Since 2017 you’ve been on hiatus – welcome back… You’ve been keeping busy while you’ve been gone – children’s books, advocacy and mentorship work, a psychedelic rock album under the pseudonym Sword Owls – but you’ve also taken some time out – how has that experience been?
It’s been great, I mean, it’s been exactly what I needed, you know? At the end of the day, it was a necessary break, and now just after 10-12 years of solid touring and releasing records – and then keeping in mind that for the 8-10 years before that, I was just hustling to try and get anywhere with music. So I just felt like I needed to step away and deal with some things that were making life not particularly enjoyable.
What were those things, if you don’t mind sharing?
There’s a bunch of stuff that I don’t choose to talk about, but the thing that I’m happy to talk about, because I think it helps to have a dialogue about these things: I was having pretty significant anxiety issues which were just ramping up over a number of years and ended up manifesting themselves in really bad panic attacks and it just was clear that a lot of that was to do with—y’know, there was a bunch of stuff that it was to do with—but one of the things was the touring lifestyle, and if I was ever going to be able to address those things, I couldn’t do it from being on the road, playing shows five nights a week and being away from home and not living a particularly healthy lifestyle on the road, so, yeah, that was the main thing.
You have a tour of the country coming up in October—How are you feeling about returning to tour after the intervening years, are you excited or are those feelings mixed?
I’m so excited, and it’s like that experience where you have a party planned and everyone’s accepted, everybody’s RSVPed… and then you can’t do the party. This tour was meant to happen in March, and all the tickets were sold, I was literally three weeks away from hitting the road and mentally and physically I was totally prepared. I’d been rehearsing, I felt physically and mentally great and then COVID came and pulled the pin on that so – I’m ready. I’ve been ready for months. The tickets – I feel so blessed and fortunate that across the whole tour there’s only been about ten refunds. So this tour is a sold out tour that’s just waiting to be done so I’m super excited and I just really hope that I can actually do it in October.
I’ve heard that you love touring, spending as much of your time on the road as you do and you’ve toured with everyone, both nationally and internationally, not to ask “what’s the craziest thing that’s happened on tour” but do you have a fondest memory to share from your previous tours?
Oh my god: there’s so many. I’ve toured with so many different artists and in so many different places. One of my fondest memories was years and years ago I toured with an American artist called Ben Kweller and we toured the UK together, and we shared one of those massive tour buses—the classic tour bus where you sleep on the bus in bunks. For me, I remember that so fondly – it was like returning to the womb, you know? Every night we’d play these great shows, he was headlining, we were playing these huge shows, and we’d all stumble back onto the bus and go into these funny little bunk beds and draw these curtains and drive through the night and wake up in these different towns. For me, I still remember that as symbolic of what touring is for me: you’re disengaging from the rest of the real world… you don’t do groceries, you don’t have to clean your house (laughs) – you don’t have to do anything except rock up, play a show and have fun. And when it’s good, it is the best life I could imagine. When it starts to burn you out, then it becomes something very different.
What do you do to counter that burnout?
Well, basically… take three years off. That was what I did. When you’re in the midst of touring—it’s very different for me now though, than it was when I started—when I started in my twenties I didn’t have kids, I didn’t have a partner, so there was nothing bringing me back home. There was no real need to find balance between touring and “real life” – that’s very different now. So for me balance is the only way to avoid burnout, and, in all seriousness, it’s about being a little bit militant about simple boring things like not drinking too much, you go to a show and you’re presented with—this is a huge issue in the music industry, you go to a show and you’re provided free booze for weeks at a time, it’s your responsibility to try and be responsible. For me, now having a “real life” again that I love and am always keen to get back to provides me with that balance.
Thematically, what are the bones of this album?
I think the core one is the idea of—and it’s reflected in the title—the idea that all roads lead back to Rome, where Rome is a metaphor for yourself, you know? You can’t escape yourself. You can try and change yourself and you can make improvements and you can manage yourself, you know, whatever ‘yourself’ is, but at the end of the day—and having 2 kids, I see this now… you come out the way you come out, you are who you are. I have a tattoo of Popeye’s anchor, because when I was a little kid I really loved the Popeye comics, and he always used to say, “I am what I am and that’s all I am” and that always stuck with me. And as I got older and I started reading about Eastern philosophy and Taoism and stuff like that, it’s a very Buddhist/Taoist kind of philosophy, you know? You are who you are… you should try and improve yourself, but— unless you keep returning to that, and accepting who you are, you can never really make any progress or positive changes in your life. You have to stare yourself in the face and accept who you are in order to improve yourself or your position in the world.
I wanted to ask about your production/recording process with the most recent release – you recorded Rome in your home studio and have said you wouldn’t record an album any other way – why is that? What made it so good out in the back shed?
You’re not looking at the clock… I mean, I’ve spent 20 years building up a studio, the gear and the space and designing it exactly the way I want it …and recording in other spaces can be really fun – it can be inspirational. But for me, just personally, in the back of my mind I’m always thinking about the clock and how I’ve gotta get this stuff done by a certain amount of time. And also now as a dad—I’ve been a dad for almost ten years now—I love that as my most important role, and I don’t wanna go away for a few months and make a record somewhere where I can’t come home and see my kids after school, I just don’t wanna do that. It’s just not how I wanna live my life.
You’ve collaborated with some well-known Aussie names – at this point of your career, and beyond, who would you like to collaborate with? Who’s at the top of your hitlist as someone you would like to work with?
Good question… There’s a lot of artists that I love that I’d like to do some writing with but I think for me, the thing that I enjoy the most in terms of collaborative experiences has actually been the performance element, like actually being up on stage and having that connection in the moment, and I don’t know who but I would love to do a full album of—not covers, but duets, with an artist that I love and admire. I’d love to write and record then perform a whole album like that. Because you know, I did the Basement Birds record years ago and that was such a great experience, like performing live was kind of the payoff for the long and meandering process that it was to make that record—because we all lived in four different states at the time—but getting together and collaborating on stage really hits the high point for me at this point.
So do you have any names that you’d like to throw out into the universe or…
Well, I mean, there’s lots. Somebody I really admire as a performer and like, I know her, so, I imagine it’s not completely—like, I can say how I feel, but I think that Montaigne is just one of the most joyous and brilliant live performers in Australia so I would love to do—I could imagine doing something that’s kind of different for both of us. But you know, I literally just said that, it’s not something I’ve thought of before (laughs). There’s loads, I mean, Sarah Blasko I would love to perform with, her voice is just incredible, and then there’s people like Gordi, Sophie Payten—who is a previous JP Partnership winner, who is just absolutely killing it. I mean, her music is just inspirationally great, y’know? There’s loads, there’s too many to name. Well… I just… did name a bunch… but…
Your new release “Don’t let it wait” is about seizing the moment – what do you intend to do with this moment of yours?
In terms of looking at things directly and accepting them for how they are and fully engaging with them, I think that for me, the thing I’ve struggled with my entire life is being in the moment. I’m always thinking “what should I do next” or “I shouldn’t have done it that way” or “god, I’d love to do an album with this person” and then it kind of detracts from enjoying what I’ve most recently achieved. So for me, what I would really like to focus on is, I’m so hoping that I will be able to tour, and when I do, I just wanna focus on enjoying that – the moments, you know. Because it’s a complete gift to play, it’s what I dreamed of from the time that I was eleven years old – to play my songs to people who wanted to listen to them. Seizing the moment for me at the moment means literally that – engaging the moment fully and practicing doing that.
Did you have any advice for creatives or anyone wanting to pursue a career in the arts?
The sort of thing I’ve come to realise and I do believe is that— it’s a pretty harsh piece of advice, but I would say that if you want a career in the arts, if you just want a career in the arts – if that’s something you think you would like, then I would recommend having something else up your sleeve to do, because it’s very hard. It takes a long, long, long time to get anywhere, and I think, if you feel compelled to have a career in the arts, then that’s different, then there’s a whole other suite of advice that I could give you, but the first bit of advice that I would give is generally— if this is something that you enjoy in your life, then keep it as an incredibly passionate, serious hobby… but in terms of making a living, maybe think about something else. But if you’re compelled to do it and you know that you’ll be like, literally mentally unwell if you don’t pursue it, then let’s talk further.
You obviously felt compelled… Was there ever anything that you were going to do that wasn’t music?
No— there were many points along the road where I thought “god, I don’t know if this is gonna work out”, but there was never a point where I was going to quit, and I’m just so fuckin’ thankful and grateful everyday that thus far, it’s worked out… because I don’t have a plan B and I’ve never had a plan B. You know, maybe that’s why it did work out. That’s what I mean, if there are other things that you could equally enjoy doing, that offer a path with a bit less resistance – then that doesn’t preclude you from engaging in music and creativity in a really serious and positive way. But I just never had anyhing else that I was even vaguely considering doing (laughs), so I really had to make it work.
Tickets to Josh’s Fan First tour are available from http://www.joshpyke.com