We spoke to Josh Pyke late last year about his upcoming tour, which includes the Gold Coast. But as is often the case in print journalism, we had to cut a rather lengthy interview to just 600 words.
So for those wanting to get well and truly in the mood for tonight’s intimate show at Miami Marketta, we thought we’d give you the unabridged version.
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GT: “But For All These Shrinking Hearts”, like every one of your albums, seems to wed this really lovely first person storytelling with incredible “sing-a-long-ability”. How do you balance these priorities when you are writing?
JP: Good question! I basically don’t try. I try not to think about that stuff. You know, I like melodic songs. I guess when I am writing, I just like to feel something, like some kind of emotional engagement and that can even come from the melody and the melody line or it comes from the lyrics so I just follow my instincts. I realised a long time ago that it is too hard when you deliberately try and find a balance between sing-a-long choruses and meaningful lyrics and you just kind of disappear into a world, well, you can kinda disappear up your own arse. It takes it away from being an honest expression of what you are feeling, so the short answer is I basically try not to think about it and hope for the best.
GT: Despite all that, on every one of your albums and even the first EP there is like two or three “anthems” that seem to bring these two variables together pretty perfectly. What do you reckon, as a fan of music, makes the best “anthems of life”?
JP: I think it is like what you say. That is, the attraction of a song for me, in the ones that I love, and I can think of a few Shins songs, and maybe some Interpol songs, that are like this. It could be just one line in it that resonates with you for whatever reason and it doesn’t have to be for the same reasons that it resonated with the song writer; it could be something that applies to your own life. It obviously helps if the music is accessible, well, I suppose it doesn’t have to be accessible either; it can be just that there’s “something” there. I think that is the thing about song writing, that everybody feels so connected to music, and it is a blessing and a curse in some ways because everyone feels like their opinions on music are gospel in a way because, if something resonates with them massively in a song, it just makes them feel so connected to it that they feel completely correct about how good a song is. But one person’s best song in the world can be one person’s worst song in the world, that is like really exciting, but also kinda scary when you are a song writer.
GT: For me, one of those anthems on “But For All These Shrinking Hearts”, is Songlines. I am generally pretty fascinated by irony and I’m risking going down a bit of a rabbit hole here, but we’re gonna see how we go. You’ve said before the first song on the album, Book of Revelations, came about when you looked for your namesake, the biblical character of Joshua, amongst its chapters.
GT: Something I was looking at was that the Old Testament book of Joshua has this really famous verse right at the start of the book and I am paraphrasing but it says; “Be strong and courageous. I know you will journey well if you follow the song lines I gave to your predecessor”
JP: Are you shitting me?
GT: No man, Joshua 1:7 basically says that.
JP: Aaahhh. That totally spins me out. I’ve got goosebumps all over.
GT: Yeah man, I suppose I was asking because I am not a very religious person, but I know my way around a book of scripture, and I was asking if that irony was intentional?
JP: No, no, not at all. I am not religious at all. I don’t believe in God and I have never studied the scriptures but I had heard that Joshua fought the battle of Jericho. I knew that because of my name, and I’ve heard it for years, and I thought that was in the Book of Revelations so I looked it up and it doesn’t appear in there at all. And then I didn’t even know there was a Book of Joshua, so I just left it and got on with writing the song.
GT: Yeh, it’s right at the start of the book, it says “Be strong and courageous. I know you will journey well if you follow the songlines I gave to your predecessor.” Now I am paraphrasing – the actual words say, “Be strong and very courageous, be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you. Do not turn from it from the left or the right, that you may be successful wherever you may go.” But back in the day, these guys communicated by song. That’s how they remembered the law. So it was quite ironic that the words of your song “Songlines” say that.
JP: Yeh, wow. Songlines for me is about the Indigenous Australian custom using songlines to navigate. So when I wrote the song, the lyrics came really organically and I was reflecting on what they might mean for me. I read a book called “The Songlines” by a guy called Bruce Chatwin years ago and it is about his journey to Alice Springs and following songlines and that concept. I was fascinated how indigenous people pass on knowledge and directions and stuff through songs and wisdom and everything. I realised that over 5 albums in pretty much 10 years of pouring my entire life and worldview into songs that, now having two little kids, it’s my version of songlines for them. There is going to be no better or more succinct way of them getting to know how I view the world, than if they listen to my songs, you know? So that’s where the song came from for me.
GT: So that leads to me to the next question. You talk about in your songs and the commentary that songwriting is like a musical diary or a snapshot of wisdom and learning that is passed on to others and in particular, your kids. So what do you say to grown-ups who are applying your lyrical wisdom to their lives? I am just “asking for a friend”, just quietly.
JP: Well, I think it is simply subjective. I remember when I was a young Fine Arts student at uni and I really resented it because I was writing songs at the time, and people were analysing these works of art and interpreting all this meaning into these works of art that the artists may not have intended at all, you know? And I brought that up to the lecturer and he was, like, “It doesn’t really matter. Out in the world you make your own interpretations and it means what it means to you.” Over the years I have really come to believe that. For my songs, once I put them out into the world, how ever people interpret them and whatever kind of solace or otherwise, or if people find them wrong about certain things I talk about, I think that’s good and as long as it is making people think. I don’t really mind what they get from it. Yeah it’s funny, but I remember people coming up and asking about “Memories and Dust” and one person in particular saying; “You must be religious. This song is about finding God”. And I am, like, “No, it’s really not. It’s about one of my friends dying from cancer and another friend dying inexplicably during the night and it’s about realising definitely that I don’t believe in God” and they kind of argued with me for a bit and they were, like, “well, subconsciously it is about God” and I was, like, “Nooo, we won’t go down this road.”
GT: It’s hard to argue with someone who has a preconceived idea of what they think or don’t think
JP: Well, that’s right. I mean in terms of your friend, I don’t know particularly what they …
GT: Aaahh, that was a turn of phrase. I mean, I am 38 and I have been following your music for 10 years and it was kind of a bit of a joke, you know…
JP: Oh. Haha. Alright, well, yes, whatever people get from it I think it is nice, so long as they are listening to stimulate discussion and taking something from it and don’t go out and murder people.
GT: I have a lighter question. How has fatherhood changed the way you write or has it changed the creative process at all?
JP: It has. The main thing it has changed is just structure. I can’t over emphasise the importance of having structure in my creative life now. My oldest kid is five and a half and I have had some time to figure this out. Whereas before kids I was just living in a flat at the beach and I would go down for a surf in the morning and I would come back up and maybe I would write a bit of a song or noodle around. I had a little studio set up or I would go around and grab a coffee or walk around the neighbourhood, go for long meandering walks and think about stuff and write some stuff down and noodle around and then go back down to the beach and have another surf and whatever and then stay up until 3am in the morning writing lyrics or playing guitar and it worked. It was pretty cool and it worked. I did stuff and hung out and lightning would strike and I would be in a position and available to capture it.
When you have kids, you’re often not in that position where you can sit down and refine these ideas that come up. I have had to structure time in. I structure four days a week down in my studio and I basically just muck around. I do the same sort of thing but in a formal structured way. You know, like I come down and muck around on the guitar and play a bit of piano or drums whatever. Sometimes I come up with something that sounds promising and other days, like last Friday, all day I had this kind of bubbling in my being about having some kind of creative output and nothing was working. I left feeling really frustrated, but then went up to the house and cooked a really nice meal and got that creative frustration out of myself. So yes, it is a process of trying to capture lightning or I guess it’s like having a space in case it happens, it can be recorded quickly and you don’t lose track of it because you are changing nappies.
GT: I know your pain, man. I am a 38 year old dad of three. I have boys, 6, 4 and 2. It’s been funny seeing your writing since “Feeding the Wolves” in 2004 and 2005. There have been times when you seem to have secret cameras in my house and my workplace and sometimes in my brain as you write your songs.
JP: I have two boys 5 and 2 so we have a lot of common ground there.
GT: Yes, it’s funny. I actually don’t know the recipe for girls. Apparently there is a recipe but with 3 boys I clearly don’t know it.
I am going to risk continuing this weird kind of biblical theme. Anyway, there is a letter from Paul to the Corinthians in the New Testament that says “There is no trial you’re facing that is not common to man and when those trials come, there will be a comfort and an escape plan so you can endure it”.
The question I want to ask is “How do you feel about being a comfort to some people who are listening to your songs and reading them?”
JP: Well, yeah, it is a good question. It is something that I actually struggle with a lot and I have spoken to other musicians about this, where, if I am totally honest, I didn’t get into being a musician to be a comfort to anybody. I got into being a musician because I really like making music and that is all I really wanted to do. I’m compelled to make music and I’m compelled to have that creative output and I just wanted that to be my living. I felt like my songs had something to say but it wasn’t my intention when I was writing them, for them to be a comfort to people. I was just processing my own life and trying to be a comfort to me. It was basically self-therapy. So over the years people have told me amazing stories about how songs have helped them and songs have given them comfort. It is incredibly flattering and gratifying and there is always this feeling of guilt. Like, it is awesome you feel that way but I really only wrote those songs for selfish reasons to help myself. It’s a funny thing because they’re intensely personal, but when it goes out into a public space, it becomes personal to someone else. It’s a challenge. It’s something I am still kind of grappling with. It’s a tough one.
GT: It must be really weird when people relate to the songs that you are writing and it feels similar to them. That leads me to the next question. What kind of age group do you find in your audience? Like, I know I like your music, but who else comes along and is there a target group?
JP: From day one it has been a really broad demographic. Because I have been doing this for 10 or 11 years now, the people that come to shows are people like yourself, with kids who are the same age as me and have had this same kind of journey, together in a way. But then there’s people who were 30 when I first started playing on Triple J and now they are in their 40’s and they are bringing their older kids along to the shows. Then there are much older people who are bringing their adult children to the shows, so it really ranges. I often get people coming up and saying, “I love your stuff. This is the first time I have seen you. When your last album came out I was still in high school and I couldn’t get into venues, you know”. So, it has been really nice. I am pretty sure I have a core demographic roughly the same age as me and they kind of move along with me, but it also seems that on either side of that demographic, people have discovered the music along the way and it’s still kind of expanding outwards. It is really nice.
GT: Hey, I have a question from a colleague and I know you have done some covers or projects of the stuff of Bob Dylan and The Beatles and the Go Betweens amongst a number of others, but this mate wants to know if you have ever done a Paul Kelly cover?
JP: No I haven’t. I love Paul Kelly’s music. The thing about doing covers is you kind of want to make it different from the original. If I played Paul Kelly songs, it would just be me strumming on the guitar which is just pretty much what he does.
GT: That is a really good point. Look, you are playing Woodford Folk Festival this year which is super exciting to me as we’re doing some great little partnerships with the Woodford Folk Festival here on the Gold Coast through the Festival of Small Halls. What do you like about the festival events compared to the more personal gigs?
JP: It is just a totally different kettle of fish. At festivals you are in and out. You go in there, set up, there is no sound check or anything, you just go on and play. So in some ways that is more high pressure. It tests your rehearsals and your ability as a musician in a positive way. I like being challenged anyway. I can go “I am prepared for this because if have been doing this for a long time”. All that Malcolm Gladwell thing of 10,000 hours, all that kind of stuff, comes into play and I enjoy feeling kind of experienced in those circumstances. Then, from a performing point of view, it’s just amazing and like an instant buzz. Especially now with having 5 albums and people of a broad demographic, especially at a festival like Woodford; I mean, people sing all the songs. It just feels amazing. There is just a real engagement with me and the audience, more than when you have just one album. It just feels really good.
GT: Have you been or performed at Woodford before? Pardon my ignorance.
JP: I have, yeah. I have done Woodford a couple of times. I have done it once as me and once in a collaborative project as well.
GT: How do you connect with a festival crowd who may have not experienced your music before?
JP: I guess you just have to play. If they haven’t heard the music, the best thing you can do is play really well and engage them by playing well. Also, speaking in between the songs. I mean, if anybody has seen me before they know that I definitely like having a bit of a chat between songs and that is always a good way to engage them. At the end of the day, you can only be as good as your material. You can only give them what material you’ve got and so you just play the material and hope for the best.
GT: We cannot wait to see you on the Gold Coast on 4 February at Studio 56. What sort of message do you have for your Gold Coast music lovers?
JP: I don’t know about a message. I guess I am still extremely grateful I am still doing this 10 years down the line. So many musicians I have seen come and go and I am still stoked that I am able to do this. It is very much to do with the support of fans that keep on coming to shows, so all I can say is thanks.
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Josh Pyke plays Miami Marketta’s Studio 56 tonight, Thursday 4 February.