Vance Joy Talks “Riptide”, His Debut LP & Going Along For The Ride: Idolator Q&A

Aussie songsmith Vance Joy broke big at home in early 2013 with “Riptide” and its parent EP God Loves You When You’re Dancing. The disarmingly simple, ukulele-pop song raced into the national top 10 and eventually sold four-times platinum. It then repeated the feat in major European markets like the UK and Germany. American interest was inevitable and the 26-year-old soon inked a five album deal with Atlantic Records.

Cut to mid-2014 and James Keogh (his real name) has a looming US hit on his hands. “Riptide” is gaining serious momentum at radio and is steadily ascending the iTunes download chart. I caught up with the unassuming hitmaker during a recent promo visit to Los Angeles and asked him about the song that literally changed the course of his life (he was studying law at university), his much-anticipated debut LP and the prospect of cracking America. Find out what Vance had to say after the jump.

Tell us about the journey from law school to breakout singer/songwriter. My brother had done [law], so I thought it sounded good. You have very limited life experience, so you’re really just choosing things you’ve heard of. What the hell does law even mean and what does it entail? I just did it. I got into uni and I was just slacking out for three years. I wrote a song called “Winds of Change”, which is probably the first song that I ever wrote that I thought, “This is actually decent.” I still had another years to go on my degree, and I just had this feeling like I should go and write songs. My real high came from listening to music. It was a genuine thing. I spent the rest of my degree chipping away at song writing.

Were you musical to begin with? I learned the piano as a little kid. I didn’t love it and kind of gave it away. Then, when I was about 14, my dad got me a guitar and he said “You’re going to learn to play guitar”. I was like “No way!” I’m glad that he was bloody stubborn. I had a couple of moments where I saw other kids playing, and I was like “Fuck!” Like that’s so fucking good. So, I learned a couple of Metallica covers and it got me going. Just looking up tabs on Youtube.

So when did you decide to jump in the deep end and try this music thing? In 2010, I did an open mic night and performed a couple of those songs that I’ve written. I did three or four open mic nights. I didn’t do many. Even though I talk about starting out at mic nights, I wasn’t a regular. I also did a couple of small gigs for friends. I just invited them over and tried to get a bit of interest. Then I started playing at a cafe kind of regularly. Eventually, I booked a studio and recorded “Riptide” with my friend Ed. It’s basically the same version you hear on the radio except it got touched up by John Castle.

So “Riptide” has been around for a while then? I wrote the start of “Riptide” in 2008 but I never thought about it. I thought it was too simple. In 2012, I wrote the melody on the ukulele, and it ended up being the chorus melody. The song kind of came together after that but there was a four-year break of nothing. Not even thinking about the song. I just thought I should pick up that scrap of a song and turn it into something.

Did you ever have the feeling that you struck gold? It was bizarre because I knew we had an opportunity when we all put it together, and I had the lyrics, and I was like “Sick! I’m happy.” So, I knew I had something I was proud of, and I knew that people liked it when they heard it. Your mind does weird things when you listen to your own songs. You’re like “Ah, this is really slow,” and “this isn’t good for my voice.” I was really critical. I didn’t really know what it would do in a commercial way.

“Riptide” sounds so Australian to me. Are you surprised by its international success? I know what you mean. I like it when people say it feels Australian because, obviously it is Australian, but it’s nice to think that it has some kind of unique Australian touch to it. It’s nice to have an Australian sound on the radio amongst all the American pop acts. That’s cool. Yeah, I think it’s surprising. Someone will tell me “it’s being played in Israel,t’s really popular there.” It’s awesome, and you can’t expect that to happen with every song you write. It’s fucking lightening in a bottle.

Do you worry about matching the success of “Riptide” with your next single? Totally. I think that’s the reality of everyone who has a big, early success. It’s like “What now after that?” I’ve gone down the path of not trying to manufacture that same feeling and just writing whatever comes and writing whatever I know is good. I write what I write, and I don’t expect to write another song that’s as big as “Riptide”. But I’ve written other songs recently that I feel really good about. They have an x factor but not the same one as “Riptide”.

Just take the ride. Oh, exactly. I’m super taking the ride. Writing is a constant battle. I like reading about other authors for inspiration. I read this Ernest Hemmingway book called A Moveable Feast and he was talking about writing in Paris. At one point, he gets up in the morning and looks out the window, and he thinks “I’ll never write another good thing.” but he gets around it by telling himself to start with “one good sentence”. So, I feel like that’s the way to approach it.

I hear you’re filming a new “Riptide” video for America. The American label wants to have my face in it, so we went and filmed another one. It’s just for American television because I love the original clip. I think it’s a beautiful clip. I always want it that one to be. But the new one for American television, I think they might slip some footage of my face into it, which could maybe work continuity-wise. I think Lorde did that with one of her clips. Like she had “Royals” and “Royals (American)”.

Your EP was great. What’s happening with the album? Thanks man. I feel really strongly that the songs on the album are as good as the ones on the EP. I think good songs take time. I’ve got enough songs to make an album now, but at the moment, it’s still probably a few months away. It’s going to sound like the EP. It’s probably more produced in some ways, there will be some more epic-sounding bits. But what I liked about the EP is how intimate and raw it sounded. So, I want that also.

The production on the EP was quite simple and organic. Is that indicative of the album? Totally. That’s what I want. I’m always thinking how can we reduce this? How can we take things away that aren’t necessary? Because I think that’s the thing. If you can strip it to its bare bones, and it can still communicate the right things, I think you have the song in its best form.

Now that “Riptide” is gaining real momentum on radio and iTunes, how do you feel about cracking America? I don’t even know. I get excited about it because it’s like “Fuck yeah, I’ve been chipping away for a long time!” and I guess it’s totally normal to be stoked at the possibility of having some kind of vote from America. Now I’m open to it. I missed home so much at the end of last year. I lost my voice for like two months because I was just run down. But now I feel like it’s time. I’m open to riding it out to its conclusion.

Photo Credit: Josh Fogel

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