Vance Joy on His New Album, What Inspires Him, and Living the Musician’s Life
Australian singer-songwriter James Keogh performs under the moniker Vance Joy, a name he adopted from a character in the Peter Carey novel, “Bliss.” He began writing songs in his hometown of Melbourne, and stunningly rose to fame in a flash. He’s best known for his hit single “Riptide,” which reached number one in Australia, and soon captured swooning fans throughout Europe and the US. His debut album, “Dream Your Life Away” earned him an award for “Best Male Artist” at the 2015 ARIA Music Awards. He recently released his follow-up, “Nation of Two,” a collection of dreamy, broadly accessible, and emotive songs, with a breezy, summery feel. The album features songwriting contributions from Dan Wilson of Semisonic, and is generally bigger and bolder than Keogh’s previous work.
With a new world tour, and fresh from wrapping up his main stage set at Coachella weekend one, before returning to perform the fest’s second weekend, Keogh spoke with Entertainment Voice about his new album, his tour, his stories, and his perspective.
Your music is very emotive and really connects with people, so much so that you are playing the main stage at Coachella this year. What kind of vibes did you get performing at the fest weekend one, and what are looking forward to for your weekend two set?
It was a really nice vibe, great afternoon. The late afternoon set was really awesome. You always get a bit nervous before you play. You hope that people come, and it was a good turnout, and the people were really friendly, and it was a good vibe. The main thing I enjoyed, as well, aside from just playing and having a good show, was getting to see the other bands. I got to watch David Byrne. He was amazing. And I got to watch the Beyonce set, which was, you know, astounding. And it’s just fun to walk around in the festival, just being like, they call it in Australia, a “punter,” just someone who’s there just to experience it. Just a festival goer.
You’re embarking on the North American leg of your biggest tour so far. Have you found American audiences, at all, different from Australian ones? If so, how?
Yeah, I think the first show we did in Berkley a few days ago was really great. It was the first time we played with a slightly bigger stage setup, so that was a milestone, to play on a bigger stage, and with a bigger lighting production. That was really exciting, and it went down really well. That was a relief, to get that show done. And the crowds are similar all around the world, it’s more like city to city. Like in Boston, people are really, like, enthusiastic, and they show it with how loud they are and stuff. Just to give you one example. You might play in Melbourne, Australia, which is where I’m from. In Melbourne, people are attentive, and they’re engaged, but they’re just a little bit more reserved. It’s different city to city, but I feel really happy with the show.
Your music is often described as poetic. Do you have any favorite poets? If so, who are they?
Yeah, I honestly don’t read a lot of poetry. I like William Butler Yeats. His poetry, it’s like bangers, you know? They’re all romantic. They hit the spot. I feel like I understand the message sometimes, or at least, I connect to them. And I just like reading books. I guess they’re a nice escape, especially if you’re on the road and you’ve got a lot of down time. It’s just a great mental escape, and you can connect with a book or a character in a book. But he’s a poet that comes to mind.
Your new album, “Nation of Two” could loosely be described as a collection of love songs. Was there one specific woman that inspired the album, or was it bits of different relationships and memories combined?
It was really a collection of things. I look back on my own experiences, and they can fill you with inspiration and give you things to sing about. There’s a lot of stuff about me in there, but there’s also just things I pick up along the way, scraps. You might hear someone mention something. You overhear someone say something, or a story that a friend has told you, and films and books and all that stuff fills the well of inspiration. It’s probably more introspective than the first album.
It wasn’t that direct. I wouldn’t say it was just one relationship. At the time I was writing, I had some time on my own to reflect on a few different ones. It wasn’t like it was an ode to one particular person.
Is there a particular song on the new record, aside from the first single, that you’re especially excited to have people hear?
Yeah, actually, in the set we’re playing at the moment, we have a little shift-down set-up, where we play a couple songs almost acoustically, and as a band, we stand right at the front of the stage. It was a cool dynamic, and we played the song, “Little Boy,” and the song, “Bonnie and Clyde” like that. It was a nice moment in the set to break things up. It’s just nice to feel that closeness with the audience. I’m looking forward to people seeing that part of the set.
Your last album was titled, “Dream Your Life Away,” and your new video for “Saturday Sun” captures the feeling of being shut in a mundane office job, dreaming of something more thrilling. A lot of people worry about literally “dreaming your life away.” Having attained such huge success, what advice do you have about actually making your dreams a reality?
Hmmm. I don’t know if I have any clear advice, besides the fact that, being able to do music, I’ve been lucky, and had a bit of, obviously, a charmed run. I’m so fortunate. I’m glad that I was never too realistic, and I never had to be like, “Oh, obviously I have to get a real job because doing music isn’t a real job.” I’m glad that I had enough encouragement and enough space to explore music and to practice my songwriting. I didn’t put too much pressure on myself. I did it for the love of it… I didn’t leave high school thinking “I’m going to be a musician.” I left kind of being like, “I’m going to do a law degree.” I think if you just find something that you really enjoy doing, and you put in the time to get better at it, I think that those things aren’t unrealistic, and those are legitimate dreams to have… I’d probably be writing songs even if it wasn’t my main way of making a living. So if you find something like that, it’s a lucky thing to have.
Do you ever feel like you’ve actually been asleep, dreaming the whole time, and worry about waking up?
(Laughs) No, not too much. I think I do sometimes give myself a reality check, like, “What more could I want right now?” I think that’s a good way to keep things in perspective because there’s always ways you want to improve, or things you might not be happy with, you know, whatever. Just everyday things, but when I look back, I think, “How fortunate am I to be doing this?” I have fans, and I play shows, and I have a great team of people that are supporting me, so that’s a good way of keeping it in perspective. And would I have ever envisioned this for myself five years ago? I don’t think so, so it’s a good way of keeping it on course.
I’ve gotten much more comfortable with my lifestyle, and there are so many bits to balance it out. There are amazing moments, like playing Coachella was amazing, but there’s also just a certain ordinary quality to touring, which is like sleeping in a tour bus, staying in a hotel room all day, and visiting lots of radio stations. It balances out, evens out, all the amazing parts. Sometimes it’s a bit of a comedown after a big weekend, but of course, when I’m in the moment, I’m like, “Jeez, crazy!” but I never doubt it’s reality.
How did working with songwriter Dan Wilson help shape the new record?
It was great. A couple songs on the album that I really like, “Like Gold” and “We’re Going Home,” I wrote with Dan. He’s just got a great energy, and he’s a really amazing creative force, so he brought things to the table that I wouldn’t have been able to think of: great melodies, great ideas, great ideas for production, all these things that made these songs what they are. So we had a great collaboration, and I’m so grateful that we got to work together, and that we had that chemistry.
You’ve spoken before of the appeal of very specific details and images in lyrics that capture a broader idea and general atmosphere. Can you recall an example from one of some other artist’s songs that struck you that way?
Yeah, there’s a song by a band called The Pogues, and it’s not necessarily a detail. The line is, “I smiled at your funny little ways,” and I just love that line. In the context of the song, it’s a beautiful line. I think it’s called “A Rainy Night in Soho.” It’s a great song.