Josh Pyke on Songwriting, Collaboration and His Career Thus Far
I totally fan-boyed when I got the opportunity to speak with Josh Pyke, one of the most influential and well-loved musicians in Australia, ahead of the release of his Best Of, B-Sides and Rarities album (out June 30) and national tour across July and August. Josh has been incredibly influential to me as a musician, and I think I can speak for many young Australians when I say that his music has been the soundtrack of my summers for the last 10 years! Memories & Dust was a defining album during my pizza delivery days, when I’d belt out all the harmonies as I raced around in my stanky pizza car. His music is still among the most played on my iTunes. We spoke on the phone about the new release, as well as his writing process, lyric-writing advice, and how he stays grounded. Josh is a great guy, and I want to thank him for giving his time to chat to us! His shows are a magical experience, so make sure you check out the tour dates at the end of the article, and get to a gig near you!
IN: You’re about to embark on a national tour celebrating the new Best Of, B-Sides and Rarities album, which is released in a few days. Was it difficult to pick the specific singles from your studio albums to make up that Best Of disk?
JP: Yeah, it was pretty difficult. I tried to not be involved in the choices for the main disk; it’s just really hard for me to be objective about what was best. "Best" is a funny word, coming from the person that wrote the songs! So it was mainly based on the things that you can’t really deny, like the ones that are singles are the ones that sold the best. But it was more the b-sides and rarities where I really, really dug deep and went through all my old hard drives dating back to 2005; which thankfully I’ve kept, and trawled through and found all these old demos. That was really fun and a really gratifying process.
IN: And there are two brand new songs as well, which is really exciting. Has anything changed in your writing process since Memories & Dust, which was 10 years ago?
JP: They are actually both good examples of things that have and haven’t changed. For instance, "Into the Wind" was a co-write with Dustin Tebbutt. And I didn’t used to do co-writing for my own work. I just couldn’t do it. And over the years I’ve realised that even when I’m co-writing for my own stuff, I have to write the lyrics 100% by myself. But, collaborating on the actual music and the production and everything is really satisfying and exciting. So, that’s kind of a new thing. And even the way that I wrote the lyrics for that song is kind of a new thing as well. Jeff Tweedy from Wilco does this thing I read in an interview with him about, and I tried to do it: so, I sing gibberish on the demos, including harmonies and doubling of vocals and stuff like that. And then I’ll mix them down really low with reverb and delay on them like you normally would, so that I can barely hear what I’m saying. And then I try to translate my own gibberish.
IN: So it comes from more of a rhythmic place?
JP: Yeah, exactly. Also, it’s like you’re kinda translating your subconscious, because all these really poignant things come out, ya know? And then you refine them and make it poignant. So that’s one way that I’ve been writing for the last few years, and that is really different from Memories & Dust. Whereas, "Save Your Love" was very much a song that was written in the same way that I used to write which is just tooling it out on a guitar for, ya know, a month. Just playing the same stuff on the guitar until it just naturally comes out. The words and the music kind of at the same time. So, two different processes.
IN: The lyrics that you write are super awesome (fan-boy moment), do you have any advice for song writers who might struggle with the lyric writing aspect?
JP: Well, that technique that I just described has been pretty useful to me, when I’m stuck for things to say. Unless you have something that you’re really wanting to talk about, sometimes it’s easier to just let your subconscious take the front foot and just kind of go with it and try and figure out what you’re trying to say by listening to your own gibberish. It’s all about the flow. It’s all about basically letting go of rules and letting go of expectations and letting go of your own limitations and just kind of blurting out stuff, and then refining it. Not being embarrassed by what you’re going to say. Not holding anything back. Say the darkest things in your mind, say the most clichéd thing in your mind. Just say whatever’s on your mind, and then slowly refine it over time. I think it’s just about being as free as possible really.
IN: And what’s the average time you spend refining those lyrics?
JP: A long time! So even when I’ve written songs like "Middle of the Hill" that have come out really quickly, I’ll spend sometimes months changing one word here or one word there. Like a “this” to a “there” or an “and” to an “of”, or whatever. Both for reasons of making things sing a particular way, so it sounds better when I sing them; but also, sometimes I’ll deliberately change a sentence to be grammatically incorrect because it just sounds better when you sing it. So yeah, it takes a long time to refine those little aspects of it.
IN: Generally speaking, in the last 10 or 12 years, since Feeding the Wolves, what’s changed for you as a musician?
JP: I think it’s confidence, ya know? I mean, so much has changed in my personal life, and those experiences increase, well hopefully increase your confidence as an adult, and as a person in the world who’s able to contribute to the world in general. I’ve written so many songs now and recorded so many songs, that inevitably you just feel like you know what you’re doing, which I didn’t at all when I started. I was just kind of following my instincts you know? So you learn to hone your instincts and be more confident, but at the same time I think that comes with a danger of being over-confident and thinking: "well, I’ve written so many songs, whatever I write is gonna be good". And that’s wrong as well. It’s about having confidence and trusting your instincts, but also acknowledging that collaboration and outside influence is a really good thing, and something not be taken for granted.
IN: And is that what kind of keeps you down to earth while letting other people into your writing process?
JP: Definitely, yeah! Not thinking of yourself as above anyone creatively is really important. Because creativity, it’s not a hierarchy ya know? Like, my 4 year old kid is as creative as I am, and probably more so. You know what I mean? Like a good example is this morning, he had the shits with me and my wife, and he had made this little toy doll sort of thing with a happy face on it. And he was having the shits with us because we wouldn’t let him watch TV before school, because we never do. And then he ripped the head off the doll that he’d made, walked into his room and drew a frowny face and stuck it back on the doll.
IN: Haha awesome!
JP: And I just thought that was such a brilliantly creative way of expressing his frustration without having to chuck a tantrum. And so, creativity comes in all forms, and I think there’s no hierarchy in terms of creativity. Everyone is as creative as each other; it’s just that some people are better at expressing.
IN: What do you like to do outside of music? And how does that contribute to your performing and songwriting?
JP: So I’ve got 2 kids now, so family time is super important. And we love getting out in nature. I spend a lot of time in the Kangaroo Valley now, and I love surfing too. I don’t get to do it as much as I like, ya know, I spend so much time in my head and in a studio, that as often as I can I like to be outside; out in nature. And also, collaboration is not all about sitting down and trying to write a song with someone. It’s about going out and having conversations with people from all walks of life. I just like being out in the world, because in my creative life I’m so often in my own head. As soon as I can get out of my own head it’s a good thing!
IN: Yeah, it’s a relief right?
JP: Haha. Yeh, definitely.
IN: And what do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t a musician?
JP: I dunno, I mean it was a solid 10 years out of high school before I was able to make this my job. And I did lots of things. One of the things that I liked doing the most was I worked for a publishing company. So you know, I’d probably work in the music industry in some capacity. Running my grant, the JP Partnership, gives me a chance to kind of stay involved in listening to emerging artists and you know kind of mentoring them and stuff like that. So, I think I’d probably be working in some capacity in the music industry, I think.
IN: And speaking of emerging artists, do you think there’s someone up and coming in Australia that’s really exciting?
JP: Oh there are loads! The 3 women that have won the JP Partnership in the last 3 years, which are Gordi, Alex Lahey and Angie McMahon; I think they’ve all got huge futures. Montaigne; we share the same management, and I think she’s kind of like the new (Sarah) Blasko, like a real career credible artist. But I mean, there are loads ya know? There are so many great song-writers, and it’s more challenging than ever I think. But they’ve just got to persist and find ways to continue to create output, 'cause it’s important. We need creative output, we need creativity in Australia, and we need to value our cultural and creative out-putters.
IN: Amen! Since you started writing, there’s been a change in the way music is consumed and distributed and paid for, or not paid for. It’s probably easier for up and coming acts to get their music out there, but do you feel it’s harder to make a living from music these days?
JP: I think so, I imagine that it is. People have to be more creative and change the paradigm a bit. There are massive advantages to digital aggregation of music, and how easy it is for people to produce and distribute music. But yeah, there’s a massive difference between that and getting a bit of hype, and people getting SoundCloud listens and whatever. As opposed to actually being able to quit your job and spend all your time making music. Any creative practitioner is going to benefit from being able to spend 40 hours a week on their craft. And I think that’s much harder to achieve, but people do it. Jack Carty is a great mate of mine, and he’s a completely independent artist. He's been self-employed as an independent artist for 5 or 6 years now - he does house concerts, he tours constantly, he’s independent so he does crowd-sourcing and all that stuff. I always look to him as a kind of shining light of what can still be achieved as an independent artist who’s falling outside of kind of mainstream music. It’s definitely harder, but it can be done.
IN: Yeah. If you’ve got the hunger, right?
JP: Well that’s it. It’s definitely about that. And I’ve said this many times; unless you’re actually fundamentally compelled to pursue it, unless you get up in the morning and you’re like: "I’m gonna be mentally ill if I don’t pursue this", (and I’m not saying that lightly, I’m saying that genuinely), then maybe it’s something that you should relegate to a really passionate hobby. I know lots of people do, and kind of save yourself the heartache. It’s really hard, but if you’re compelled to do it and you know that you literally don’t have a choice but to pursue it, then there are ways to make it work.
IN: Awesome. And one final bonus question. What TV shows are you watching right now? What’s good?
JP: I just finished Master of None, the second season of that, which is awesome! Ahm, and I’m just about to dive into the new Twin Peaks, so that’s what I’m going to be spending my time doing. Haha!