Concert Preview & Interview: Vance Joy
Australia's prodigal folk-rock son stops in Columbus tonight in support of his latest album "Nation of Two"
Australian folk-rock export Vance Joy’s much-anticipated sophomore album, Nation of Two, arrived in February, following his widely embraced 2014 debut, Dream Your Life Away. Although Joy’s rise to international acclaim has happened in a relatively short time frame, it’s hard to remember when his thick, expressive tenor and penchant for ballooning melodies hasn’t been a pop radio epidemic.
Lyrically, Nation of Two is a concept record of sorts – a progressively evolving storyline that weaves the complicated threads of a relationship.
“Nation of Two describes a perfectly self-contained couple; their world beginning and ending at the bed they share, the car they ride in, or any other place where they’re together,” Joy explained to MusicFeeds late in 2017. “The idea that their love for each other gives them their bearings; a point of reference that makes sense of life.”
The appeal of Joy’s impassioned music is easy enough to understand on its very surface, but when I had an opportunity to sit down and talk with him during a rare day off in Austin a couple of weeks ago, the global enthusiasm for his work became even clearer as we delved further into his Australian roots and discussed his perspective on work and his growing success as an artist. He’s earnest, optimistic, and grounded, and continues to be in awe of his experience as his success continues to unfold.
Tonight, Joy will take the stage at Express LIVE!, and will undoubtedly be awash in the thousands who will gleefully sing along to his now-pop standards “Riptide” and “Lay It On Me.”
I wanted to ask you about growing up in Australia and if you believe there’s a specific purview that you’ve acquired as a songwriter and artist that was born and raised there. Certainly you’re an international artist with a following in so many different places that I’m sure has an impact on you creatively, but is there something about being Australian that influences that viewpoint?
“That’s a good question. I think there probably is kind of cultural thing that is unique to Australia where people talk and act a certain way. And it probably changes from place to place within Australia, but I’m not really sure what the general vibe is – but I’m sure maybe people that come to visit the show might say that we’re relaxed or friendly or easy-going. There are certain stereotypes, and I think there’s some truth to that. A lot of diverse music has come out of Australia and as kids growing up we listened to a lot of Australian music, too. I guess we listened to a lot of everything. Some Australian artists…even just the way about our accents or some of our sayings or cultural references – they’re going to be in our songs.
I don’t know if people immediately think I’m Australian necessarily because my accent isn’t Australian when I sing, but I do listen to a lot of [the] music and I guess maybe some of that stuff didn’t make it out of Australia. So, I’m probably influenced by a lot of music that might not be familiar to the world, so maybe that in and of itself gives it a unique sound.”
Digging a little deeper there, I remember very clearly the music that played in my house growing up and how it shaped my feelings about different albums and artists. I know you’re incredibly close with your family and they’ve been important to your growth musically, so I’m curious if there were a few records that might have been essential listening in your house and how they might have inspired you to nurture your talents as a musician?
“There were a few albums we listened to a lot of, and one in particular that always sticks out to me and was comforting to me – and also was inspiring to listen to because of how great the songs are – is an artist called Paul Kelly. He’s an Australian artist, and he’s kind of like our Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, and the album that I had came out in 1987 or something and I listened to it when I was four or five. Every song on that album I loved, and it felt like that was on a lot in our house, whether it was in our car or in our family home. He’s still making music now, and still making really quality music, and I guess he’s kind of an Australian songwriter, you know? But that definitely inspired me.
And my parents were generally very encouraging of me in learning to play musical instruments, so they got me piano lessons when I was little, which is pretty typical. But I really didn’t like doing theory, so by the time I was about fourteen, I’d given up on doing lessons. My dad was very persuasive, however, and he pushed me to take guitar lessons. He’s rather persistent and wouldn’t give up. Eventually…and I’m so glad it happened, but eventually I found the love for it and I started playing covers of my favorite songs and I got addicted to going back and back and returning to the guitar and trying to get better at it. So, once I’d gotten that kind of addiction…I’ve been playing guitar since I was fourteen and started singing as well. All of that stuff can be traced back to that encouraging persistence and parental push.”
I’m always interested in asking about some of the technical aspects of musicians’ performances, and since you play acoustic guitar so frequently, I’m wondering what kinds of six-strings you prefer in terms of sound, and feel, and body structure?
“Yeah, I play a few different types of guitars, but the first good guitar I got was one my dad bought me in about 2007 called a Maton, and it’s Australian-made – one of our premiere acoustic guitar makers. I keep playing that and I still play that in shows. A guitar I really love was one my dad had growing up – I think he might have gotten it when he was eighteen – it’s a Suzuki. It’s basically a Japanese copy of the Martin and it’s dreadnaught shape. And I’m sure it cost dad a little bit, maybe five- or six-hundred dollars, but not the same amount as it would cost to get a Martin. But this Suzuki, it sounds great, it’s very easy to play, and it’s a really beautiful guitar.
And that’s the first guitar I remember having in the house when I was a little kid, you know, just playing it or maybe even making noise by just banging the strings or sliding my finger up and down on the strings. That guitar is probably the most priceless out of any one that I have.”
And I imagine that when you play the guitar with such focus and regularity, you have to find new ways to express yourself through that instrument and learn something different to expand your palette even if you’re really skilled.
“I think you want something that excites and interests you when you’re playing guitar, so it might be you change it up by playing a chord you don’t usually play, or a finger-picking method, or a rhythm, or whatever it is. Or just pick up a completely different instrument to kind of reinvigorate you and find a new way into it. So, all of that stuff, I think, helps in songwriting, but there’s no exact blueprint to it. It’s good to come at it from a bunch of different angles.”
As I was researching some press for our interview, I came across an article in which members of your management at The Mushroom Group were discussing your tireless work ethic, and I thought that was such a great perspective that the music-buying public often doesn’t get to hear about – the lifespan of an album from a point where it’s not even a cohesive idea and how much time and energy it actually takes to lay it in the hands of your listeners. Tell me a little bit about making Nation of Two and what you were contending with as you followed up the high expectations of your first record.
“It was definitely a daunting task. When I released my first album, and I’d been touring it for a while, my brain started thinking about writing more songs, which I’m glad that was there, that desire. And I started cataloging little ideas and started writing melodies into my phone and singing little voicemails. I guess I started piling up small ideas. It probably wasn’t until the beginning of 2016 when I could start looking at what I had and start putting those little pieces together. The main difficult thing for me, and the main goal, was just to make songs that felt like they had a special quality. To me, to pursue a song to the end, it needs to have some kind of factor, some interesting bit, or some feeling you get from playing it that tells you it’s worth pursuing. You know when you have something that’s a special part of a song or a chorus, or something like that, but before that when you’ve got nothing, it’s like, ‘Okay, when is that going to come along?’ That special little seed or an inspiration for a song.
My main goal was just to have songs that had good singing and reached the same mark as my other songs that I’d written up to that point. I went to a lot of songwriting sessions and I went to different studios to write and record a couple of songs that I’d had. It was really just, like, stop-and-start, you know? I’d have one song, and I’d go do that. Then I was, like, ‘Okay, now I have three songs…’, and it was just that goal of building up and up and up until I had eleven, twelve, or thirteen songs. That was a lot of work, and it was hard to just make it happen and hard to really build a plan around something that’s so creative and sort of doesn’t listen to you when you say ‘alright…song today, song tomorrow. Okay, sweet.’ You can’t really organize it in that way.
So, I don’t know, the work ethic thing comes into play for all of it. It’s just a different kind of thing, like, touring it’s every day: you wake up, you do sound check, you play the show, and you might meet fans after, you do all that stuff, you go radio stations. That’s a bit more direct. But the songwriting stuff, you can never…you’ve got your foot on the pedal and you get sort of exasperated when you’re trying everything and nothing’s coming out. It’s an interesting life and it’s an interesting seasonal cycle, the songwriting and the recording and then the touring part, and then a bit of a break. It kind of goes in waves. That’s sort of a roundabout answer, but it might give you an idea of how it might have come together.”
That’s a really great answer, actually. And so those ins and outs, ebbs and flows, and that constantly moving cycle you talked about – have you been able to find places to step back and look at it all objectively and breathe it in? Can you find a bit of normalcy and sanity among all this stuff that has to be physically and emotionally demanding?
“Yeah, it helps seeing your family and friends and special people – if you can get some time with them every now and then it definitely re-fills your soul up with love, and you find you just don’t have to put any effort in where you can completely be yourself. When you’re around those people, it gives you a lot to go on. And, you know, you spend a lot of time on your tour bus with the band, and I get on really well with them. It’s a slightly confined little space to be sharing with people. And doing good things that really nourish your soul, like getting good food, or going for a walk and all that stuff that’s kind of just a little escape from being in green rooms all the time.
And you do get a massive buzz from playing in front of people. When I meet fans and meet people after shows, and even during the show, I think that exchange of energy is really awesome. And the high of that makes touring so enjoyable – I mean, there are those highs and then the boring bits, but the boring bits are always followed by this really special show, and you’re like, ‘Ah! How good is that? How can I not float on cloud nine for a couple of hours after that?’ It all kind of evens out.”
And in finding that balance, are there still things that surprise you about the work you do? Things that positively disrupt the regimen you’ve established?
“Basically everything. I had no idea what it would be like to be a musician who was doing tours and making a living from it, so it’s all exceeded my expectations. My only real expectation was that I was keen to play some shows and get some of my music recorded, and everything else I’ve been learning from there. The goal posts shift a little bit as you play a show: ‘Oh…I filled out a room with three-hundred people?’ And then ‘oh, my God…I sold out a room with eight-hundred people’ in a venue that’s famous in Melbourne. And to be able to play there, and for that to happen kind of quickly, it’s like, ‘Oh my God. Geez, that was unattainable,’ you know? And that was so unattainable so recently. So, that was a funny thing to experience.
And playing now…you can lose perspective if you play theatres for a couple of years. You’re like, ‘oh, we played to a thousand people in some place we’ve never been before…’, or you play to two-thousand people in Tulsa, or something. And you think, ‘Oh my God! If you told me I could have done that five years ago, it’s hard to get my head around that.’ I’m so glad we put the time into visiting all these smaller radio stations and all these places because there are just so many people in this country that will come to your show if you connect with them.
The whole thing is kind of blowing my expectations out of the water, but I feel comfortable now, really comfortable in my skin, and I like meeting people. I think the level of how comfortable you are and if you’re enjoying it, it comes through at the show and in your stage presence and when you talk to people. It all connects. So, it’s just nice to know that the more I do this, the better the shows they get. Until a certain point, I’m sure, where they’ll get worse. But hopefully not! [laughs]”
Vance Joy, with guest Alice Merton, will take the stage tonight at Express LIVE!, 405 Neil Ave. in the Arena District. Doors open at 6 p.m. Tickets, available through Ticketmaster, are $38, plus applicable taxes and fees, and are general admission. Tonight’s show is outdoors. More information about Vance Joy and access to music downloads and other media are available via his official website.