“It was fun writing songs without any idea of an impending album date or anything,” says Vance Joy of the writing process that spawned his new album In our own sweet time, his third full-length arriving today. “We were almost like passing the time and making ourselves feel productive. Like ‘Let’s write a song’ and ‘Should we catch up in three weeks?’ There was no real momentum at the time, it was just a way to enjoy what we do.”
That relaxed feeling finds its way into the music on the album, which represents a new artistic pinnacle for the Australian singer-songwriter. In an interview with American Songwriter, Joy spoke about writing during the pandemic, how his relationship with his girlfriend inspired the album’s love songs, and his anxiety during the mixing process. Here are some of the highlights of the conversation.
American Songwriter: Was there a thought process about what the album was going to sound like or did you let the songwriting lead the way?
Vance Joy: I like to just let the songwriting happen and follow your instinct of what feels cool and interesting and pursue that. I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but you are drawn to a certain feeling on the guitar. I played certain styles, just a fingerpicking style, the style I play, but slightly different chord shapes. It felt a little cruise-y, the riffs I played, a little more mellow. There are some upbeat songs on the album, but I feel like I generally went in that direction of playing cruise-y finger licking riffs. Just fun riffs that felt fun to play and felt repetitive and hypnotic. I noticed that stuff like that kept popping up. As for the lyrical content, I think I enjoyed the break to not have to travel so much and have a little rest, and I think that definitely made its way into the songs.
AS: That’s a theme that comes up a lot when I talk to songwriters, the idea of having time to write during the pandemic. How was that for you?
VJ: I had been to Spain. When I returned to Melbourne in March 2020, everyone went into lockdown that week. But I had time to visit a piano store and I bought a small second-hand piano and put it in my front room. So for the next few weeks I was tinkering with the piano and a few songs came out of that. But I don’t know if my approach has changed or if anything has improved. I definitely had some time to write songs all by myself, which is nice. And I wrote the last song on the album (“Daylight”) all by myself on the piano.
I think that’s closer to where I started. The first songs I wrote, I hadn’t even considered co-writing. I wrote the first album all by myself and half of the second album. Since then I really enjoy working with people, but it was just fun coming up with the whole song myself. You sometimes worry if that’s even possible, especially when you get so many opportunities to work with so many great co-writers. In the end, you write really great songs with other people, but you want to know that you can come up with the chorus, the idea, the chords, everything yourself and that it will still be a good song.
AS: A recurring theme on the album is the idea that a relationship is the central and stabilizing force in a crazy and chaotic world. How much of that is based on your own life?
VJ: That’s a nice way of saying it. I like centering and stabilizing. I feel like that’s definitely something that’s true to my own life. I met my girlfriend a few years ago in 2019 before we went on tour for Pink. I kept coming back to Barcelona as we were in Barcelona before the start of that tour. Time has passed pretty quickly, but it was a centering, stabilizing, fundamental kind of thing. I feel that many of my songs came from a sense of ease and contentment. Thinking about those moments of connection where you don’t worry too much about what’s going on outside. That really became the theme I kept coming back to. Every song has that in one way or another.
AS: You said you were in Spain, and some of those details work through in these songs. As a songwriter, how do you know when to record those details?
VJ: With a song like ‘Catalonia’ I thought I didn’t want to say Barcelona, maybe it’s a bit on the nose. And I always feel a little more chilling, too. I think it’s a little scarier if you put your own story in there. But (co-writer) Dave (Bassett) uses this expression: something with teeth. Like a line of teeth. When you say Catalonia, it puts something really strong in there, rather than going diagonally towards it. He forced me to cough up the images of life in Barcelona.
So I said we’d go for a walk under these little arches, and there’s squares and churches and you hang out on the patio and all these things. You feel a little embarrassed when you put all that content into it. But he sent me a demo track to sing to me, and when I sang the song in the hotel room, it felt right. All those references, I sang them passionately with a purpose. I think it’s one of those things where it’s a little scary, but most of the time it works. It’s like when you’re a kid and you’re ashamed of your clothes or something. It’s about being behind it and not feeling so uncomfortable about it. It is a beautiful realization.
AS: While this record feels like a piece with your previous work, there are some deviations. Tell me about one of those quarters: “Wavelength.”
VJ: That track is a bit of a detour and more experimental. I went into a session with the production duo Take a Day Trip. They’re incredible at what they do and I never thought they’d want to work on my acoustic guitar-based singer-songwriter kind of stuff. And I also worked with Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors. The four of us were in a room for a few days. Dave is a great guitarist. He played a riff and the guys from Day Trip made it sound like a sitar on the record. I don’t approach writing the lyrics the way I usually do. We sang melodies over the backing track the guys from Day Trip made. And Dave said, “I’d like to use the text ‘flood plain’.” I was like OK, that sure has teeth (laughs.) We put it in and it all made sense, so we made this song. It’s cool to have a song like that. It felt a bit more like I was in a band, everyone was joining in and vibrating to the song.
AS: This record feels effortless. But was it as easy to make as it sounds?
VJ: I’m glad it feels that way, but there are always some struggles. Since there were no deadlines, it was like taking this demo and turning it into the final product. I got so attached to the demos during those two years I was with them that it’s hard to hear them any other way. In the end, many of the songs became improved versions of the demos. There are always a few songs and they are produced in a way that is completely different from the way they end up on the album. That happened with a few songs.
“Every Side Of You” was hard to follow. We really didn’t know which way to go. You really wish you could lay the foundation of the production in a way that you have a strong sense of when you write it. We had a few different versions of that song that were both really good, but very different. And it’s like I love the way this sounds, but I also want to stay true to the demo and the way my voice sounded in the beginning. So there are always a few messes.
And the mixing process, I think more and more, it puts my head in it. I think my ears are becoming more in tune with the sounds. In the first two albums I’d say, yeah, that’s cool, whatever, I might change that one thing. Now I don’t know. It can be affected if you didn’t drink coffee that morning: “Is that going fast?” or after you’ve had a cup of coffee, “Is that slow?” I have a lot of confidence in Edwin White, who is my drummer and producer on these songs, and Dave, who also produces. The thought of going back and mixing again, it’s an emotional experience, and maybe it shouldn’t be, but you can’t help but think that this track has gone completely in the wrong direction. You go on a rollercoaster every day listening to these songs.
AS: The third album is traditionally an album that makes a big artistic leap. Do you feel like this album has made such a leap?
VJ: It’s hard to be objective about it. But I feel a little more confident about it when we perform the songs. I felt like I was getting better. Even when we play as a band, I can now keep up with the clicks much better. I feel a bit more confident in all those musical aspects. It’s hard to say if that is reflected in the recordings. But I feel excited about whatever the next album is and just writing songs in the future because I feel like I can walk into a co-writing situation and feel like I don’t just have something to contribute, but also that I can be more excited than scared and nervous. And maybe that’s just being open and mature or something. It’s hard to judge the quality of the songs and how people react to them, but I hope for the best.
Photo by Celina Martins / Atlantic Records