Josef Salvat makes the most beautiful music, doesn't he? Yes he does. And there's more of it on the way because there's a new album out soon. Anyway, we had a chat a few weeks ago but nothing's really happened in the world since then so the points still stand, and here's the interview.
We bumped into each other on the street a few weeks ago, the day before you released your last single. And it struck me afterwards that asking someone, 24 hours before they released a new single, if the music was “any good” might have been insensitive.
I actually think it was a bloody great question because if someone can’t answer it positively and they’re about to release an album, they’ve got a problem. I mean I don’t think I’ve ever been able to answer it with certainty before, and I can now because I know the music is good.
I think as fans we tend not to understand that whenever someone has a new song out and they’re very excited on socials about how brilliant it is, very often…
…that’s not how they feel. Yes. Whenever you’re working with the number of people it takes to bring an album together, I’d imagine it’s almost impossible to get through it without making compromises. Unless you’re doing it entirely yourself, or you’ve been working with that same team across multiple records and already know how to get to that magical point. I also think, it sort of depends how brazen you are. ALSO: things not ever being good enough is what keeps people going, a lot of the time. Like if I thought I’d done my greatest work I’d stop, you know? I’ve been trying to figure out the balance between feeling very happy with what I’m doing, and feeling there’s always something better around the corner.
Is that balance starting to make more sense for you now?
Yes. This album has a shitload more clarity for me than the first one did. And I’m writing again now even though I’ve delivered the album, just because that’s what I do! As a songwriter! And a thinker and a feeler emotionally! I feel like it’s a never-ending journey but I’m really comfortable with it, for the first time since I started making music.
So the last time round you weren’t comfortable. What were you feeling?
I always felt like I was on the back foot a bit. I wasn’t comfortable with myself. I was terrified of the whole thing and I felt like an outsider. I’d come over from Australia, I felt lonely, my family was on the other side of the world, I was starting to build a community here but I didn’t have time to properly do that before I went touring… All the things I think its important to create — some sort of emotional or physical foundation, or ideally both — I hadn’t created. So I was on the back foot, and I was reactive rather than proactive, and that ended up with a feeling of disempowerment. So that was my experience of the first album. But it was also fun as fuck, let’s not get that wrong. It was very fun.
People often romanticise the idea of great pop being made by outsiders but that doesn’t always take into account the day-to-day reality of the artist who feels like an outsider. And day-to-day it's not really very romantic, is it? It’s just quite hard work.
Yeah. Exactly. And of course you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing, so you’re learning it all on the job.
But now you know what you’re doing!
Yes! Well, more so than before. I’ve still got stuff to learn.
It’s the climb.
You didn’t get dropped either, so that’s a bonus.
I didn’t! Because FRANCE HAPPENED! France happened. I think a lot of people here in the UK were surprised I didn’t get dropped but France did happen and France happened A LOT. People in the UK do rather tend to forget that there’s Europe across the way…
How famous are you in various countries that aren’t the UK?
Well in France I was very famous for about a year and a half, but of course when you go away for four years, unless you become a global monolith, you get forgotten very quickly. Which momentarily perturbed me and now it doesn’t bother me at all, actually. In Germany, also, I was famous for a hot second. Holland for an even shorter hot second. Those are my fame places. Holland started with my own music and a festival I played way, way back, and that was just word of mouth. But elsewhere, Germany and France, it was Diamonds. And France loves Open Season, because I also did it in French.
Is the secret just to record a song in the language of whichever country you want to be famous in?
Oh my God, absolutely. If you’re foreign there’s something very endearing about it, it seems. But I’ve always been a Francophile, I loved it at school and it was a very natural fit, so it’s not as cynical as I made it sound.
And you started working on this new album on… What day?
I think it was November of 2015. My first album had just come out in France. I went into a writing session with Justin Parker and I wrote a song called Human, and I thought: “Okay, this is the next album.”
And just to be clear, this is half a decade ago?
Thanks. THANKS VERY MUCH. Yes it was 2015. Oh, fuck off. YES IT’S A LONG TIME. You know, this morning a guy came up to me and he was like: “Your music sounds like my childhood!” And I went: “I’m not old enough for that!” And he went: “Okay then, my teenage years.” He told me he sang Open Season to get into Brit School, which was really touching… But also slightly alarming. Anyway yes it took me that long. In 2016, the album coming out globally was a bit like the stopper coming off a bottle and all this stuff flooded out into my head and I had to sort all that out before I could release anything else. Otherwise I just wouldn’t have been able to carry it all.
What needed sorting out?
(Melodramatic sigh) Who I am! Whether I like myself! How to be a better friend! Very basic stuff. I felt like I hadn’t experienced my twenties at all, and I was 27, and it was terrifying. I wanted to go and get a bit messy. I felt like I was in a straightjacket, and I felt claustrophobic within myself and I needed to let the oxygen into the room. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to release anything until I did that, because music had been robbed of its joy.
Which of the songs on your new album most sound like oxygen being let back into the room?
In The Afternoon seems like a really simple, direct, light little song, but it was actually HUGE just being able to submit to that lightness, and the possibility of lightness. Or a song like Melt, which has this drama in it that I really like, but it’s a bit kinder to myself. There’s more beauty in it than there might otherwise have been. Or Call On Me — it’s just fun. It was about bringing some fun into it and knowing it didn’t have to be so overwrought the whole time: you can deal with your messiness in a less heavy-handed way. And the beginning of 2017, when I wrote Modern Anxiety, was me going: “You need to accept this.” There’s a resignation to Modern Anxiety, I think: “Yep, this is what’s going on, let’s just sit in it.”
You mentioned the question of whether you liked yourself, then the idea of being kinder to yourself. It sounds like you’d been quite hard on yourself for a while. What changed that?
It comes from a place of complete fear. Almost a fear of exposure. It’s like a type of imposter syndrome, and it’s a whole bunch of stuff, discomfort with my sexuality, all this stuff, all stuffed into it. I was so, SO judgemental of myself. And other people: sitting in the corner, brooding away and snarking and giving people dirty looks — that was me, a lot of the time. I was just a super harsh critic.
MASSIVE projection, for sure. I think it was all projection. And it’s actually not in my nature to judge others, I find it a waste of time because generally everyone’s got something redeeming about them if you dig deep enough.
Well there are exceptions. I’d say 99% of the time there’s something — but you need to be prepared to look. But for a while there it was tricky to do that. I spent 2017 in Berlin making friends, losing friends, breaking things down, gaining insight, apologising. 2018 was spent back in London doing the same thing but a bit less. And 2019 was all about reintegrating and becoming a whole person again. I got myself a home and I got myself a dog.
He’s a poodle. His mum was a miniature and his dad was a toy so he’s between sizes. Oh I don’t know, he’s just a poodle. His name is Monty. My dad named him.
You mentioned your sexuality earlier — were you out around the first album?
Well I was… Anyone who knew me… Well, my experience around my sexuality hasn’t been straightforward, ever. I felt there wasn’t an avenue for me to express that without just looking like I was being indecisive, or trying to hedge my bets or whatever. So I was uncomfortable with that. Everyone thinks Australia is very gay friendly, which it’s certainly moving towards, but it's also a country that thinks it’s okay for TWO YEARS to discuss whether gay marriage is something you should do or not. On primetime TV panels: “Let’s get someone from both sides to discuss it!” I mean we’ve done the same thing on the carbon tax too, so who knows. But certainly in my parents’ generation there’s 'a way to be a man' and there’s 'a way to be a woman' and when you threaten that, people get very scared. During my high school years, there was a lot of horrible stuff. Bullying because of it, ostracism because of it.
What happened after school?
I began a long bumpy journey to self acceptance. At the start I was still spending a lot of time trying to meet other people’s expectations and when Night Swim was released it all came to a head and it really hit me that life is just too short for that shit. I had to start listening to myself. I think you can teach yourself to be brave. I also think we are now living in a time where, in parts of the world, there is this beautiful understanding of inclusive queerness that people have been fighting for and I’m very grateful for that. I took courage from that. But I did have to work on myself.
How did you work on yourself?
Getting drunk for a year was definitely part of it — when I was about 28 I wanted to hit rock bottom, just to see what it felt like. It was intentional chaos. And then I left that behind and tried to follow the ‘self love’ thing: getting out of bed in the morning, and so on. Then I felt like I was ready to go and get help. So I started psychodynamic therapy and that’s been the tiny little screw that just made the whole machine work, after I’d been getting the parts into place for… Well, for the last half decade, as you so handily pointed out. And yeah, the therapy was like just kicking everything into hyperdrive. I found my happiness. Which isn’t to say shit doesn’t still happen every day that isn’t concerning or troubling, but I’m very happy now.
What more do you want to say about your new album?
Well, there’s more of it.
What do you mean?
I wrote a lot of songs! If Modern Anxiety does alright then I might do a little bit of a Modern Anxiety II.
This sounds a little like you’re holding those other songs to ransom. And the onus is now on us, the streamers, to do our job and liberate those new songs.
I am doing that. 100%. That’s exactly what I’m doing. Like: come to the shows! I do think this album’s going to be best experienced live, because that’s where it all clicks. If you have an opportunity to come and see me I guarantee it will be worth it. I’ve been doing this for seven years now, I’m really fucking good.
What’s the merch going to be like?
There’ll be all the standard shirts and hoodies and mugs but I’m also looking into making some candles. I’ve just got to get the scent right.
Are you going down the Gwyneth Paltrow route?
What, a candle that smells like my arse? Well, potentially. I just think genitalia in general is not everyone’s favourite scent so I’ll be looking more along the lines of ‘primrose on a summer’s evening’. I’d buy that at a gig if I could. It’s something you can actually take home and use.
I’ve lost count of the number of artists I’ve said this to over the years, but: IRONING BOARD COVERS.
I don’t have an iron though. 1
That’s not the point Josef. If you can create an interesting version of something boring, you can dominate the market.
You’re saying something incredibly fucking mundane, but is a useful item? That’s what mugs are about isn’t it?
A little. Basically go round any hardware shop, find something everyone has to buy but resents buying, then you’re quids in.
I’ve got it: TAPE MEASURES! Do people have to buy those very often? Well, I do. I’ve got three.
Josef's Modern Anxiety album is out on May 1 and it's really amazing. You can pre-order it here.
YOU FUCKING WHAT MATE↩