Propelled by that softly marching percussion which always somehow slots into time with your own heart’s beat, Vance Joy’s new songs burst with the colours of love – but the intimacy and vulnerability still glow as radiant as ever. We spoke to the man behind the moniker – James Keogh – as he sat in his Spanish apartment, shooting the breeze on his third studio album, In Our Own Sweet Time.
James Keogh began writing his new record a year after the release of the brilliantly-received Nation of Two (2018), some of it finding its shape while the musician was on tour with a certain American popstar. Vance Joy and P!nk: an odd match? In some minds, sure.
“Our vibe on stage is very, very different,” Keogh laughs. “She’s got like, 10 dancers and she flies around on those cables… clearly polar opposites there. But her singing voice is incredible. She’s so strong. ! I feel like her plate is pretty full. She’s putting on these performances, she has her little kids on tour with her. She’s inspiring as an example of someone who has great energy, and just seems to be able to get so much out of herself.”
Keogh isn’t down on himself for not matching P!nk’s energy, even when it comes to his latest challenge: learning that most widely-spoken of the Romance languages. “I’m not beating myself up for not being able to speak fluent Spanish, but it would be good to be better at it,” he admits. He’s learning with the goal of smoother communication within the home country of his girlfriend, his relationship with whom is reflected and refracted within gorgeous new album In Our Own Sweet Time.
In track Catalonia, there’s a little acoustic guitar arpeggio flair, which makes us wonder if Keogh has found Spanish or Latin rhythms seeping into his writing – just as Bernard Fanning found the foundations of ‘palmas’ (Spanish hand-clapping rhythms) influencing his 2016 solo album Civil Dusk, via his Spanish wife. Keogh reveals that former tourmate Fanning has kindly given him several restaurant recommendations in Spain, before commenting on this track: “Those elements, like the horn-line and some of the rhythms, were already in [the song’s] trajectory… but it wasn’t even that conscious, so maybe it’s something that happened without me being too aware of it,” he smiles.
If anything, he’s been wary of being too literal with his references to the country. “You don’t want to sing, ‘Walking down La Rambla in Barcelona’,” he laughs. “You’ve got to try and avoid being too cliché. I wrote Catalonia with Dave Bassett while I was in a Sydney hotel [doing two weeks of quarantine], and he was kind of drawing it out of me. I just hadn’t written about Spain very directly: being here, some of the things we’d do day-to-day. I always felt a bit shy or a bit cheesy.”
In fact, he doesn’t make any direct references until the very last track on the record, Daylight. “I know!” he says. “And honestly, I did try and think of a different word to put there. It’s funny: you put a very strong word, and it’s like, ‘Aaah!’” he cries in mock horror. “You’re not coming at it at an angle, or suggesting it.”
It’s not just about Spain though – it’s about candour of emotion in general. And those songs, Keogh says – the ones he’s a bit “protective” of, because of how close they hew to the bone – are often the ones that end up in the spotlight. “They’re the ones where you’ll get an email back [from the label] saying, ‘Get ready to play that… a lot,’” he laughs.
Keogh describes his “songwriting mate” Bassett as encouraging specifics. “Sometimes I guess you need to write a song with a word, like ‘Chandelier’, or ‘bullets’, or something like, I don’t know, ‘Cake by the ocean,’” he says. “Something that’s got teeth.”
But his main goal while writing In Our Own Sweet Time was to allow lyrics to flow smoothly, without forcing himself to listen to every voice memo or hunt through scrawled notebooks of ideas. “I wasn’t necessarily always dragging along this bag of lines that I had to push into songs,” he says. “But… there’s this guy I’ve written with a couple of times, Dan Wilson, and he says your creative well – or your ‘fountain’ – is always there, and is always operating. I used to think, ‘Oh no, [a good hook] is this mystical thing that happens as if by chance!’ But now, I [let the] ideas and creativity just evolve in front of me.
“There’s usually some kind of magic moment where, ‘Okay, I’m going to step off into unknown space and try to sing a melody.’ You have to take these little steps of not knowing.”
THE BOYS ARE (NEARLY) BACK IN TOWN
Last month Keogh was hooning around performing in the US, UK and Canada, but he’s just about to hit home for a string of gigs across September, October and November. “I’ve got no trapeze,” he admits of the stage show, but attests the best part about touring is spending time with his band. “It’s been a while,” he smiles. “They’re such fun days, playing the songs, figuring them out as a group. Interacting with the crowd and connecting with people and playing live is going to be great, but in the immediate future I’m just excited about getting the band back together.”
In Our Own Sweet Time by Vance Joy is out June 10, including on JB-exclusive Coke Bottle Green vinyl, via Liberator.