With fans already beginning to line up outside, I went around to the side door of the Brooklyn warehouse-turned-venue to meet with Australian artist, Vance Joy.
The energy may have been building outside, but in the tucked away green room it was quiet and laid back.
Vance Joy, the stage name for artist James Keogh, has been keeping busy since his first album, Dream Your Life Away, came out in 2014. Like, supporting Taylor Swift and touring the world busy. But, now he’s ready to release his second studio album.
Before getting far into the interview at all, Vance Joy and I hit on a subject that most people who write for living know too well – the vast and unorganised depths of your iPhone notes. “It says its got about 2,000 notes here,” the singer-songwriter said as he pulled out his phone and opened the notes app. “I went through them all because I was looking for any words that were good or maybe album titles. I got through them all recently and most of them are not that good. Maybe some of them will surprise me later,” he added as he scrolled through the endless fragments of ideas and one-off phrases. It was a note just like this that inspired his new single ‘Lay It On Me.’
“Speaking of notes, I had a few lyrics on my phone,” he shared as we sat backstage. “I had the lyric ‘write it on a piece of paper, put it in my coat before I go.’ It was just a little, everyday romantic idea, but it didn’t have an overarching theme, just images.” That, along with a guitar riff that he had not been able to place since writing it about five years ago, were the start of the song that he says is a perfect introduction to all the elements echoed throughout his forthcoming album.
The lyric was inspired by an Adam Driver film. “It’s funny what your mind will latch onto,” Keogh explained citing the short stories of author Raymond Carver as another muse for his songwriting. “You can’t really control what your brain will retain and use as inspiration. I guess you just keep it coming in and see what comes out.”
More often than not, songwriting is a mix of the immediate and the imaginary. Experiences of your own or others meld with artistic interpretation and introspection. “I think music has got that thing that even without the romantic inclinations, it’s a person who is bearing their soul. When they sell it well and they deliver the song well, it feels more powerful. You insert yourself into the story,” Keogh shared. When I asked why people assume that a song is always an account of the artist’s personal experience he answered, “Yeah, they think that you must have really experienced some epic love,” he continued. “I think some of it is from things people say to me. So it’s real, it happened to them, but I feel like I’m poaching ideas all over the place. Someone might say a really beautiful line. I think whatever resonates with me, I find it powerful and emotional. If it cuts through and it feels good to sing, I guess that is the only criteria that I require. Sometimes it’s a real memory of my own and that can be really potent and good.
“It must feel real and relatable to me so that it comes through.”
Unlike the first album, Keogh said he worked with co-writers for a few of the songs on his second full-length album. “I think the majority of the songs on the album are the songs I’ve written myself, but I think 4-5 songs are co-writes. It’s a nice realisation that I could write a song with someone else and still feel really proud of it and like it’s mine,” he said, adding that collaborating with other songwriters can be a hit or miss, but when a co-writing session really works it feels like magic.
Keogh wrote quite a few of the songs on his album while on the road or while spending time in California. “I’ve written a few songs on the road which has been encouraging because you think you can’t do it. It’s always nice when it happens. If you’re trying really hard to write a song, sometimes it doesn’t come. Every time it happens, it reminds you it can be done even when you’re on the road. You can still be creative and productive,” the musician remarked. However, the majority of his second LP was written at home in Australia creating what he calls the backbone of the album. “I think some of the ones that happened in Melbourne are ones that I completely wrote on my own and they probably are more acoustic. The vibe is quite understated and small. They provide the backbone of the album between the bigger band songs. I’m really proud of all of them.”
Later that night at the show, he shared some of the stories behind his songs with his fans. As the sold out venue sang the words to every song, it was clear that they had resonated with Vance Joy’s lyrics, inserting themselves into the story told in each song.