“It was nice to write songs without any sense of an impending album date or anything,” Vance Joy says of the writing process that brought forth his new album In Our Own Sweet Time, his third full-length that arrives today. “We were almost like passing the time and giving ourselves a sense of being productive. Like, ‘Let’s write a song’ and ‘Should we catch up in three weeks?’ There was no real momentum at that point. It was just a way of enjoying what we do.”
That relaxed feel makes its way into the music on the album, which represents a new artistic high point for the Australian singer-songwriter. In an interview with American Songwriter, Joy talked about writing during the pandemic, how his relationship with his girlfriend inspired the album’s love songs, and his anguish during the mixing process. Here are some of the high points of the conversation.
American Songwriter: Was there a thought process of what the album was going to sound like or did you let the songwriting steer the way?
Vance Joy: I like just letting the songwriting happen and following your instincts of what feels cool and interesting and pursuing that. I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but you just kind of gravitate to certain feels on the guitar. I was playing certain styles, just a fingerpicking style which is the style that I play, but slightly different chord shapes. It felt kind of cruise-y, the riffs I was playing, a bit more mellow. There are some upbeat songs on the album, but I feel like generally, I was going in that direction of playing cruise-y riffs with finger licks. Just fun riffs that felt fun to play and felt repetitive and hypnotic. I found that kind of thing kept popping. In terms of the lyrical content, I think I was enjoying the pause of not having to be traveling out as much, and having a bit of quiet time, and I think that definitely found its way into the songs.
AS: That’s been a theme that’s come up a lot when I talk to songwriters, this idea of having the time to write during the pandemic. What was that like for you?
VJ: I’d been in Spain. When I got back to Melbourne in March 2020, that week everyone went into the lockdown. But I had time to visit a piano shop and I bought a little second-hand piano and I put it in my front room. So for the next few weeks, I was tinkering on the piano and a few songs came from that. But I don’t know if my approach changed or if anything improved. I definitely had some time to write songs all by myself, which is nice. And I wrote the last song on the album (“Daylight”) all by myself on the piano.
I think that’s closer to where I started. The first songs I wrote, I hadn’t even considered co-writing. I wrote the first album all by myself and half of the second album. Since then, I’ve really enjoyed collaborating with people, but it was just nice to come up with the whole song by myself. You worry sometimes if that’s still possible, especially when you get so many opportunities to work with so many great co-writers. You end up writing really great songs with other people, but you want to know that you can come up with the chorus, the idea, the chords, everything on your own and it will still be a good song.
AS: One theme that keeps recurring on the album is the idea of a relationship being the centering and stabilizing force in a crazy and chaotic world. How much of that is based on your own life?
VJ: That’s a nice way of putting it. I like the centering and stabilizing thing. I feel like that’s definitely something that is true to my own life. I met my girlfriend a few years ago in 2019 before we went on a tour opening up for Pink. I just kept coming back to Barcelona, because we were in Barcelona before the start of that tour. Time has gone by pretty quickly, but it’s been a centering, stabilizing, foundational kind of thing. I feel like a lot of my songs came from a sense of ease and contentment. Thinking about those moments of connection where you’re not too fussed about what’s going on outside. That really became the theme that I kept coming back to. Every song features that in some way.
AS: You mentioned being in Spain, and some of those details work their way into these songs. As a songwriter, how do you know when to include those specifics?
VJ: With a song like “Catalonia,” I was thinking that I didn’t want to say Barcelona, it may be a bit too on the nose. And also, I always feel a bit more trepidatious. I guess when you’re putting your own story in there, it’s a bit scarier. But (co-writer) Dave (Bassett) uses this expression: something with teeth. Like a line with teeth. When you say Catalonia, it’s putting something really strong in there, as opposed to coming at it at an angle a bit more oblique. He pushed me to start coughing up the imagery of living in Barcelona.
So I said we’d go for walks under these little archways, and there are squares and churches and you hang out on the terrace and all these things. You feel a little bit embarrassed when you put all that content in there. But he sent me a demo track to sing to, and when I sang the song in the hotel room, it felt good. All of those references, I was singing them passionately with purpose. I think it’s one of those things where it’s a bit scary, but usually, it works. It’s like when you’re a kid and you’re embarrassed about your clothes or something. It’s about standing behind it and not feeling so uncomfortable about them. It’s a nice realization.
AS: While this record feels of a piece with your previous work, there are some departures. Tell me about one of those departures: “Wavelength.”
VJ: That song is a bit of detour and a more experimental. I went into a session with the Take a Day Trip production duo. They’re incredible at what they do and I never would have an inkling that they’d want to work on my acoustic, guitar-based singer-songwriter-y stuff. And I worked with Dave Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors as well. It was the four of us in a room for a couple of days. Dave is an amazing guitarist. He played a riff and the Day Trip guys made it sound like a sitar on the record. I didn’t approach writing the lyrics the way I usually approach it. We were singing melodies over the backing track that the Day Trip guys were making. And Dave said, “I’d love to use the lyric ‘flood plain.’” I was like OK, that definitely has teeth (laughs.) We put it in there and it all kind of made sense, so we created this song. It’s cool to have a song like that. It felt a bit more like I was in a band, everyone chiming in and vibing on the song.
AS: This record feels effortless. But was it as easy to make as it sounds?
VJ: I’m glad it feels that way, but there are always a few struggles. Because there were no deadlines, it was just like we’ll take this demo and turn it into the finished product. I got so attached to the demos over that two-year period of sitting with them that it’s hard to hear them in another way. Eventually, a lot of the songs ended up being improved versions of the demos. There are always a couple of songs and they get produced in a way that’s totally different to the way they end up on the album. That happened with a couple of songs.
“Every Side Of You” was a hard one to track. We really didn’t know which way to go. You really wish you could lay the foundations of the production in a way that you feel strongly about when you write it. We had a couple of different versions of that song that were both really good, just quite different. And it’s like I love the way this is sounding, but I also want to stay true to the demo and the way that my voice sounded at the start. There are always a few tousles like that.
And the mixing process, I think more and more, it does my head in. I think my ears are getting more tuned into the sounds. Back in the first two albums, I’d say, yeah, that’s cool, whatever, I’d maybe change that one thing. Now I don’t know. It might be affected if you haven’t had a coffee that morning, “Is that moving fast?” or if you have had a coffee, “Is that moving slow?” I do have a lot of faith in Edwin White, who is my drummer and producer on these songs, and Dave, who produces as well. The thought of going back and doing mixing again, it’s an emotional experience, and maybe it shouldn’t be, but you can’t help but think this song has gone all the wrong way. You go on a rollercoaster every day listening to these tracks.
AS: The third album is traditionally one that takes a big artistic leap. Do you feel like this album has made that kind of jump?
VJ: It is hard to be objective about it. But I do feel a bit surer about it when we’re performing the songs. I felt like I got better. Even when we’re playing as a band, I can stick to the click much better now. I feel a little bit more confident in all those musical aspects. It’s hard to say if that’s coming through in the recordings. But I feel excited about whatever is the next album and just songwriting in the future because I feel like I can walk into a co-writing situation and feel like not only do I have something to contribute, but also I can be more excited than scared and nervous. And maybe that’s just being open and mature or something. It’s hard to assess the quality of the songs and how people respond to them, but I’m hoping for the best.
Photo by Celina Martins / Atlantic Records