Interview: Josef Salvat: “I’ve Never Wanted to be Defined by Anything, Not Just Sexuality”

Meeting Josef Salvat is never anything but a charm. The smirking Aussie is a testament to indie-pop (if you really wanted to put a label on it) and has just arrived at Birmingham’s O2 academy, ryder-less, with a hangover and an illuminating essence that cant help but make you fall in love with his music that little bit more.

“We met at Latitude, right?”. His recognition of us immediately signposts the musician is a really genuine guy who takes pride in everything he does. We mean, so much so that he remembers grabbing a chat with us six months ago. “Every time I come to Birmingham, the sky is always the same colour. Why would you chose to come to university in Birmingham.”

Josef’s debut album came out recently and is probably the best release of the year so far.

It must feel great to see that out now?

Whats really cool about it is seeing people’s reaction to it. Some of the songs were written a long time ago and just sitting on stuff for a couple of years, you can get a little sick of it. Seeing people respond and listen to it is really nice.

There’s been some really great reviews.

Yeah some amazing reviews. I’m pretty surprised! I like it and I’m proud of it but its so nice to read.

Obviously you just said you’ve been embargoing this work for a couple of years now. Do you still relate to the person you were back when you wrote the songs?

Yeah! A lot of songs fell by the wayside already when I went into making the album. Some of the songs were five or six years old, take Hustler for example, that’s six years old but still such an important part of it. Songs that made it onto the album won the test of time. If they can do that they can go on the album.

What would you say the key messages and themes are on the album? You’ve got these super sexy and sensually charged tracks like Night Swim and Closer but then these really explicitly emotional and sensitive tracks…

I mean theres three sort of . I can only say this in hindsight. A lot of the album is pretty desperate and pretty lonely and that is shown across the purest of songs to the sexier ones. A lot of the tracks confront what it means to be a person in society and the type of person you want to be and the type of person you don’t want to me.

And Pop music has been quite controversial recently…

With Kesha?

With Kesha yeah, what’s been your take on that?

I mean I don’t know too much about it except that it happens a lot. Do you remember an artist called Jojo? She had some hits when she was a teen. She signed a deal to make 8 albums to a label that essentially went bankrupt and never made another album for her but locked her in the deal. This stuff does happen and when you’re young and hungry, it really really sucks. Sony’s a corporation and it wasn’t really until Adele came out and spoke about it that people realised how much of an awful position it is to be in. This is the bullshit of contracts. I remember seeing one thing though which was like “I really like Josef’s album but I cant buy it because he’s on Sony”. It’s like, good on you for supporting Kesha but get informed. She’s in a terrible position but it’s great to see she’s got so much support.

How did you find the transition from a French audience to a global stage? Obviously you released your debut with a few tracks in French before the English version…

Yeah so Paradise and Open Season were in French and then there was Diamonds on it and so was another cover.

You must be sick of Diamonds…

Am I sick of Diamonds? I mean no but…

Don’t worry we wont ask too much about it

Good ha! I was more sick of Diamonds last year I think. The only thing that frustrates me is when people get their timelines wrong because I had more hype in 2013 before I was signed. What happened with Diamonds is that it turned it into a very commercial prospect and a very commercial position to an audience. The entire album was finished 2 and a half years ago, before my first EP came out; the In Your Prime EP. It’s a double edged sword because it means I get to do a lot.

Your new track with Gryffin is brilliant! How did that come about?

Yes, I wrote that back in 2013 actually, with Justin Parker. It was half finished and fell into the vaults and at the beginning of last year, Gryffin’s people contacted me and we had a Skype and he asked to use it and he changed some of the chords and did his thing and I just really liked it. He continued with it and wrote the second verse and, yeah.

You say you wrote this stuff back in 2013/14, does this mean you have content ready for album 2 already?

There’s one or two songs that I’ve written since that I’ll take for it or consider but I didn’t write a lit from when I finished the album in 2014 to when it was finally signed, sealed, delivered which was September last year.

I read your recent article with The Line of Best Fit and you made a comment about not wanting to be seen as a writer who makes “gay music”.

Yeah, I’m surprised they pulled that out as a thing because it was such a throwaway comment but, I mean, I don’t think that really happens these days. I said it but I don’t really think that happens anymore. I’ve never written specifically about sexuality, it’s always about how it fits into context and how it relates to relationships. That is what I’m interested in with writing. In Australia, if men have suspected sexuality, their music gets cornered as being “gay music” and I just think it’s incredible reductive because I don’t think any music I’ve ever listened to from any gay or bisexual musician is ever “gay music”.

Like Olly Alexander? He’s doing some amazing things but really being shoehorned…

He’s doing some fantastic things and it’s obviously something he feels incredibly passionate about. I have my own passions and my own struggles but I’ve never wanted to be defined by anything, not just sexuality. I hate categorisation. I mean, I’m in the wrong industry for that because everybody’s like “how do you define your music”. I don’t know how to fucking define my music.

Genre doesn’t exist anymore!

Exactly! Genre is dead! When I sit down, I want to write and create something beautiful. Whatever comes will come. I don’t sit down and say “I want to be some funk this kind of thing”. I mean, Amy Winehouse was like “I’m a jazz singer, I’m a jazz singer, I’m a jazz singer” but I’m not like that in any aspect of my life. It’s about the right to evolve and change in the time. Categorisation inhibits my capacity to grow in many ways and make decisions that surprised me.

Are you a fan of Bowie by any chance?

Fucking love him, of course!

Him and his identity was very implicit and he didn’t have to say stuff to be understood.

That was Bowie’s special thing. People wanted him to say what he was but he didn’t. I don’t want to suggest that there’s anything wrong with that. I think Olly Alexander is incredibly brave. He’s standing for something. To stand for anything is a pretty scary thing to do. Sam Smith for example and what happened at the Oscars made me cringe. Just be humble and gracious. You’re not the only gay in the village and if you’re trying to represent a gay community, you need to know about the history and the struggles. For me, when I was coming to terms with my sexuality, the first fucking thing I did was research who did this and won what.

And to non-Oscar nominated musicians. There has been a sea of “sound of 2016 polls” at the moment. Who do you see making it big this year?

Due Lipa. Dua Lipa is going to do really well. She’s really great. She’s a really great writer and she’s got a phenomenal voice and she’s hot. Låpsley is [sound of appreciation] and she’s got incredible voice and she’s so young and she’s singed on XL with Adele so she’s fine. KLOE. She’s awesome. I don’t know what her timeline with her music is but she’s definitely one to watch. She’s fucking rad too. I was with her at the Brits afterparty and I’ve never met her before and thank fuck she was there. Grace Mitchell is really really great too.

and Where now?

Just keep going I guess. I’ve learned a lot about what it is about what it means to make an album. This time I’m sitting down and writing and all the conceptual stuff that goes with that. It’s a much denser thing for me to get my teeth into. It’s a lot more satisfying in many ways. I’m working with some incredible people.

Josef Salvat’s debut album – Night Swim – is out now.

Words – Dean Eastmond

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