The perfect timing of Toronto singer JP Saxe's ballad about lovers in an apocalypse

·4 min read

TORONTO — JP Saxe doesn’t want to sound pretentious, but he says it’s impossible to ignore how fate might’ve led him to the Grammy Awards on Sunday.

Even before the Toronto singer-songwriter’s ethereal duet “If the World Was Ending” landed a song of the year nomination, it was nothing short of a pop enigma, written amid some pivotal life junctures and unbelievable coincidences.

“There's too many moments… to not accept there's something exciting and mystical going on,” Saxe explained in a recent conversation from Los Angeles where he's finishing his debut full-length album.

“It would require a lot of neglect of my own life and memory to say I don't believe in serendipity.”

Over the past year and a half, several elements out of Saxe's control led him to this moment.

The 27-year-old co-wrote “If the World Was Ending” during an emotionally vulnerable period as he faced the likelihood of losing his mother to terminal cancer.

The piano ballad doesn’t explore that experience directly, but it grapples with mortality through a different lens: the lingering question of whether broken lovers could reunite in the final hours of an apocalypse.

The song came together after Saxe returned to Los Angeles from visiting his ailing mother in Toronto during the summer of 2019. He was scheduled for a collaborative writing session with singer Julia Michaels, known for her hit single “Issues,” an idea floated by a mutual friend.

The plan was for them to write one of Saxe’s solo songs, but once the two started talking, their creative chemistry took control. Michaels began to fill in some of his blanks.

“I couldn't get the cadence of the second verse right, so she had to come into the booth and sing it as a reference for me,” he said.

“I didn't let her leave.”

“If the World Was Ending” evolved from a single narrative into a conversational duet that pondered both sides of a broken relationship.

Saxe fondly remembers the date of that studio session, July 20, 2019, because it was the start of a romantic relationship with Michaels.

They performed the duet together on Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show in November 2019. It was the last time Saxe’s mother saw him perform live.

For a couple months, “If the World Was Ending” existed like many pop songs do, finding loyal fans and earning spots on streaming playlists. But when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world, listeners began to reinterpret its meaning to reflect the isolated uncertainty that lay ahead in their own lives.

The song began turning up in TikTok videos and radio stations embraced the thematic elements. By last April, “If the World Was ending” broke into the Billboard Hot 100 before peaking last September. In Canada, it reached No. 11 on the Billboard Top 40 chart.

Earlier this week, "If the World Was Ending" helped Saxe land five nominations at the Juno Awards.

“If I'm being an idealist, I would say it's extremely fulfilling to know that I had a part in creating music that inspired people to put love first in an extremely challenging time,” Saxe said.

“The pessimistic realist in me, (says) I encouraged a lot of people to text their exes in quarantine, which is the last thing I would have ever wanted.”

“If the World Was Ending” found supporters within the ranks of the Grammy committee too, earning Saxe his first nomination in one of the most prestigious categories.

Saxe and Michaels join fellow song of the year nominees that include the songwriters of Beyonce’s “Black Parade,” Roddy Ricch’s “The Box,” Taylor Swift’s “Cardigan,” Post Malone’s “Circles,” Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now,” Billie Eilish’s “Everything I Wanted” and H.E.R.’s “I Can’t Breathe.”

The couple will be among the musicians attending a physically distanced Grammys ceremony on Sunday that's being held partly outdoors.

If he wins, Saxe would join his late grandfather Janos Starker as a Grammy winner. The internationally acclaimed cellist picked up the best instrumental solo performance award at the 1997 Grammys.

Saxe inherited his grandfather’s Grammy and keeps it on a shelf in his studio as a reminder of one day bringing home its companion.

For now, he’s keeping his expectations low, knowing he’s up against some tough competition.

“I have the opportunity to lose to Beyonce,” he said.

“It’s a win-win, regardless.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 11, 2021.

David Friend, The Canadian Press