Vance Joy, also known as James Keogh, is a singer-songwriter from Melbourne, Australia. His breakout track “Riptide” has been sitting comfortably at the top of the charts in the UK and went triple platinum in Australia. Despite his undeniable success Down Under there is not a lot of information out there about the curly haired crooner.
Keogh has always had an interest in music—while he was a student at university he would write songs between hitting the books—but after graduating he decided to try pursuing music professionally. He attended countless open mic nights in Melbourne, taking any gig he could get his hands on. Fast forward to about a year and a half later and Vance has left the open mic nights behind and is spending time in the studio with Ryan Hadlock (best known for his work with The Lumineers) working on his debut full length album.
We talked with Vance Joy on the phone as he was near the end of his Australian tour and preparing for upcoming UK shows.
Your real name is James, but you call yourself Vance Joy. Where did that come from?
I got the name from a book I was reading called Bliss by an Australian author named Peter Carey. It’s a really cool book. I just really liked the name of that character when I was reading it. At the time I had a few songs and I wanted to start doing music seriously. I knew that I wanted to give myself a name, but I hadn’t come across the right one yet and then I saw that on the pages and I thought, “I might steal that.”
It has a good ring to it.
That’s what I thought, too. I said, “Oh, that’s kind of memorable.” It’s usually a good sign if it sticks in your head.
You studied law in school. When did you realize that you wanted to be a musician instead?
I think I could have done a bunch of things, but I had a few songs written and I always knew in my heart that it was what I wanted. When I recorded “Riptide,” it opened quite a few doors for me. I got a manager and things started to come together. I always wanted to experience as much as I can in music so I am really glad I have had the opportunity to pursue it.
Going to university was a really good experience for me in terms of socializing and having fun—that kind of thing. I was playing sports, you know, and all of that different stuff. Music was always around, I was always playing guitar and trying to write songs all through school and university. So, for about seven years, I was just playing music. Not too seriously, though. Then… I don’t know, I finished university and I saw a friend was doing pretty well with music and I thought why not just try? Why not spend a year and have a go at it. It’s really crazy to think how it has happened and how I have been able to follow my dreams.
What did you parents think when you told them you didn’t want to be a lawyer after all?
Well, the more seriously I took music, the more seriously they reacted, you know? The problem with some kids is that they are talking it up all the time like. Yeah, I am a musician, but never really doing anything, so that gives parents reasons to doubt them. As soon as I decided to give it a go I was performing at least once a week and doing any shows I could get my hands on. My parents saw that I was always occupied trying to write songs so I think that they saw that I had a lot of belief in it and they responded accordingly.
About 18 months ago you were still hopping around the open mic scene in Melbourne. How did things escalate so quickly?
I did my first open mic night in 2010, and then I did a few more in 2011, then I played my first real gig in early 2012, and then once I got a band the first show I played with them was in late 2012. It’s been really cool. When you hear people say, “I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” or, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” you think, “wow, that’s a long time.” Now, when I look back and think of how quickly two years have gone by you realize that when you are totally engaged in what you’re doing, and really want it, the time flies by.
How does it feel to have “Riptide” go three times platinum in Australia?
I have been fortunate that my song has kind of connected with people. Maybe if I had written the song in a different time, it might not have had the same reaction. But it came at the right time and had the right ingredients to appeal to people. I guess that is why I have been able to have the experience I’ve had.
What is the story behind “Riptide?”
It is a weird mish-mash of ideas. Sometimes, you know, I will try to write and stick a bunch of different ideas and images together and it wont work and I’ll think, “oh, that doesn’t sound right” or “it sounds too weird and it all conflicts with each other,” but for some reason that all came together well for “Riptide,” and when things happen like that it is a bit beyond your control. I had a bunch of different ideas and words, it wasn’t even a general story line like I was referring to an experience or anything. It is more like a stream of consciousness. Luckily, it was coherent, and after sticking it all together like a puzzle it still made sense, which is lucky!
The video is interesting because it depicts the song literally word for word. Why did you decide to do it that way?
I’m glad that you picked up on the fact that it is a literal depiction of the song. Some people watch it and say, “What the hell is this film clip? It’s really weird.” And I always say, “What do you mean? It’s completely literal.” So, I’m always surprised when people don’t get it.
We got people to pitch ideas to us for the film clip and this guy sent his pitch it, and it was really only a couple of sentences in an email and he said, “I’m going to literally depict it,” and I thought that was really cool, because I didn’t think it would work well with someone just sticking on a storyline that didn’t work. This guy, Dmitri, went away for two or three weeks maybe a month and we didn’t really hear from him much. We kind of tried to get some feedback from him but he was just off doing it. I think he was driving around with some actors and they were going to different locations. We didn’t know what we were going to see, we had no idea what it was going to look like until we needed to hand it in. It was so cool when we finally saw it.
That was a pretty big risk, just letting him go and do his thing.
Totally! I think it was good though because I really respect him as artist. I had seen some of his other film clips and I was like this guy is really good so we decided to just let him do his thing which we hoped would lead to the best result and I think it did.
You’re working on your new album right now, correct?
Yeah, I’m working with Ryan Hadlock and after I wrap up the tour in March I’m going to go see him again to put the finishing touches on it and hopefully have an album to put out in the middle of the year. It’s going to be a good year I think. Lots of touring and seeing the world and also playing festivals. I have never had that experience before. I’m looking forward to seeing how fun it can be and having time with my band back stage. I’m looking forward to finishing the album and enjoying all the touring and adventures that come with it after the album comes out.
How is the album going to be different from the EP?
I think it will have a similar sound. I think I am pretty consistent in terms of my output. I just think it might be a little bit more polished you know? I kind of like having things raw a little bit as well. Whenever you sing folk—or whatever type of music I sing, it’s kind of acoustic based, and you want to be able to cut through to the rawness and the frailty or the vulnerability of someone’s voice. It is going to be similar I think, and Ryan is a really good producer who can capture really good performances.
How do you describe the music you’re making?
I would say that I am an acoustic singer-songwriter with pop influences.
What are your influences?
I just like good songs, classic songs. Those great songs that when you listen to them you say, “whooaa, that is a great song.” I love George Harrison’s music and Bob Dylan’s music and a guy called Paul Kelly who is an Australian folk singer. I also like modern stuff like Fleet Foxes and Father John Misty and Bon Iver. I also like some pop stuff as well, there are so many great pop artists at the moment that it is difficult to pick and chose.
Anything good that you are listening to right now?
Well, this isn’t a new thing but the Bob Dylan bootleg album Self Portrait 2. It is all these bootlegs that he has released and they are all these different versions of his songs and a lot of songs that I haven’t heard before and he is singing in this voice—not the classic Bob Dylan voice, it is almost more of a crooner voice—it is softer and it is a nice contrast to the normal Bob Dylan sound. It is really cool, I definitely recommend it. I didn’t think Bob Dylan could sound so sweet.
What do you do when you’re not working on new material?
It’s definitely hard to force inspiration so I like reading books, playing frisbee. I really like going out for breakfast. I’m romantic about fishing but I don’t go very often at all. I love the idea of going more than I love actually doing it. When I’m in a town alone, on a solo trip, I will go and see movies by myself. I love going alone. I think it’s so funny when you’re by yourself and you laugh people look over and see some guy sitting by himself and laughing by himself. It’s so funny, I love to do that.
I’ve never gone to see a movie by myself but maybe I’ll have to try!
Really? You have to do it, it’s like a little adventure you have by yourself. I was in Seattle for a week and I was by myself for the first week and every night after I left the studio I was alone. There were five nights, and this sounds extreme, but I went to the movies four out of five nights. I just fucking love movies, I love good films. If I wasn’t playing music I would start a film blog.
What have you seen recently that you recommend?
I saw The Hunger Games and I saw the Walter Mitty film but I wasn’t such a fan of that one. I saw 12 Years a Slave, which was amazing. Wolf of Wall Street was good as well, I don’t like the characters but I can’t help but like Leonardo DiCaprio and he is charming and all that but I hated what they represented. I felt conflicted because I was laughing and enjoying it and then I thought god, this is so despicable [laughs].
Finally, you’ll be coming to the US in March, right?
Yes, with Young The Giant.