For over a decade, Canadian singer-songwriter Jordan Klassen has been diligently creating his whimsical, contemplative music; crafting delicate songs which land somewhere in the sonic stratosphere between indie-rock, avant-garde folk and baroque pop. He has earned favourable comparisons to fellow multi-instrumentalist and lo-fi folk artist Sufjan Stevens, yet he has never been able to crack the mainstream and blow-up in quite the same way. This is surprising, given his superb musical ability, his wise, emotionally perceptive song writing and his skill at making such soul-searching music sound so pleasant and accessible. Even the songs of his which plunge headfirst into feelings of loneliness, ambiguity and melancholy have a romantic, life-affirming quality to them. Listening to Klassen’s music feels like stepping into the warm, golden sun on a frosty winter’s morning; there’s a stillness and quiet in the air, but hope, tinged with a sense of new beginnings, lies just beyond the horizon. His latest record, Tell Me What To Do, is a lyrically rich and instrumentally diverse meditation on the particular anxieties of adulthood faced by the millennial generation. In hushed tones and with a considerable amount of grace, Klassen explores the relatable and contradictory desire to be both in control of one’s life and utterly free from responsibility.
We spoke with Jordan Klassen for this edition of our Artist Spotlight series, where we showcase intriguing artists and give them a chance to talk about their music.
How and when did your interest in music start?
As a kid I was always really interested in making things. Drawing, writing plays, making movies on my parents’ camcorder. In high school I was playing trombone in band class and I begged my mom to let me quit. She herself was a musician and it was important for her that I learned an instrument, so she told me I could if I learned to play something else. I started guitar lessons and as soon as I did, I was writing songs.
What do you want people to feel when they hear your music?
Probably the same way I feel when I listen to my favourite records or read my favourite poems. Present, inspired, known in some way. That sounds really serious! I guess there’s also a playful aspect to a lot of my songs as well, so I think the emotional landscape of my tunes errs on the positive / hopeful side.
Your beautifully introspective album Tell Me What To Do came out in May. What was the inspiration behind it?
There were a few lines of thought. One of them was that I wanted to really lean into what I think I’m good at as a songwriter. Every record I’ve done has explored some new sonic and literary territory but this time I just wanted to try to settle into something that felt like ‘me’. I’ve always felt at home with quiet music so we made that a sonic theme. Everything on the record is played very quietly, I sang just barely audibly. Then when we compressed the audio it kind of came alive, all the little details burst out of it.
The record came from a place of inner exhaustion. I think about identity a lot, where I fit, what I think, the kind of person that I want to be. Western culture is filled with all kinds of images and voices inviting you to craft yourself into something great. I sometimes feel like I’m making a Dungeons and Dragons character or something. But at this point in my life, I’ve become less interested in self-expression and am more interested in listening to outside voices. I want to be told who I am. I want to be a cog in a machine I guess, as weird as that sounds. This is the overarching theme of the album.
What’s your process for writing lyrics?
Hmmm…. pace around anxiously? Haha. Melodies are almost always first and then I’ll spend a few weeks just singing what feels natural, mostly because I’m procrastinating. But by that time some words and sounds will have popped up that really suit the mood or fit into a concept that I’ve been thinking about, and I’ll finally put the puzzle pieces together.
I love T.S. Eliot, his poems feel like pulling heaven down to earth. They leave you not with a traditional story but with an impression, I think. That’s the kind of lyric I always aspire to write – like an abstract painting.
You’re a prolific musician, having worked as an artist for a number of years with several successful LPs under your belt – what have been the highs and lows of navigating the music industry?
Sometimes I joke to my friends that it’s the only industry in the world where experience is not an asset. Freshness and youth are idolized, and this can make it really tough for people who are in it for the long haul. At times it can feel like all of your investment might not pay off. So those can be lows. But I have had so many high points, I’ve got to travel the world, I’ve made art I’m proud of, I’ve been supported by so many amazing people and organizations. I also never watch the clock when I’m working, which is honestly probably the best thing about getting to do this.
We’ve all needed our guilty-pleasure songs to get through those dark days in lockdown, what are yours?
I’ve been listening to a lot of Selena Gomez lately. Some of her songs are just so great and catchy – really interesting and fun production too.
What are your hopes and plans for the not so distant future?
All of mine are probably the same as most musicians during Covid. I want to get back out on the road again, especially in Europe. I want to play these ‘Tell Me What To Do’ songs live. But realistically I think that I’m going to start working on new music. I have the advantage of having my own studio where I work every day, so I figure I might as well just spend all my time doing what I love anyway – writing songs.