As the conversation winds down, Jacob Sartorius excuses himself and excitedly rushes out of the frame to fetch his journal. Maybe it’s the inquisitive age he is at – 19 – or the fact he’s spent almost half of his life in the spotlight, or simply because he’s a sociable Libra, his enthusiasm for shared experiences and conversations is as boundless as his energy.
In fact, he has a constant supply of the latter, so much so that it bursts forth in the way he speaks – sometimes, as he explains something, he’ll unconsciously brush his hair. When he is engaged, he leans in. When he’s excited, he throws his whole body into speaking, using his hands to emphasise. It seems as if he needs to be moving. Jacob Sartorius is made for the hustle and bustle of life, and he loves it.
Now, all he needs to remember – as he tries to on his second EP Sleep When I’m Dead – is to not let himself be consumed by it, to not plot his own successes and failures on someone else’s map.
“One of the reasons why I’m up so late at night is because I’m comparing. I think like we all do. I compare myself to other people and I get sad. It leads me to an anxious state of ‘Am I doing enough?’” he admits.
It sounds much too precocious of a question for a 19-year-old, but Sartorius is not just another teenager. Despite his young age, he’s considered somewhat of a veteran in internet circles, having found fame on Vine at the age of 11 thanks to his lip-syncing videos. As Vine said goodbye and the tide of time ushered in the era of Tiktok, Sartorius too evolved and expanded into making music, having found a calling in it first through musical theater as a child, and then on the liberal spaces of the internet. His 2017 debut EP, The Last Text, peaked at No. 49 on the ARIA charts, No. 4 on the New Zealand Heatseeker Albums chart, and No. 32 on the US Billboard 200 chart.
For as long as he can remember, therefore, Sartorius has always been on the go, always jumping from one dream to the next lest he miss out on something. It makes sense, considering the fickle nature of the medium that propelled him to stardom – the endless nature of the internet also means that some risk getting lost in the void. It’s only in recent years, however, that’s started to appreciate the lulls – the beauty in those quiet moments where he can sit with his thoughts and just be.
“I feel like over the last two years it’s really subsided. I’ve been able to tell myself ‘Sure, if someone’s on a trip to The Bahamas, they’re filming a movie in The Bahamas, I might not be doing [the same thing], but I’m able to make music at my house.’ There’s a lot of things to always be grateful for.” he says.
In his own words, it’s the result of doing a lot of growing up and changing patterns. He started getting therapy, got into journaling and breathing exercises, moved to Los Angeles to live on his own – “I’m forgetting to do my laundry a lot. I’ve got clothes all piled up, you know?” he laughs. And while he’s never had a problem expressing himself, he’s adopted a more emotionally intelligent approach to it. He’s much more willing to accept them before unwrapping the complexities of them all. “I think observing my emotions or trying to, all the time, can keep me in line.” he says.
On Sleep When I’m Dead – which features lyrics pulled directly from his journals – Sartorius plays both the character and the author. Now on the other side of his journey of personal growth, he takes this chance to revisit and unravel his fears with a more informed lens – perhaps finally understanding them better than ever. As emotional boxes are opened and emotions ooze out, he accords them their due space and time, but keeps the progress he’s made always in sight.
It’s a bit like picking up your old journal and rifling through the pages of your own life, but as he confidently reads out the latest entries in his diary, you get the distinct feeling that he’s finally ready for it.
Below, Rolling Stone Australia speaks to Jacob Sartorius about his EP Sleep When I’m Dead, his musical journey and evolution, how he made the internet a safe space for himself, and how therapy helped him understand himself.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rolling Stone Australia: Reading the lyrics, it feels like the songs had such a restless energy. You know how people say that we live in the era of FOMO and everybody wants to do everything all at once?
Jacob Sartorius: Yes. A hundred percent – that was the feeling that went into writing it, just multiple days of not sleeping and being in such a rush of things. In a good way, honestly, so many amazing things happening at once and you’re just kind of along for the ride. And one of the things I forget to do often is sleep.
RS: Do you feel more creative at night?
Jacob: Yes. I feel like people are more real with their emotions [at night]. A lot of the filters we put up during the day get removed. Maybe it’s because we’ve already been through a full day and we’re ready to just be honest with the way we feel towards people? Nighttime is the best time for songwriting because I don’t have to overthink what I’m saying and I’m not worried about if I’m saying the right thing.
RS: What kind of mood are you usually in when you’re writing?
Jacob: You know, the overall theme [for the album] was loneliness. I was pulling straight from my journal and trying to articulate this loneliness and this void that I feel like I’m always trying to fill. I don’t know if it’ll ever be filled. So, it is a sad place that I’m writing from, but I think what’s special about it is that, just like everyone, my emotions are always changing. There are times where I’m happy, where I realise that I’m not always like that, but when I’m in that [sad] state, I really try to document the way I’m feeling the best I can.
RS: Did living alone shape this album?
Jacob: A lot. I’ve been living alone now for about five months, which is actually right around the beginning of the creation of this EP. I don’t think [that’s] a coincidence. In some ways, it is more lonely. In other ways, I feel like it’s given me this creative space to really dive into what I want to talk about without any judgment. I feel like I can experiment to the craziest of my abilities and pull things back if it’s not right, or at least be able to throw it out there without having to worry if it’s a good idea.
RS: That’s interesting, especially in the context of something you’ve said before about the internet really allowing you to be yourself and being your safe space. How was that?
Jacob: When I first started social media, it was a safe space away from the bullying at school. I could connect with other people that had a similar experience to mine. Some were adopted, some had and were currently going through bullying, others just wanted a friend. We were able to be there for each other. Social media really built somewhat of a family, like a home away from home.
But I do want to add that it’s also been a very toxic place too, in terms of cyberbullying.There’s been points where the internet wasn’t so nice to me, and that did affect me a little.
RS: How did you deal with those times?
Jacob: Therapy honestly helped. I wasn’t the best person I could be. I was on prescription medication for anxiety and depression – that was something from before even the social media stuff due to my adoption and other things. Later, cold showers and Wim Hof breathing replaced medicine – they’ve become my alternative way to just find peace within myself. I do it every single day. I take a cold shower and I do my breathing every day. That’s what I use to centre myself.
RS: This album is really vulnerable. You’ve described your experiences with panic attacks, anxiety, depression. Does the desire to help people play a role in how you shape your music, or is it more a personal experience you’re putting out there?
Jacob: I’d say it’s a little bit of both. Some of these stories [are] a lot more personal. Some are honestly anthems for other people and hopefully a soundtrack for their life to be the song that can be in the background and give them the confidence to just be the best version of themselves.
RS: What kind of things do you draw your inspirations from?
Jacob: It’s romance. It’s the people that I’m talking to. It’s friendships, or a party that I stopped by and felt really out of place [at]. Little moments that I’m just drawing all together.
[Like in] “Fear Of Intimacy”, how that song started was just freestyle, and it just felt right. It was at the end of a session, and Gingerbread who executive produced this album was just pulling up beats. He played this ukulele and we free-styled a little bit and saved that. The next day, we went back in on it and we finished the song.
RS: This album has a very ‘Go, Go, Go’ kind of energy. How did you get to that stage where you stopped feeling worried about not doing enough or getting left behind?
Jacob: FOMO is anxiety about there being an amazing time, but I think it’s good to remind yourself that the amazing time should be wherever you are. I feel like I’m my own best friend in a way. I love hanging out with me. I’m a homebody who likes being alone and writing in journals and being isolated.
RS: What was it like in the studio, working on this?
Jacob: I’ve never had an EP executive produced by anybody before, which was really cool because it gave me an opportunity to build with somebody and build tracks that could go together. Sometimes, there would be another person that came – very collaborative, carefree. I want the creative time to feel like meditation. Sometimes, we won’t wear shoes or sit in a meditative position. We’ll close our eyes for five minutes and just won’t say anything. And then, we’ll all open our eyes and get back to it.
RS: What did the process teach you as an artist?
Jacob: I think the product is better if you have multiple people coming into the room that share the same passion. The amazing part of collaborating is that we all get to bounce around ideas. Like, I’m opening a page in my journal and saying to Gingerbread: “This is how I’m feeling.” I’m very lucky that I’ve been around people who trust my instincts. I’m sure at times I can be a perfectionist and my biggest critic, but I think people understand that, at the end of the day, we all want to make the best thing possible. I feel like I grew as a person and as an artist.