JP Saxe Turns Pop Songwriting Upside Down, Reunites with John Mayer on “I Don’t Miss You”

It had been two years since JP Saxe and John Mayer worked together. The two previously performed Saxe’s single “Here’s Hopin’,” off his 2021 debut Dangerous Levels of Introspection during a performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. After piecing together most of his new album in Colombia during the summer of 2022, Saxe was stuck on one lyric and called up Mayer, who ended up co-writing the single “I Don’t Miss You,” along with producer Malay (James Ryan Ho).

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“‘I Don’t Miss You’ is me trying to lie to myself about my feelings — how I distract myself from them, how I compartmentalize them, and how I ultimately lose to them,” said Saxe of the song in a previous statement. “My guiding principle in my songwriting is, ‘Am I telling the truth?’ so a song that’s lying to itself may seem a tad antithetical, but the truth is, trying to hide from how I feel about people is a common and futile adventure inside my head, and I’m excited for this song to bring people into that with me.” 

For Saxe, who co-wrote Ingrid Andress and Sam Hunt’s 2022 No. 1 “Wishful Drinking,” along with “Wish You the Best” for Lewis Capaldi, which topped the U.K. charts, and Sabrina Carpenter’s “Because I Liked a Boy,” his new album is an experiment in writing pop. It also serves as a musical patchwork featuring previous singles “The Good Parts,” “When You Think Of Me,” and “Moderacion (Con Camilo).” 

Saxe recently spoke to American Songwriter about turning “traditional” pop writing on its head by penning most of his album without production, reuniting with Mayer, and where his head is as a songwriter these days.

American Songwriter: Most of these new songs were written while you were in Colombia in 2022, and without production?

JP Saxe: I wrote most of these songs for this album while I was in Colombia, so a lot of the writing process for this album was a little more deconstructed than the traditional pop songwriting approach.

In pop songwriting, you go into a few different sessions, and you’re meeting new people all the time. You make these demos, and because everything’s in a different form, it’s hard for me. It makes it challenging to listen to my gut when I’m listening to those demos, because one of the most valuable tools we have, as music makers, is being a music listener, and just reacting to your own music. So if all of your new, in-progress ideas are in different forms by different producers, it makes it a little bit more confusing to check into what it is you’re responding to in that song.

Maybe I want to go back and listen to this one song over and over again, but it’s not necessarily because I fucked with the sincerity of the lyric and the melody, but it’s because I messed with this drum sonic. Or maybe I like the way the vocal is produced, so I want to listen to it over and over again it. For this album, I wanted to democratize my demos. 

I wrote most of the entire album with no production, whatsoever. I just wrote the songs on the piano and on the guitar. Even songs that I had done in the studio, I made voice note demos out of them, and a lot of that happened in Colombia. I listened to these 30 voice note demos, all in the exact same form, and all I had to respond to was a lyric, a melody, and a chord progression. And then I thought, “Which of these songs feel the most vital?” Then, once I had chosen the songs, I went into the studio, and I produced them with Malay and Ryan Marrone.

AS: And then you had Mayer come in later. What did he end up contributing to”I Don’t Miss You”?

JPS: There was one lyric in the chorus that I was having trouble perfecting, and it was with me for a while. I felt like I was wrestling with this one lyric, and I wanted to get to this emotion. I wanted to nail it, so I tried a lot of different things, and nothing was really hitting. I was thinking, “Who would know what this lyric is supposed to be? John Mayer might know.” So I passed him the demo and asked him what he thought, and he said, “Why don’t you come into the studio, and we’ll mess with the lyric, and I’ll play a bunch of guitar on the record.” I said, “Yeah, that sounds great to me.” We spent a day together, and he played acoustic and electric guitars, solo parts, rhythm parts, melodic parts, and we came up with the lyric together. That day really cemented the identity of the song.

AS: As you spend more time with these new songs, what are you learning from them, and how they’re connecting to one another?

JPS: A central theme of this whole body of work is the process for me, in my life, of recognizing how much more colorful life gets when I allow multiple emotions to exist at the same time. 

This idea of ambivalence is really central to the album. For a long time, I thought if I had mixed emotions, it was because I hadn’t figured out which one was real yet, but multiple emotions can simultaneously be real and exist. Even if those emotions seem contradictory, they can still exist simultaneously. That realization was really big for me as a human. Having mixed feelings didn’t mean I was in conflict with myself. It just meant I needed to accept that. It wasn’t ever one path, one color, or one feeling at the same time. In writing from that place, in my own personal life, really seeped into the music where I think there’s this central returning idea of the ambivalence of emotions existing simultaneously, of the reality of seemingly opposing feelings sharing space honestly.

AS: It can be daunting to uncover some of these things as you’re writing. Do you ever feel inclined to “redo” a song and not reveal as much?

JPS: I think every profession comes with its hazards. And I feel ordinarily blessed that songs get to be my job. So if the professional hazard that I have to navigate is being slightly more vulnerable and exposed in my personal life, in exchange for an honest relationship with a group of humans who get to find parts of themselves in my art, then I’m that exchange.

AS: Sonically, was there something you wanted to capture on these new songs?

JPS: In the same way that writing the songs without production allowed me to focus holistically on the writing itself, producing the songs without writing allowed me to do the same thing. Malay executive produced this album with me, and he’s one of my favorite producers on the planet. He added such elevation to the sound of this album.

AS: When you think of your earlier EPs (Both Can Be True: Part 1, 2018; Hold It Together, 2020), or even as recently as Dangerous Levels of Instropection, do you feel like you’re the same songwriter?

JPS: I think so — same eyes, different life. Obviously, there’s growth as a human. To me, songwriting is just trying to synthesize your perspective into a three-minute poem. My perspectives have obviously developed and grown up since my first EP but I still feel like the same person I was when I was writing “25 in Barcelona,” “Explain You,” “If the World Was Ending” and all those early songs.

I still feel like my way of speaking, my way of seeing the world feels consistent, but I’m just looking at different things and exploring different things. There’s more nuance there’s more growth. It’s 30-year-old eyes instead of 25-year-old eyes.

AS: Some songs are set in a different time and place, but do most of them still resonate with you now? In retrospect, do some of them mean something different?

JPS: Friends give me shit about this, but I do get intimidated by how much I like my first EP. I still think the second verse in “25 in Barcelona” might be the best lyric I’ve ever written. And my friends, who are close to me and have heard the new album, say that I’m being an idiot and that this new album is absolutely the best thing I’ve ever made. 

I think the further you get from something, the less a part of you it feels, and that allows a little bit more objectivity. Some artists look at things, and they are obsessed with it because they made it. And some artists look at things, and it’s very hard to love it because they made it. For me, “25 in Barcelona” and “Same Room,” those songs are long ago enough that I don’t feel the same. I don’t identify with it the same way. It’s not entangled into my sense of self the same way, so I can look at them and go, “Holy fuck, that was actually good.” The stuff I’m doing now is still very much entangled into my sense of self, so it’s harder for me to look at it and think, “Oh, shit, this is good.”

AS: What are you writing now?

JPS: I’m sure that in my journals, there are the beginnings of the next album. I haven’t started songs yet. But the thoughts are there. I’m sure there are parts of my life right now that will end up in songs.

Photo: Matthew Takes / Courtesy of Arista Records

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