ABOVE: VANCE JOY. PHOTO COURTESY OF DARREN ANKENMANN
Australian singer-songwriter James Keogh is interested in keeping imagination alive—both his own and others’. The name under which Keogh records—Vance Joy—is based on a character created by novelist Peter Carey. Keogh’s debut record as Vance Joy, Dream Your Life Away, straddles the line between pop and folk-rock, taking influences from multiple genres. The rawness of Joy’s lyrics and smokiness of his voice parallel those of Father John Misty, Bon Iver, and Fleet Foxes, and his lyrical creativity propels his work past the category of simple love songs. There’s a comfort in Joy’s lyrics—he makes it easy to look into the window of his soul. We spoke with him Joy about being a former football player, his alias, and putting hope into his music.
ILANA KAPLAN: What made you want to be a musician? You were a former football player, right?
VANCE JOY: It wasn’t professional, but it was a few levels below the top level. I loved playing football, but my passion was always music. It didn’t become a possibility to me until I started playing songs I thought were good. I think it happened during my third song. The dream to become a musician appeared in my heart, and that happened about 2010. I never really thought it would be a possibility until I started writing songs and focusing on songwriting. Even then, you never really think you’re going to do it as your job. You’re just like, “I like doing this—it’s something I have a lot of passion for.” You happen to do it, you enjoy songwriting, and eventually if you’re writing enough songs, then you fall into it.
KAPLAN: Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
JOY: This guy Paul Kelly from Australia. My parents influenced me a lot. My dad listened to Ben Folds Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen. That was a very popular one in the car. The Police too—that was a popular one as well.
KAPLAN: Is there a theme that resonates throughout your record?
JOY: The production is similar—the objective was to make it intimate and stripped back, but still have certain rawness in the delivery of the vocals. I think a lot of the album is made of love songs I’ve written over the past three or four years that have lasted the test of time. It’s probably the thing that connects the songs together other than the sound of my vocals. I did the vocals three months ago, so it’s a good reflection of what I sound like right now.
KAPLAN: You were saying there were a lot of love songs on this record. Are those songs about one person in particular?
JOY: Not really, no. I think it’s probably about different people I’ve encountered, different parts of people, and different glimpses of people in stories and films that have influenced me.
KAPLAN: What does the moniker Vance Joy mean?
JOY: It’s the name of a book called Bliss by Peter Carey. I wanted an alias: I wanted to fall under a name that was memorable, sparks imagination, and isn’t one you hear every day. The character in the book that I borrowed the name from is a grandfather, and he’s a storyteller; his grandchildren gather to listen to his stories. I liked that there was a meaning behind it other than a nice sound of the words together.
KAPLAN: I agree. The music video for “Mess Is Mine” follows the journey of a polar bear. What was the meaning behind the video? Did you have a lot of creative control?
JOY: I actually didn’t. I worked with this great Australian director Luci Schroder. At first I was like, “I don’t know,” but she had these great ideas. She had the idea that a polar bear lost its home and was looking for a place in the world. It’s kind of sad, funny, and quirky. I was so impressed, and I thought it was hilarious, but was also really moved by it. The way the bear looks—the sad eyes—it kind of has this human quality to its performance.
KAPLAN: That video was really lovely. Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
JOY: My hope is to continue to make new music and go with the flow. I think I’ll always be creative. I want to keep making good music, put myself into positions where I need to rise to the occasion of playing in front of an audience, and continually get better at what I’m doing.
KAPLAN: If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?
JOY: I think I’d be dong something creative—something I could express my personality through. I enjoyed working as a gardener before music consumed more of my time. I would probably be still working as a gardener, perhaps, and I wouldn’t mind doing odd jobs on the side that were creative, but I’m not sure what they’d be.
KAPLAN: Who would you love to play a show with ideally? Anyone.
JOY: I think it would be good to do a show with Feist. I really like Big Scary—I think they’re cool. They’re from Australia. Maybe a rapper—I’m not sure which one, but maybe I could collaborate with a rapper.
KAPLAN: Cool. What’s been your biggest songwriting inspiration?
JOY: I just like to keep my antenna up, you know? I keep my ear to the ground. For me it’s about keeping an open mind: noticing the things around you as opposed to just the things you consume.
KAPLAN: Songwriting is so much like poetry.
JOY: Totally. I agree. I think most songwriting like poetry takes a careful selection of words. Sometimes you’re just channeling something and a selection of words come out that you wouldn’t normally say, but you come up with an assortment of words that are really special. It just makes sense even if it’s normally how you wouldn’t express yourself.
KAPLAN: Is Dream Your Life Away more of an uplifting or melancholy album?
JOY: I think it’s probably more melancholy, but there are some powerful, upbeat moments. I think it displays different flavors and colors of what I do as a singer-songwriter. As a whole, you’re trying to make it uplifting and put hope in each song.
VANCE JOY’S DEBUT ALBUM DREAM YOUR LIFE AWAY COMES OUT SEPTEMBER 9. FOR MORE ON THE ARTIST, PLEASE VISIT HIS WEBSITE.