Interview: Josh Pyke on seizing opportunities, anxiety and ROME.

Josh Pyke

Josh Pyke is a staple in the Australian music industry. With a career spanning close to two decades, he’s dog-eared many chapters in the music scene with his work, and has played his part in the careers of many other celebrated Aussie musicians such as Angie McMahon, Alex Lahey and Gordi as a mentor through his Josh Pyke Partnership.

It has been seven years since he’s put out a full-length album, but we’re now being treated to his next phase of life with ROME, largely tracking his journey through fatherhood and a self-confessed dark period. Josh is undeniably an honest singer-songwriter but still manages to create universally relatable stories. This album is no exception.

We caught up with Josh to talk about ROME‘s creation and how he’s bridged the past seven years.

How are you, Josh? Where are you right now?

Good, I’m just sitting in my studio in Sydney.

Nice, how was your holiday with your family?

Oh, it was great. Yeah, we went down the South Coast and spent time touring around on the beach and eating seafood and stuff like that.

That sounds dreamy. A good rest and recovery before the storm then?

Yeah.

Congrats on your recent single, “Don’t Let It Wait”. I want to chat to you about this one because it’s about seizing the moment. And I know there’s at least one moment that we all have that we just repeat in our heads, just kicking ourselves that we didn’t run and grab it. What’s the specific moment that you replay in your head, that you wish you’d carpe diemed?

Oh gosh, that’s a good one. I mean, to be honest, there’s many situations like that from when I was a teenager. I was not a confident teenager. You know, there are many moments that I remember from being in high school where I just didn’t take opportunities. But I’ve got to be honest, there was a moment when I was about 11, when five mates were in a band, that started a little rock band and they asked me to be the singer in it. Because they knew that I could sing, they’d heard me sing in a choir and stuff like that. And I actually said, “No.” And that was one of these moments where I said, “I don’t want to do it, it’s too nerve-wracking.” And a couple of days passed and I just had this horrible feeling in my stomach about letting this moment pass.

And I’d talked to my mum about it. She was like, “You’ve got to do it. If you do it and you regret it, fine, then you don’t have to do it again. But if you don’t do this, you’ll always regret not doing it.” And so, I called my mate and I said, “Okay yeah, I’ll do it.” Anyway, that literally changed the course of my life. Because from that time, that was my first gig that I ever did. And from that time I was in a band throughout the whole of high school and then through my years. And then that led me into going solo and everything. And I always took what my mum said about that, that it’s better to regret doing something than regret having not done it. And it really did change my outlook and has led to me, I would say, to seizing the opportunity more often than not. So yeah, that’s my main, almost-missed opportunity that I’m happy to say that I can’t think of too many that I regret not doing stuff.

You were always walking through these open doors. A real sliding doors moment, I guess.

I think it was just… A thing that I think about a lot, is the ability to recognise opportunities when they’re there and it’s kind of through the force of daydreaming. If you’re a person that naturally daydreams a lot, like I am, than you’re … And a lot of creatives are, then you’re always daydreaming about possible scenarios. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about. You daydream about what if this thing happens and then that leads to this and then… I do this all the time, right? I’ve always done it.

So, my theory is that creatives do it more than other people. And my theory is that by daydreaming so much, we’re actually honing our instincts to recognise these opportunities when they appear. And it almost becomes a subconscious skill in the same way that a soccer player just subconsciously kicks the ball in this beautiful arcing manner, like it’s a real mechanical skill in the same way that their training hones their instinct so much to just be able to react to do that. I feel like creatives hone their instincts through daydreaming to be able to just subconsciously recognise these opportunities and have these sliding door moments, where you’re just constantly going in these directions. And you don’t even know why, until it leads you to this conclusion. Anyway, I mean, that’s a longer answer than you are wanting but that’s my theory.

I’ve never really thought of it that way. Because I constantly put myself in hypotheticals and then I’m like, “God, it’s just torture, isn’t it?” Just putting these hypotheticals of a beautiful world in front of me. But then you’re right, that when it does happen and you can see a sliver of that opportunity and just jump into it.

Yeah. I think it’s like honing your instincts, basically.

Do you instill that in your children? Are you like your mum in that situation?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, some kids are naturally incredibly confident. I think most probably aren’t and I’m always saying, “What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen?” You know, like you do this thing and you’ll hate it. And then you come home to your nice home to your mum and dad that love you and you can say, “I don’t want to do that again.” And then, that’s fine but at least you’ll know that this is a thing that you’re into or not into. I think it’s good as long as you’re not encouraging them to do dangerous things.

Yeah, within reason. How old are your children?

Nine and seven.

So they’re reaching that rock band phase then that 11-year-old you were at.

Oh, yeah! Well, that’s a hassle. It’s pretty much my oldest son is just into Indie music. He loves Arcade Fire and Dinosaur Jr. And my seven-year-old is just pretty much exclusively into BTS.

This is a pretty good music taste for kids. I think back when I was that age, I was just into like So Fresh, Hits of 2007…

Well, I mean, think about who their dad is.

Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree!

You also said that “You’re My Colour”, in your mind, is about your kids. Can you tell me about this track?

Well, it’s just a love song. You know, I’ve written so many love songs about my wife and I’ve written… “Leeward Side” was about my oldest son. But the thing that I love about songwriting and I always have, is that whenever I write the song, it doesn’t really matter what the song is about to me as the creator. As soon as it’s out in the world, it becomes something different and that’s what I love about art, in general. I mean, I remember somebody telling me very, very ardently, that “Memories & Dust” was about God. And I said, “I’m an atheist, it’s definitely not about God.” And they’re like, “It is about God.” And I was like, “This is a strange conversation. I know what I wrote the song about and it’s not about that. But if that’s what it is about for you, then that’s great.”

But the point is, a song’s meaning can be different to a thousand people that you play it to. For me, this song is about loving my kids and there are lines in there that are really specific to my youngest son. Because when I wrote the song, he was… I wrote this song quite a while ago or I started to write it quite a while ago. And yeah, there was a point where he just didn’t seem to care when I would go on tour, basically. My older son would be like, “Aw dad, don’t go.” My younger son would just be playing with LEGO or something and would barely even notice that I was gone. And I was projecting this feeling of… It almost felt like unrequited love, you know?

I was projecting this feeling in today’s imaginary scenarios and basically, it’s the idea of unconditional love and for me… Like my kids, I know that they love me but as you grow up through life, you just don’t pay that much attention to your parents for long periods of time. But me as a father, all I think about is my kids. So, it’s this idea of unconditional love, no matter what they’re doing in the world, I’m going to be sitting there just thinking about them, loving them. I think that feeling is not unique to parents. It’s just love, you know, that’s what unconditional love is.

That just comes with the territory of being a parent. From the album artwork that we’ve seen of ROME so far, there’s some pretty dark visual imagery.

Talk to me about the visual concept for this record because you’ve got ghostly figures, all like very black and white colour scheme.

This album was really born out of a relatively dark patch and I think art is always my way through these periods. And a lot’s been going on that I choose not to talk about. But one of the things that I’m happy to talk about is that I was having some really bad issues with anxiety around this time. I mean, it’s an ongoing thing, it’s never going to go away. But it came to a head about three years ago and manifested itself in some really severe anxiety attacks for a prolonged period. And that’s all a part of what made we want to get off the road for a while. And so, I had this idea of wanting to do an album cover which was not particularly flattering. Like always in the entertainment world, you want to put your best foot forward and have these flattering photos of yourself out there and stuff like that.

And I just didn’t want to do that because for me, the whole idea of ROME is the fact that you can’t escape who you really, truly are. Clearly, you can put on these fronts and you can put your Instagram filters on your photos and stuff but you still are the same person, no matter what you’re covering it up with. So, that’s what I wanted the album cover to reflect. This duality of what we all do, which is the public persona and your private persona.

I appreciate that. It’s nice to have a more visceral album out rather than the hyper polished stuff that we’re used to. We’re talking about the last, at least five years since your last full-length album. In that time, you had your psychedelic project, Sword Owls; you wrote six children’s books; you wrote for film and television; you even scored some of those shows; you continued your advocacy for the arts; you’ve thrown together a tour; you’ve appeared on Play School. So, it doesn’t sound like you’ve had time to mentally recharge, even though it’s been a long time. Do you find that, I know for me personally, whenever I’m going through an anxious patch, I overload. Do you find that’s the same with you?

The thing to me is like, I love being productive, I love being creative. Those things weren’t part of the problem. So what I found was, once I addressed and was able to learn how to manage the proper anxiety issues, I found that the creativity and the hard work element, it wasn’t loaded with the anxiety issues. So, it actually became a very mentally recharging period. And I was told it was fine. It was like in the past my anxiety has coloured my creativity because I’ve felt anxious about creating. So, I’d go down to the studio and I’d lock myself in the studio and I’d be like, “You need to write a song, you’re a songwriter. Why aren’t you writing a bloody song?” And of course, that is not the way that good songs come up. And so, I’d come out of there with nothing after a day. And I’d be like, “You’re an idiot.” And then I’d just be noodling around on the guitar later on in a relaxed state and come up with a song.

And even though I knew that that’s how creativity works for me, I just couldn’t get out of this pattern. And like I say, it’s an ongoing thing but once I got a relative handle on the anxiety thing, I found that creativity didn’t have those loaded things. So whilst it’s been an incredibly productive period, it just felt so pure and relaxed and organic and unforced, as opposed to during the parts where I’d be trying to make myself do something every day. And my wife would always say like, “What are you doing? Go for a bike ride, go for a surf. Why seeing you locked around on this beautiful day?” I’d always be like, “No, in order to justify this great life that I’d built for myself, I need to lock myself in my studio and try and do this.” And it was just, yeah, it was a bad, never ending cycle.

Yes, giving yourself permission that sometimes it’s just not going to happen.

Before I let you go, Josh, I want to ask you obviously about your upcoming Fans First Tour in October. What can we expect from these shows? Is it going to be a little acoustic set? You know, it’s going to be smaller venues than normal Josh Pyke Shows.

Yeah. So I mean, this tour was meant to happen in March and it was meant to happen before all of these songs came out and before the album was out and I’ve always done these, Fans First gigs, as a way to reengage with my core fan base. We always do these little venues. So, that was the theory. Now, they’re pushed back to October and it’ll be a month after the album’s out. I’m so unsure still about whether or not these gigs can happen to be totally honest. I want to be super positive and so, yeah, it’s definitely going to happen but we’re seeing these spikes in Victoria and seeing restrictions being placed again. So, if I’m able to do it, they’re going to be joyous and bloody amazing. And I’m playing solo, there’s my solo set. So I’ll play with a loop pedal and percussion but it’s just me. So, I am so keen to get out and play these songs for people, especially because the response to them has been so beautiful. I just can’t wait to do it. But yeah, it’s just a matter of crossing our fingers.

My fingers are crossed! Josh, thank you so much for your time today and hopefully, in October, I can see you in real life. It’ll be a joyous occasion.

Yes, it’ll be great. Thanks so much.

ROME is out August 28. Stream it online and pre-order exclusive album bundles here.

FANS FIRST TOUR

Tickets available from joshpyke.com

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