When people say, “put out a fire,” what they often mean is they need to address an unexpected problem caused by the mistakes or misconduct of someone else. Australian songwriter James Keogh, known as Vance Joy, found a way to deal with our current world ablaze.
Recognized for his aqueous breakout hit “Riptide,” his sophomore album Nation of Two reached No. 5 on the Billboard album chart when it was released earlier this year. In some ways, the record continues the aquatic theme established by “Riptide.” It’s filled with songs that sound like waves breaking on the shore, and aims to extinguish some of our societal blaze, not by fighting the powers that be, but by evading the real world altogether. “I’m attracted to singing songs where you can hear someone singing with passion and being vulnerable. If you have the right line that has emotional power, whether it’s autobiographical, something you’ve overheard, or made it up even, if it has that emotional power, it makes you want to sing and really commit to it. I like when I have a song that allows me to do that.”
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His new album is a love story between two people who are the sole inhabitants of a world they’ve created for themselves. These songs are open to interpretation, but a listener acutely aware of the hellfire around us can’t help but see the album as even more than a love story. In the lead single, “Lay It On Me,” Joy’s voice builds during the bridge, then breaks as he sings exhaustedly and yearningly, “If all my defenses come down, oh baby / Will you lay it all on me now?” It’s the energy you’d possess in a looming apocalypse, the kind that brings together a leading couple in a doomsday movie. Then there’s “Saturday Sun,” about disconnection and love on the rocks. It’s punctuated by the ultra-positive sing-along chorus, “No ray of sunlight is ever lost,” but that’s not until after a not-so-confident Joy proclaims, “So tired of sleeping alone / So tired of eating alone / I need to ask her what’s going on / Are we going strong?”
There’s a chance I’m projecting my American jadedness on the buoyant Australian whose chosen surname is so positive. Digging, I asked if he’d ever thought about writing something political. He responded, “If I wrote a song that told a political story I would surprise myself, but that’s also exciting. Stories about people and human connection or that have some social commentary in it— that would be my comfort zone. I’m interested in the ways you can develop as a songwriter. I’ll see what happens. It’s hard to predict—you can surprise yourself with what songs come out of you.”
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I revel in the escapism of Joy’s songs, but as someone who can only escape for so long, I wanted to know how he is able to write euphoric love songs in a world that’s so chaotic. “I guess you sing the way you sing, and the music that you make is an extension of your personality. It might just be my disposition or my outlook. I think I’m generally a positive person; my natural disposition is to be sunny and happy. I get a lot of joy from just having good interactions with people and connecting with people. I like that that’s the way my music feels.”
Beneath his charisma, attractiveness, and ukulele-punctuated love songs, Vance Joy is still aware that the sweet isn’t as sweet without the sour, and maybe that love is ultimately the only way to put the fire out. “I like that balance of happy and sad, melancholy and uplifting, that kind of varied assortment of emotions and feelings. All that stuff feels like a reflection of how the world is.”
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