Josh Fountain at home. Photo: Edith Amituanai
Josh Fountain at home. Photo: Edith Amituanai

Pop CultureNovember 15, 2020

Josh Fountain and the shape of the sound

Josh Fountain at home. Photo: Edith Amituanai
Josh Fountain at home. Photo: Edith Amituanai

If you’ve listened to New Zealand music from the last decade-and-a-half, chances are you’ve heard the influences of Josh Fountain. He has collaborated with Benee on a string of hits. He’s just collected the Aotearoa Music Award for producer of the year for the second year running. And he’s achieved it all with debilitating arthritis. Michelle Langstone meets him at home.

Portraits by Edith Amituanai.

You wouldn’t think Josh Fountain was a multi-award-winning music producer from the way he stands in the kitchen of his sunny house in Te Atatu Peninsula making self-deprecating jokes, and brushing off praise. His slim frame is swallowed up in baggy jeans, an oversized t-shirt and a button down shirt, a cap jammed on his brown hair. Smiling bashfully as much to himself as to me, he measures spoonfuls of coffee into a plunger, and says, dry as anything, “It’s been a big year.”

A big year is an understatement. In the last 12 months the 35-year-old music maker has won Producer of the Year titles back to back at the national music awards, welcomed his daughter Aria into the world, had a smash hit record in Supalonely with his collaborator Benee, and won a Silver Scroll award for Best Song, with another of Benee’s hits, Glitter. All this, and he’s still the guy who says, “I don’t feel like I’m really good at anything … I mean I know that there’s stuff that I’m good at, but there’s a lot of stuff that I’m not good at!”

Fountain rummages for coffee mugs, and we settle into the chairs around the table in his open plan living room. It’s a warm space, with traces of Aria everywhere – a high chair and toys strewn around – and a piano tucked into the corner of the room. I ask Fountain if he’s taken a moment to sit with the things he has achieved in the 12 months and he gives a little shrug and a reluctant smile. “There’s so much self doubt and imposter syndrome, and so many failures that happen behind the scenes, so when you do win something it’s just … It’s good to get a win.”

Success has been a long time coming for Fountain. He’s been in the music industry for 15 years, plugging away in well-loved bands Kidz in Space, and Leisure, and on solo projects like Get Well Soon, but he’s only just starting to hit his stride as a producer. He’s watched contemporaries like Joel Little go international for their work, but until now, success like that hasn’t been forthcoming.

Fountain has been in love with music since he was a teenager. He can’t remember if he was the kid in his group of friends who always had the intel on what was happening in the music scene, but he remembers it was what he liked to do the most, mucking around with music software as a teenager, and DJing the odd gig for a bit of money. He ended up studying at the Music and Audio Institute of New Zealand (Mainz) because he didn’t know what else to do, and because his mum left a pile of school prospectuses on his bedside table, and that was the only one that appealed.

It was at Mainz that he set the goal of winning Producer of the Year. Fourteen years later he won it. “I had this obsession with it, that I just wanted to win. Fourteen years …” He gives a mocking little grin. “Not too shabby!” he laughs. “That was my first big goal that I was able to achieve in music, other than putting out your first album and have your first song that charts or stuff like that. Winning that award felt really special.”

I ask him why he set himself that goal at age 20, and where that determination came from, and the answer is surprising. “Some of my tenacity is I’ve worked really hard because I was terrified that something wouldn’t happen. I knew that eventually one day I probably wouldn’t be able to do music stuff as well as I could because of arthritis. So I was desperate to try and get stuff happening early on.”

While he tells me this, Fountain’s fingertips play with the buttons on his shirt. It’s like a nervous habit – he touches the buttons and then smooths the fabric of the shirt in a near-constant motion. His rheumatoid arthritis affects his neck and hands mostly, and has caused his fingers to seize and swell, so that he has to take time and conscious effort with their movements. “It’s been real frustrating in the last five years I’d say, not being able to play guitar in the way that I used to. For somebody who does music for a job it’s not ideal.”

Fountain has had arthritis since he was three years old, and though it’s now technically dormant, he says the damage to his joints has been done. In his work, using his hands is critical, but Fountain says he’s found his own way through it: “It’s helped shape my sound a little bit, because it means I keep things super simple, or I find other ways to make things interesting and exciting. If I’m not going to be the greatest musician then there’s other things that I can do to counter that.”

It’s also meant that Fountain has become an excellent programmer, and a skilled collaborator, lending his expertise to musicians like Maala, Paige, and Randa, as well as Stella Bennett, aka Benee. He collaborates a lot with Djeisan Suskov, co-member of their band Leisure, and fellow contributor to the Benee sound. “Between the two of us we kind of cover all the bases. I love working with artists who can play because I’m still very musical and I can speak the language of it and I know what’s possible and I know what I want, and if they have trouble with something I can say – can you play this inversion, or put your finger here or something like that, and that sort of works.” Suskov loves working with Fountain: “Josh knows exactly where the pocket is in terms of rhythm in all aspects of a song. I’ve heard him many times turn the most basic beats and average sounds into something that’s both unique and fun to listen to.”

Fountain says his mobility is getting worse. He holds his coffee mug tightly, and looks at his hands and says, “Now it’s starting to get a bit more real, especially with a family and stuff. I’m past that age now of thinking I’m going to be invincible. I think for the longest time as well I just expected it to go away. I ignored it – it will sort itself out.” It seems like the cruelest timing to have his body rebel just when he’s reaching the pinnacle of his career. Supalonely was the big hit single Fountain was waiting for, and it’s not only afforded him some financial security, but has opened doors internationally. To lose the use of his hands now would be a blow.

He’s in pain, but he’s taking measures to work with a hand therapist to try and keep the quality of movement he does have, and to prevent further degeneration. He’s also grateful for the gear he works with daily: “Technology is so good. I’ve got software that can do guitar stuff. Even with keys – I’ve got software where I can pick the chords that I want to play and then just assign them to one key, and do it like that.” He laughs and says there’s one fiddly bit of gear he does struggle with: “Doing up the buttons on Aria’s clothes is a real punish.”

Throughout our interview, his little daughter is crawling around, banging on musical instruments, and seeking out her dad’s gaze whenever she can. When they make eye contact Fountain stops our conversation to speak to her. They have smiles that match, and the way they light up in each other’s company is so lovely, it’s tempting to abandon the conversation all together and just let them play. Fountain says being a dad has significantly changed the way he works: “It’s been a real challenge working out the balance, because I can’t do it the way I used to do it. Now I’m trying to be a dad, and trying to be as present as I can be, and carving out space and time to be around has been harder than I thought it would, when I’ve got things I need to get done, things I need to deliver and have agreed to.”

Josh and Aria collaborating on a new track in Te Atatu. Photo: Edith Amituanai

He and Aria spend the early mornings together so Fountain’s wife Savina can take a break, and much of their time is spent listening to music together. “I love playing the Beatles stuff. I never really listened to all of the Beatles albums. I knew the hits, but I didn’t know much about them, and how their music progressed, and the history behind it. It’s really nice listening to that with Aria, and they’re good little catchy pop songs – great for kids.” Fountain works at his Morningside studio during the day, comes home for Aria’s bedtime, and then goes back to work.

Success of the kind Fountain is now experiencing would usually mean he’d have gone straight to Los Angeles with Benee when Supalonely went global, making connections, following the success. The infectious pop song became something of an anthem for everyone stuck indoors due to Covid-19 lockdowns this year. Picked up by Tik Tok in March 2020, Supalonely amassed over 3.9 billion hits in one month and reached the top 40 charts in over 25 countries. But a rampaging pandemic meant there was no trip to LA, and Fountain and Bennett had to watch the song go viral from the bottom of the world: “It was weird being back in NZ, and being – I don’t want to say stranded or stuck – but being here, you feel quite disconnected from it all. I’m talking to the record label A&R guy, and everyone is so excited, and really all I’m seeing is the numbers going up, which is very exciting, but nothing was changing for me.”

In a funny way, Covid ended up working out well for Fountain: “I think it’s been a bit of a blessing in disguise, because that decision got made for me. I didn’t really want to go, and if I had left it would have been so stressful on the relationship and me being away from Aria. The fact that Covid happened is actually awesome because it meant that I got to be at home, and I couldn’t be angry at anything, or feel like I was really missing out. I was just able to enjoy it, and watch Supalonely still do really well, but not feel like I’d had to sacrifice something.”

While Fountain thinks a bit of momentum may have been lost in terms of contacts and new work, the other blessing of the timing of Covid meant that Benee’s debut album Hey U X was made in New Zealand, and except for one song on the record, was entirely produced by Fountain. That’s a rarity in pop music these days, where it’s not uncommon for an album to have as many producers as it does tracks.

Asking Fountain about Benee’s album quickly turns into a fiasco of self doubt and laconic humour: “My perspective is long gone. You think – this is the worst thing I’ve ever heard! Music never sounds as bad as it does right before you have to send it off to be mastered.” Fountain says part of the dynamic of his working relationship with Stella Bennett is the way they butt heads over musical choices. Benee’s album is an eclectic mix of genres: “She wanted every song to be a different genre! There’s a drum and bass song with Grimes, and a pop hip-hop song with Lily Allen and a rapper called Flo Milli. There’s these two sort of stoner-y, flakey band songs.”

Fountain initially tried to steer Stella away from including too many styles of music on her album. He shakes his head and says: “The number of times I’ve started to try to tell Stella why we shouldn’t do something, or this is a bad idea, or this is the rule – you can’t do it like that! I’ve always ended up being wrong.” He gives me a long-suffering look, but his blue eyes are laughing – you can tell he’s more than happy to be wrong. “You just give up. I just go with it and do as best as I can. It’s her vision.”

It’s clear from the way he talks about Bennett that the two have forged a good working relationship. What surprises me about the way Fountain talks about it is how he gets down on himself for not doing or being enough as a producer. I don’t think it’s that he has low self esteem, but he comes in on the negative side of experience, and he says that’s partly to do with all the times things haven’t worked out for him in his career.

He’s hard on himself, and that’s because he’s driven. Djeisan Suskov says he’s like that with everyone: “One of my favourite Josh quotes in the studio is “I like it, but I don’t love it” which is the signal to the artist and/or writers to keep pushing, whether that be with melody, performance or lyrics. He doesn’t settle with good until it’s great.”

When Fountain tells me about the writing trip he did with Benee in Los Angeles last year, I realise just how deeply he cares, not only for the music, but for his artists: “I remember coming back from that trip and being real gutted. It hadn’t gone the way I thought it might have gone. Stella was having a tough time, she’d been through a breakup, and we’d go into these sessions and she’d get stuck.”

He looks out into the garden, and I can see from the way his shoulders hunch that he’s back there, feeling those things again. “I felt like maybe I could have done a better job of helping her get out of that funk a little bit, or give her more ideas. I just remember feeling a bit down, like I could have helped the situation a lot more. If I was a good producer instead of a fraud … There was a bit of that.”

It seems imposter syndrome haunts Fountain, and it’s curious to see it in action, given Supalonely was written on that very trip. A song born out of the heartache of a breakup, and feeling isolated and stuck, is what pushed Benee into the spotlight. I ask him if the success of Benee’s music, and the awards and recognition, have gone any way toward shutting up that voice on his shoulder, and he squints into the distance. “A little bit. I think I’ve learnt to trust myself a bit more. But there’s also a little bit of you that goes ‘You got lucky this time, but do you really deserve that, or that Silver Scroll award? It’s great that you did that, but let’s see you do that again.’” He says this with a raised eyebrow, the self-confessed worrier that knows all the tricks his brain will play on him.

Fountain hasn’t set himself a new goal as yet. There’s no doubt Benee’s album release will lead to more work, and doors opening for him internationally, though he’s quick to play it down “It’s not that I’ve been approached by anyone massive saying ‘We want you to do this’ but it’s just made me more proven.” He catches himself being earnest and is quick to bring back the mocking. “A sure thing! I’ll guarantee a hit record, that’s what people come to me for.” His droll sense of humour must be part of why people must like working with him so much – he’s good company.

For now he seems happy to ride the wave, enjoying the financial benefits of some commercial success, and getting back to the grass roots of his love for music. “What I’d really like to do now that I’ve got a bit more time is get back into writing songs again, and writing  – not songs for myself – but songs to practise writing songs. I don’t get a lot of time to do that sort of thing. I’m a great collaborator, but I’d like to do more of writing the full thing, doing everything, and exercising those muscles.”

It’s clear Fountain has found the sweet spot in his career, and for once he puts the jokes aside to say, clear-eyed and grateful, “I just love it. I feel fortunate to have found my passion, and no matter what, I want to do it. Even when I’m working really hard, it doesn’t feel like work at all.”

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