Even if you're a casual fan of the booming synthwave genre you've probably heard Josh Dally's voice. The singer and multi-instrumentalist has appeared on two stone cold classic synthwave albums with Timecop1983's Night Drive and FM-84's Atlas. The unmistakable timbre of Josh's voice proving so successful with the former that it birthed a whole new collaborative album in 2021 with Faded Touch.
He's forged another alliance with Adrian Quesada Michelena for two albums as At 1980 (yes the genre loves those '80s year references) and now the songwriter is finally going it alone for his debut solo album on 27 May via NewRetoWave Records. So there's a lot of recording and writing approaches to talk about in our first chat with the UK musician who divides his time between here and Nashville…
What first inspired you to play and write songs in the beginning?
"I remember when I first heard artists like Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young it hit me so hard. I was only about 13 years old but it blew me away how powerful songs can be and the effect they can have on someone even if you are hundreds of miles away on the other side of the world. I pretty much started learning guitar straight away and started to try and work out how to play/write."
What guitar influences have inspired you over the years?
"Players like Eric Clapton, Slash, and Kieth Richards inspired me a great deal. I used to put the Guns N' Roses live DVD on and play the whole concert back to back and imagine I was playing in front of thousands of people. Looking back this was actually great practice."
What about vocalists who have inspired you?
"This is actually a hard question.... I never actually listened to a singer and thought I want to sound like that. I just remember when I was learning how to sing I had a few lessons to learn the basic techniques and then I just practiced and tried to make my voice sound like what I imagined it to sound like in my head."
You were previously playing guitar in the band Joywride with fellow vocalist and songwriter Ollie Wride, when did you decide to focus on being a lead vocalist yourself and was there a specific realisation that prompted it?
"Well being in that band started the whole singing thing. It became very clear very quickly that I wanted to be more than just a guitar player. I wanted to learn how songs were constructed and I wanted to sing them. Ollie was definitely a big help as he was able to tell me when I was out of tune haha. Also being able to watch Ollie sing and perform every night was as I was able to learn a lot from him."
You’ve contributed to two key synthwave albums with FM-84’s Atlas and Timecop1983’s Night Drive, how did those collaborations come about?
"Well with Jordy (TImecop1983) we have had a long working/friendship relationship dating back to when we first worked together on Let's Talk. And Col (FM-84) heard that song and reached out to me to ask if we minded if he did a remix of it and I suppose, as they say, the rest is history."
You collaborated on a whole album with Timecop1983 with last year’s Faded Touch, how did you write together and did your own approaches to songwriting and as a guitar player influence Jordy’s approach?
"For this album, we tried a few different approaches to writing, some songs were just instrumentals that Jordy sent over and I basically just wrote the top line melody and lyrics to.
"There were also cases where I had the song pretty much there and then Jordy added his magic to it. Jordy always elevates the song in a way I could never do myself. Put it this way, it's definitely not luck that he is such a well-known artist. He knows what he is doing."
Do you always have performing/ recreating the tracks live in the back of your mind with the collaborations you’ve done?
"You know what that is something that I think more and more about as I get further into my career. At the start, I definitely didn't but then when it comes to learning them to play live I released that they are actually really hard to sing. But to be honest I like pushing myself in the studio so I think my songs will always be fairly hard to sing live."
What are the challenges for guitar playing in this style, and what opportunities does it present?
"The challenges are definitely trying to blend in with the synths. It's important to add to the song but not take away from the synths as they are so important to the sound of the songs.
"I do think when playing live I am able to ‘play’ more as I think it's important that when people pay to come and see me they get to hear something different than what's on the studio recording. Live I also get the opportunity to play more guitar solos which is always fun."
What was the experience of touring with FM-84 like and what did you learn from the experience in terms of guitar approach?
"Touring with FM-84 was truly amazing. Traveling around America playing great music to great people, I mean what's not to like? I'm not sure if it informed my guitar approach because, to be honest, I always approach playing music the same way, and that's just to do me. I know that if give it my all and play from the heart I will get the best results."
You have the At 1980 project with Adrian Quesada Michelena, was that a different kind of collaboration to what you’d done in the past? It sounds like there was more instrumentation with a rock approach?
"It was actually quite similar to any collaboration, Adrian sent me some music that I liked and inspired me. We did discuss what sort of sound we wanted but I think when two people collaborate they will bring something out of each other. I think in this collaboration I am able to draw on influences like Def Leppard which has been very fun."
The last few years have been prolific for you with two At 1980 albums and Faded Touch, did you find lockdown a musically creative period?
"I actually found the lockdown very creative, yeah. I mean it was a tough time… It gave me a lot of time to think. This is when I think I make the best music as looking back on an event that I have already partly processed is very interesting for me. It gives me the opportunity to re-live that moment and maybe invent a new outcome or say something that I wish I had said at the time. It sort of gives me closure."
Have your past experiences fed into this solo album in terms of knowing the kind of sound you wanted to pursue? What can we expect?
"I would say my past experiences have definitely informed the sound of my debut solo record. I wanted to have a bit of everything on it. I really set out to make an album that was a bridge. Something that can take you from where I've been to where I'm going. "
What has inspired the album?
"I think like always I had something to say. I had some thoughts that I wanted to explore and try and understand. I think that that is one of my favorite things about writing music. A lot of the time you get this burning feeling inside that you have something to say. Normally if you do it right you write the song and then look at the lyrics retrospectively and only then do you actually know what it's about. I suppose this way you know that your heart has written it and not your head."
It’s easy to associate single-coil Fender guitars with the synthwave style and you’ve used a Tele live but you’re clearly a Les Paul fan too, what did you gravitate to for tracking this album?
"Firstly can I just say how nice it is to be asked specifics about guitar. Having been a fan of guitarist interviews all my life it still gets me really excited to speak about gear etc.
"It's always been more about what I want to play rather than what I should… I just love Tele’s, maybe it's because that Keith Richards tone is so deeply ingrained in me. And the Les Paul thing will always excite me. I find them less versatile but ironically that's why I love them. For this album, I was actually using a Slash Les Paul a lot. Currently, it's my go-to guitar."
Do you have any go-to guitars or other gear when you’re first starting to put together a song idea?
"I try to use lots of different gear when I'm writing but I definitely lean heavily on Universal Audio’s Marshall VST. I think it sounds great."
Did you track your parts for the album in a studio or home studio environment?
"A bit of both to be honest. For some parts, they really lend themselves to recording at home with little palm-muted funky parts. And some parts really need a Fender amp turned up to 10. I have also found doubling home-recorded parts with studio parts sounds really cool.
Can you describe your home recording setup?
"Sure, I have some nice Genelec 8020 speakers. I find that these are really honest and I am able to get a great mix on them. For mics have an sE RNT, sE Gemini, sE ribbon mics, and a Shure sm7b. I can get all the sounds I want with these mics. If you haven't already definitely check out the sE stuff. It's fantastic.
"For guitars I have a Fender '58 reissue Telecaster, Fender Deluxe Stratocaster, Gibson Slash Les Paul, Taylor acoustic, and a Fender Mustang bass. I then have UAD Apollo 8 and twin. This allows me to have enough inputs to have everything plugged in so I can record quickly without having to unplug something and plug something else in."
Do you have any go-to plugins and effects pedals?
"Definitely. I love my boss BD-2 and my MXR micro chorus. As I said earlier I love the UAD guitar amps. The bass ones are also great.
How did you balance your role as a guitarist with the electronic elements on this album?
"Honestly, I just made it sound like what I thought it should sound like. I really try not to think too much about it. I love guitar so I always like to have it blended in there somehow but what was fun when tracking this album was I was able to record some big guitar solo moments."
You’re releasing this album on New Retrowave Records - what do you feel is special about the label?
"Ten at New Retrowave has always been at the forefront of synthwave and his support over the years has meant the world to me. He has made it possible for me to get my music heard by a much wider audience than I would have been able to do without him. I think what is really special about NRW though is the youtube channel and having access to lots of people that love '80s music.
"The bottom line is if you put a great track out on the NRW channel it will do well because the audience is there waiting to be impressed. This can of course be quite intimidating sometimes but it's amazing to have that opportunity."
What have you found to be the key places where synthwave / retrowave and ‘80s influenced pop/rock have a strong following? The UK must be up there?
"I would say America is the biggest market. With LA definitely being the biggest city. But England and London if definitely up there which is great."
Why do you think the music resonates with listeners, even people that weren’t alive in the ‘80s and early ‘90s?
"I really think it's the nostalgia. Creating music that sounds like a soundtrack to the movie of your life has always been a goal for me. I also found a common thread when talking to fans on tour was that the music had become attached to another life event or feeling. I think that's what makes music so powerful, it's the combination of the music and where, when, and who you listen to it with."
What do you feel are the greatest challenges for songwriters in this age? It seems there is a lot of expectation and need for them to be very active on social media to maintain and grow an audience.
"I would definitely say social media is the hardest thing. But it's a double-edged sword as it affords me the opportunity to get my music heard by more people. Also, a lot of artists have made a career from social media and I think that's great. Why not. It's really hard to make great content and go ‘viral’ so I have a lot of respect for someone who has grinded away and made a career from nothing for themselves."
You’re really active with this with the live cover versions you do online. Do you find them beneficial to your growth as an artist too?
"I do find them beneficial, yeah. I think it's cool for people to see how I intepret other artists' songs. I also find it really fun to do and I think I am learning a lot from doing it."
What advice do you have for songwriters who want to collaborate with other musicians?
"Write from the heart and always bring a concrete idea to the room. However small that might be, it will keep the session moving forward and will give you an end goal to work towards."
Is there any specific advice to working remotely with other musicians that you can offer?
"Something that I really live by is that I don't listen to a track someone has sent me until I know I'm ready to be open to writing on it. My first listen is really important as it's when I'm most inspired. So I would say make sure you are in the right headspace, sitting by a microphone and pen and paper the first time you listen to a collaborator's idea."
The projects you’ve been part of and bands like The Midnight and LeBrock tend to transcend a synthwave or retrowave tag and incorporate rock and other elements into strong songwriting, for musicians that want to get into synthwave / retrowave using those kind of sounds in their own writing, are there any pitfalls you would advise avoiding?
"I would definitely avoid copying. There is a big difference between having your own idea and using other artists to inspire you and just straight out copying. So I would say use any sounds, but try and use a combination of your sounds and a mixture of your favourite artist's sounds. That way you will be making something new."
What are your hopes for the rest of 2022?
"Firstly I hope everyone enjoys my album. I then hope to get back out to Nashville and continue writing. I have already started work on my next record and can't wait to see where that takes me. I will also be working on another record with At 1980 which will be exciting."
Josh Dally's debut solo album will be released on 27 May via NewRetroWave Records. The single Speak Your Mind is out now. For more info on Josh Dally's music check out the following links: