‘Glasgow was a mad place to grow up – but full of love’
Alt-soul singer Joesef tells Megan Graye about city pride, his fear of performing live, and making peace with his sexuality
“I think everybody’s just trying not to fall apart in some form,” says alt-soul singer Joesef with a nervous laugh. “It’s just who can hide it the best.” We’re sat on two ends of a giant sofa in his PR’s office in London, comparing stories on the qualms of
“adulting”. The 27-year-old moved to the capital from Glasgow in 2021, but still romanticises the city in which he grew up. “There’s a certain level of togetherness that’s very palpable there,” he says in a thick Scottish accent, which is “worse” when he’s had a drink. “Everyone speaks to everyone,” says the singer. He can’t go to the shop without being stopped by five locals asking how his “ma” is. “I’m like, God, I’m just tryna’ get a loaf of bread!”
We’re chatting a month after the release of his smooth, soulful debut album. Permanent Damage takes on the intricacies of modern relationships, replete with all their rough edges. Joesef is something of a sonic sponge: aspects of his great loves, Al Green and the Mamas & the Papas, are rung out with his own guitar-based melodies and synthy modern moments. And there’s that luscious velvet voice of his, which Joesef attributes partly to “smoking a lot of fags and drinking a lot of straight vodka”. His songs embody the happy-sad space shared by the likes of childhood heroes, The Cure, with warm funky basslines that contrast with blue, wistful words.
It’s clearly connecting. This month, Joesef will embark on his biggest headline tour to date, which includes a sold-out show at the Roundhouse in London. “I can’t believe I actually need to do it now,” he says, gulping at the prospect of the pending performance. Despite his imposter syndrome, Joesef has played his fair share of big gigs. In the last two years he has supported Arlo Parks in the States, opened for childhood favourite Paolo Nutini in Glasgow, and been interviewed by Sir Elton John, during which, he admits, he grinned from ear to ear “like the shark from Shark Tale”.
“It wasn’t really on the cards for me,” Joesef says of a career in music. In 2018, the singer was working in a bar in Glasgow when he got “rat-arsed” watching a mate do an open mic night. In a drunken flash of courage, he went up to sing “California Dreaming” and that “set the ball rolling”. Another friend, now his manager, was out that night and heard the silky singing voice Joesef has become so known for. “He saw something in me that I didnae see in myself,” he says. After being encouraged to write some music – and then selling out a home show before releasing any of it – Joesef found himself catapulted into the spotlight, suddenly appearing on BBC Maida Vale sessions and packing out shows across the country. It’s what many artists dream about, but it was a bit of a shock to the system. “It felt fucking insane,” he says. “It’s just really sink or swim – and I was sinking a lot”.
Joesef eventually found a way to float – although still feels “terrified” at live shows. He routinely tells the crowd at his gigs that he’s “fucking shitting himself”. He laughs, “I’ve never been good at hiding my feelings”. Rest assured, his nerves are not for lack of talent, and, in fact, the confessions foster real unity between Joesef and his audience. “There’s so much bullshit involved in the music industry. It can be disheartening, stressful and anxiety-ridden, but as soon as you get on stage, I’ve got you
and you’ve got me – and we can all just be in this together.” A Joesef gig is half comedy, half music, with the Glaswegian chatting to the crowd as if they’re old friends at the pub. “It’s definitely a Glasgow thing,” he says. “Constantly just poking fun at the bad stuff as well as the good stuff. It’s such an unnatural experience to be on stage and to be a musician. People take it so seriously, to the point it looks like they’re walking around being fucking choked!”
Glasgow is the subject of his recent single “East End Coast”. The song – titled after his nickname for the River Clyde that runs through the town – was written a few months into living in London. He had been feeling “isolated and separated” from anything he’d known before. The track circles a “tempestuous time with this boy”, but halfway through writing it, Joesef realised he was actually singing about Glasgow, and the time spent there which he’d “never be able to get back”.
“It was a bit of a mad place to grow up and it was very working class. I had a lot of family troubles – but it was always so full of love, and we were always well looked after,” he explains. Despite any “bleakness”, the city has his heart. “I hate to quote Miss Dorothy, but there’s no place like home. There’s nothing like the energy or atmosphere that comes from my hometown, it’s very specific and it can’t be recreated.” As we all do when we’re feeling a bit lost, Joesef spent a lot of this period on the phone to home. He recalls one voicemail from his mum: “Remember I love you and you can always come home any time you want.” That message made it into the end of “East End Coast”. “It was nice to immortalise her in that song” and to hear her voice “ring through” the venues at his shows, he says. “When you’re playing, you feel like you’re flying and that just makes you remember who you are.”
In the past few years, Joesef has learnt to embrace who he is. He identifies as bisexual, but it took a while for him to feel comfortable expressing that. Joesef attended a Catholic school, and prejudicial comments from peers and teachers made him want to “be invisible”. “I didn’t want anyone to put a target on my back in any kind of way, and that was a big target at the
time.” That’s all changed now. “It sounds a bit wanky,” he laughs, “but the things you hate about yourself the most – by the time you’re old enough to appreciate them – that’s the things you love about yourself the most.”
So much joy is lost in thinking about how you’re being perceived by others
That said, when sharing the new video for his introspective single “Joe” in which he kisses a boy, Joesef had a slight wobble. “It’s very exposing, but it was the most liberating thing ever. I can remember thinking I would never ever explore that part of myself,” he says. “It just felt like such a weird full circle moment where I was like, ‘Woah, this wasn’t on my Bingo card!’” Fear now takes a back seat. “I think so much joy is lost in thinking about how you’re being perceived by others,” he says. “Who gives a fuck what we’re doing, or the way you’re speaking or the way you’re carrying yourself? You’re never gonna see these people again, so just be yourself.”
Last January, in a moment of perfect synchronicity, Joesef was selected by Spotify to have his face plastered across a Times Square billboard in New York as part of a campaign supporting LGBT+ artists. “It’s moments like that where you say, ‘That’s why!’” he beams. “It’s really affirming to think of that wee guy back in the day who felt like he just wanted to disappear, that there would come a time where he was going to be celebrated for being different.” It’s clear that Joesef is much more together and “adult” than he gives himself credit for.
‘Permanent Damage’ is out now
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