After dodging the camera for the first leg of his recording career, Vance Joy is staring down the barrel for the cover of his long-awaited debut Dream Your Life Away.
No more arty blurs, or in the case of the Riptide video, being totally MIA.
“You can see people’s personalities in their eyes,” Vance Joy says. “You can tell if someone is really feeling the song they’re singing. I wanted to have a straight on direct `look into my eyes’ moment for this album cover. If I’m going to regret anything it’s not going to be that my face looks like my face. People can like it or not like it, but I won’t look back and go `I shouldn’t have been wearing that hat’ or anything.”
Vance Joy has had an unexpectedly long time to finish his debut album. There’s a simple reason why – his first single Riptide kept charming the world and its charming author followed it around the globe. Several times over.
As well as selling out headline tours in Australia, Vance Joy performed at South By South West, Glastonbury, Firefly and Boonaroo Festivals before returning to Australia for Splendour In The Grass and then back to the UK, Europe, US and Canada for headline tours and V Festival, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands and Osheaga.
In Australia, Riptide moved from alternative to commercial radio, then commercial TV and got a second wind after it became the first song to top Triple J’s Hottest 100 countdown without an album to call home. Riptide went worldwide, hitting No.10 in the UK, and Top 10 in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It has sold over a million copies worldwide, is being streamed over three million times a week and has cracked the American Top 100 after relentless touring. Riptide has gone four times platinum in Australia, with its award victory lap including the prestigious ARIA Song of the Year award.
“It’s taken on its own life,” the musician says of Riptide. “It’s definitely been a door opener. It’s running it’s own race now.”
Naturally Riptide surfaces on Dream Your Life Away, kept company by another track from the God Loves You When You’re Dancing EP, From Afar.
“It’s still one of my favorite songs,” Vance Joy admits.
They’re some of his earliest compositions. Back when Vance Joy was still Melbourne boy James Keogh, he’d been in a “shamelessly” Bloc Party inspired Uni band while he juggled footy with a law degree. Falling asleep in most classes suggested that maybe law wasn’t where his head was. Just prior to a three-month vacation, he wrote a song called Winds of Change.
It contains the phrase “an errant finger pokes me in the eye” as well as precisely zero obvious Bloc Party influence. Crucially, James Keogh had found his sound, just before he found his pseudonym Vance Joy (a character who likes to tell stories in Peter Carey’s book Bliss)
“Winds of Change is the first song I ever wrote that I thought was any good,” Vance Joy says. “It was 2009. It was a breakthrough. It planted the seed in my head of me being able to write good songs. So I went away and I had all these ideas running through my head, I didn’t take an instrument, I just made notes in a book. When I came back I wrote From Afar. Winds of Change was the first coherent song I wrote that I wanted to show people. I’m glad that song opens that album. It was the change in my songwriting, I discovered that strumming rhythm. It started something.”
Good things came fast. He pieced together Riptide on a dirt cheap ukulele (he’s since upgraded) from a few songs sitting on his cerebral scrap heap. That area in the back of his head also gave rise to new single Mess is Mine, a charming construct of good sections he managed to shoehorn in one song.
“It’s total cannibalisation that song,” Vance Joy explains. “There’s so many bits from other songs I had on the wreck heap. Some of the lyrics are from conversations I had, like my friend who had a crush on two blonde guys in a hostel in Byron Bay, so I got that line ‘check me in and check me out’ from her. That stayed with me. Riptide was pieced from a few songs I had lying around. You do whatever works.”
Books and films also provided plenty of inspiration. The movie in Riptide was Midnight Cowboy, while on Dream Your Life Away the tune We All Die Trying To Get It Right’ started life when Vance Joy was watching the movie Infamous about writer Truman Capote. “With a line like `we all die trying to get there’, sometimes you hear something and you put it in your phone. Well, you blatantly steal it. But rarely does something come to fit perfectly, even the syllables, but it did in that case.”
Who Am I parties like it’s 1899 – the year poet W.B Yeats wrote The Wind Among the Reeds, where Vance Joy saw the line about laying your dreams down at someone’s feet and asking them to be careful they don’t crush them.
Georgia, one of singer/songwriter’s personal favorites, was particularly important. He wrote it on January 1 this year, right in the throes of Riptide fever. “Hemingway says “I have written well, I will write well again”. The well doesn’t dry up. Before Georgia, I wasn’t feeling particularly inspired, then that song came out of nowhere. I was on a high for five days. You can’t force it, but it’s nice to know that now you recognise when a song is coming.”
Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast also provoked the ‘first cut is the deepest’ acknowledgement in First Time, the last song recorded for the album, again salvaged from one from Vance Joy’s ‘maybe’ pile. “I’m glad we resurrected it,” he says. “It’s turned out really well for a song I hadn’t thought about for a while.”
Red Eye captures a pre-frequent flyer Vance Joy who didn’t know the phrase for the night flight, also with a few lyrical (and canine) nods to Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. “It’s a tried and true story,” Vance Joy says of the geographical heartache in Red Eye. “You put two lovers in a song, separate them and you’ve got three minutes to reunite them. I suppose it’s a story that has been told and re told in different forms. It’s reliable.”
Dream Your Life Away was recorded mainly just outside of Seattle with producer Ryan Hadlock (Lumineers, Gossip, Johnny Flynn) including a handful of songs (Mess is Mine, Winds of Change and Georgia) being finished off in a tree house on the studio grounds. “It was beautiful,” Vance Joy says of the gravity-defying recording sessions, “And it was cool being so super close as we were recording.”
With his debut album finally finished, Vance Joy is in the enviable position of the entire world wanting to hear it all at the same time. He’s already blacked out the next year for touring, on the back of nearly two years of touring since Riptide was a mere ripple.
The album title, Dream Your Life Away, came to him after hearing John Lennon’s 1981 classic Watching the Wheels.
“He has that line ‘People say I’m crazy, dreaming my life away’ and I love that idea. That title feels like a good reflection of my life recently. It’s still all totally new to me. I still feel new as, which is good. I still feel like I’m just chipping away.”
– Cameron Adams