Vance Joy Talks ‘Nation Of Two,’ Songwriting & Coachella: Interview

Vance Joy Returns With 'Lay It On Me'
Vance Joy is back with the first taste of his sophomore LP.

There’s no sophomore slump for Vance Joy. The Australian singer/songwriter, who broke internationally with multi-platinum hit “Riptide,” released Nation Of Two in late February to an outpouring of positive reviews and fan approval. The album is also a chart success, debuting at number five on the Top Album Sales chart and number 10 on the Billboard 200. Impressive for an artist that specializes in the kind of stripped-back, acoustic pop that is becoming something of a lost art.

Not that there aren’t instantly catchy tunes begging for airplay on Nation Of Two. Some songs share the same bare-bones arrangement of Dream Your Life Away, but, in general, there are bigger hooks, punchier choruses and a richer, fuller sound. I recently spoke to Vance (real name James Keogh) about his sonic evolution and notable collaborators. The “Lay It On Me” hitmaker also opens up about accidentally recording a concept album and his excitement about performing at Coachella. Get to know him a little better in our Q&A below.

Are you excited or relieved that the album is finally out?

I am both. It’s really nice to have it all done and it was a big undertaking. It feels like a big relief to have every bit done, the artwork and everything. To have that done, and then to have it out now as well, just those few weeks leading up to the release were busy with lots of promotion and hustling. Now it’s exciting because it’s a whole bunch of touring and it’s nice to have really kind things said about it.

Dream Your Life Away was so successful, did you feel the weight of expectations?

I think I definitely felt some expectations. I wasn’t stressed that I needed to write songs that sounded like the other songs. It was more just that I was really proud of my first album and all the songs on it and I felt like they reached a certain mark. I just wanted to reach the same mark of quality and have songs that I felt stood out next to those songs.

And so that was just a stress… not a stress, but even trying to make songs that met the mark was like, “Okay, that’s where the pressure is going to be.” And yeah. It’s really nice. I was able to write songs that I could stand behind, just as much as the songs from the first album. It’s like, “Oh, rad. I’ve got this twice as many songs to be able to play in a set.”

This album has a richer, fuller sound. Was that something that you were aiming, or is that just a happy coincidence?

I think I’m very lucky, I always collaborate with my drummer Edwin White, who co-produced all the songs. And we also worked with a bunch of really talented producers on this album. So I feel like it was just a collaboration between everyone, especially those guys, between Ed and the producers being able to bring the best out of the songs. Especially with all of us having more experience in the studio, and maybe a bit more confidence. I think we knew that we liked the intimate vibe of my voice being strong and right at the front.

When I was listening back to the songs on the album, I was like, “Oh, there’s so many cool little things that I didn’t even know to do”. I don’t know that stuff inside out but little details that when you have people that you work with that really put a fine tooth comb to everything and add really special little details that I wouldn’t have considered or don’t even notice until when I listen back six months later and I’m like, “Oh, that’s such a cool drumming thing, or that’s such a cool little flavor that they put on it.”

I noticed that you worked with Dan Wilson and Dave Bassett. What did they bring to the mix?

I had such great experiences with both of those guys. With Dan Wilson, I guess we wrote our first song together in 2015, and we wrote “We’re Going Home” together, and also a song called “Like Gold”. And I just feel like he’s just such an amazing songwriter, he just has beautiful melodies. I love his lyrics. I feel like we had a good collaboration and it felt natural and quite easy when we got on the right path together.

I think he added things to these ideas, stuff that I don’t think I would’ve done it. And it kind of brings out the best in you, I’m like “Oh, wow. I don’t think I would have ever come up with that idea for this or that” but I feel great seeing it, which is really exciting, to be able to sit in a room with someone and have that collaboration.

The opportunity to write with Dan was brought to me at the end of 2014, and I went there for the first time, and it was nerve wracking. It was like one of my first ever co-writing sessions, and with such an amazing songwriter. Even though I was nervous, I felt comfortable and relaxed once I was in the environment with Dan. That goes for Dave Bassett as well. I didn’t quite know what I was embarking on when I walked into his studio in Malibu either. The first two days we worked together, we wrote two songs in two days, and it was a big relief.

I hadn’t written a song in a little while and I felt like I needed a couple of tunes that I was really proud of, and I came out with two songs that I was able to use that I was sitting on for years and that I just haven’t found a place for and they got tied together working with Dave Bassett and I was like, “Wow, this is magic. This guy is amazing.” The demos sounded so nice, they already sounded so good to me. I was like, “I love all the things he’s done.”

With some of the things that Dan Wilson did, we did demos at his house as well, when he left, I got an e-mail a week later and the demo felt so close to what we were going to go through anyway that we used so many of the ideas from those demos. So that was another good thing. I guess they both have the ability to write great songs, but also I think, when I heard Dave Bassett’s production, I was like, “He should just produced these songs as well because they feel so close to the mark.”

I’m not really sure if I’m reading too much into it, but the album seems to document the life cycle of a relationship.

No, no. I didn’t have that design when I started, but when I look at the different stories that the songs tell, I think there’s… I guess you can see a relationship in different phases. It might be that exciting moment at the start of a relationship where it’s like, “I met someone and I want to see them again” and then songs that are in the middle phase, maybe in the phase where there is some kind of problem being overcome and even some songs where it’s a really comfortable song where there’s no vulnerability and it’s just like, “We’re having fun and we’re just together.” And then, I guess there are songs that seem to be about something ending.

The song “Where We Start” has a sense of reflecting. And also the song “Like Gold” has that vibe of reflecting on something. So it wasn’t by design but I can definitely see that theme, and like I said, when I was looking for an album title, that’s why the idea of Nation Of Two felt really appropriate. But it doesn’t have to be lovers, it could be friendships or family, but it often revolves around a couple of voices and a couple of characters.

I read in an interview that you wrote “We’re Going Home” when you were on tour with Taylor Swift. What was the story behind that?

I was deep on the road, being away on that Taylor Swift tour, which was really fun over like seven or eight months, and it was right in the middle of that. We had some time off in L.A. and I had the opportunity to work with Dan. And it’s funny because I guess I don’t always know about writing on the road, I don’t know if it can be done. We had a really productive day and that song came out really quite effortlessly and I had some lyric ideas that felt like I’m going to with. Dan had some beautiful melodies and we were just on the same page. So that was a surprise in the first place, that to be able to write a song on the road in the thick of touring.

I like singing about home, and I guess when you’re away, the feeling of wanting to go home is intensified and you can get nostalgic or feel like a sense of longing, which can inspire you to maybe want to write a song. But I think sometimes the song just comes along, you follow whatever intuitively feels right to sing about and all those words just felt like they were in the right spots. The song itself is triumphant and uplifting. When I go the demo from him, I felt it going in that direction and we definitely tried to pursue that uplifting vibe with the final production of the song.

Is that the next single? I know it’s already taking off in Oz.

I think that’s the single in Australia and I think the single in America at the moment is “Saturday Sun.” I guess it has different lifespans, in America and Australia. Like the length that you have to promote a single is different. In Australia, I think by the time that we’re promoting “Saturday Sun” [in the US], “We’re Going Home” won’t be the single anymore, but I would like for that to be a single, maybe after, maybe down the track.

“Saturday Sun” is such a catchy song. You could throw in a few synths and it would sound like a Kygo remix. It has that effortless, laid-back vibe, but it’s also bizarrely propulsive.

Oh thank you. That’s a great description because I kind of feel that way when it gets momentum it keeps kicking. I guess the dream is that Kygo would remix the song because he’s got propulsive vibe. Thank you, that’s a nice thing to say.

Another favorite of mine is “Alone With Me.” What was going through your head with that one?

I love that you just said that one, that’s rad. I didn’t know if people would like it because I wrote it in 2016. It was one the first songs that we recorded. I guess I’ve lived with it so long, but I guess when people were like, “Huh.” I wasn’t ready for it to be new to people. When I started writing that song, I was in a studio finishing up my first album, and I just started playing some little riffs that ended up being in the song, and it slowly came together.

I guess my favorite part of the song is the bridge, which shoots out of the second chorus. And it’s like, “Here I am, saying things to you I never thought that I would say outside my head.” That’s my favorite part of that song. Yeah, it wasn’t brought about by personal experience, I just liked the idea… there’s something about a bridge, which can take you into a different place in song. And my mum contributed the line “say outside my head.” I was playing it to her and she said that line, and it’s my favorite line in the whole song.

Well, done mum!

Yeah, it’s her line.

I’m really excited to see you at Coachella. It’s a blockbuster year. How amped are you?

It’s going to be fun. I’m just pumped and I’m so glad that we’re playing this year. It’s such a fun festival. It’s one everyone gets so excited about, so it’s nice to just get caught up in that enthusiasm and then to also just go out in the crowd after you’ve played just feels great. Wow, what a fun day, you played and it was fun and a really good show, and then you just go out and enjoy the music of all the other artists. I’m looking forward to it.

Thank you so much for your time. I’ll see you at Coachella!

Thank you. It was a pleasure talking to you. See you later.

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