Vance Joy: “Most breakthrough moments happened using less ‘significant’ guitars”

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The artist behind platinum selling Riptide is still making waves with his unique, stripped-down playing. Emily Bielby caught up with the curly haired crooner.

Australian-born James Keogh, better known as Vance Joy, sprung to success with the release of breakout track Riptide. The 29-year-old’s chilled, summery and upbeat indie folk pop is infused with the Australian music he grew up listening to.

In that vein, his new album Nation Of Two came together effortlessly with no direct theme or style set in stone; speaking with Joy over the phone, he admits that most of his songs started out as guitar riffs on his phone. 

“I knew that I needed to write songs because I wanted to release an album eventually and so I started collecting ideas along the way like when I was on tour; I might hear a line I like and write it down onto my phone or write a little guitar riff that I like.

I can store all that stuff but I guess the glue - the actual songs taking shape to the point where you’re really proud of them - all kind of happens out of your control.

All the songs I really like from this bunch are ones that came from me not trying too hard

“The songs were more based on things I found interesting like guitar riffs and words that I like and then they all come together into a song. All the songs I really like from this bunch are ones that came from me not trying too hard. They just came in through the side door as opposed to me chasing them down,” says Joy.

The sophomore album, describes a perfectly self-contained couple: honest, heartfelt lyrics, sweet harmonies and a more than generous amount of solemn acoustic moments see the Melbourne singer-songwriter do folksy-pop at its finest.

The album’s preview singles, Lay It On Me, a very sultry and sweet brassy acoustic pop track that details instant attraction to somebody and folky ballad Like Gold, a straightforward breakup track with a very wistful persona sees Joy reminiscing on a past relationship. Take Your Time ups the tempo slightly for a much more sunshine-y vibe, whereas Call If You Need Me returns to slower, more intricate rhythms, with gentle percussion, similar to that of Like Gold - more on that later.

Nation Of Two

Lyrically Nation Of Two is deep and very thought provoking, but inspiration-wise Joy likes to mix things up, gathering ideas from film imagery, books, or experiences that happen to someone other than himself, as well as his own personal experiences. 

“There are a couple of songs on there that I feel are a bit more personal. I probably always inject bits of myself into my songs, but there is one song in particular where I wrote something that felt particularly autobiographical for the first time. I’ve never experienced that working, but with Little Boy it worked out well.

“It’s nice to think you can actually turn your experiences into songs. It’s funny how someone might describe a memory to you that didn’t happen to you but for some reason you can just sing it and it feels right in the song,” admits Joy.

At least four songs on the album have been done using a $120 Yamaha GL1 Guitalele as the main guitar

The new record showcases Joy’s ability to let his simplistic fingerpicking and delicately plucked chords take the limelight, as bold and crisp rhythms bounce around effortlessly but effectively. His choices, it seems, were inspired by practicality as much as anything else. 

“If you’re lazy like me, transporting guitars is a bit of a bother. So I was looking in Nashville for something compact to take around and record voice memos on my phone with. I got this Yamaha GL1 Guitalele which was only $120. It’s just a mini guitar but it sounds really sweet.

“At least four songs on the album have been done using that as the main guitar. It has lovely character, even though it’s cheap; the tuning’s not too bad actually and I can fit it in my suitcase. So that was a good little discovery to change things up a bit. 

“I also used a Seagull Merlin spruce SG dulcimer which was another cheap funky thing I picked up just for fun to play. Again, I actually wrote a song on it for the album, Where We Start. It has three strings but it sounds like a banjo dulcimer. You always hear that saying, that a new guitar or a new instrument will always have a song in it and that was a true case with those two instruments I picked up.

Maton man

“I also used a Custom Gibson, which looks like a really old one, but it’s one of their new ones and it’s black, it’s one that I got recently and my guitar tech named it Janet. Not very descriptive of the actual guitar but it has a name which is important. I just watched Blade Runner and the replicants in that film didn’t get names, they just got barcodes, so it probably means a lot to have a name,” Joy says with a chuckle.

Being a loyal fan to Maton, it’s no surprise to learn that Joy’s Maton was also used on his new record, specifically the one that his dad bought for him in 2007. 

I don’t even prefer to use good guitars - I like junky nylon strings that I’ve found and written loads of songs on

“The Maton I used on this record was the first good quality guitar my dad got me and it cost about $1,000. I played that first Maton guitar a lot and for the first few years of touring that was my main guitar; but it’s been retired a little bit recently.

“All the guys in my band really like the sound of that guitar so we kind of warm up with it in the backstage area,” admits Joy.

Although his Maton was used on the new record, Joy confesses he doesn’t have a specific go-to guitar for songwriting, having not written that many songs on it, and instead prefers using less notable guitars. 

“I don’t even prefer to use good guitars - I like junky nylon strings that I’ve found and written loads of songs on. On a song from my first album called Georgia, most of the breakthrough moments happened using less ‘significant’ guitars. Ones that have just been thrown around and treated pretty poorly, lying around the house; the ones that I tour with are kind of kept in storage a little bit and they’re just used on tour.”

In that respect, Joy isn’t too fussy when it comes to guitar brands. “It really is just based on instinct and also when I’m choosing a guitar to play for the show it has to look cool as well. I take a lot of lead from my sound and monitor guys. I might play a guitar that doesn’t sound good when it’s amplified - like my Guitalele which is pretty cheap - but when it’s mic’d up in the right way with the right equipment, it can sound really cool. 

“This Guitalele was used on a song called Call If You Need Me which was produced by Ryan Hadlock and he mic’d it up with a vintage mic to make like a really old school sound. He actually did the first couple of Johnny Flynn albums. He made this Guitalele sound like you were listening to something from the olden days and I just loved what he did.” 

Sentimental six-string

Understandably, the 2012 Kala ukulele that Joy used to record Riptide has sentimental value, but there’s also a guitar his father bought as a teen that holds a special place in his heart. 

[I have my dad's Suzuki] which is Japanese - a Martin Dreadnought copy. It’s super cool. The neck at the top, at first position is super thin

“He’s almost 60 now so it’s around 40 years’ old,” Joy explains, “but I don’t take that on tour at all, it’s a Suzuki which is Japanese - a Martin Dreadnought copy. It’s super cool. The neck at the top, at first position is super thin and the action is really low. When you’re learning guitar, you play, say, a nylon string with six strings and it breaks your hand - but then you play a guitar like this Suzuki with this thin neck and you barely have to hold the strings down. Just a really nice guitar.”

Joy admits that he didn’t immediately take to lessons, aged 11. “My motivation came when I was about 14 and I saw a couple of friends who were really good. They played the intro to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Under The Bridge and Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters - which every 14 year old boy wanted to play and I did. Piece by piece I just started practicing more. 

“Eventually I got hooked and I did lessons for about three years which I enjoyed because I had a really good teacher. He was the type who’d call me out for not practicing if I hadn’t, so I always practiced.

For anyone new to Joy’s guitar style, he’s particularly well known for his raw, almost stripped-bare approach with precise plucking and fervent fingerpicking. 

“I fingerpick and strum and often the strumming is with my fingers even though it sounds better when you use a pick. Although most of my songs have a combination of the two - and I play probably two or three rhythms in the fingerpicking and with this new record - there’s a couple of songs where I’ve used different rhythms. 

My fingerpicking is very much inspired by Johnny Flynn who does a lot of fingerpicking hammer-ons and pull-offs really well

“The two songs Like Gold and Call If You Need Me have exactly the same rhythm but different tunes and I haven’t played that rhythm before on songs,” he explains. “My fingerpicking is very much inspired by Johnny Flynn who does a lot of fingerpicking hammer-ons and pull-offs really well.”

Although his influences are vastly varied, he’s got a bit of a weakness for a decent frontman. “There’s a singer-songwriter called Paul Kelly who I really like - he’s an Australian - and I really like Brandon Flowers from The Killers, just because he’s got such a clear and powerful voice and it’s uplifting. I just love some of The Killers’ songs and I love that kind of going-for-it vocal. Paul Kelly has a really unique voice but the sound that I really envy is Flower’s; people who can hit the really high notes, super clean, I love that,” says Joy. 

As our chat moves to favourite songs (Classical Gas being at the top of his list), like a 14-year-old given a guitar for the first time, he eagerly picks up his guitar to show me his progress over the phone. “The main bit I can play, but I can’t play the chorus, so if I could play that whole song, that would be the one.”

Joy takes an endearing pride in how far he has come since his teens. “When I was 14, we were playing Blink-182’s All The Small Things for a little recital. My teacher played the melody and I played the chords; he said I played with authority with my rhythm. I felt really good about that; that even if my timing isn’t always perfect, it’s gotten heaps better since I started. That’s something I feel that I have brought to my playing; rhythm and authority to the way I strum.”

Nation Of Two is out now.

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