Young Jesus, the Los Angeles-based band led by John Rossiter, have always made exploratory, at times profoundly strange music. Across their first five albums, their improvisational spirit and alchemical approach to genre evolved in compelling and intricate ways, and by 2020’s Welcome to Conceptual Beach, they’d sacrificed some of its headier philosophical leanings to make space for more vulnerability, rendering it one of their most resonant efforts to date. Whatever playfulness and emotional sincerity were hinted at on that record fully blossom on Sheperd Head, Young Jesus’ latest LP, which is out today via Saddle Creek.
During the making of the album, intense feelings of burnout, fear, and grief caused Rossiter to shift what had until then been a relatively structured, demanding creative mindset and instead consider what it would mean to truly be open to the world of sound. To that end, he recorded using GarageBand, became curious about the possibilities of his own voice and the life around him, and reflected on spiritual questions with a genuine rather than purely intellectual concern. With the guitar sounds that had been prevalent on previous Young Jesus records mostly absent, Rossiter relies on melding watery synths, gentle washes of percussion, and emotive vocals to push through inertia and create, stretch, and joyfully break the music’s own flow. It’s a beautifully soothing and infectious album that also doesn’t hide its weight. “God is just the ocean where I’m lost,” he sings on ‘Ocean’, a stunning duet with Tomberlin. On Shepherd Head, getting lost doesn’t so bad, so long as you know where to look.
We caught up with John Rossiter to talk about some of the inspirations behind Shepherd Head, including rain, an encounter with God, Dave Matthews Band, and more.
When did rain become an important symbol for you, and what has it come to symbolize?
I grew up in a pretty rainy, snowy part of the US in the Midwest in Chicago. I wrote about it on S/T, an earlier record; my mom and I used to sit in our garage and watch the thunderstorms roll in in the summer. Because in Glencoe where I grew up, the whole sky changes colour, becomes almost grey green. And you can feel, ≠ – because it’s so humid in the summer – you can feel that sort of electricity building in the air, and then that release of a huge rain. And then I moved to Los Angeles almost 10 years ago now, and the past two years I’ve been working in sustainable landscaping and gardening, and it brought me into such a closer relationship with water and the preciousness of it.
You see so intensely when the landscape is utilizing rain and water really well – if there’s the right soil build-up and mulching and the right plants there to collect the rain and store it. When you’re in a place that is managing that really well, you feel – here, we get like two big rains a year, and then some drizzling and things like that – but when it happens, it totally transforms the plants. The plants we have here are so stringy during the summer because it’s so dry, and they get what we call “leggy.” And when it rains, they just fill out and they grow so much and they become so green and so fragrant and the water releases all that fragrance into the air. It’s just a really amazing thing. Rain is so special when it happens in LA.
There’s so much just sounds of water and sounds of rain that I recorded on this album because it feels like a special moment when it happens here. Whereas growing up, it rained all the time or snowed. So I hope there’s a little bit of that blooming, blossoming abundance on this album. Even though the other Young Jesus albums are very open and improvisational, it was in a pretty controlled and specific space where those things would happen. And this one, oddly, feels less controlled, even though it’s poppier music, more formatted. It feels maybe a little bit more like it is open to that sort of random blossoming that happens.
Besides those sounds of water that you recorded, are there moments on the album that you hear as rain, or that mirror that feeling for you?
Yeah, the rainy moments to me are almost the groovy moments, where a lot of disparate sounds come together that create a groove that I didn’t expect to be a rhythmic groove. The album, to me, is barely held together – if you take apart a few little things, you would hear that these aren’t at all in time together, and they’re almost random. They’re totally random circumstances that are looped and glued into a really specific granular feeling. And that, to me, is the feeling of rain. It’s like when you’re walking in the rain, there’s a rhythm to life and to existence that’s very beautiful. So I think the rhythms on the album are rainy.
I’m interested in how this relates to the concept of heaven that you engage with throughout the record. There’s this line on the title track: “For what is heaven, love/ When all it offers/ Is light without the rain?” Can you talk about the meaning it’s taken on for you?
Totally. I think rain is so cliched as a negative, like a rain cloud following you means you’re depressed or whatever. But I think I started to realize the importance of my own ego and psychology and how my experience of life is defined. Of course, there are external things that happen, but they’re all open to interpretation, and you create that interpretation. And to me, a life that’s filled with just pleasant, sunny, beautiful things loses all context, and you can’t see them without the rain. And then, when you appreciate the rain for that, it becomes beautiful in its own right, and reflects back onto the sun. Some days you can think, “I’m so tired of it being sunny all the time.” It’s just about how important context is in defining beauty for me. There’s no beauty without the edges between things, without definition, and so rain creates that definition for me.
The Blue Nile
It’s so rare for me to hear an album of pop music where the album keeps hitting exactly what I want it to hit. Like, I’m listening to a song and it just will go exactly to what I hope it goes to. And it’s sort of this build-up of, “Holy shit, I can’t believe this whole album is perfect to me.” And that’s how I felt the first time I heard that album Hats by the Blue Nile, which was two and a half years ago. It was just an album that found me. I showed it to one of my friends and he’s like, “It’s like if one of our dads like sang in an amazing band.” [laughs] His voice is total dad voice in a way. And he sings about being a dad on the later records. I loved that, there’s a real vulnerability on those. The voice is vulnerable, and it’s cheesy sometimes, but in a really beautiful way. It’s not cheesy for the sake of selling a bunch of records, it’s cheesy in like, life can be cheesy sometimes, and that’s nice. It’s not all bad. I just love the tones on that record, I love the synth and the bass sounds and the guitar sounds, the sort of thin, bouncy guitar feeling.
I think it influenced a lot of sounds that I aimed for on this record, but I don’t have any production skills and I just used GarageBand to record it. So in aiming for something, you end up doing something totally different, if you accept your own limitations and your own way of doing things. And that, to me, is another interesting edge – it’s not this and it’s not that, but it’s finding a space between.
I know that Shepherd Head is one of the nicknames for your dog. How did it become the title of the album?
Let me think about the album – there’s Shepherd Head, there’s Rose Eater, that was my nickname in junior high. My last name is Rossiter, and people called me Rose Eater. And Johno is what my dad called me when I was little. There are a lot of nicknames on this on this album. I think it’s funny because when I was younger, I wanted to grow up so fast and I felt like such an old soul. I wanted to be John and be taken very seriously from a really young age. And I really appreciate nicknames now, I don’t want to take myself as seriously as I did before. And I think that’s this album in a lot of ways.
When you go through a phase, when you actually take yourself seriously – not in a pretentious way, but like, “I’m going to take my own emotions and my own psychology seriously,” then all the complexities, the full picture of being a person shows up. And part of that’s being a dumbass and a total goof zone, like dancing, playing around, wrestling, sitting in the rain just to sit in the rain. It’s stuff like taking on a stupid voice to talk to your dog. I think the old Young Jesus records have a lot of playfulness to them, but I don’t think I let my guard down that much. I think there’s still a bit of intellectual remove and a seriousness to those albums. And I’m hoping that I’m starting to let that guard down a little bit. Some of this stuff is not related to any serious research or anything, it’s like, I turned on the kitchen sink and I played a piano chord over it. And all of a sudden, that was a song, and my dog barked over it. And I like it. [laughs] That’s enough. To embrace that there’s a goofiness and a play to being alive.
Did it also feel like tapping into your childhood self in a way?
I don’t have a lot of specific memories from before I was seven or eight, and so I’m really curious about accessing that. And I think part of that is being excited rather than embarrassed by the things I enjoyed. To me, this album has a lot of Sting, Dave Matthews Band and Beatles influences, which is what I listened to when I was a kid. And then slowly dig, peel back the layers and get closer to some of those memories, whatever they might be. But I’ve done a lot of running to get away from whatever I have been in the past, and I think I’m a little bit more interested in integrating my whole life and seeing what that holds. Part of that is just playing some pop music. The song and ‘Shepherd Head’ is just trying to sound like ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ or ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’, because those two songs were my favourite Beatles songs growing up. So, to me, music is a conduit that leads me towards really important soul discoveries. And I don’t know what those are yet – usually it takes about a year or two for me to go back and listen to an album and be like, “Oh, that’s what I was trying to figure out about myself.”
How did his work inspire this album specifically?
I mean, it’s just so textural. It’s so beautifully textured and so brave and so curious. The way his voice is on Pre-Millennium Tension and that song ‘Christiansands’ – to not be afraid of the gravel and specificity of your voice, but to lean into it, and to be curious about sonically and texturally what your voice breaking apart or barely existing, almost like, what are the elements of it? Like water, air, fire type situation. You can hear the physicality of his voice in a lot of songs, you can hear his throat and the water and phlegm and things that you want to be disgusted by but are so intrinsic to being alive. That was just really exciting to me, as a listener, and it’s music that wakes me up a lot. So I wanted to explore what are some of the strange, uncomfortable textures, and can you reframe them in a way that is music? And you always can. If you want to make music, it will be music, which is magic, totally strange alchemy. To get back to that idea of context, it’s like if you create enough context, it can be anything. Just an artist that totally opened my eyes to a lot of beautiful, textural and rhythmic and melodic sensibilities.
Did it feel challenging or actually uncomfortable when it came to leaning into that yourself?
Yeah, it was really hard for me to trust in the fact that I could just record an album on GarageBand. And when I started, I didn’t even have a microphone, I was using the internal mic on the computer. And to our ears, often, that sounds like shit. And so, to not be afraid of that and to be like, the only reason that sounds like shit is because we’re trained to think that certain ways of isolating sounds and certain combinations are normal and good. And this is just a different possibility. That microphone sound and the way it records a piano – it doesn’t sound like a piano, and it might clip or it might just dull certain frequencies, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad sound. It means it’s a different sound. And to get past that, and to realize I had so many limitations as far as finding sounds, to embrace that rather than run from it was one of the big connections there between that sound of the voice and Tricky and the repetition in a lot of things in his music, to being like, “I am confident in this, I believe in this music and the sound,” rather than to run to the next thing or hide behind something.
Encounter with God
There are references to God throughout the record, but they’re quite open to interpretation. I’m curious what the story is there, and what brought these questions to the surface for you during the process of making this album.
I’m reminded of the fact constantly that we don’t know what God is. It’s always, for me, open to interpretation. And that’s what makes it beautiful, and a binding force in my life. What happened to me was that I had a really desperate moment in life where I felt like I had exhausted all my resources and was in a place where I had always hoped I would never be; the place that I was most scared of being. And in that place, I knelt down and prayed to God, and felt, in that moment, God’s presence. And it was a deeply comforting, embracing feeling; it was just the idea that you can be in the place you’re most afraid of, but somehow, you’re still connected to the rest of existence and the rest of life. And it’s much greater than me, and much more beautiful and incomprehensible. It was this feeling of: there’s really nothing you can do, and that’s totally okay. You’re so small. And I lose that a lot. I have such an ego – I think it’s hard to find a musician that releases music into the world that doesn’t have an ego – and it’s something I grapple with a lot. It was just a really beautiful moment that I’m really curious about continuing to explore and write about.
In the moments when I’m quite well balanced and feel connected to exploring the mysteries of my life and curious about those mysteries, I’ll have dreams that feel like I’m interacting with a sort of deeper consciousness than my own. And all of them seem to speak about the fact that there’s not much I can do. I had this dream – it’s a really long dream, but this one minor moment helps explain it, where my mom was tending to this apple tree that is espaliered, which means it’s laid out against a wall. It’s almost two-dimensional, the way the branches go out, the way it’s been pruned. And she was tending to it because it was sick, it had a leech or something on it. And I went over to it, and I was thinking, “My mom doesn’t really know how to tend to this.” And I went in and I did a couple of things, I don’t know exactly, and I walked away from it and I realized I should have put compost in the soil and I should have strengthened the soil because that’s all gardening is, is soil health. It’s you just tending to the soil, not to the plants, really. If they have the nutrients in the soil, they can fight off whatever they need to.
And I realized in walking away, like, “It’s okay, someone will do that. It’s not on me to go back and do that right now. I went as far as I could go, and I know I can’t return to that tree right now, but I know eventually someone will go up to it and know exactly how to rejuvenate the soil and how to heal the tree.” So I think that’s kind of a generational project of life, is not to get too focused on what you don’t do or what you’ve done wrong. And to try to trust in the fact that your life has somewhat of a greater purpose than you understand, and it’s really beautiful to do your best.
There’s that feeling of acceptance that’s hard to reach, but you have to try to find the beauty in it.
Yeah. I’m very limited. And I think I’ve been obsessed with the amount of trying to fix everything and be perfect and change people’s lives and whatever. It’s really, really hard to change your own life, so to imagine changing someone else’s… It’s, yeah, the acceptance of how small we are. And to not get lost and guilt and shame is a pathway for me right now. It’s what I’ve been working on.
Where does music fit into this project that you’re describing? Is it a way of contributing to that in your own way?
I think that’s why the releasing and the press part of it is hard for me, because it comes from really sincere questions I’m asking of myself and of God. And it is, in a lot of ways, just a document of where I’m at in that journey of finding myself in my connection to God. Or to whatever it is – to the universe, to some fabric greater than myself. And sometimes it feels like there’s not as much room – and there isn’t, in a commodity space, for real sincere questions, because they don’t have easy answers. And the commodities as we know them, the distractions, are best when they’re easy, and when they provide, at least for me, a quick, distracting answer, rather than a complicated, long-term, strange question. And so, in my darker moments, I think, “Gosh, I’m really not meant to be a musician.” Because I don’t know how to make music that immediately connects with people and fits in with the forms that are really familiar.
I’m making the music that makes sense to me, on a deep level. To me, I’ve just made a pure pop record. Shepherd Heard, to me, is just like candy, you know? And I realize that that’s not at all how other people feel. And that’s a hard realization, but it’s also just part of going along that path. I don’t want to force music into a role that it can’t satisfy in my life. I want to continue to try to find who I am and what I am in this world rather than try to fully be an entrepreneur or try to promote myself, because usually when I go too deep in promoting myself it’s a sign of imbalance and pain. Usually I’m promoting a painful side of who I am that is a mask for the deeper questions.
You talked about music as a commodity, but what about the aspect of it that is communal? The way you brought that into this record, did that change the balance there for you, in allowing you to explore these ideas with other musicians, or even just talk with them?
Oh, yeah. Singing allows me to access emotions that are hard for me to access. As a talker, I’m pretty monotone, and as a singer, I’m extremely dynamic and full-bodied and embodied when I sing. And it would be strange if I just started singing this interview to you, but in some ways that’s what my soul wants to do to express certain things. So, as far as communally, there’s nothing better than sitting down with a friend and playing a song or jamming and finding a new mode of expression or leads to a conversation that is really opening and beautiful. And that’s what keeps me doing it. It’s like, I’m going to play these songs in front of people, and hopefully, to a certain degree, with people, and hopefully we’ll have an experience together that’s different from the one that I intended for it. And also, hopefully, some of it is some of the things I intended, which would be wonderful.
It’s really cool that I can take something that’s so personal and weave it in with something that is really personal for someone else, and we find a middle ground that didn’t exist before but is really special. And it’s music, you know, it’s not nonsense. The community of it is everything. I mean, that’s what rhythm is. The community of this album is a bit different from the other albums, it’s a community of what we would consider animate and inanimate objects, and there is also a community with other musicians. But it will definitely have a life, and it already has had a life beyond just the recorded aspect.
What was it like to be in that communal space with Tomberlin?
Sarah Beth and I started playing music for each other really seriously during lockdown. We were part of each other’s little bubble, and she was the only musician I saw during lockdown, the only one I played with. I heard the early versions of her record, and she heard the early versions of this record. In a really wonderful way, we spent a ton of time talking about what music meant to each of us and the ways it was scary and vulnerable, and the ways in which it was empowering, what we’d like to do with it in our lives. Just a support system.
So, when we recorded ‘Ocean’ and we recorded ‘Gold Line Awe’, it was just fun. You can hear Sarah Beth laughing on ‘Gold Line Awe’, and that to me is one of my favourite moments on the record because we were just straight up having fun. I don’t think she realized that a melody could be just the first thing that comes to your mind, and it doesn’t even have to be the best take. Sometimes in your mind, you don’t know what the best take is. It could be the goofiest one where you laugh and think, “Holy shit, that can be on a song.” It was a sweet experience. And I think Sarah Beth and I ask some really similar questions, especially of God, in our music. So it makes sense that ‘Ocean’ is such a special song in that way, because I think it’s a real connection between the two of us.
Stephen’s just a very close friend of mine. We’ve been through so much together the past few years. I just think it’s important to realize the power of your friends and how it shapes your creative life. And I just wanted to thank him for the ways in which he’s opened me up, and the ways in which we’ve allowed each other to express a lot of sadness and grief. Spaces, at least where we grew up, for men to express those emotions were really not safe. And to then be in my 30s now and to find a friend where is safe – and it took a lot of trust and time and space to get there – is one of the most profound gifts of my life. I think this record is about that in some ways. We helped each other through a lot of grief and a lot of suffering, and the way we’ve been patient with each other, and the ways in which Stephen thinks about art and music and emotion – just his emotional life and psychological life has been such a beautiful model for me.
We’re both people, I think, that were really judgmental, and do default to that sometimes. And we’ve sort of taught each other slowly how to examine that. He’s a musician in his own right, he has a project called Kjell, and it’s this beautiful, rhythmic, electronic, searching music. But he played all sorts of music, he played in Deafheaven for a while and has made metal and slowcore and crust music. He’s just endlessly curious and thoughtful and very loving. It was hard to find that in my life, and he’s really helped me bring that into my life.
Is there a specific memory that comes to mind or something he said to you that you find inspiring?
I’ve just finished recording another album, and I talk about it on that album. And I say it very specifically. So once that one’s ready, I’ll send it to you and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Dave Matthews Band
You mentioned them as one of the bands that you were into when you were younger. What’s your relationship with their music now?
I was listening to a couple of the records that I loved as a kid. I think it was Under the Table and Dreaming and Crash, and I was just reflecting on how emotional the rhythms are. The music could be sometimes boring, the chords and maybe the melodies are a little bit flat sometimes – not all the time, it’s pretty expressive music – but the drums move it in a way that’s so special and unique. I think I used to think of percussion as somewhat inert, like it’s fulfilling a role, it’s just supposed to find what it’s supposed to hit so that the rest of the music makes sense, like a four-on-the-floor for rock music that I used to play a lot of. But I think Dave Matthews Band, the expression in a lot of the instrumentation is so layered and beautiful, and to me, really emotional. The chord structures are not that different from the emo music that I loved in high school, it’s just different guitar tones and different instruments.
I think my music has a lot in common with the emotion and the melodies and the chords – maybe lyrically, it’s quite different, but there are also really profound lyrical moments in Dave Matthews Band. I covered ‘Crash Into Me’ for my fiance’s birthday at a show a couple of weeks ago. [laughs] And singing it is really funny, because it’s a crazy song. It’s not what I would choose to write about, at least not at this point in my life, but there’s something about it that moved me as a seven-year-old not understanding anything about it, that moved me deeply. So, I hope that on this record that I made, that there are some moments like that, that a seven-year-old could hear and feel something for, without having to know that I’m talking about God or a friend’s death or a simple moment of appreciating the clouds or whatever it is. Because that’s what I listened to music for originally, just for me to feel something from the chords and from the special alchemical mix of all those things.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.