeping time. I asked them to commit 100% and they did. This is easily the most realized stuff I’ve ever released.”
Your latest album “21” features quite a wide variety of styles and fully realized string and horn arrangements; how would you best describe your sound to someone who hasn’t heard your music before?
“Ben Folds with balls. I’d like to think I’m picking up where Elton (John) left off, but you can be the judge of that.”
How does your latest single release differ from your previous release ‘College’? How does “21” compare to past album releases (such as “20”, “Astronauts”, and “Transience”)?
“‘help me get out of my head’ and ‘College’ are polar opposites. ‘College’ is closer in spirit to my 2012 release “Astronauts” (and draws on similar academic themes; our debut video released in March by Lucas MK garnered 1,000 views in 3 days). ‘help me get out my head’, directed by Addie Liang and sponsored by the Pasadena Art Center, is probably the darkest song I’ve ever written, and features an effect of total chaos that I think tells a great story with the script. “21” is my music. “20” was close, but lacked the budget/resources for a full band. “Astronauts” had the resources, but I wasn’t ready. “Transience” was a high school project I did with a $20 Office Depot microphone.”
What inspired your re-imaginative cover of ‘Surfin’ USA’ by The Beach Boys? Do you have any plans to cover other artists in a similar way?
“I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a cover of The Flaming Lips ‘Flight Test’ or a piano ballad version of ‘God Only Knows’ (I debuted the former when I headlined Republic of Pie’s Pi Night back on March 14, 2014. I hope to flesh out a cover appropriately depending on how my recent hiring at Capitol Records goes this summer. I’d like to think my version of ‘Surfin’ USA’ is more a re-imagination than a cover, as you stated; the basic idea behind it was to reinterpret the copyrightable music and lyrics while completely reinterpreting their context, and instead turning it almost into a dirge rather than the bright and sunny original.”
Your sound and vocal delivery has been likened to Ben Folds, Billy Joel, Bright Eyes, Weezer and Death Cab for Cutie; to what extent would you agree or disagree with these comparisons?
“Ben Folds was accurate 2-3 years ago. I’ve since branched off, and ‘help me get out of my head’ is a great example of that. Weezer, DCFC, and Bright Eyes are actually probably closer than Billy Joel. I’ve always considered myself a better musician than a pianist.”
What was it like to have your music featured in films that premiered at Sundance Film Festival? What inspired you to begin writing for film in the first place?
“My Sundance placement actually stemmed from a high school project. It went on to be purchased by Oprah but hasn’t done a whole lot since. I like my recent material more, and I’m hoping that a track on my USC Final Project (to be released in November with a filmed Senior Concert) can be ready for TV/be an instrumental.”
What has it been like working with and under someone so esteemed as Randy Newman?
“(Laughs) A total treat. One thing you really realize when spending personal time with someone of such esteem is their humanity. Mr. Newman’s a human being, and we laugh a lot together, at our own imperfections or (as Mr. Newman sometimes enjoys) the more notorious imperfections of others.”
2014 is a big year for you, as you released a new album “21” in March and will be graduating from USC in December; what are your plans for this coming summer and fall?
“Aside from “21”, ‘College’, ‘help me get out of my head’, and upcoming music videos for ‘Half the World’ and ‘Disconnected’, I’ll be working in Capitol Records’ inaugural Hollywood and Vine program this summer and presenting my work at their company-wide conference in late July. I’ll celebrate my 22nd birthday with Elton John and the Flaming Lips at Outside Lands in August before returning to USC to finish my final Project/Recording/Presentation in November; I plan to graduate in December as USC’s first ever double major in Popular Music and Business. I consider myself so fortunate and am excited at all that’s in store!”