It's a mid-Autumn day and Australian singer-songwriter Vance Joy is sitting in a small Airbnb in Venice Beach, Calif., with his closest friend, drummer and co-producer Edwin White. UberEats just delivered some vegetarian food, and both are anxiously awaiting the moment when they can dig in. White begins discussing his friend’s songs—universally relatable, warmly emotional, acoustic ballads that have, in the past few years, shown up on seemingly every wedding playlist in the Western world. And that’s when White stands up, and walks briskly out of the room.
“One of the new songs has a lyric, ‘when big trees fall, they leave a space in your sight,’” White recalls, standing outside now. He begins to cry. It’s a hushed, choked cry. His voice breaks in half. “My mom died last year, so I attach a lot of these lyrics to my life at the time. I think all of Vance’s fans do that as well. I’m closer than anybody to this music, and I’m pretty sure I’m having the same experience with his songs that the fans do. I guess I’m just a lucky Vance Joy fan.”
Back inside, 30-year-old Joy doesn’t know that his best friend is weeping over his work. He’s sitting alone, planning out his week in California, where he’ll record some of the very last touches to his upcoming second record, Nation of Two, set for release on Atlantic Records in February 2018. He’s acutely aware that thousands of fans—who are still buzzing from his ubiquitous mega-hit “Riptide”—have been waiting over three years for the album. A whole crew of managers, label reps, handlers and producers are eager to hear some new music, too.
Joy doesn’t seem to care. He doesn’t operate on their schedule. The songs come when they come—those emotional peaks that mark nearly every song can’t be artificially created.
“I’ve squeezed everything out of myself that I possibly could,” he says calmly. “And I can finally feel myself relaxing a bit.”
Frankly, it’s hard to imagine him any other way.
Vance Joy was born James Keogh and came of age in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. A true child of the ‘90s, when Joy was young, he fell under the spell of direct, immediate bands like Metallica and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and preferred sports to books. He played guitar but hated theory, and spent weeknights with friends hashing out riffs. In his twenties, he was successful in the Australian Football League while working side jobs. Early on, he landed on the moniker Vance Joy, separating his footballer life from his musical one, as much for practicality as for style.
“My last name is pronounced ‘Key-Oh,’ but I thought people would read it wrong. I wanted something more striking, immediately recognizable,” he says. He lifted Vance Joy from Peter Carey’s book Bliss because, “It could actually be a real name, but it’s a bit more mystical.” Newly minted, Joy gigged around Melbourne alone with his acoustic guitar.
Then he wrote “Riptide,” and everything changed.
He had been kicking around fragments in his head for years but, in 2012, the whole thing materialized, and Joy knew he was onto something. Comments on the demo he posted on social media only reinforced his intuition.
White, in the meantime, had been backpacking and surfing his way through Southeast Asia on the way to a new career in England.
“James rang me and said, ‘I’m going to do music and make a go at it. If you wanna do this with me, come back. It’s time,’” remembers White.
The two hit the studio and worked out the modest five-song EP God Loves You When You’re Dancing, and “Riptide” was soon trickling across the sea through some very important headphones—including those of Atlantic Records’ A&R Senior Director Stefan Max.
“It’s a one-listen song,” says Max, who is also camped out in Venice Beach to help with Joy’s final sessions. “The sixth sense kicks in and you feel that song. Seven seconds into it, you have goosebumps.”
Joy was signed to a multi-album deal before his debut was even recorded—and by the time Dream Your Life Away dropped in 2014, “Riptide” was already a growing hit. Then the Taylor Swift tour happened, and everything changed again. The pop icon was launching the tour for her inescapable 1989 album, and Joy was invited to open. The decision for a brand new, soft-spoken and effortlessly humble folk singer to tour with one of the world’s biggest stars wasn’t straightforward—at least not to his growing team.
“The whole discussion of should we or shouldn’t we was hilarious, to be honest,” says Max. “There were 15 people sitting in a room, between his management and the label. Lots of strong opinions, arguing back and forth. But it was his decision. And he saw no downside—he said he’d do it in his own way.”
And how, exactly, does one tour with Taylor Swift on their own terms?
“He was never willing to totally play the game like Ed Sheeran did—hanging out with Taylor, posting on Instagram every day. And because of that, he didn’t get as big an impact as he probably could’ve,” says Max. “But still, the Taylor effect is undeniable.”
Overnight, Vance Joy jumped from playing clubs to stadiums, strumming through his understated, often-whispered folk tunes.
“It was such a learning curve,” laughs Joy. “Before, I’d spent my gigs looking at my feet, just getting through it and wondering when it would be over. But I began to enjoy the connection with the audience more—really seeking it out, actually. I saw how good a show can be watching Taylor; she made me want to deliver so much more.”
The tour behind 1989 kept Joy on the road for most of 2015, after which he spun off into his own headlining gigs. “Riptide” kept rolling as an international hit, climbing the charts in nearly 20 countries—subsequent singles like “Georgia” generated their own heat and Dream Your Life Away was selling millions. In less than two years, Vance Joy had become a bona fide pop star, playing ukulele and acoustic-guitar-driven folk that was arguably more suited to a coffee shop seating 10 than a stadium holding 10,000.
And all the while, Joy was waiting, patiently and calmly, for his new songs to arrive. Label and management pressure was already mounting before the tour with Swift even wrapped—to keep the momentum, to grow the hype, to stoke the fire. By mid-2016, Joy had two finished songs, and a phone full of notes and voice memos, unconnected to each other.
“It’s a mysterious thing when a song arrives,” says Joy. “You turn up every day waiting for it. But it’s never a straight line. It’s a bunch of squiggly lines to that final destination. And a lot of good stuff happens when you’re not trying too hard—ideas, melodies, lyrics. But to completely finish a song, you have to hack away at it. You sit down and smooth away the edges; you put different ideas together. It’s not studiousness, but craftsmanship. I turn over every stone to get to the song. The ideas may come free-form but, at some point, you’ve got to do the manual labor.”
He worked with a conveyor-belt mindset throughout 2016 and into 2017—as a song matured to its final form, he’d head into the studio and record it. He never truly gave himself time off; he was either traveling from studio to studio, or camping out and “chipping away,” as he says. Joy laid down the tracks in the New York Catskills region, Seattle and Malibu, Calif.
“Over a year and a half, we created this patchwork quilt of songs,” says White. Joy chewed over lyrics and melodies for weeks, months sometimes, until each song captured the emotional punch that’d become his calling card—the gorgeous, warm-embrace that helped “Riptide” garner more than half a billion plays on Spotify and almost 200 million views on YouTube.
“I know when it hits me in the chest. When I’m in the ballpark, I can sense it,” he says. “If I can sing a line with conviction, that’s the sign post. I don’t have to try too hard; it just pours out. It’s instinctual. If a song penetrates me, if it feels intimate to me, I know people will have an emotional reaction.”
“With the storytelling in James’ songs, it’s very simple language. These are everyday experiences that everyone has, and there’s an anchor for people to relate,” says White. “We try to make every song universal. We think about what we’re trying to get across, then enhance that so people experience it as much as possible.”
Vance Joy certainly isn't the first singer-songwriter to tap deeply into human emotion, but he is rare in his aversion to misery. His songs never ache like a Ryan Adams tune; they don’t wallow like Elliott Smith or poetically mourn like Conor Oberst.
“He’s got sad moments, but it never feels like you’ve got an empty bottle of Jack Daniels next to you. There’s hope at the end of any of his sad stories,” says Max. That broad appeal is obvious at his shows. “His concerts are 18-to-35-year-old date nights,” laughs Max. “You see a lot of couples, and a lot of smiles and emotion on display.”
But where Dream Your Life Away presented a collection of similarly mellow, clear-eyed folk, Nation of Two sets its sights higher, with more rousing choruses, varied percussion and lots and lots of horns. The album’s first single, “Lay It on Me,” builds on an instantly catchy melody and a simply plucked guitar before ramping up to an explosive, propulsive chorus that’s more electrifying than any of his earlier work.
On the sweeping “One of These Days,” Joy cries over echoing percussion and buzzing horns, “Wherever you go, you’ll be in the right place/ You’ll never know the difference it makes/ When you let go and give up your chase/ I’ll come find you... one of these days,” and you can feel an army of slightly unsteady, hopeful twentysomethings fondly remembering their exes and reassuring themselves that everything is going to be alright. It may be in the album’s title, though, that Joy most fully manifests the feeling his music creates in listeners.
He took the phrase “nation of two” from novelist Richard Ford’s recent book Between Them: Remembering My Parents—though he later realized it was coined by Kurt Vonnegut.
“[Ford] dedicates the book to his parents, the life they shared together, the love they had,” says Joy. “Before he was born, his dad was a traveling salesman. He’d drive around the country, and his wife would go, too. They lived on the road, in their own world. He describes that time, before he was born, as so sacred. They were a nation of two—two people who are self-contained, self-sufficient. The world exists only up to the edges of the bed they sleep on.”
It’s easy to picture the couples at any of Vance Joy’s shows, wrapped up in each other’s arms. If “Riptide” isn’t theirs, then surely another handful of Joy’s songs are. When he begins the sparkling, gorgeous, new song “I’m With You,” he sings, “I saw you standing there/ Sandy blond hair/ The way you came tumbling down just like a waterfall/ And if you need a light/ I’ll be the match to your candle—my darling/ I’m ready to burst into flames for you,” and those arms squeeze a little tighter. “I was just coasting till we met. You remind me just how good it can get,” he sings, and thousands of eyes meet, reflecting the bright stage lights.