James Keogh, the Melbourne songsmith who records under the moniker Vance Joy, burst onto the scene with his folk-pop hit ‘Riptide’ making him one of the most popular new songwriters not just in Australia, but also in the UK. His debut album Dream Your Life Away is out now, so we catch up with him about playing Maton acoustics, writing hits on his ukulele, and finding inspiration from the 70s.
Aussie songsmith Vance Joy – also known as James Keogh – has had a bit of a whirlwind 2014. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, he credits all of his success to his breakthrough single ‘Riptide’. It is no surprise that he has swept the board with that single, its summer infused sounds, and 70s folk influences. On the back of its worldwide chart success (and subsequently going triple platinum), Vance has sold out his UK tour dates, and was delighted to chat about his success, and the lead-up to it.
Riptide was first unleashed in 2013, but it had its beginnings further back, in 2008, as Vance recalls. ‘I did write the first few lines back 2008, and then left it alone and then came back to it back in 2012 and I put a chorus and a melody to it, and once I had those, the rest of it came quite easily – it was almost a stream of consciousness,’ Joy recalls.
The elusive mystery of how a song appeals to the masses is something songwriters wonder about on a daily basis. Vance is no exception. ‘I really don’t know why so many people have taken to it,’ he says with a little wonder. ‘I think the strong melody may be something to do with it. When I listen to a song, I do pick up on a strong melody. I don’t like too much padding, I like a strong melody line that kicks in early on and stays throughout the song. I had never done any proper recording before I did that song. I went into a studio in Melbourne with my drummer and a recording engineer and we just hammered it out in one day. Then we came back with a producer and he put some extra touches to it. There is something raw about it. We didn’t use a click track, which is like a metronome that a lot of bands use to keep the time when they are playing, and because there’s no click track, there is something imprecise about it – it was a unique recording on that day, the one that worked. The human metronome was working, I guess.’
Unusually, given that most people we talk to compose on guitar or piano, Vance actually wrote ‘Riptide’ on a ukulele, an instrument he has played since childhood, and one that’s experiencing somewhat a resurgence among players.
‘I picked up a ukulele when I was about eight or nine, and what I have always liked about it, and found out almost straight away, was that it sent me into a different area in terms of playing. I didn’t actually know what chords I was playing, which felt really liberating after playing the same chords over and over again on a guitar. I quite like singing with a ukulele as well, so I started bringing it out for a few songs when I played acoustics sets in cafes and places like that. The different direction I got when I started playing the ukulele was the same idea that John Lennon used when he switched from writing songs on guitar to writing songs on piano. One of the songs he wrote that was ‘Watching The Wheels’. I have always really loved that song, and the line about dreaming your life away, which resonated with me, and I borrowed it for the title of my album.’
‘My dad is a very creative guy; he loves music, loves writing lyrics and so on, and I think he didn’t really have a chance to pursue music in the way he might have wanted. So, when I was 14, he bought me an electric guitar and told me I was having lessons in a couple of weeks,’ Vance says of his introduction to music. ‘I remember when I was learning piano in primary school, my teacher taught me ‘Scarborough Fair’, which I loved, and I wanted to learn that. The teacher told my parents that I didn’t have much of an attention span for theory, but that if I heard a melody, then I would make sure that I could play it, and learn it off by heart. I think my dad saw that, and thought I would probably be a willing participant in learning music.’
‘I don’t think there was any pressure. I certainly didn’t feel like that at the time, I think you learn to trust your parents to do the right thing. When I saw my friends playing instruments really well, that did spur me on to learning to play. When I started with the electric, it was a case of trying to feel cool, sling the guitar on, hit the distortion button and get into ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – it was that kind of thing. There was always an electric guitar around in the house, and I was never really that much of a fan of electric guitarists specifically. The acoustic my dad had was one he bought when he was around 20 years old. It was a Martin copy made by Suzuki, but it’s a really good guitar, it has a wonderful action. My dad knows I will take care of it, and it will be around for a long time.’
In common with a lot of budding musicians, Vance found his feet as a performer by turning up to open mic nights at cafes near his home. Opinions of open mic nights are divided into two distinct categories – those who think the whole thing is a total breeze and those who feel the experience is frankly terrifying.
‘Definitely terrifying! No doubt about it, the thought of singing songs to complete strangers when you’ve only ever sung in your bedroom, and maybe to members of your family, is not an easy transition to make. I think if you roll up feeling cocky, then you don’t care enough about what you are doing, and if you don’t care enough, then you are not nervous enough, and that’s never a good thing. I was nervous when I started out because I did care a lot. I had two songs that I was really proud of, and two more that I used to fill the space – you usually get to sing four songs. It was a real baptism of fire, playing to 10 people. It is a rite of passage, there comes a time when you just have to get out there and play your songs to strangers.’
And did those original songs make the cut onto your album, Dream Your Life Away? ‘They did yes. I did my first open mic in 2010, and the song ‘Wind Of Change’ was a song I did then, and that is on the album, in a slightly different format. The other song was ‘From Afar’ which I used to sing back when I started, but I wrote an outro to it in 2012 which I think really lifted the song.’
Although his initial start into music may have been slightly different for Vance, his musical influences growing up certainly follow the standard pattern, as he remembers.
‘It was the stuff my parents listened to, and what my dad played in the car when we were going to places. My dad had a Ben Folds album called Whatever And Ever Amen and a Paul Kelly CD – a singer-songwriter from Australia. And he liked the Police, and another band he liked was called the Whitlams. He enjoyed the Pogues too, and that was the sort of music he played in the car and in the house as well. That’s the musical style I have always returned to.’
And so to today, when Riptide has proved to be a massive success – making it to the number one single on Australia’s go-to radio station, Triple J.
In a similar vein to Radio 1’s Live Lounge, when Vance appeared on Triple J he performed on original track and one cover, and he chose Adele’s ‘Rolling In The Deep’ which is not an easy vocal challenge to tackle. ‘As I found out,’ Vance confirms with a laugh. ‘When artists go on Triple J, they like you to sing an original song and a cover. I have always loved Adele, and I have always loved that song, and I noticed that when a lot of musicians go on the show, they sing a cover of a song that is popular at that time, that is getting airplay, so I thought I’d be a bit different. It was something people would not expect me to do, which was another good reason for me to do it.’
So what guitars can we find Vance on tour with? Some instruments which share Vance’s home turf. ‘I am playing a Maton which is an Australian make of guitar. My dad bought it for me in 2007 and it’s a very sturdy guitar. It’s very good for touring because it has a good strong construction, I have been touring with it for the last two years, and it has just had a real pounding. I have a band with me on the road; I have been playing with a drummer, keyboard and bass since about 2012. When it comes to the arrangements, my drummer is really good at working out harmonies – I leave a lot of that side of things to him. When I bring a new song to the guys for us to work out and take on the road with us, I usually start playing and they will work out what is appropriate once they have developed a feel for the song. The more we play together the easier it becomes. If I introduce a new song to them, but the time they have jammed it for about half an hour, they will have got it down pretty much. We tend to do a lot of that working out and general practising at sound checks. On support tours, we often get quite a long sound check and we will try out new ideas, and sometimes we record them and working on ideas afterwards.’
Even though Vance’s Dream Your Life Away has just been released in the UK, he’s always working out ideas, recording, and thinking of the next record. ‘I am always chipping away here and there in terms of writing and recording. What would be nice would be maybe a month away from everything, to hang out with my family and go to to the beach and disengage from the whole touring and promotion and just see what sort of inspiration comes out of that. I’ve got a tour of America through October and November, and then back to Australia for Christmas and a chance to kick back with family and friends. We’ll see what those experiences do in terms of prodding some song ideas into view.’
Before we finish, we can’t let Vance go without asking him about his name. ‘My name is actually James Keogh, and I have spent my lifetime correcting people who mispronounce it, the way to say it is “kee-oh” but so many people get it wrong. I like the name Vance Joy because it is simple and straightforward, and there’s no danger of saying it wrong! It’s not as though it’s like I am acting a role, Vance Joy is not some sort of alternative identity, it is more a case of making an aspect of me when I am writing and playing music. When I was first starting out, I wanted to show people that I was really serious about making it as a songwriter and a gigging musician. So Vance Joy is a part of my character, but it’s not all my character. It’s a bit like putting a suit on to go to work. When I come, I can take off my suit and put a pair of jeans on, and just relax.’
Vance Joy’s Dream Your Life Away is out now.