BN1 chats with…Josef Salvat

Last month, before he played a headline gig at The Haunt, BN1’s Gary Marlowe caught up with Australian singer/songwriter Josef Salvat. Their chat covered a wide range of topics from songwriting and recording to dealing with fame in one country whilst being a relative unknown in the one he now calls home. With his MD being from Brighton, it’s a place Josef knows well so we first asked him what he likes about the city.

Josef: I know Brighton pretty well. Jonny Coote — my MD — used to live in Kemptown, but he’s now in Preston Park. I grew up next to the ocean so that’s a big plus for me about Brighton. In fact, not long ago I was close to moving down here. I love living in London but it’s become so expensive. I like Brighton because it’s got its own identity. You don’t need to outsource your fun if you live here! So much happens, you don’t need to go to London, but it’s close enough, providing the trains are working.

You grew up in Sydney. In many ways, Brighton is perhaps the most similar place in the country to Australia. 

Josef: Yeah, it’s relaxed. We lived in the Eastern suburbs, right next to Bondi.

Do you now consider yourself a Londoner?

Josef: No, I’m like nothing. I’ve lived in too many places. I grew up in Sydney, I went to university in Canberra.

It was music that brought you here, but it must have been a massive decision to up sticks and leave home.

Josef: It was something I’d been thinking about for a while. It wasn’t about having a problem with Australia, more that I wanted to experience other places. I first went to Barcelona and lived by the beach. While I was there I was coming over to London to work on my music.

You came in search of collaborators, people whose music influenced you like Paul Epworth and Mark Ronson. Did you ever get to meet them?

Josef: I met Mark. Twice. Even though I’d gotten into them years earlier, by the time I arrived both were huge: Mark with Amy (Winehouse) and Lily (Allen) and Paul with Adele and Florence. Theirs was the sound I wanted to make and they were both in London. But by that time, through my manager, I’d found Rich (Cooper) and we started working together.

So, was London the paradise you hoped it would be? 

Josef: I didn’t have any expectations. London was just a place where I could do what I needed to do. And find what I was looking for. And I found exactly that. Paradise and London aren’t two words I’d use in the same sentence. London is a very rich city, in terms of experience. It’s unparalleled. There’s always something happening every night and there’s amazing people working there. If the cost of housing was reasonable, London would be the perfect city. But since I moved there it’s gone from being expensive to live in to being ridiculously expensive. I rent a room in a house and pay a fortune for the privilege. For the same money I could get a one bedroom apartment in Paris. And then there’s the sprawl, the amount of time it takes to get everywhere. And everything’s changing. It’s losing what made it a really genuinely exciting place. It’s forcing many people to leave. It makes me very upset, because London has been as important a city in my life as Sydney. I think I’ll either move to Brighton, or I’ll go to Paris. Both are close to London.

The album’s taken a long time from inception to release — around six years to get together. Why so long?

Josef: The songs were written over a period of six years, the album was made in four weeks in 2014. I’ve been writing since I was thirteen. I’ve got hundreds of songs! Some don’t fit me anymore, some don’t fit into a body of work. I didn’t write an album, it’s just a collection of songs that work together.

How much of a relief was it to have finally released your first album, because it’s a big thing in any artists career?

Josef: I guess I didn’t realise how much of an achievement it would feel like. Even though the album doesn’t represent where I am now musically or creatively, getting it out was something I had to do. It means I can now shut the door that I’ve been waiting to shut pretty much ever since I signed.

Now the album’s out and you’re promoting it, is that harder than recording it? 

Josef: The album came out in France last year. Open Season went to number one in France as did Diamonds so I’ve done a lot of promo over there. That’s been a real crash course for this now. It’s a necessary evil, but it’s also flattering that people are interested to talk to you and find out about stuff.

People don’t understand how much effort musicians have to put into their career…

Josef: I’ve been gigging this material since 2013. But it’s just one show a night. I write songs because I can and I love to do it. But in order to make a living out of that, there’s a whole bunch of bullshit that has to be done. What feels more like work to me is having to make videos, doing the social media thing. That’s the hard work.

The album is surprisingly good for a debut, full of well-crafted songs. On song-writing, Bjorn Ulvaeus once said something that I think relates to you too. He said: “All I know is we wrote those songs from our heart and we recorded them as best we could.” 

Josef: Absolutely. When I was writing them I was thinking about judgement. I wasn’t thinking about performing them to an audience.

Many artists cite travelling as being the hardest thing about the job, the boredom of the travel and the fatigue of touring. How is it for you?

Josef: I’ve been more or less on and off touring these past three years. I hate to say it, but travelling in Europe is better than it is here in the UK. The venues have more money, there’s more money on the rider. For me, because of their history, the venues are better in the UK, but the actual logistics of touring is much better in Europe. Most venues in Europe are government subsidised, and they’re all hi-spec. Touring is what makes you an artist. I’ve learned a lot over the last three years. Back then I thought I was a good performer, but you learn and you get better. How do you keep the spark night after night? That’s what it’s all about. It’s very difficult to establish a routine on tour, it’s hard to see much of the places you visit because there’s generally a tight schedule and it’s only glamorous if you’re making loads of money and can afford to pay for the glamour. If not, like me, it’s a splitter van, an Ibis budget hotel and really, really fantastic clothes!

Do you wear different clothes each night?

Josef: I try to. At least I’ll wear a different shirt. But buying clothes is expensive. Back in the day, I did one tour wearing the same shirt for a month and a half!

Was writing and performing always your passion? When did you recognise you had a talent for making music?

Josef: My parents aren’t musical, in fact they’re tone deaf. But they’re both music lovers. My grandmother though was a singer, so it’s in the genes. As a kid I knew when music was good. It’s a weird thing, the older I get, the less I know whether I’m doing something good or not. I guess back then, music was in the background and then I went to law school. It was rebellion because everybody thought I was going into music or acting, but I really cannot stand delivering on peoples’ expectations. So I took myself off to law school, within two weeks realised it was a terrible mistake, but decided to finish it and use the time to become a better songwriter. Which is what I did. It was midway through law school that I put the ball into motion in a serious way.

Music and law seem strange bedfellows. What has that experience taught you about the business of music? Has it helped in any way?

Josef: No, I don’t think so. Going to law school changes the way you think. That’s why lawyers speak in a particular way. You are actually trained to think in a completely different way and it kind of fucked with my creativity a little bit. I spent a good two years clawing back who I was before I was at law school. I learnt stuff, but it’s basic knowledge. My best advice? Don’t study anything, just go and do it!

As a new artist, how difficult is it to put a band on the road, to tour and to make money?

Josef: It’s hard. It’s interesting, a lot of the artists that I most respect in the pop world do tend to come from money because at least they don’t have to compromise their creativity. The sync for Diamonds for example, to sing somebody elses’s song when writing my own songs is such an important thing to me, that’s something I maybe wouldn’t have done if I had lots of money. You make decisions to get to where you need to go. But without money everything is hard. So you do what you need to do to get by. You do make money out of record sales, not a lot compared to how it used to be, I’m surprised by the number of people who have bought my album digitally when it’s so easy now to listen to music for free. My album was cheap to make because it only took four weeks and my producer and I tried to play as many instruments ourselves as we could and if we needed something we couldn’t do, we got a friend in. So albums don’t have to be expensive to make. Money doesn’t equate to quality. Particularly with music.

How ambitious are you? Is there a masterplan?

Josef: If I had one, I would certainly never tell anybody about it! Of course I’m focused on having a career in music. It’s a huge gift to be able to do something you love and make a living out of it. I started writing the next record the moment I delivered the first one to the label. They’re now all in demo form.

How much control do you have of your career?

Josef: Nowadays I think artists have more control than ever. Successful artists have a lot of control because the nature of the relationship between the artist and their fans has changed. Artists like Rihanna and Taylor Swift have more power than any label. Their fanbase is the size of small countries. For me, control is more about writing my own songs, being involved in making my videos and my artwork.

Tonight’s the last date of the UK tour, and in two days time you’re playing Berlin at the start of a two-week European tour. Your standing in Europe is somewhat different to what it is here. It must be weird going from one country where you can walk down the streets and no one recognises you, to another where they do?

Josef: It’s quite nice though! My first taste of fame was in France and I’m so pleased I understand what people there are saying! It would be really shit if I didn’t speak French and had no idea what was happening. You get the best of both worlds. My last show in Paris was quite big. My show in London was on a similar scale, but my regional shows around the UK are much smaller. Playing a small show is a really special kind of experience. It’s all about the intimacy. I love that. Big and small shows are both daunting, but in different ways. There’s no hiding place in a small room. In that respect, having these two different worlds going on at the same time is great. The success in France pays for stuff I wouldn’t otherwise be able to do in England.

Many people will know you best for your cover of Diamonds a song written by fellow Australian, Sia. Will you be playing it tonight?

Josef: Of course. If I don’t, people tend to get really cross with me! So I have to. I don’t mind, it’s part of my story.

Who have you had in the audience before? Any celebs?

Josef: I don’t know. I don’t think so.

Finally, what can we expect from tonight’s show?

Josef: I try and keep it pretty casual. I explain a lot of the stories behind the songs and I try and lose myself onstage. I don’t go to a lot gigs myself because generally I find them pretty boring. I’m not that interested seeing someone just play for an hour and a half. If that’s it, I’d rather listen to their album.

Words: Gary Marlowe

Portrait: Images Out Of The Ordinary

Follow Josef at @josefsalvat

Josef’s debut album Night Swim is out now

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