“Stepping Out Of My Comfort Zone Has Been Inspiring”: Vance Joy Chats Evolving As A Songwriter On His New AlbumWritten by Sally McMullen on February 6, 2018
2018 is already proving to be a banner year for James Keogh. Better known by his stage name Vance Joy, the singer-songwriter recently graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and scored a neat little #9 spot with ‘Lay It On Me’ in Triple J’s Hottest 100. And this was all before he’s had a chance to drop his excellent sophomore record, Nation of Two.
The new record comes almost four years after his #1, Platinum and critically acclaimed debut Dream Your Life Away was released in 2014. The success of that album saw Vance travel the world, tour with the likes of Taylor Swift and inspire countless YouTube covers. So, it’s not exactly an easy act to follow. And yet, the Melbourne local managed to avoid the dreaded Second Album Stress Syndrome.
This is likely because he didn’t tackle the project with a strategy or a pre-conceived theme. Instead, he took advantage of the quiet time in hotels in between shows and recording sessions to reflect and write whatever came to mind. It turns out that this ranged from laments of lost love, to tales of childhood nostalgia.
The final product is 13 tracks filled with lush lyrics, strong hooks and ukulele riffs. In other words, it’s a quintessential Vance Joy album. According to the man himself, the LP’s title was inspired by both author Kurt Vonnegut and a book by Richard Ford called Between Them. Without giving you a lesson in literature, it’s a metaphor to describe how your world begins and ends with the one you love.
And now he’s ready to share it with the world, before kicking off a European tour in the UK and heading to the US for a bunch of shows including a little festival called Coachella (for the second time, mind you) and finally returning home to share the love live for his Aussie fans.
So, as the 30-year-old takes a deep breath before he plunges into the depths of touring Nation of Two, we had a chat with Vance Joy about getting more personal on the new record, his first co-writing experiences and what else he’s going to conquer in 2018.
Music Feeds: The last time you released a record, you were fairly fresh to the scene. Is it exciting knowing that you have a lot of fans waiting to hear the new music?
Vance Joy: Yeah, it’s nice. I guess we released an EP and then an album and then did so much touring from 2014 onwards. So I think over that time, I put a lot of work and time in to connecting with people and have met a lot of fans at shows and felt this great reception at the shows. I feel like the people who come to the shows know the songs and actually know like, a lot of the songs…even the lesser known songs from the album. So I think that’s just super encouraging and I feel like with the new album, I’m proud of the songs and they’re up to the standard of the first album. So I’m feeling good and looking forward to sharing it with the people who are into my music.
MF: You’ve already toured ‘Lay It On Me’ and ‘We’re Going Home’ a little bit. What have been the reactions to the new tracks already?
VJ: It’s been really good. You always get affirmation from your friends and family when you release a song and you might get some Facebook messages being like “Oh, I love the new song” or “I love the film clip to that song” or whatever it is. All of that stuff is very nice to hear. You might have a look on Instagram and you feel like there are lots of people saying nice things, so yeah, those little affirmations make you feel good.
MF: Yeah, in 2018 you can connect with your fans so easily and immediately. You don’t have to wait for a review or a show to see people’s reactions.
VJ: Absolutely! Yeah, I never really think about that. It’s quite amazing and I’m sure back in the day, it was totally different to how it is now.
MF: In Rolling Stone, you mentioned that you still use your parents as a soundboard when you’re first writing a new song. What are their favourites from the new record?
VJ: Yeah! I played a few songs for my mum and she really liked ‘Take Your Time’ and my sister really liked the song ‘I’m With You’. My Dad generally likes all of the songs (laughs).
When I play them a song, especially in the writing stages, I get more feedback and when the songs aren’t fully written and are kind of starting. I’ll be able to discern from the way they respond, you know something like “oh, this is cool” or “yeah, I really like that” will make me go “ok, cool. Well I may as well finish it off.” Then once it’s recorded I kind of feel like it’s already been through a lot of that soundboarding process that I feel confident that they [my family] are going to like it. So that’s nice to kind of share with them the polished product after they’ve heard it being sung around the house or a very basic version of it.
MF: You co-wrote a bit of the album with Dan Wilson, who’s worked with the likes of Adele and your old touring mate Taylor Swift. What was it like writing with him?
VJ: Yeah, it was really cool. I think out of the 13 songs, seven of them I wrote and six of them I co-wrote, but I wrote two songs with Dan Wilson and it was great working with him. I feel like every time we worked together. It was always really productive and I feel good about sharing with him. I’d have an idea that I thought was cool and then seeing where he took it was great. We had a really good run together, writing songs together that I feel really good singing and get excited about. He’s such an experienced and talented songwriter, so it was great being inspired by him.
I also worked with a guy named Dave Bassett. So, these guys who’ve been writing songs for a long time and recording and producing, they’ve just got so many great ideas and so much experience, it’s cool to be around that. And to be around two people who’ve worked music into their everyday life was great. There might be a bunch of songwriting sessions out of their houses, but it’s a nice balance of family life and doing music and I kind of thought “This is what it can look like.” It’s just a really good picture, what I was seeing. So yeah, not only am I really happy about writing the songs with them, but they’re also just really cool people.
MF: And now that you’ve done both, do you have a preference between writing or co-writing?
VJ: I think it varies from song to song. I think there’s a special thing you have with a song you’ve written entirely on your own. It’s got a really strong finger print of you and even the songs that I’ve co-written, still feel like me. So, I don’t think you’d be able to point out “that one’s co-written, it doesn’t sound like Vance Joy”. You don’t want that. So I think, I like both and I like that both can work because I don’t want to close myself off to any possibilities.
I never want to get to the point where it’s like “oh, I don’t know how to finish this song”. But I also like the idea of having an idea and working with people and they just take it to a different place and now it’s this special thing and I couldn’t have done it on my own. I like the idea of hopefully being able to do both in the future.
MF: Do you find that you sometimes get more insight into your own lyrics when you share them with another songwriter?
VJ: Yeah, if you’re too close to it you might think a certain lyric is good and then someone else is like “Hmm, that doesn’t quite make sense.” There are so many ways that co-writing can help you, even if it’s like a gentle encouragement on something you weren’t too sure about. You could be like “I like this, but it sounds a bit cheesy.” And they’ll say, “Nah, it’s good. It doesn’t sound cheesy.”
You might think it’s cheesy because it’s a bit more vulnerable but then if you have that encouragement… even if you’re just showing someone like a friend or a family member and it’s not a co-write, you know you can take it into the world with confidence and not be second guessing it. Sometimes those more vulnerable things are really special in themselves.
MF: Your life has obviously changed a lot since Dream Your Life Away, did you find that your inspirations changed a lot when writing this new record?
VJ: I think I had so many amazing experiences but I also spent a lot of time alone in hotel rooms in between going to record music or go to songwriting sessions. So there were a bunch of times when I could reflect and be in my own head a little bit. I think all of the experiences of stepping out of my comfort zone have been inspiring, they can be the little shift that can help you write a song and shake the ideas inside of you loose.
So it might just be that feeling that you get before you write a song or being on a plane and being nervous about how the hell are you going to write eight more songs, that can inspire you to keep working and keep trying to chase it down.
MF: The inspiration behind the album title is the idea that couples almost live in their own universe together. Did you go into the songwriting process with this theme in mind or did it come together when you were compiling and finalizing the songs?
VJ: I think that’s exactly what happened. It was compiling the songs into that final body of work. I would just wait for a song to arrive and keep trying song by song. Then I would take one or two songs at a time to the studio and record them. I think it wasn’t until towards the end that I looked at them as a body of work and thought “what would be a good title to represent this album?” and drew the connections there.
It can be an overwhelming thing to be like “I need to write 12 songs. What am I even trying to do with this record?”. Or it could even be more of a linear thing. You might want to write more upbeat songs or write a ballad song and you might not vocalise it like “I need to write this song” but you might have a desire to do it. And sometimes that’s maybe what helps.
MF: In the past, you’ve tried to write songs that leave room for interpretation. But on Little Boy, you drew inspiration from a very direct and personal experience of when you fell off your bike as a child. What was it about this memory that inspired you to write about it so literally?
VJ: Yeah, it was a surprise to me because I was at home in Melbourne and I just started playing my little ukulele and singing these lyrics with this melody and it just started falling together quite effortlessly. I had this memory from when I was nine years old of falling off my bike and I never thought I could translate a personal memory into a song. I’d never done it that literally before, so that was a nice surprise. I’m kind of glad that memory got in there because it’s a very distinct memory, so I feel like it’s special for that reason.
And even the other parts of the story where I sang about driving around suburbs with my mum and dad and looking at houses to move into. That happened to a character in a book I was reading and it was something I remember doing when my parents were looking to move into a nicer suburb when I was like 10 or 11. We’d go to auctions and go into houses and I think they were just keen for us to find a nicer house to live in. So it’s just nice to have those personal memories fixed in a song.
MF: It’s interesting as well because as much as they’re very personal memories, I think falling off your bike or moving with your family is something that a lot of people can attach their own stories to.
VJ: Yeah, I think we’ve all experienced like you said, falling and breaking your arm or something. It’s like they’re similar experiences so the minor details don’t really matter. We can still share that same feeling.
MF: Yeah, that’s awesome. Hopefully that means we’ll hear even more personal songs in the future.
VJ: Yeah, I think that’s like a new frontier I can explore. Hopefully that happens.