Following up a massive hit, strumming on a junky guitalele, and solving the mysteries of songwriting. Discover how the Melbourne folk artist crafted 2018’s “Nation of Two.”
Interviews: Vance Joy, Stefan Max (Atlantic Records, A&R), Edwin White (drummer, producer), Dave Bassett (producer), Dan Wilson (songwriter).
Jesse Cannon: Hi. My name is Jesse Cannon, and I’ve devoted my life to trying to go deep and figure out what goes into making great records. I’ve produced over 1,000 albums, written two books, and recorded hundreds of podcasts pursuing the hidden secrets of how great music gets to the world’s ears.
Now, I’m proud to present to you, Atlantic Records Inside the Album Podcast, where we get to go deeper on how some of Atlantic’s artists have made the amazing songs in their catalog. We will hear firsthand from the artists and the team behind them that helped craft this amazing music and get to know the little secrets that go into making an amazing album. On this episode, we’re going to go deep on Vance Joy’s new album, “Nation of Two.”
James Gabriel Keogh is an Australian singer and songwriter, who goes by Vance Joy, a name he got from Peter Carey’s novel, Bliss. He’s one of those weird stories where he didn’t have to be a singer, songwriter and probably would have gone on to greatness in some other way had he not been recognized for his talent as a songwriter. He was already an Australian rules football player, a step below professional level. All the while, holding a law degree. So, obviously music didn’t have to be his thing. Instead, the reaction the world had to his music gave rise to this career.
He released his debut EP, “God Loves You When You’re Dancing,” in March 2013. If you’re listening to this, I’m sure you’re familiar with the triple platinum single, “Riptide,” which became so ubiquitous, memes on the internet began to joke, “Did you even work out, if your gym radio didn’t play Riptide?”
The world that wasn’t introduced to Joy’s music, by “Riptide,” “Georgia,” or “Mess is Mine,” were introduced when he opened for Taylor Swift’s massive 1989 world tour. His songs are popular all throughout the world, but now it was time to follow up his successful debut record, “Dream Your Life Away.” But in order to understand the story, why don’t we first talk to Stefan Max, Vance’s A&R man, about what he saw in him in the first place.
Stefan Max: The first thing I heard was, super early demo of Riptide with like no drums, none of the big congas, or production accents that kind of really help the song take off. It’s obviously a one-listen song. So often, those one-listen songs aren’t really followed up by much substance. I’ve had a lot of artists that I’ve had hits with, and we’ve never had another hit again.
But with him, it was like, “Hey, can I please hear some more music?” And he sent me four other songs and by the second song I was so blown away with the consistent quality of each song, there wasn’t like one amazing big song and then a bunch of bad ideas. It was one amazing big song and a lot of songs that, in my opinion, followed closely after that. He played me two separate demos of “Mess is Mine,” which was our second single off the first album. There were two different songs, and we kind of Frankensteined them and brought them together. So, it was interesting, he just had such a high quality to even his unfinished ideas, that I wasn’t used to hearing, and it was just pretty much an indicator that we had to sign him right away.
Jesse Cannon: So obviously, having huge hits like that come so easy to you, puts a lot of stress on most artists. But Vance got some good advice and learned how to see this in sort of a zen-type way. Here’s what he had to say about it.
Vance Joy: I think I got some good advice. It wasn’t directly related to me making my second album, but actually it felt like, I still, at the time, I was facing the need to keep making music and following up. I guess I had my EP and “Riptide” was on that, and I was touring, I was opening up for a guy named Bernard Fanning, who is from this Australian band called Powderfinger, who’s super successful band, but also just a great songwriter.
Bernard Fanning has written some incredible songs, and so he’s the man. And I was opening for him, and I think I might have been saying, “I’m struggling. I have got to make my first album. I’ve got five songs from my EP, but I’ve got a couple more, but I need to write songs. And I’ve got all these other voices in my head.” Something, suggesting that. I’m writing a song, but I’m also thinking, “What’s this song like?” And I’m almost eating my lunch before breakfast, kind of like getting too far ahead before I’m focusing on just this one detail of, what am I doing making a song?
He just said something like, “That’s just obstacles. The voice in your head is an obstacle, and the pressure from your label’s an obstacle, but you get over them, you work through them, you kind of keep at it.” And I just feel like that was good. It’s not going to get easier necessarily, might get harder. There might be more voices, more noise, but you just see it as obstacles, and you can see it just as a part of the journey.
And with making the second album, whether or not that advice really made me what I am, it’s like I have had that philosophy in terms of just like, cool, I know my destination is second album. I want to make a second album of songs that I’m proud of. I don’t know exactly how I’m going to get there, but like you’re saying with dead end ideas, they lead to other ideas and you just try.
Like you get out there and you step into rooms with other people you haven’t tried, worked with before, and you might have a bunch of songs that don’t work, but every now and then I mean, you might write 20 songs, and you might start 20 songs, but one of those songs will work. And if you can get five songs that work, and you feel proud of, then you’re on your way. That was the way I approached the second album, stress.
Jesse Cannon: Stefan, on the A&R side figured out a way for them to try to take a more strategic approach to make sure that they lived up to Vance’s potential.
Stefan Max: We kind of looked at case studies, if you will, of at least artists that he looks up to, or admires musically and career path-wise and we kind of noticed this problem, at least in his peers. A lot of these alternative artists that have huge songs on their first album, not really coming back with anything substantial to match that first song, the first thing that kind of broke them out, right? So, we were like, “All right, we’re going to definitely take our time here,” because he had his whole life to write the first one, and he doesn’t have as much time. It’s not the same scenario. So, we know we’re going to have to change the process here to keep the quality has high as the first release.
So, we took like two and a half years of him writing on his own, him co-writing with a lot of different people, and he was just so willing to do what most artists aren’t willing to do after a huge, successful first album and that’s to open it up to co-writing. Because a first album, especially when you write it all by yourself, a lot of artists want to hold onto that, and keep, I guess that creative process closed off. And he was definitely not the most excited about doing it but realized that the parameters we were working in were different than the first album, so he needed to also change that process.
Jesse Cannon: We all know great music only gets made when an artist authentically feels great about what they’re making. And in order to do that, they have to have a process that they feel comfortable with. So, I wanted to talk to them about what was the process to make this record.
Vance Joy: It’s usually just me and the guitar, and I’ll probably just write it either on my own, or if I write it, some of the songs I write with Dave, like we were just two of us in a room. Or I can write a couple of songs with Dan Wilson, as well, and they were just us in a room on guitars. Usually it was just starting with guitars, not bringing in like any production or drums or beats or anything until the song was written. So, I find it’s often like guitar, and just a melody or a chord progression, and a melody that I’m seeing and then a few lyrics might flow. And then once I’ve got a sense of what the melody is, it’s like I’m – unless the song just flows out completely naturally, and I start singing the song and it’s kind of in some ways like just a stream of consciousness and effortless – I usually go back to my notes if it’s in my phone or in a book that I keep ideas then I just start trying to situate the different words and different sentences in those spots, and craft the song that way.
Once I’ve got that done, I basically just do a really rough voice memo on my phone, where I just sing and play guitar. And I send it to my drummer, Edwin, or send it to my managers or send it to the producer through Stefan, my A&R guy. And then from there, it’s like, okay, well here are two voice memos, and then from there everyone can stop percolating ideas, and then we go into the studio with an idea of what the song is, but also no hard and fast production ideas. It’s like, cool. And usually I just start with laying a guitar part down in the studio and then my drummer, Edwin, will work off that.
Jesse Cannon: I asked if he was consistently writing songs since his last record, or if he took a break while promoting and touring the record.
Vance Joy: It was pretty constant. I think that I was trying to capture little ideas here and there when I was on the road. And those little ideas could be the seed of the song, could be just a line in your phone, or a little melody you’re playing on guitar. And each of those things is worth pursuing, I guess, to find out whether that will blossom into a song or end up in the wastepaper basket. But all those dead ends lead to songs. So, I feel like I am, released my first album at the end of 2014, and I think I spent most of 2013 and most of 2014 on the road, with some breaks to do recording, but there was still a bunch of shows in those years.
So, that was quite a crazy ride, and life was very busy and a whirlwind, and then once my first album came out, I was on the road. It was, in a good way, a little quieter, just in terms of the expectations on me for creative output. I could just enjoy playing the shows, and then I could start collecting ideas again. And I think from the end of 2014, I was collecting ideas, and I kept collecting them. I probably thought I had more songs written than I did. And then they were kind of red herrings, I guess. I came off the road early 2016. I kind of, I guess I had maybe two songs written, which was a start, but I also needed at least 10 more songs.
It was daunting to think about where and when those songs were going to arrive. It’s a mystery to me. Songwriting is always a mystery, so it’s like, “Well, I hope that these songs come, and I hope that they’re songs that I’m proud of and I hope that they feel like me.” And all that stuff was unknown, I just knew that the destination was, have a bunch of songs you feel good about. So, that was the main pressure. I think it was almost like a pressure that I had for just myself, and an expectation that I put on myself outside of whether the label was like, we need an album, you know?
Jesse Cannon: I talked to Vance’s drummer, Edwin White about the progression and sound for this record that he envisioned.
Edwin White: If you go to the very fundamentals of what’s going on with Vance Joy as an artist, and what the music is like, its very much songwriter driven music. So, James, I think has approached the songwriting a little differently at this album, compared to the first one. It’s potentially a bit more deliberate. To me, it goes a little deeper sometimes, it’s the narrative, which I really enjoyed.
So, I guess I wanted to approach the songs the way that they had been approached in the writing stages, go a little deeper, think a bit harder, have there be a little ear candy for people listening on headphones. I guess, I’m always looking to, obviously, a song has to have an impact on someone when they’re listening initially, but I want there to be something deeper when people look harder.
Jesse Cannon: Oftentimes artists feel like they have to change their sound from album to album, or get an idea for a new agenda, but Vance didn’t feel this way. Here he explains what his evolution was like for this new record.
Vance Joy: There wasn’t really a conscious idea to do it. I mean there was probably a sense that, these are the songs I’ve written in the past. And I guess as a songwriter, when you’re songwriting you might gravitate towards exploring new things. And so, when I was playing, I would probably be excited by playing a different rhythm that I’ve never played before. I’d be like, oh, that’s a riff, I’ve never used those chords before, I’ve never played like C, A minor, G, D, in this way before. And that might lead you to write a couple of songs with that chord progression. It could just be that simple.
And so, I think with all that if you stack up those different things, like my desire to play a different chord progression, my finger-picking pattern is like a new one that I’ve never tried before. Add to that I’ll be like, oh that’s cool. And I stack these words into a really tight rhythmic percussive sentence, all that stuff will make the song sound different. It’s like, oh, it sounds like you, I guess your voice sounds the same or similar, but there’s some kind of evolution that I guess can happen with all those creative decisions.
And working with my drummer as well, Edwin, who he’s been there as a co-producer through the journey so far. We’ll be listening to music and he’ll be, I guess reacting to songs that he hears, and he’ll be going through his own journey musically, and so he’ll be like, “Oh, actually, I want to do this with drums.” Or he’ll be making decisions, things that he’s done, and then he might veer away from those slightly. And I guess that will lead to the album sounding different. Although, it wasn’t conscious as more of just like an instinctual veering towards something new.
Jesse Cannon: His songs have such a unique intimate feel to them, so I was really curious if he’s often writing songs that don’t fit the mood that he establishes. So I asked him what he thought about that.
Vance Joy: Every now and then you write a song that you’re not sure about. You might be really excited about it at first. It’s almost like you worry about the outcomes later, you just write whatever comes to you. And so there are things you write, and you’re like, “This feels good.” And then maybe later you’re like, “Mmm, I don’t know.” Or, it might not even be you, it might be your managers, or your label will say, “We don’t know about this song.” Or, “We don’t know about the production you put on it.”
And some of those things can affect the way people react to a song. It might be you, it’s like, “Well, this is me, this is melodies and lyrics that I feel good about.” But maybe you put a thick synth kind of sound on it, that sounds like Stranger Things or something like, “Mmm, that doesn’t really fit in the world of Vance Joy.” So, those things which are actually kind of like more clothing, like the way you produced it, can make someone say, “Oh, that’s not this artist.”
So, I think that you can reimagine a song, you can reproduce it and make it fit within what feels like you. But there are songs that, I guess, there are degrees of what feels like true to you, or at least songs that really resonate with you emotionally. And there’s always going to be songs that hit the spot with me, or I feel like every time I sing it’s like, ah, putting on a comfortable jacket, or putting on a pair of shoes that you’ve worn in. It’s like, this is a song that feels totally seamless for me to transition into. So, I think there’s always degrees, but yeah, I think you want more of those songs. You want basically all these songs to feel like that. That’s what you’re shooting for anyway.
Jesse Cannon: One of the things that makes Vance unique is that while his songs feel like him, he’s often playing guitar, piano, or ukulele, or even some other hybrids of those instruments. So, I asked him about how those choices happen in his music.
Vance Joy: You know, there’s been songs that I’ve played on guitar and ukulele, and I’ve kind of transferred between the two instruments, but my first song that I released, “Riptide,” back in 2012, or 2013, I released, I wrote that song on guitar and then I just think, there was part of what I wrote on ukulele, but it just felt natural to play on ukulele, so I went with that. And then, on this new album there was a song called “Call If You Need Me,” which I wrote on guitar, and it felt good on guitar. And then I went and picked up this little, I was in Nashville, and I picked up this really kind of crappy guitalele, they call it. It’s a Yamaha mini-guitar. And I guess it’s so small that they put it in the ukulele world, but it’s just six strings, and it’s tuned like a guitar with a capo on the fifth fret. But that was like a junky kind of $100 little thing. It may be even less.
But I started playing this song, “Call If You Need Me,” on that, and it just had a cool quality and a cool tone, so I ended up recording with that cheap little Yamaha for “Call If You Need Me,” and then another song called, “Little Boy,” on the album. And little parts here and there. That instrument was like a little God-send. It was just such a nice, beautiful texture. And we put an old microphone on that guitar when I was recording it in Seattle, with the producer that did the first album, Ryan Hadlock, and we were like, “Oh, this sounds like old, like it sounds like we’re listening to some old speaker or something.” And it did just have that unique feeling.
And then also, with the song “Saturday Sun,” I originally had a guitar riff t
hat I really liked. And as we were recording it, Dave suggested – we were just doing the demo and he’s like: “Let’s see if there’s a ukulele part we can play.” And I started playing uke, and then it kind of became like – as opposed to just a texture, it became more of a prominent sound on the track. So, it’s cool. I guess nothing’s ever set. And you can find that different instruments can be the right home for it.
Jesse Cannon: Vance’s lyrics evoke such a strong vision and lyrical narrative to me when I listen to them. So, I was very curious about how he comes up with those lyrical narratives.
Vance Joy: It’s really just collected thoughts. I mean, sometimes a narrative will emerge. I don’t really come with a design or like some outcome in mind. I think some of my favorite songs is when I start singing lyrics and I notice that there is some kind of phonetic connection throughout the song. Like, I start with an idea, and it’s evolving, and I’m like, when I sing this line, maybe this is why that little anecdote fits with this message. And I’ll just see an idea coming out of nowhere, as opposed to, which maybe can work as well, but I want to write a song that’s about a feeling of, whatever.
I never like approaching it with too much of an intellectual, like a rigid thing. I like it when it’s like you’re seeing lyrics, and then you’re like, “Oh, well that kind of makes sense with that.” And you kind of surprise yourself with some kind of idea that resonates throughout the whole song, without it being like, “This is my design at the start.” And it doesn’t always happen. You know, sometimes they’re just collections of thoughts which work, and then you put some other idea with it, and they kind of make sense of all those anecdotes. And then there are some that just have a surprising kind of cohesiveness, which is cool.
Jesse Cannon: “Nation of Two” refers specifically to an idea he’s been talking about in the press, where a couple is an isolated island amongst themselves. I wanted to talk to him a little bit about where that narrative came from.
Vance Joy: I mean, I would look at the song titles in a little, I mean, I’d write them all down in a note on my phone, and I’d see that there were 70 songs that were kind of just generally like me, you, I, you, so there was a lot of that. And I was like, okay, well, I need to write some songs that don’t have you and me in them, because it feels like a little bit repetitive. But I was looking through my phone and I had written down “Nation of Two,” which I suppose I must have been doing like a Kurt Vonnegut quote, like I was in a little Kurt Vonnegut quote wormhole. And he’s got so many gems. And so I think I must have written something down and it turned out to be that nation of two line, and I basically looked through all my notes. Like, is there a title in any of my notes? And that felt like the strongest.
I’m glad I looked through my notes and I’m glad that, I don’t know, that that stuck, because it seemed to connected all these songs that were kind of like you and me, and they were relationships, whether or not they’re lovers or friends or family, it’s like a nation of two could mean all those things. So, it connected it. I didn’t come with that design. It almost kind of, I followed my instinct with songwriting and this is what came out. And then luckily there was a title that united it all. I think there were some books that I really enjoyed reading while I was making the songs. I think it’s probably just a collection of all the books you read and all the things you ever watched and stuff. And that just fills that well of inspiration that might lead to songs.
There was a book I read more towards the end, which was called Between Them by a guy called Richard Ford, and he describes basically his parents married life before he came along and joined the family. That just was a good story about two people kind of who living a perfectly self-contained life, and it was kind of I guess, a small story, just a couple of people. It wasn’t like superheroes. And I guess I like those kind of details, which are kind of domestic, and you can find in very every day details. Sometimes they can be poignant and powerful, even if they are kind of… I don’t know why certain details are powerful or even just like every day used sentence, or a sentence you hear all the time or something that someone says. It’s very common, but sometimes when you put it to music it can have a power. That was a book that I found pretty inspiring. And I loved This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Yeah, and it’s just a way to keep a little vacation for your mind, reading. And every now and then there’ll be a line that you just write down that ends up being useful, and it finds a place in a song.
Jesse Cannon: As you’ve probably noticed throughout this podcast, Vance has been talking about a cast of characters we collaborated with on this record. So, I wanted to talk a little bit about the decisions on who to collaborate with and what their roles were like. Here’s Stefan Max as A&R man again.
Stefan Max: Yeah, that was more of like a, “All right, let’s throw it in the pot and see if it tastes good”, kind of thing. Trial and error. The first writing trip we did was with a bunch of LA, I guess you could say pop writers, and it just didn’t really go well. So, we quickly learned that he needs to be writing with more writers that were either artists in the past or still artists or just that have a little bit more of a connection to the lyrics, because it’s such a big priority for Vance, is to have the lyrical content just be really meaningful and raw.
A lot of the times in co-writes people are so, especially pop people, are so focused on getting a big record that they kind of put the deepness in the backseat. They’re looking for more of a surface level, immediate connection. So, we quickly learned that we had to find writers and artists that were going to have the patience to kind of make sure that these songs were deep and meaningful, especially on a lyrical level. And that’s where guys like Dan Wilson, really came into play. Dan was in semi-sonic, and he’s a huge songwriter. Wrote “Someone Like You” for Adele, or with Adele, rather. So, James really connected with him. He wrote “We’re Going Home” with him, he wrote “Like Gold” with him. They were like really close. So that was the type of writer that we kind of realized was more in the pocket for him.
Jesse Cannon: I asked Vance about his feelings on the process.
Vance Joy: Wasn’t intentional to like not to stay with one, but it was like often those different producers came in through maybe just a trial, or, “Let’s write a song”, and then all their work that they did kind of all can sit comfortably next to each other, which is good. I mean, I guess when we did the first album, we did a, I guess that they call it like a trial, luckily I’ve had great experience with producers that we’ve had these trials with. We went in to do two songs with Ryan Hadlock in 2014, that was in 2013. And it came out really well, and it felt good and we recorded two songs with him. And so we did a similar thing. We ended up doing a whole album later on, but we did the same thing early on into the process with this album in 2016. We went in with Phil Ek from Seattle, and he had obviously such a great body of work.
And then I guess the reason why we moved around with producers was by that stage, it was like, “Oh, I want to go back and work with Phil for sure,” but then I hadn’t written any of the songs. It was like I have two songs written, we went and recorded them and I’m like, “Okay, now I have two songs written.” And I had to wait until another song came along. I guess the reason why we worked with Dave Bassett as well was because I went in to do some songwriting with him, and in the first two days I worked with him, which was at the start of 2017, so quite a while after the time in Seattle. We wrote, “Lay It On Me,” and another song called, “Take Your Time.” And those two songs just came about in two days, and it was like, “Whew, what a nice surprise and a creative breakthrough.”
And the demos he did on those two songs, besides the fact that he co-wrote them with me and we have really good chemistry, the demos really felt like the right vibe, and the songs were hatching right there and then in those moments to the point that when we went back to record the song “Lay It On Me,” it was like there was stuff from the demo that we couldn’t even beat. Like we couldn’t beat the vocal, which I do that day. The drum sound he was getting was like something that Edwin, my drummer, was faithful to, but also elaborated on. But there was so much that was right in the demos that when we tried to re-record them, it just didn’t work. So, it was like, “Okay, well Dave will be our guy for that.” And then he really did the right thing for a song called “We’re Going Home.” He kind of sped it up a bit, and he kind of, I guess, it was just good to have a clear, creative direction. He kind of saw the way through to make that song as good as it possibly could be. And so I’m really happy with the way that turned out.
Jesse Cannon: What Vance is talking about here is becoming all the more common today. Demos are no longer demos. They become part of the final song on a very regular basis. I talked to Dave Bassett about this, and he talked to me about how often this is happening today with many of the projects he’s producing today.
Dave Bassett: For me, the tipping point was when I wrote “Ex’s & Oh’s” with Elle King, and that was literally a one hour writing, and maybe 30 minutes to record that. And that sat around forever, and I always thought it sounded good, and when they finally decided to put it on her record, I got a call saying, “This is going on the record.” That was great. Get her band right here, we’ll record this. Get everyone – whoa, whoa, wait. This is done. And so, right there I realized, you know what? I need to start trusting myself and trusting that those initial verses of inspiration and creativity, I have all the right gear, it’s not like if we came back I’d be singing to a different mic, or we’d be in a different room. It would just be a different take. And so, the original takes of that song or “Take Your Time,” I respect, and I listen to with producer ears all the time, even though this may be the first time you’ve heard that melody on a mic.
Jesse Cannon: Another collaborator on this record is Dan Wilson, who’s written tons of hit songs, including ones with Adele. Here’s Dan on the process the two of them went through.
Dan Wilson: James and I got together with a mission. The first time we got together, there was some sense that he was interested in doing some co-writing, but he was a little leery of it. I think he knows what his strengths are. I don’t think he’s calculating, or I don’t think he has some sort of magical self-awareness, but I think he knows what his strengths are as an artist. And one of the things that he’s really strong at, is hearing something that he’s working on and deciding in his heart, is this for me? He could have some really great sounding thing that just sounds really like some kind of pop smash, and if he is listening to himself sing it and it doesn’t feel like it’s him, then he ain’t going to be able to put it out. That’s a really powerful ability.
So, when we got together, I think he felt like the whole idea of co-writing might have been a bit of a danger to that. That he would get co-opted into some other process that didn’t have much to do with him, which is unlikely I think, because he has such a strong self-determining side. But I think it was just a little sense of like, “Okay, I’ll try this, but not going to commit to writing songs with other people necessarily.” We had talked to somebody about a movie that needed a song. We got inspired. We watched the trailer for this movie. I can’t remember the name of the movie, but it was sort of an adventurous and heroic kind of movie. We got inspired to write a song maybe with that movie in mind.
It’s funny, because I feel like sometimes like if you have a commission or another purpose, if a friend is getting married and they want you to write a song for their wedding. Or if you have a notion that some artist that you work with could really use ex-type of song, it takes your ego out of it and it makes it easier to work on, and it simplifies the process a little bit. And I think with James and I, our initial effort to write a song for a movie, kind of took away some of the question of, is this right for Vance Joy or not? And it allowed us to kind of just have fun and be creative, and maybe try to have a mission in mind. Interestingly, I think that just most of what that did was break the ice for him and I to be able to write songs in just a playful way and let him be the final arbiter of whether it’s cool for him. I think that’s the key for James and me, is he’s the one who’s going to say, “Yeah, this is a really cool idea. I like it. But it’s not good for me.” And then we just drop it, and we try something else.
Jesse Cannon: The other producer on this record is Simone Felice. I had Vance talk a bit about his process, as well as his unique studio set up.
Vance Joy: With Simone Felice, I was going up there. I had written one song, and I had like two weeks booked or something, with him, and I was like, okay, well I’ve only got one song, like what’s going to happen? And he was kind of up to experiment and write some songs and stuff. I found like when I went up there, it was like he had a great recording set up and everything, so we recorded a song called “I Am With You,” just guitar and vocals and a little kind of delayed kind of strange little keyboard sound. The songs that I did with him, like “Little Boy” and “I’m With You,” that was just so perfectly suited to his style, and for emotional songs like that, with like a really acoustic feeling.
He was so good at recording them and bringing them to life. And so, Simone has a very stripped down setup at his studio, and so I had a little place that was, there’s a fridge, but there’s no television, very clutter-less, and also anti-technology kind of vibe, where there’s just like not many mirrors and stuff like that. He has a band who’s on his mom’s property, and he’s kind of building a whole new studio up on the land that he’s just acquired just next to his old childhood home. And there’s also a little part of the house, which is kind of like completely separate, even though it’s connected to his mom’s house. And it’s like, there’s an old bedroom upstairs, and a bathroom. And then downstairs it’s like a couple of couches, an acoustic guitar sitting there.
But there’s just candles, and there’s no television. There’s no Wi-Fi. So, you get there and you’re not really using your phone much. And I think his intention with that set-up was that he would have less distractions, and you’d be immersed in the recording experience and writing experience. You’re in nature, like you’re in the Catskills, beautiful pine trees around. There’s mountains and hills. And if it’s snowing, you’re really isolated in a good way. And then there’s something like a general store that his wife owns, called The Circle W, which makes great sandwiches and great coffee. And you go down there in the morning, and then go head up to the studio, and it’s, yeah, there’s not many distractions and it’s good for focusing and having some simplicity, which is nice.
And then you go in and spend all day in the studio, and the vibe is really good. And that’s why it felt so good working with him when there is a sense of, he’s a guy that kind of likes to work within, create a really strong vibe. It doesn’t necessarily mean the music’s going to be great, but if you have a song you’re really proud of, and you’ve got some nice smelling incense, and the candle, you might be motivated to sing a special performance. The song will make you sing great anyway, if you really love it. But it’s nice when you have that atmosphere, it’s a kind of intoxicating atmosphere. And that, I feel really happy with the songs we recorded there.
Jesse Cannon: At this point in the interview, I asked Vance for some specific stories about how some of the songs came to be. He started with “I Am With You.”
Vance Joy: Well I remember I came in with the song “I Am With You,” I sent that to Simone and I spent that night, I guess it’s a continuation of that story, but I spent the night in the house. And then I went in the next morning early, about, oh it wasn’t that early, but it was like 11:00 and I met his team. And we were just hanging out in this band which is set up for guitars, overdubbing, singing, perfect for all that stuff. You know, some piano sounds. It’s not made for drums and stuff, necessarily. It’s different to this, as well. There’s no control room. I laid down the guitar track, it didn’t take long for Ryan Hewitt the engineer, to comp that all together.
Simone was like, he had some suggestions or the song, and he printed out the lyrics from the voice memo that I sent him. And he was really excited by the song, and I was like, “Yeah, cool, I think this is a decent song.” He seemed to see a lot of potential in it, and he came back with a couple of lyric alterations, which I think really helped progress the song towards a story. And I liked the way he thought of it, like that way. He’s like, “Ah, this tells…” You know, “Maybe change this lyric here, and move in a slightly different direction here.” Just some really small but choice suggestions, which I was really receptive too.
And then at the end there’s always going to be a bit where I jump up the octave vocally. And I was doing that, but he kind of wanted me to find a way to get up the octave that was, I guess, interesting but also create some emotional, some build-up that was kind of powerful. So, he’s like, “Let’s find a way to get there with the melody.” And we just sat there 15 minutes, just trying things, and he was just sitting there, and I was trying things. It was a really nice collaborative moment, and I just came up with a melody. It’s like, “Yes, that’s good, that’s good.” And we’re like, “Cool.” And we had the guitar, let’s sing it.
He made me sing it a few times over and over again, before I did the vocal. But you know, pat you on the back, which is not everyone’s vibe, but I kind of like that kind of connection, and he would give you a pat on the back, and he’ll say, “All right.” And then he’ll sit on the couch and everyone’s kind of quiet, and I sang like three takes. And you know, he’ll be like, “That feels like the record. That feels great to me.” And so, I walk away, and then I came back at like, it was like two o’clock that afternoon, and we had the vocals and the guitar done. I was like, “Cool, I come here for two weeks and we’ve already done the…” Like we did it all in like three hours. And it was just like we came back and put a little interesting synth sound on it, but I just enjoyed that experience of, you can get in your head, or if you’re doing vocals, especially, I think all singers probably say this, they hate going back and doing vocals six months or a year later after they’ve done the demo.
That’s why we couldn’t be the demo with that song, “Lay It On Me.” And it’s hard when you’ve done a demo in the moment of writing the song, coming back and trying to capture that elusive energy. It’s like, “I’m not feeling it today. I’m distanced from the song.” It’s like, you hear actors talking about, I do a scene and then, actually, it was a good story from Bryan Cranston’s biography, which is a detour, but he talks about doing a scene, and it was a big emotional scene where his son tells him he never wants to talk to him again. Right at the end of Breaking Bad.
And apparently, that scene, because they recorded it on film, got put onto a track at the airport on the way to LA, fell off the back of the thing transporting it, and then the thing that pulls the planes, like that thing that transports the planes, that big machine, that big car, crushed this tape. And Brian heard, he was like, “I hope it’s not that scene that I cried in, and we nailed, and it was a huge emotional moment.” And he’s like, “Yeah, of course, it was that scene.” Had to go back and shoot it, and he was like doing it. And I feel like I’m reenacting the scene that I got right. He’s like, “I tried to remove any memory of that first scene and find a way back to that emotional place.
That’s I think what happens to singers when they get told to go back to capture whatever that feeling was in a demo. They’re like, “It’s not happening today. Now I’m thinking about what the melody is.” And you’re divorced from your emotions a bit. So, luckily, when we did it with Simone that day, it was like, “Oh, cool. I feel like I’m singing the demo.” There was a new creative moment, which was exciting, and then it’s like directly, “Let’s just get it right now.” When it doesn’t always happen like that, and there’s a lot of grinding, which you have to do sometimes, but that was a nice one.
Jesse Cannon: Since we keep talking about “Lay It On Me,” I wanted to get a few more details on that song.
Vance Joy: I had a guitar riff, lying around since 2012 that I really liked, and I was excited by when I played this riff, and I was like, “This feels like something.” And then I tried writing songs with that riff, like repeatedly. Like there was I think, there would be a number of songs that were failed attempts to capture that riff. And then I went into the studio at the end of January in 2017, with Dave Bassett, went into his studio in Malibu, and we just got on the same wavelength, and it was like he sang a melody over that riff that totally tied it together, just that first riff.
And then I had some ideas for a chorus that was kind of like a build-up thing. And to him, I said, “I am envisioned this sounding a bit like Take On Me, like the ah-ha song, like something that builds and builds and builds.” And he was like, “Ah!” He’s like, “I totally get what you mean.” And then from that, that idea helped propel us towards finishing the song. The lyrics came quite easy. I had a bunch of lyrics in my phone. That song was written in a couple hours and I felt a feeling of a really great breakthrough.
As I said, the demo, the vocals, and a lot of the drumming ideas, we were so happy with. And the song felt like it was being created in that moment. And when Dave suggested a harmony for just before the chorus, that for me, I was singing a harmony, I was like, “Whoa!” I was like, “This feels like a song.” I know it’s certainly a small detail, like a backing vocal, but for some reason it really transformed it in my head when I was singing. I was like, “That feels epic.” And it kind of blossomed. And I’m glad that we went back to Dave to finish the song, and we couldn’t beat a lot of that stuff we did on that day.
Jesse Cannon: I had Edwin share with me how he personally saw the song evolve.
Edwin White: Actually, I mean, I have a connection to this song, because Vance has been playing this Riff on guitar for years, maybe three or four years or something. And we’d just be mocking around, and he’d pick up the guitar, and he’d play the riff, and I’d be like, “Play that again.” And he’d be like, “Fuck off.” So, I’ve just been wanting to hear this riff for so long. Yeah, we were in New York, we were staying in an Airbnb. My mom died-
Jesse Cannon: Sorry.
Edwin White: -not last year, the year before. That’s okay. And so, I don’t know, he just played me this demo recording that he’d done with Dave, and I had this kind of liberating feeling of like, it’s okay to get excited about the future again, something like that. Seems a little abstract, but when you have a dying family member, you sort of kind of plan for the future. And it’s sort of like I felt this sort of relief when he played me the riff, because it was almost like the past progressing into something new, something like that.
So, it’s just such a beautiful guitar riff, and then I mean, it’s a sweet song. And yeah, we pimped it up and it’s got that real cool Motown drum feel going through it, but then, I’ve also got a particular way that I play snare drum, patent, to kind of build energy and things, so you get that as well. And then the horns are really bombastic sounding, which is exciting.
Jesse Cannon: Here’s Dave Bassett talking about the process of the song a little bit more.
Dave Bassett: After the next day, we wrote “Lay It On Me,” and that was the first two days I’d written with him. Then he went off for a while and I really didn’t hear back. I didn’t know if people were liking these songs, how he was feeling about it. I knew he had a whole batch that he was working on. And then I got a call that they were going to record a master version of this song, and it was with a producer that Vance had worked with in the past and felt comfortable with. And we got the version back and I thought it sounded good. But a couple months after that, as we had written more and more together and developed kind of a comfort level with each other, I think there was something realized that there was some magic caught in the day we wrote that song.
The demo of that song had some elements that maybe were overlooked, or they were unable to capture again. And so we eventually went back to the original demo and used that as the foundation of the recording that’s on the record. And I love when that happens. I think too often songs are written, and then when it gets to the production process, there’s this collective idea that, okay, now we’re doing it for real. Now we have to start from scratch. And, now we’re going to do the best take ever.
I think when there’s an innocence in the demo process, and I don’t even call it the demo process anymore. In the initial recording process, when you’re just discovering the song, no one’s really thinking about the final performance and all that. And there’s a real ease to the delivery of his vocal in “Take Your Time,” and to some of the other parts we recorded where those things, you just can’t recapture again. And why should you? Because they were great, they were the initial inspiration, and I don’t think there’s ever a time when you’re as connected to a song, as that initial inspiration.
Jesse Cannon: One of the things that you always see that goes into making great records is perseverance when things aren’t working. Here I talk to producer Phil Ek, who produced two of the tracks on the record, about one of the struggles they had getting a song to work.
Edwin White: They sent me “Like Gold,” and “Alone With Me,” and they were definitely songwriter demos. They were cool songs. And I agreed to go in the studio with James and Edwin. And we got in, just started working on those two songs. Initially, those first two songs, they weren’t super well-rehearsed. They were definitely kind of works in progress as far as the musician’s aspect goes. Just James and Edwin, and then eventually a friend of ours came in to do a little violin on “Alone With Me.” But tried setting up drums and doing a full drum kit kind of arrangement with “Like Gold.” Worked on that for a good day, probably, with Edwin.
It was not going well. Kind of thought a full kit is just what was going to be on that song, and even he thought it as well. So, we worked on it for a while, and it just was going nowhere, just didn’t seem right, didn’t feel right, didn’t have the correct vibe at all. And so we kind of stewed on that overnight, came in the next day and said, “Let’s just tear this apart and start with this percussion.” And we might have even laid guitar down first, and then added base drums, and shakers, and tambourines. And we took a TV tray together and slammed it together, and heavily, heavily compressed it, and it made this kind of crack sound, and used that as kind of as a snare vibe. And it just came to life, and it was super fun, just really excited both me and the band, and it just sounded cool. And we just kind of went from there, and then we worked on “Alone With Me” in the same kind of idea. And it was really, really fun.
Jesse Cannon: Next I talked to producer, Dave Bassett, about how they shaped the song “Take Your Time.”
Dave Bassett: You know, the very first song we wrote was “Take Your Time.” And this was a very interesting co-write session for me, because I know Vance hadn’t done a lot of co-writing at all. And again, being very respectful from where he’s coming from, I didn’t want to come off too heavy-handed, and there’s always kind of a get-to-know-you portion of the co-writing situation, when you first meet someone. I don’t like to just sit down and say, “Okay, let’s go. What key you want to be in?” Or something like that. You need to get to know the artist first and make them feel comfortable. And so, Vance came in, and within 10 minutes, he had his shoes off and he’s kicking back in a chair and playing a riff. And I just knew this guy was really easy-going, and open to this process, and that made it very comfortable for me.
I asked if he had any ideas that he wanted to start off of, and he played the riff for “Take Your Time,” which I thought was a great riff on the acoustic. And as he was playing it, a lot of times the process for me comes from hearing a series of chords, or a pattern as this one was on acoustic guitar, just kind of throwing some melodic ideas back and forth. Not getting too deep conceptually yet, but just feeling what melodies come natural over those chords. And, Vance had the start of a melody over those chords. And as we were flying stuff back and forth, in my brain I heard the chords evolving to the next section, and I think that was the first kind of collaborative connection we had, and where I maybe earned his trust a little bit, because he really liked where the chords had went. I know that this riff was something he was sitting on for a while, and really wasn’t sure where to take it.
So, when I threw out the next set of chords, it orally kind of opened up the dialogue. Again, I think I earned his trust a little bit and that helped that song unfold. You know, we wrote that song in a couple hours that first day, and it felt really good. It made me understand a lot, how Vance approaches his lyrics, which is a very personal thing for him. And each line really, he has a book of phrases and notes and situations that he’s been in, things that he’s thought of. I realized I needed to step back a little bit when we got into the lyrics, and kind of let him feel what that song was. When he came up with the line, “We’ll go dance around the kitchen,” I immediately saw how he draws people into his song, with these every day, real images. And the way he’s able to paint a scene with words, as if you’re watching a movie of that song, is a real gift that he has.
I enjoy contributing to lyrics and I consider myself a lyricist. And as I was the singer in my band, and I wrote the lyrics in all of my stuff, so I know how personal it can be. So, I was walking a line because I was very excited and I wanted to be involved with this, but I also realized that I needed to let him just discover what this song was. And, in the end, it ended up being a very natural process, and I know that he was very happy with the song.
Jesse Cannon: We heard a lot about Vance’s process, but I wanted to hear about what makes him unique, so I turned to both Dave and Stefan.
Stefan Max: You know, a lot of artists will always look to their family or their immediate friend circle, just for an initial nod of approval on what they’re working on, but he especially is very, very close with his mother, who’s also an English teacher and a writer, I believe. And she’s very, very involved at certain points and on certain songs, with helping him make decisions. And you know, if you go and look in any interviews, he acknowledges that, and the two of them together have come up with some pretty crazy popular lyrics of his, whether it’s Georgia stuff, or just random lyrics, and I thought that was pretty interesting, because everyone’s showing their family music, but how often are you really going to your mother for an English grammar analysis of your lyrics?
Dave Bassett: What makes Vance unique, is that so many artists are out there, and especially in this day and age, where there seems to be a guidebook on how to be a rockstar, and there’s so many schools that you can go to and learn all these different things. And I feel like so many artists are chasing the song and chasing their career and trying to do the right thing step by step, by the guidebook.
And with Vance, I see the total opposite, and it’s so refreshing that things come to him. And, I feel like you’ve got someone here who’s a quiet voice, but a very determined voice. And when he plays something you’re drawn into it. When he tells a story, you’re drawn into it. Between the unique sound of his voice, and his ability to tell a story. Listeners, producers, everyone, we’re just drawn into his world. And he does it with such ease, you don’t get a sense that he’s chasing anything. He’s always completely comfortable in his own skin. And that to me shows real confidence. And when he can back it up with his abilities, it’s pretty incredible.
Jesse Cannon: Thank you for listening to this podcast. If you enjoyed it, please share it on social media. To hear other episodes, and more of Atlantic’s Podcasts, head to atlanticpodcasts.com. Vance Joy’s “Nation of Two” is out now. Thanks and tune in next time.