“Mum’s like my ghostwriter”
Taylor Swift took him on tour with her. Julia Roberts is a fan. So for musician Vance Joy, the relentless nature of life on the road is undoubtedly paying off
Australian singer/songwriter Vance Joy tells Stellar how his family help him stay grounded as he rides the riptide of international success.
“Your happiness can get tied in with where your song might be on a chart”
How do you decompress after selling two million copies of your debut album and taking it on tour for more than two years? If you’re Melbourne singer/ songwriter Vance Joy, you hit the road again – atop your trusty skateboard.
The 30-year-old singer, born James Keogh, discovered the thrill of ollies and heelflips at the start of 2016 while knee-deep in global travel as he shared his first release Dream Your Life Away with fans in concert.
It may have horrified his management – Ed Sheeran had to cancel shows after falling off his bike and breaking both arms last October – but Joy remains proudly accidentfree. When he meets with Stellar, he rolls up his jeans to expose his only battle scars: some gnarly scabs on his lower leg. “I do get a real sense of satisfaction doing something right on a skateboard. I spent most of my time off after the last album skateboarding and reading books.” Still, Joy admits, “If you’re good at skateboarding, I don’t think the beat-up shins really happen. I’m hoping I can get better for the next 15 years and still be ollying, and have a little array of tricks I can do when I’m 45.”
A decade ago, he was playing Aussie Rules for VFL club Coburg while finishing a law degree and doing landscaping to pay the bills. He was also in an indie rock band called Hypersonique. By 2008, he had written the first version of a little song called ‘Riptide’, before shelving it for four years. Then he decided he would pursue a solo career, along with a more laid-back sound. By then he was trading under his adopted name. “Keogh is too hard to pronounce,” he says. “People call it ‘Cough’ or ‘Kee- ogg’.”
He would end up paying just $700 to record ‘Riptide’. The ukulele-fuelled tune swiftly scored him an international record deal with Atlantic Records and seduced the world, peaking at number 30 in the US, number 10 in the UK and number six in Australia, where it topped Triple J’s Hottest 100 in 2013. Over two years of intense promotion, he sang it everywhere from the AFL Grand Final to American Idol. The song can now claim sales of more than six million copies worldwide, Youtube views of more than 200 million and Spotify streams of around 550 million. That’s an incredible return on investment for a song from such humble beginnings. “The first time I put ‘Riptide’ up on Facebook, I was looking by the hour to see how many people liked it. I remember being so stoked when it got to 100 likes,” Joy recalls.
Still, he insists, “‘Riptide’ is an anomaly. That song opened me up to a very broad audience. It’s hard not to look at things like itunes charts; it can do your head in. You think you’re superficial caring about rankings, but like it or not there’s a certain competitiveness that comes out when you start putting yourself on a list.
“Your happiness can get tied in with where your song might be on a chart. But you can always find a figure that will give you some encouragement. If it’s not in a chart, it might have been streamed a million times. Sweet. You sold out a show yesterday? Awesome. You can always find the right data!” Concerns it would become an albatross were scuppered by a string of hits that followed and, to some degree, Joy’s effectiveness at putting himself out there. All that touring built him an international following; he will play this April’s Coachella festival in Palm Springs, his second time there. Last year, he was supposed to have his 30th birthday off. Instead he performed at Hamish and Andy’s farewell concert.
“When you’re in the thick of it, you just keep your head down and chip away,” he reasons. “All the gigs and interviews and radio and TV shows are the things that allow you to make an impression. The hustle is part of the gig. But you think you’re a hard worker, then you look at someone like Ed Sheeran
who plays a billion gigs and is always writing songs. And someone like Paul Mccartney, the greatest ever, and you hear how he’s always rehearsing before a show. And Taylor Swift, who tours the world and writes a new album and is always so productive. It’s hard to fathom, but it makes you think that’s where the standard is. It’s good to have those stories floating around – they make you work hard and not get too complacent.”
Joy was hand-picked to open for Swift on her 1989 tour after she heard ‘Riptide’ and then covered the song for UK radio. “I was seeing someone at the top of her game every night. It’s next level with Taylor,” he says of their time together on the road.
On one of the US Swift dates, Joy was told a fan in the audience wanted to meet him. It was Julia Roberts.
“I had to take a moment,” he admits. “But I met Julia and her kids, and she said she listened to ‘Riptide’ in the mornings. That was pretty cool. That was a good story to tell my parents. And my parents got to meet Taylor Swift in Melbourne. That was Taylor being super-generous, she offered to say hello to them. Then I was watching Taylor Swift play side of stage with my mum and my best friends. These are not normal situations!”
Joy’s mother takes a special involvement in his music – she’s given him lyrical ideas that ended up in his single ‘Mess Is Mine’ as well as a new song called ‘Alone With Me’, which features on his second album, Nation Of Two. “Mum’s always there to suggest tweaks and ideas to my lyrics. She’s like my ghostwriter.”
Joy will tour his album internationally for the next 18 months to two years. Being in demand all over the world is the dream of any musician (especially an Australian one), but the travel means that while Joy’s songs are filled with romance, the man himself remains single. And it’s in his lyrics where some of his most memorable encounters play out.
One new song delves into a semifictional on-the-road romance. “When you’re on the road, you definitely meet people you think are amazing,” says Joy. “You might only spend a small amount of time with them, go to dinner, think, ‘ This person is awesome,’ and then it’s a case of, ‘OK, see you in seven months.’ In the song, the person doesn’t stay on the road, he goes and chases it down. I’m not at the ‘OK, tour is over’ stage. I’m more like, ‘Actually… I have to go on tour for three months now.’
“The song is about having a crush. I have crushes all the time on the road. I might get a crush on the person interviewing me. They’re the people you’re surrounded by on the road: fleeting associations and connections.”
Joy went to school in Toorak with fellow Melbourne muso
“I was watching Taylor Swift side of stage with Mum and my friends. These are not normal situations”
Nick Murphy, aka Chet Faker, who is now based in New York. But he has so far avoided moving to the US; in fact, he took all of January off in Melbourne.
“I like the smell of the air in Australia. It feels cleaner and quieter and with more space. Even if I met someone from overseas and was in a committed relationship, I wouldn’t want to not be in Melbourne for summer and Christmas.”
Another measure of Joy’s success? Covers of his songs by fans litter Youtube, and JB Hi-fi now stocks ukuleles. “I meet a lot of kids who say I’m the reason they started to learn to play guitar or the ukulele. That’s awesome,” he laughs. “That’s how I learnt to play guitar – playing songs I liked by other people. I still do it now. When I hear a song I like, I try to figure out the riff. It’s flattering people are trying to work out my technique. Music is such a lifelong gift to give. To be able to contribute to that is very cool.” Nation Of Two is released on February 23.
“A lot of kids say I’m the reason they started to learn to play guitar or the ukulele. That’s awesome. Music is such a lifelong gift to give”
(from top left) Vance Joy performing at a music festival in Austin, Texas in 2017; Joy gifted Taylor Swift a custom Ken Done painting to thank her for choosing him as her 1989 album tour support act; and as photographed for Stellar.
VANCE WEARS (opposite and left) Levi’s jacket and jeans, levis.com.au; G-star RAW T-shirt, g-star.com; R.M. Williams boots, rmwilliams.com.au
VANCE WEARS Bassike jacket, T-shirt and pants, bassike.com; G-star RAW boots, g-star.com