Four years on from his debut album, Vance Joy talks to Kate Robertson about his new release Nation of Two, as well as songwriting, staying grounded, and what it’s like to be on tour with Taylor Swift.
We first heard the now unmissable strum on Vance Joy’s ‘Riptide’ in 2013. In 2017, four years later, APRA named it the most played Australian song overseas that year. If you say you aren’t familiar with it, you’re lying. It’s been on high rotation for so long that you think its power over you is gone. But then those opening lyrics drop while you’re knee deep in the fresh produce department at 5pm on a Sunday, and suddenly the urge to kill everyone around you subsides. Your fingers start tapping, and before you know it you’re quietly singing along, word for word, because it’s so deeply rooted in your subconscious it’ll never leave you.
That’s the magic of a song by Vance Joy (or James Keogh, for those of you who like to know the name behind the moniker). Whether it’s Sunday morning bop ‘Mess Is Mine’, slow burning and contemplative ‘Georgia’, or something newer, the world around you just washes away. A kind of forced meditation, if you will.
As for further credentials, he topped the Triple J Hottest 100 in 2013, picked up an ARIA for Best Male Artist, opened for Taylor Swift on her 1989 tour, and sold out his March 29 Auckland show in just five minutes. The momentum picked up all those years ago and hasn’t really slowed. Why? Well, aside from the immense talent behind the songs, the Melbourne native strikes a balance of being just edgy enough, while still having a wholesome appeal that’s far-reaching enough for your mum, your hip chiropractor’s waiting room, and your dad who’s reluctant to play anything that isn’t The Joshua Tree.
Four years on from his debut album Dream Your Life Away, Vance Joy is up to his old tricks (read: warming hearts across the globe) with his sophomore release Nation of Two. I caught up with Joy right before the album dropped.
Alright, let’s talk about the fact you sold out your first New Zealand headline show in five minutes. That’s wild. Does it blow your mind a little bit?
I’m so excited to come to New Zealand because I’ve never played there besides being at Laneway. I feel like it’s so close and I just want to play those shows. There are people there who are into my music and I just want to make the connection. It’s cool that we get to come back twice: a small intimate solo show then a bigger show in September.
Tour things have obviously been a big part of the last few days, but with regard to the album, are you just itching to get it out there already?
I feel really happy about finishing the album and being in a position where it’s all done and recorded. All the things that were overwhelming two years ago when I only had two songs written and knowing I needed to write a whole album, are over now. It’s nice having done all that slogging and to now just be in a different season. I’m really proud of all the songs and I’m happy to do all of the promoting around the album because I feel good about the music.
Have you been chipping away at it while you’ve been on the road, or did you have a couple of opportunities to shut yourself off from the world and go really deep into it?
On the road, it’s hard to write a complete song. I can do parts of songs. I get ideas for the start of a song or melodies and lyrics that I collect. I did 90% of the songwriting once I finished touring in April of 2016. I had just over a year and a half to get all those ideas together and see if I could turn any of those ideas into songs. I went to a bunch of different studios and it was all just kind of chipping away. Every now and then adding a song to the pile of songs. At the end of last year, we had all 13 songs, but they were trickling in right until the end.
Something which stands out to me is that every lyric on every song sounds very carefully and thoughtfully considered. You also seem to have a pretty far-reaching vocabulary. Have you always been a words person or is that something you’ve really had to work on and get better at as you go?
I’ve always been interested in words, but I think it took me a while to get into reading. Even though I enjoyed studying books at school, I was never devouring them or reading in my own time. I think I got my love for reading from my mum who was an English teacher. She would help me understand and really opened up the books. When I was studying English texts she would be helping me write my essays and I’d have these ‘wow’ moments. She really made me appreciate them and I could feel the emotional power through the books, just through her explanations. I started reading a bit more after high school. I love rock music, but if I listen to a Paul Kelly song I like the way he puts words together. It’s nice listening to the way different artists sequence the words and make beautiful sentences. I’m definitely an admirer of that ability.
Things really took off with ‘Riptide’ around 2013, and something I’m interested to know is whether you had any mentors looking out for you? I imagine things started happening pretty quickly.
I was fortunate that I put my song ‘Riptide’ up on my Facebook page in 2012 because I was already friends with the person who became my manager. A friend from school’s older brother set up a music management company, so he listened to the song and was like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know James was making music’. He hit me up with a phone call and was like ‘Hey, I really like your song, do you have any other songs or is this something you’re interested in pursuing?’ I told him I had a fire burning to do music and he became really important in creating a blueprint for navigating the music industry. I’m really glad he was my first contact and that he’s been a big part of my journey so far. I also had a friend from high school who was also pursuing music. He did home recordings and wrote songs, so we shared that interest. I found him to be very encouraging, so I’d always show him my new songs. We’d do home recordings at his house, and if I played him a song I felt good about, I always felt like he’d re-enforce it and encourage me. It was a special relationship.
One thing I absolutely have to ask you about is the 1989 tour. I’ve never felt more scared in a mosh pit than I did at a Taylor Swift concert. How insane were those crowds?
It was a very fun experience. I feel like I definitely came to appreciate how loud crowds can be from being on that tour. [When] Taylor came out on that first show we opened for her, and she came out and stood in front of the crowd for a good 30 seconds, just soaking up the applause, smiling at everyone, and just saying ‘Here I am’. The applause was insane. It was so happy and enthusiastic and so loud. I almost needed to cover my ears.
When people come up to you and say ‘Your song means this much to me…’, is that a weird thing to grapple with when it first starts happening? The big meta things your music can do for people?
Yeah. I still feel like I’m so stoked to meet people after shows or at a radio meet and greet, and if they tell me the song has been important to them for whatever reason. Even if it’s just like they were struggling through exams and they had my music on in the background, or if they needed to escape their study it was there. If my music has been somewhere in that experience, I’m always glad to be that and it makes me happy to know my music has made a difference in someone’s life. I feel like music can be such a comfort. When you listen to an artist you really like it can be something really solid for you, so I’m really glad to be making music.
I was stalking your Instagram and saw that Joe Jonas follows you…
Oh, I didn’t know that! How did you find that out?
Because I follow him, it came up that we mutually followed you.
That’s so sweet! That’s rad. That really threw me through a loop.
Oh wow, I’m so glad I could bring that with me to this phone call! So when I was stalking you, I saw that you describe Nation of Two as being about a relationship that gives you your bearings. You’re obviously on the road a lot, are there people in your life who keep you grounded amongst all that?
Definitely. I’m really close with my brother and sister, and my mum and dad, as well as some close friends from high school. I phone or text here and there. When you listen to the songs they give you a sense of a foundation, and it’s those relationships that I guess you know you’re the same person and it gives you a reference point. You still feel like that communication is so natural and you can be yourself. I know who I am because I feel so comfortable when I’m talking to those people. I’m glad I have that support person.
I think I only have one more question. I’m a big Oprah fan, so this is my Oprah question.
Okay yes, she’s awesome.
What part of your job brings you the most joy?
There are two separate things that are all part of playing. I really love being able to always be interested and engaged in songwriting. Those little breakthroughs when you’re working on a song and you get surprised by a melody, so you chase the song down and it becomes something special. You create it, and that can be really rewarding.
On the other side of that, performing that same song is really cool. When you’re really proud of a song and you believe in it, and can sing it with passion. The journey of a song is cool, and the way you can share it with other people. It’s nice to sing a song you’ve really worked hard on and sing your heart out on it. I like being able to do that and I think it’s a nice communication with the audience.
Vance Joy’s album Nation of Two is on available on Spotify now, and tickets for his September 29 show can be found here.
The Spinoff’s music content is brought to you by our friends at Spark. Listen to all the music you love on Spotify Premium, it’s free on all Spark’s Pay Monthly Mobile plans. Sign up and start listening today.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.