The title of James Keough’s new album reflects the Australian singer-songwriter’s knack for communicating intimacy with this wide embrace, which somehow collects us all into his world. The key to connection, says the artist known as Vance Joy, is putting something out there – even if it’s just a whistle into the dark.
There are several references to the act of ‘calling’ in James Keogh’s new album, Nation Of Two. There’s the beautiful Call If You Need Me, and in Take Your Time there’s the line “You know my heart, it’s waiting for your call,” and when we sit together to discuss his new album, Keogh also mentions literal phone calls: “I like the idea of talking on the phone and knowing what someone is feeling just from the sounds of their voice,” the musician says.
Calling is, in essence, reaching out – a request for attention or affection or connection. “I like that as an idea for a relationship,” he says. “I think that the way I view relationships is like you throw a ball, and you just want someone to throw the ball back. It’s that interaction. I feel like, whether I was consciously trying to do it [or not], that emerges a bit in the lyrics.”
Nation Of Two – the second record from the ARIA-winning, global chart-topping, probably-most-covered-artist-on-YouTube musician who goes by the moniker Vance Joy – is all about connections. And practically speaking, Keogh enjoyed a particularly special one in the recording of stand-out track I’m With You. The song features the subtle rumble of timpani or bass drum as the lyrics describe waking up to a storm, and Keough’s acoustic guitar is delicate and sparse. The success of its simplicity is astounding. “I recorded that in the Catskills with a guy called Simone Felice,” he says. Of The Felice Brothers? “Yeah! He’s got a little world up in the Catskills [New York State mountains] – his wife owns the general store, and he has a beautiful barn that’s on his mum’s property. He’s a real vibey guy, so he burned incense, and he gives you a massage before you sing. That doesn’t work for everyone. Some artists’d be like, ‘Put these candles out! Let me sing!’ But I’m like, ‘This is good.’”
Musical partnerships also emerged with horn players Will Morrissey (saxophone) and Nic Ryan Glenie (trumpet); the multi-instrumentalists were key in materialising Keogh’s ideas – particularly in the ARIA-nominated single Lay It On Me. “You might just sing into the microphone, which is fun,” Keogh explains, demonstrating a pretty spot-on parp. “I am the mouth horn! [Then] the horn lines kind of just evolve while you’re in the studio. It’s definitely a cool way of augmenting an already recorded song – [it’s a] nice thickening agent. It’s nice to have that energy on stage. They’re great guys, Will and Nic.”
Also the expanded sound of Nation Of Two is single Like Gold; there’s a real sense of movement because of how the natural stress syllables of the lyrics fall. “I think that song is a slight evolution,” Keogh says. “I haven’t really played that triplet fingerpicking thing [before], so it lead to a couple of songs with that rhythm on this album.”
With live dates set to go in September, prep is in full swing. Keogh says in the past he didn’t think too much about the narrative of the show, but now he enjoys it, offering a few ideas off the top of his head. “Maybe we all, as a band, play together, but we play a stripped-down version of the song. It sounds lame, but you know when people sing into the same mic? Something like that. That could be cute, but we’d have to find the right line, where it’s not cheesy.” The stagecraft side isn’t something he frets about: “I’m not too fussed about lighting. I just look into the crowd, and if people are going like this” – he squints as if staring at the sun and makes a weak moan of horror – “I’m like, you’re doing it wrong. That’s not the desired effect, burning someone’s face off. No, we have good lighting guys!” he chuckles.
If you make it to one of the dates, don’t be shy about showing your appreciation and calling out. “Lorde says, ‘I whisper things, the city sings ‘em back to you’,” Keogh says (quoting Green Light). “Well, I’ve been learning to whistle with one hand. I’m not very good at it. But I did it cleanly last night. Then these people at the tram stop 100 metres away whistled back. And then I was whistling, and we were having this thing. I feel like you put something out into the world, and there will be some kind of response – a sweet little connection.”
Nation Of Two is out February 23 via Liberation.
Keep up with the latest Australian release dates for music.