Even if you haven’t heard of James Keogh, AKA Vance Joy, you know his song, 2013’s platinum-certified “Riptide,” three minutes and 24 seconds of lilting, mildly subversive folk that to this day is dominating airwaves and forcing you to sing along.
After signing a five album deal with Atlantic Records, Keogh released the full length Dream Your Life Away last fall, and has continued to ride the swell of popularity, landing a gig opening both in the U.S. and abroad for Taylor Swift’s 1989 tour. We caught up with the remarkably laid back Australian in Salt Lake City just before a show to talk music, popularity, and how to be famous without giving it all away.
What got you started in music?
I learned guitar when I was fourteen. That’s when I discovered my passion for it; I started playing covers, learning all of my favorite songs, like intros to Metallica songs. I used to make funny songs, putting funny lyrics to well known songs. Then I started writing when I was eighteen, just average songs—really average songs [laughs]! And then I saw some friends doing music, and seeing them do it inspired me and spurred me. I did some open mic nights when I was 22. They were my start.
How did you get from there to here? You were almost a lawyer, you were almost a professional football (soccer) player, how did that split happen? Was it hard to decide which passion to pursue? Have you decided?
I’d written five or six songs that I was really happy with. I recorded “Riptide” with my drummer in 2012 and put it up on Facebook and SoundCloud. Then a few weeks later I got a call from a guy I had gone to high school with, he saw my song and listened to it, and said, “Hey, you know I’m managing bands, and I’d like to give you some tips on how to get started.”
I sent him a few songs I had recorded on my iPhone, really rough, just me sitting at a piano. From there we recorded all those songs, made an EP, and he helped me make a blueprint for taking on the music world.
I feel like I’ve committed to music, I’d like to be doing it for a while longer. I get a lot of satisfaction from writing songs when they come together. It’s a similar feeling to… If you just commit to building a table or something, when it’s finally finished, that’s kind of what it’s like when you write a song. I get a lot of enjoyment out of that, and I’m happy to be doing it.
Are you still with him?
Yeah, I’ve got two managers. He’s the guy who started, and he’s married to my other manager. We’re all pretty tight knit.
How do your songs come about? Do you write from your own life?
Yeah, I think it’s in there. Things people say to me, but it’s all coming through me, my filter. I think the more stuff I ingest the better, the more colors I have to work with to make a story or to write with. If there’s any blank spaces they can be filled in with something that I’ve read that’s interesting.
The songs usually start in segments. I might have a few different parts, then try to get them to fit together. And try to keep an open mind about not being certain on how it’s got to be, and letting it come together. They’ll fit together in a way I didn’t expect, and it’s like, “Whoa!” Eventually. It usually takes a lot of trial and error.
Do you write when you’re on the road?
I try to. I’m always trying to chip away at things, and now I’m definitely spending so much time on the road that I’d better be able to!
You’ve really exploded in the last couple of years. What’s that been like?
I’ve definitely been busy and it’s been adapting. Sometimes you wake up in a hotel room and you forget quite where you are, and you’re like, “Okay, I’m not home, I’m in Brussels.” And you’re slightly depressed for a little bit, until you realize that your mind and your body are in different places, and once you get aligned it’s fine.
So there’s a bit of getting used to that, being busy all the time, and going to a lot of places. You’ve got to learn how to find little spaces for yourself around all the obligations, like radio stations and pushing a song and getting your face out there, and find out how to give enough to everyone while keeping enough for yourself as well.
Do you find that balance to be hard?
Sometimes. It is hard, but I’m getting better at it. Saying, “Look I’m really tired today. Can I do this much? Can we push it back to 10 o’clock in stead of 9 o’clock?” Those little victories are really good for your sense of being in control. Once you have that, it’s an important part of feeling adjusted to your situation.
You mentioned Metallica—who would you say are your influences?
I don’t know if they’re that apparent, the Metallica influences [laughs]. I really just gravitated to that stuff. I listen to a lot of music, a lot of Australian songwriters, but also a lot of American ones. Some people say there’s an Americana or folky feel to some of the songs, it’s a certain type of play, down-down-up-down-up strokes that are in so many songs, like Mumford or Fleet Foxes, it’s almost a standardized form of playing. It’s an important thing to have your own little spot.
As someone who found their break through Facebook, what is your take on digital music streaming?
I think it would be different if I was someone who had the potential to sell millions of albums. For me, I want people to be hearing my music in the first place, and streaming is an important part of that. And as well in a lot of countries it’s so popular it really is just a fact of life. People in Sweden listen to Spotify, it’s so popular they actually count it towards the sales and all that. So it’s just a reality, and for me I’m stoked if people are just typing my name into Spotify.
Where’d you get the name Vance Joy?
From a book called Bliss by an author named Peter Carey. I was just wandering around one day and picked up this book from a second hand bookstand at the university, and about twenty pages into this book there’s a character called Vance Joy who appears and kind of disappears and I really liked the name.
You have the Taylor Swift tour, how did that come about?
I think she listened to my music and liked it! I didn’t know Taylor before. I met her in New York, she was doing sound check for the David Letterman show, and I knew I was doing support for the tour so I went in and met her and the band. I was really happy and excited, and she’s just so lovely! I think all artists, they want to have someone on tour whose music they like to introduce their fans to.
It’s a really enjoyable thing to do support, it’s the best gig because you don’t really have any of the pressure, you play a shorter set, and you get to enjoy the show, you know?What’s next for you?
We’re going to be on tour, and at the end of this year I want to go skiing more!