Joshua Bassett doesn’t hide behind smoke and mirrors. What is most evident with his self-titled debut EP, out March 12, is the strength of organic instruments. Rooted in guitar or piano, calling to early influences like Billy Joel and Sara Bareilles, Bassett’s way around a melody is silky smooth—his song “Heaven” a prime example. I always heard there was a heaven / I never knew if it was true / But darling, ever since I met you / I know that heaven is you, he croons over dainty piano keys.
Even when Bassett eyes mainstream pop success, often pulling an Ed Sheeran on such entries as “Lie Lie Lie” and “Sorry,” he fractures genres and melds them into a rootsier take. If one were to even question his authenticity as an artist, digging into his past certainly turns up clear cut evidence this was always his destiny.
Growing up in a musical family, in the sunny coastal city of Oceanside, California, Bassett’s father and grandmother played countless gigs together, his grandmother often switching up instruments mid-gig at the bat of an eye. Bassett first learned drums in church and later started musical theatre when he was seven or eight, along with his five sisters. “At any given moment, you could catch all six of us singing different songs at once,” he says.
When he was 15, his grandfather passed away, and his grandmother gifted him a ukulele. That changed everything. His whole musical world opened up, leading him to learn guitar and then piano. In those early days, he may not quite have understood even the bare bones of songwriting, but the foundational blocks were already in place.
“The nature of my family and life growing up, we were always used to creating things. Whether that was me and my sisters making home videos or skits, almost every day we’d make something new. Sometimes that included coming up with little ditties on the piano, stupid little songs we could sing that sometimes we still sing to this day,” Bassett told American Songwriter over the phone last summer. “We’d come up with jingles or different things, so I think doing that, having fun, and not really caring about the end product is ultimately what songwriting is about. I tend to gravitate toward singer-songwriter music more. I think it just came naturally. When I started writing music, I never really thought about it. I just did it.”
One of the first songs Bassett ever learned to play was Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” naturally. It might not have been evident then, but learning the iconic 1973 pop standard would leave a lasting impression—the signature piano lick creeping into his own work years later. “I was writing a song, and I did not even think about it. I realized it was influenced by the technique I had learned through [Billy’s] song. I was subconsciously picking up bits and pieces,” he says, also naming Harry Styles and Adele as distinct influences.
“I think when you do combine all those sounds, you get something brand new that is totally yours,” he adds.
Nearly a year ago, Bassett signed a lucrative record deal with Warner Music and began strategizing a musical release. “I had a vision board and wrote down the songs I wanted on the project,” he says. Many of the songs were written last summer, but he also found himself reaching further back into his arsenal of songs for potential cuts.
“I really do believe the best songs stand the test of time. And if they don’t, maybe they weren’t that great to begin with. As the years go on, there will be songs I listen to and think, ‘Eh, I’ve evolved past that,’” recalls Bassett over a follow-up call earlier this year. “But then there are songs, one of the first I wrote and just recently relistened to, I think, ‘Oh my god, I completely forgot about this song. We need to get this recorded.’ It’s always an interesting journey to see how the songs evolve and have them take on a new meaning.”
Currently riding a wave of TV success, around his work in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, there comes a heavy price tag as he tries to break through pop music. Despite being written and recorded last summer, a song like “Lie Lie Lie” has been perceived as a clap-back to former girlfriend and HSMTMTS co-star Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License”—when their relationship has nothing to do with it at all.
“Obviously, I’d love for people to focus on the music. But I also know how this world works. And I know people are going to navigate toward perceived drama or whatever they want to make of it,” offers Bassett. “It’s up to me to do the best I can and make [the music] as good as it can be. Ultimately the music does rise to the top. No matter if people are talking about, what matters most to me is how the music resonates with fans”
With public perception and rumors swirling, “Lie Lie Lie,” a plucky, venomous pop track, frames around the betrayal in a friendship “and the anger that can come with that,” explains Bassett. “To your face, that person can act like they’re your best friend. When you find that out, it can be frustrating and really hurt.” He quickly “funneled that emotion into my guitar,” the backbone of the song that slithers and sprays with a particular kind of lyrical poison.
I know you’re lying through your teeth / You told them the lies that you told me / I’ve had enough of it this time, he hisses on the chorus. Bassett’s vocal burns red-hot, and he never lets uncontrollable anger overtake his ability to deliver an irresistible pop hook.
Such a violation of trust can come frequently in an industry where you never really know who you can really trust. “It’s tough not to close off your heart being in this business. When money and ego get involved, you’re bound to run into problems. It’s tricky. I do have some people I can count on in life. I also think it’s important to have people outside the industry. As people grow up, you figure out who is really going to be there for you.”
Where the EP largely focuses its lens on Bassett’s own experiences, he slips into a narrator role with opening track “Sorry,” a gentle bluesy smolder in the back of his throat. “My friend was experiencing something where her boyfriend was not the best guy, and he dumped her for no reason. He was full of himself,” he says. So, he pulled out his guitar and wrote around the you’ll be sorry tag, switching between first and third person.
Bassett is a sly chameleon, wiggling from the stickiness of “Lie Lie Lie” and “Sorry” to blinding vulnerability on “Do It All Again,” a trickling acoustic guitar at the base. We weren’t perfect / But you were worth it all, he pulls the listener in close. If it were my call, I’d do it all again.
“Everyone can sort of relate to that. You get out of a relationship, and you’re looking back on it all,” he says. A tug-of-war, a tussle between attempting to understand if “all the fighting” and “extra stuff that doesn’t’ matter at the end of the day,” blasts like a mushroom cloud into the atmosphere.
Once “Heaven” comes around, and for all his deceptive musical swings up to this moment, Bassett manages to surprise. An almost blissful arrangement wraps snuggly against his voice, the emotional core of the song still hitting as potently as anything else on the record. Well, lately, I’ve been questioning my faith, he confides. Just one look at you is all it really takes.
Perhaps, he’s unwittingly taking a page out of Belinda Carlile’s playbook (see: “Heaven is a Place on Earth”) with the tender confessional blossoming overtop “the concept around how everyone talks about heaven is this destination you get to when you’re older, but ultimately about the idea of heaven is on earth,” he says. It’s far less about faith, explicitly, than it is the euphoric rush of a relationship.
But Bassett takes a moment to expound on the song’s grander themes of the afterlife and its role in most faiths. “People rob themselves of a lot of joy by thinking that heaven is some destination. I’m by no means saying anybody is wrong, but I think it’s important to remember that life is precious. It is to be enjoyed. If you don’t focus on the present, you’ll look back on your life when it’s too late and realize you weren’t living in the present moment.”
“I look back on even things three months ago and realize ‘why wasn’t I enjoying myself that night?’ You think about all the stuff you get worked up about. Was it worth it? No,” he continues. “I think it’s important to ask this question: in six months, is this going to matter? If you can generally say ‘no,’ then it’s not worth hanging onto. You’re robbing yourself of experiencing life. I can really get in my own way in that regard.”
With his debut EP, on which he plays five instruments, Bassett co-produces with Jake Gosling (Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes), Afterhrs (Maroon 5, One Direction), and Dallas Caton, jumping in to offer notes on everything “from the sound of the snare to the arrangements” themselves. “If you would have told me that when I was 15, I wouldn’t have believed you,” he says, with a laugh.
More than anything, the pop songwriter has learned the importance of collaboration through the creative process. “It’s really easy to be protective of your work when you’re starting out. Everyone always told me I needed to be more open to working with other people and not be afraid of co-writes.” Bassett also keeps his “heart open” now more than ever, at least in regards to his craft. “I’ve learned to write about what I’m experiencing right then and there. I keep re-learning that lesson. It’s easy to get in my head. It’s actually simpler than I make it sometimes.”
Photo by Sarah Barlow & Stephen-Schofield