“I Just Had To Go And Fuck Up For A Bit”: Josef Salvat, Australia’s Most Underrated Pop Export, Is Back On The Rails

An effortless voice, classically handsome and a likeable artist bursting with slickly written, modern sounding pop songs. Josef Salvat is objectively the most ideal popstar. But his career has been truly bizarre.

He’s Sydney born, but skipped town very early on to pursue music in the bigger pond of Europe. It worked. His first single is about to turn eight. A 2014 sync (that’s when an artist’s song gets put on a commercial or a movie or some shit) of his officially released cover for a television commercial of Rihanna’s Diamonds led to a series of European performances that brought to life his still-excellent EP In Your Prime, before 2016’s Night Swim album saw him tour pretty extensively across Europe and build a really genuinely connected fanbase.

But Night Swim just didn’t work in Australia. “Major label malarkey” is how Josef delicately puts it. Sure, the excellent song Open Season (which still boasts one of the most brilliantly self-deprecating videos of the decade) was synced to a Home & Away promo, a pinnacle sync in this market. Sure, he was a bit of a triple j darling thanks to a vocal feature on possibly Tourist‘s biggest ever hit. Sure, this blog flew the flag at high mast [receipts here]. But it just didn’t work here.

Following the touring that went with 2016’s album, Josef practically pulled the pin for a bit. He is about to tell you why and how he “went off the rails” in order to create what is truly sounding like one of 2020’s great records, his second album, Modern Anxiety – which just got a release date of May 15.

When we speak, he’s warming back into the groove of the cycle of being a musician. He’s just walked in the door and greeted his dog after watching a gig, something he’ll be on the opposite side of in a week’s time as he plays his first London headline show in four years. Tonight’s was a showcasey thing, the type that it strikes me Josef would find a bit of a wank, and he left before the headliner. Josef speaks very fast over the phone, almost unconvinced with his answers, or at least still processing his thoughts. He’s cooking dinner now in the late London evening, food being a newfound skill. Nic Kelly is in bold, Josef’s in not bold.

What are you cooking?

STEAK. I’ve become good at cooking in the last month because I’m on a fucking stupid diet. It’s called The Whole 30, I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it, it’s an elimination diet. It just feels like I’m getting old, you know? Like, once I start doing elimination diets, it’s like Jesus Christ.

What’s the purpose of this diet? Are you doing it for like health reasons or to try something different?

Just to cleanse. Cleanse my body. Like, I’ve stopped drinking alcohol, coffee, no sugar, nothing. I’m just going to do it for… I mean, the alcohol, we’ll see how I can deal without that… but it’s just a little reset. it’s been like a rocky four years! Not rocky, but an indulgent four years. Let’s say that. So I’m just taking a little break and I think now’s a great time to start it because I’ve got to get my body ready for the rest of the year and into next year. So I’ve been cooking a lot.

That’s good. I went for a month sober at the start of the year and I lasted 11 days.

I was going to say, are we out of that month yet?!

No. But what it did, is it just reset my relationship with alcohol a little bit. It stopped me from making the stupid decisions I make when I’m under the influence and it just kind of made me remember I don’t need to drink every day of the week and I can just drink every now and then.

Did you make stupid decisions under the influence?

Mainly stupid financial decisions. Like spending money on things I shouldn’t be spending money on and also getting home and then ordering like a $60 Uber Eats situation that just made me feel even more shit the next day. And so let’s just get out of bad habits and start the here nice and fresh. But I presume for you because you’ve got your big London show in a week.

It’s a little show.

Well, I’m calling it a big show.

Yeah, I appreciate that, it’s very sweet. But I haven’t played in four years. Actually that’s a lie, last gig was at the start of 2017. Go outside, go outside, get out. My dog is being naughty. But I haven’t been in London since 2016. So it’s quite a while. But it’s exciting. I’m in rehearsals this week. It’s going well I think. I’m kind of scared. I’m kind of nervous. Just because it’s been such a long time. I don’t know. God, fuck, do I even remember how to do this? But, um, I think I do.

Let’s dig into that a little bit further. Where do you think that anxiety is coming from? Do you think it’s the fact you haven’t played a lot of these new songs live before? Do you think it’s the fact that you might run out of breath on stage? What’s the real anxiety kind of emanating from?

It’s a couple of things. If you’re planning a tour after you’ve released an album, you want the most important cities at the end of it, right? Because by the end of that, you’re singing those songs perfectly. Some of these songs took like, one day for vocals. So that final vocal that you do hear on record, that was done when you’re recording vocals and sometimes you might go back and rerecord vocals and stuff like that but these songs aren’t sung very much. So there’s that, but actually, everything’s sounding fine so I’m not worried about that anymore. I know how to sing them. But some of them are quite hard. alone is a very hard song to sing. There is not a lot of space for breath. It’s fucking athletic. So there’s that, just making sure I can get there each time but that’s just warming up. That’s just training and prep. But I sort of fell off the wagon a little bit for the last three years, which I wanted to do. On top of that, it’s like, I don’t know, meeting my audience again now, it’s been like, a veritable age in pop music to not be in front of your audience. I’m just nervous. It’s like seeing an ex, who you don’t necessarily want to get back with.

That’s a really good analogy, because I suppose what it really feels like is you’re seeing someone you haven’t seen in a few years and you have evolved as a person and you know they’ve evolved as a person but you don’t know in what way they’ve evolved. You don’t know what’s happened to them and what’s shaped their experiences and shaped the person they are right now in the last few years and how you fit into that equation these days.

That’s all 100% what is going through my head. Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know where they are. But it’ll be nice. And obviously, there’s just the pressure of like, I don’t want to be shit. I want to be good.

You want people to walk away having enjoyed themselves, and feel like “I like that artist even more now, I feel more connected to that artist”.

I do feel though, because it’s so small and it sold out pretty quickly and I didn’t do really any sort of promo for it, I feel that it’s going to be a really kind audience. So there’s another element, which sort of feels to me like I’m seeing family again and that eases my nerves a lot. So that is quite nice. And I sort of realised last week, that this is gonna be lovely. So I needn’t worry. And there’s another show in Paris in April.

Wonderful. And selfishly and I know you’ve confirmed to me officially via the medium of tweet that there will be an Australian show this year, but when are you going to come back. When are you gonna come here.

I mean, you know, I’m trying. I’m trying to get back more. It’s just expensive to be based here and go into there. And I’m in this tricky position where I can’t leave here for too long, particularly at my point over the last three years. Otherwise, I’ve sort of got to restart. Things have to go well over there. I mean, this is just the major label malarkey, but for me to be allowed to, things have to go well. It’s just expensive. And then if I don’t fly over with my musicians from here and I get musicians over there, then there’s the rehearsals and that takes time, so it’s just like, logistically a thing. Which is why it hasn’t happened.

That’s extremely valid. And I totally understand that. So I think as Australian fans, we have a role to play now to ensure that these songs hit as hard as we know they can.

Rally.

Correct! I mean, the volume of songs you’ve put out recently and to begin this album cycle has been exceptional. We’ve had two essential double singles in modern anxiety / alone and then we got in the afternoon / playground love straight after it. What’s the thinking behind putting two things out at once?

I’ve just been away for too long. Okay, well, there’s two. One is really pragmatic, which is that I wanted to give people as much music as quickly as possible. And there were there are a number of ways of doing that and I decided to do it this way. The other is that modern anxiety and alone are super different songs, love in the afternoon and playground love are super different songs. It’s sort of to try and go, “this is the spread, this is a taste of what you’re going to get for this next body of work to come”. But you’ve also got to think, I’ve been away for such a long time. I have been working this whole time. I’ve been writing songs. There’s so much music to get out there. This album is just like, the start of that. It was so hard choosing what to put on this record and the double single releases kind of helped me to find some freedom. When you nail your balls to a post with a single, it just feels like an outdated mode of release to me. Why would you release one song when you can release these couple? And the people that don’t like modern anxiety are gonna love alone. There are two sides to me. There are two sides to my fandom.

I love the use of fandom. I haven’t heard fandom in a while. You said about four minutes ago, roughly, that you went off the rails for a bit and that you wanted to do that. I want to dive into that a little bit.

Okay, I just wanted to make bad decisions. I had been making so many good decisions. I wanted to make really bad decisions on purpose and just feel what that felt like. I kind of felt like I didn’t have youth. I went to University and then I came over here to pursue my career and all that kind of stuff. I had this crazy time doing it when the album came out, particularly in Europe, but I feel like I hadn’t lived. I mean I had nothing to write about. My experiences during the last campaign – as intense and as wonderful as they were and like, they’d be great in a book that I probably wouldn’t read – but, they’re not great to write songs about. They were boring subject matter for songs. I just had to go and fuck up a bit. I moved to Berlin, I was there for a year, the first six months were incredible, the second six months were horrible, and then I moved back to London and I sort of stayed on people’s couches for six, seven months living out of a suitcase for no good reason and then I got a house here and a dog and became very domestic for a year. But then there was still fallout of the previous two years just to process and that was last year. So that was processing that shit and finishing off the album. And now we’re here. Berlin from 2016 were pretty heady, very fast years. A lot of drinking, a lot of drugging, a lot of everything. A lot of extremes and it was fun. It was fucking fun. I wouldn’t ever do it again.

For a lot of your 20s you were head down, working hard, doing good shit, and then you get to kind of late 20s and you go “fuck, I haven’t actually done anything”. I had a very similar thing in my early, like, sort of early to mid 20s.

How old are you?

I’m 24 now.

Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait until the real problems.

I’ve actually had to do quite the opposite and go “I’m 24, I’m actually very young” because I’ve been doing this media bullshit for eight years now. I did it when I was 21 as well because whilst everyone else was having fun at age 17-18-19 I was head down doing radio and doing all sorts of stuff, now I have to have a couple of years of being an absolute mess, and then pick it all back up again.

Are you doing that right now?

I had about two years of being a being an absolute deadshit and then in the last six months or so I kind of went “I’m actually going to start building something for myself and looking after myself and loving myself”. I definitely feel some kinship to that. I definitely feel it’s necessary to have those years, especially if you haven’t fed yourself with that before.

You do and also, like, your youth runs out. I feel like it runs out when your body starts to fail and that hasn’t happened to me yet. Or when your face starts to put you into a permanent other kind of age bracket, but it does go and I wish I had valued it more in my early 20s. But I was young and there is an authority of youth! There is an arrogance to youth, that allows you to get away with doing the wildest shit and actually dreaming these impossible dreams and then them coming true. I found as I was getting older, I was just getting more scared. And just more and more and more and more scared. I was like, “I’m not gonna be able to continue doing this shit, unless I fucking walk straight into that,” because you can’t be an artist and be scared. You can’t create and be scared. So, you have to like deal with whatever the fear is. And I feel like… I feel like a lot of people just fucking settle down. They just, like, grab the closest person whose pheromones smell right, they get married and buy a house and have a kid. Or not, they prepare to buy a house for like 10 years, as the case may be. Not that I’m judging those people but I feel like 90% of those decisions are fear-based decisions. A lot of the time. That I’ve observed. It’s totally anecdotal. But I’m just not into it. So it was a bit of that as well, a bit of needing to tick the bucket list off. Or needing to do shit that I have purposely avoided, because I’ve been terrified of that in the past.

Life is so much more than fear, isn’t it. What I’m realising is that life is challenging fear and it’s challenging things that you don’t want to do. It’s getting them done and having that experience and then it’s living in the glow of having had that experience and basking in the enjoyment of getting rid of that discomfort.

Yeah, and then butting up against another fear. A new fear that you didn’t know existed and then doing the whole process over again. So if you like logic, it takes the view that if you do live in fear, if you don’t deal with it, you can’t live the fullest life that you could possibly live. And that is my primary MO in life, to just… live.

Modern Anxiety by Josef Salvat is out May 15, and the single in the afternoon is out now (and is very good).


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