The archives of rock history are not overflowing with albums conceived on the NSW Central coast, but troubadour Josh Pyke sets a standard in songwriting which has seen him go from Gosford to Greenwich Village and back again. With his dark eyes, full beard and wistful songs about nostalgia, loss and the distance between lovers, Pyke has carved a well worn path around our country and into our record collections. The album ‘Only Sparrows’ is his latest brilliant release, a dense and lyrically mature opus, and with each record displays evolution and altruistic progression. Touring nationally in May with his newest album, Josh Pyke got on the phone with AAA Backstage’s Bailey for an insight into what success, fatherhood and intimacy mean to him.
Hi there Josh! So tell me some of the exciting things that you got up to today!
Today was rehearsal all day, for the tour that starts next week, so a full day which is a lot of fun but actually incredibly tiring, surprisingly enough!
It’s fun to revisit older songs as well, to play around with how they interconnect with the newer ones for the upcoming shows…
Yeah, and we’ve been really restructuring and reinventing a lot of the old stuff, tinkering and adding new instruments so it’s all pretty different, there’s not one song that I would say we’ve played the same… We’re playing like 20 songs; it’s been a lot of work.
That’s what I was going to ask you, do you find that once you’ve played your songs live over the years they’ve adapted slightly or even largely from the original album recording?
Yeah heaps heaps heaps! I realized a long time ago that an album version in not necessarily the definitive version of the song… When you go out on the road live songs change almost immediately depending on who you’re playing with- You might stumble upon another little vocal melody that fits better in a live context than what was on the record and phrasing and stuff like that. Because I don’t listen to my own record, well, never listen to my own records, I kind of forget the recording fairly quickly and whatever works live is how it ends up being.
Especially for songs that are a little bit older, because it really is that one recording, that one pressing and over time you’d change how it’s performed?
It’s a very organic thing, you can’t really help it unless you’re a pop act that’s playing to backing tracks or something, it’s kind of impossible for songs not to evolve and change over the years, it’s completely inevitable.
Last year saw the release of your latest album ‘Only Sparrows’; I’ve noticed birds seem to feature a lot in your work. What significance do birds hold to you?
It must be a subconscious thing, coz you know, I don’t really like birds that much, I’ve gotta say. Especially like starlings and pigeons. I find them kinda grotty and disgusting…
Or even violent or erratic hey!
They are for sure! Like the big ibises that hang around in parks… So I’m not a huge bird-lover or anything but it just seems in various points in my life that the imagery of birds has been the way that I’ve used to describe certain things. For instance with the sparrows, the line comes from a situation where I was in New Zealand one time, watching this sort of mountain from an observatory point and these little sparrows, because they were so small were literally getting blown off the mountain, but they kept on coming back, then lose their footing and come back and I just found that imagery of these tiny little things being smashed around by the elements but always returning and always coming back to fight another day was quite inspiring so in this case the birds are a positive thing but in the past, imagery of crows and stuff have been quite a negative influence.
Do you have any writing habits or rituals? I’ve found your lyrics to be emphatically honest…
I’ve always avoided having any method or structure to writing… In my early writing I sort just sang gibberish till it just turned into words… On the last album I did a lot more of prose and fitting the prose into the song which I found really good actually, really liberating creatively, because you can just write anything and then you find these bits of metaphor and imagery with a stream of consciousness type vibe… So I don’t have any methods, in some ways I’d like to because it would take the pressure off. I just sit around waiting for lightning to strike haha! I just kind of walk around hoping that something will happen… Pretty much the story of my life haha!
Avoiding that pressure, especially when writing a new album, you have to kind of go, right, I’m just going to write, stare a blank page, and not knowing if anything will come to me?
Exactly, I think a lot of people can get caught up in the pressure of thinking, well the last record has done well, I’ve got to match that and yeah, that did well, so I’m going to write songs like on the last record and I’ve really really tried to never do that, so I think ‘Memories’ is really different to ‘Chimneys’ and ‘Sparrows’ is really different again. I don’t like going over the same ground… It’s also why I like to reinvent the live shows and playing solo and all that kind of thing.
Did recording in New York change what influenced your songwriting? Like being so far away from Australia or your family or did you find a bit more clarity in the distance?
I recorded demos in New York but it was definitely a clarity thing because I really felt that I just needed to be alone for a few weeks and really kind of figure out what I was trying to do. We just spoke about pressure and having a bit of break between my second and this album… ‘Chimneys’ had gone really well and suddenly having a new family, I was like, oh god, I’ve gotta keep being successful and a lot of pressure was on me…
Doing something for yourself as your career but also finding balance in a family…
It’s hard, it’s difficult because if artists are honest with themselves, we don’t write songs to try and change the world or make people’s lives better- We write songs because that’s what we do and compelled to do it, you know… If you’re lucky enough to make a living out of it then it is an amazing blessing. But obviously if you get used to it being your job and you don’t want to go back to doing truck driving and all the various other shitty jobs that I’ve had, you start to put pressure on yourself and it’s really a mind game. This why I took myself off to New York for a while, at my partners encouragement, it was to just remember that I don’t write songs to make money and I don’t write songs to get on the radio and I don’t write songs even to have an audience in mind. I write songs to purge things from my system and to… I’m compelled to do it- I can’t sleep at night, I can’t function as a person, as a healthy person, if I don’t get these things out of my system and that’s really the function of songwriting and performing for me- to get all that negative stuff out of myself so I can be a good partner and a good dad and a good person.
If you have this compulsion to write, success is only a by-product of what you’d do anyway.
All the other musicians that I’ve spoken to about it are all the same… You have this sort of drive to succeed because you feel perhaps arrogantly that your songs are good enough to make it or whatever, but if you are lucky enough and fortunate enough to get a little break and work hard and build on it, you can end up crippling yourself by putting the pressure on yourself to think that you’ve gotta keep that kind of success up. So going to New York alone I was writing these songs and I suddenly had this epiphany that the sort of person that I want to present myself to my kid is someone that has integrity and follows their heart and doesn’t do stuff to just kind of sell out and make money. Really the only way to be that person was to just follow my heart and write songs that I loved and leave it at that. If I can write an album, if I can consistently put out records that I genuinely love and I feel really proud of then to me that’s the biggest achievement and everything after that is a massive bonus, people coming to shows and buying the record. It’s hard to keep that clarity when you’re bogged down in touring and trying to raise a family and pay bills and all that kind of shit that everyone else does, you know?
Do you think that integrity comes from being a father or has it grown from even early in your career?
Becoming a father reminded me of it but it’s something that I’ve always really tried to stick to which is why it took me a long time to get anywhere because I was trying to be a musician from the time that I was 18 and I didn’t really release my first album till I was 27 or something. It took a long time and I think that because I was just sticking to my guns and playing music that at that point wasn’t popular haha!
Whoa, we got really heavy then, I had some other stupid questions to ask you but I don’t think I will now!
Hahaha that’s alright!
So I’ve been listening to your records and have been a fan of yours for quite some time… Your song ‘The Summer’ is definitely one that resonates deeply with me, describing yearning and loss. Was it just an unconscious moment when writing those lyrics?
For me it’s not a heartbreak song and that’s the thing I love about songs in general is how you know, for me I know what every one of my songs is about and I’ve had so many people telling me their interpretation of it and they’ve been so off the mark but it’s still completely correct. It’s correct for them. It’s like looking at a painting and interpreting it how you it makes you feel. It’s something that I used to think that the writer of the songs had the last word on what a song meant but now I realise that as soon as you put a song out into the world its not yours anymore, you know what I mean? That song is almost about reminding yourself to live life like the way you experienced when you were falling in love and when you’re a kid… The song kind of references different points of my life in each verse so it’s not really about one situation. Part if it is about a summer I spent in on the Central coast of New South Wales and every year was this unbelievable escape from high school which I hated and you know, being wrapped up in stupid social bullshit. So that was freedom and the yardstick for me and the epitomy of freedom and happiness…
Of the nostalgia of youth?
Exactly, that period of youth when your 15 or 16 when your on the cusp of adulthood and you start to have ambitions and you’re starting to have idea of what you want your place to be in the world but you just can’t get there yet, so you have this reckless abandon. I think it’s good to live your life like that, maybe not all the time but it’s definitely good to not worry too much about what people think and what the outcome is going to be.
It’s special to have that memory recorded, something to remind you of even as you get older.
Yeah absolutely! That’s another thing that I think of as a real blessing with being a musician and making records is that I have already left a small legacy, even if I never make another record I’ve already said pretty much what I’ve ever wanted to say and it’s on tape, so it’s a nice feeling.
The Brisbane show of your ‘Love Lies’ tour is sold out at the Tivoli, is that still just as exciting now with your success as it was earlier in your career?
It’s amazing, every time you go on tour you’re basically rolling the dice. To put it bluntly, going on tour costs a lot of money… I’m me, you know, I’m just a solo artist so mostly I pay for it. I’ve done lots of tours particularly regionally in the past where I’ve come off a 6 week tour and realised I’ve lost $20,000 and you’re going, oh my god, what have I just done? So every time a show goes well it’s a massive relief and a blessing. So there’s that side of it and there’s the absolute rush that you get from playing to a full house. Particularly if a show sells out you know that every single person that is there wants to see your show and hear what you’re going to play.
You played BluesFest in Byron Bay this year, what were some personal highlights for you, something fun, something hilarious you saw?
Haha well we actually go there on the day and played and then left straight away but that crowd was unbelievable, were you there?
No, but my editor was there and he said it was crazy like bananas!
Oh it was incredible, I reckon it was probably one of the biggest festival crowds I’ve ever played! I tried to take a photo of the crowd from stage, off my phone, you know, but I accidentally had it on the filming function so I’ve got this like 15 second snippet of my voice going “I’m gonna take a photo!” and then I go “Oh no, it’s on film, just hold on!” to like 10,000 people or whatever it was. So then my phone froze and you can see and hear all this crowd just kinda staring blankly at me.
It’s bad enough when you’re trying to take photos of your mates and you have it on that film option and having to get them to wait, but now you’re saying it to thousands of people.
Haha yeah, it was a little bit embarrassing but at the same time I think people thought it was pretty funny!
Well it’s been a thrill to have a chat with you, thank you so much for your time Josh!
My pleasure, speak to you soon! Thanks a lot!
Martina Bailey Pitrun - AAA Backstage