Over the course of his accomplished career, Josh Pyke has released four studio albums, with his fifth, But For All These Shrinking Hearts incoming. Though his signature sound has changed slightly over the years, Pyke has always remained true to his dedicated fans, and his songs always brim with a deep humanity and love. His first album Memories & Dust spawned the hit song Middle Of The Hill, and charted at number four on the ARIA Albums Chart. From there Pyke moved from strength to strength; his second album Chimney’s Afire had two songs featured on Triple J’s Hottest 100, his third, Only Sparrows sat pretty in the charts for three weeks, and his fourth, The Beginning And The End of Everything was very well received critically and commercially.
We got a chance to talk to Josh ahead of his new album’s launch about the release’s distinct sound, his love of The Walking Dead and his involvement with the Josh Pyke Partnership, an initiative designed to help young musicians get their foot in the door.
Joseph Earp: How are you and where in the world does our interview find you today?
Josh Pyke: I’m at home today in Sydney. I’ve foolishly embarked on renovating my recording studio at the same time as releasing a record, so I’ve been showing tradies through, and making trips to the hardware store.
JE: You’ve described your new album But For All These Shrinking Hearts as one of the most creatively challenging things you’ve ever done. What kind of creative challenges did you come up against?
JP: Making a record is always a challenge, and I set out to make sure I feel that every album is better than the last. I’ve loved all my albums, but I just felt that I really knew what I was doing this time. That made it more challenging in a really constructive way. I was challenging myself to be more creative lyrically, and in terms of production. So it wasn’t necessarily challenges that I was coming up against, but more challenges that I was embracing and excited by.
JE: What can you tell us about the new record and how does it differ from your previous releases?
JP: I think the biggest difference for me is the lyrical content and the production. In the past I’ve tried to keep things reasonably stripped back, but I really enjoyed kinda going for it on this one. Working with John Castle is great in that we have a lot of trust in each other to try new things. I wrote about 4 of the songs away from the guitar this time too, which was new for me. Writing on a piano, or on an iPad app, (as I did on a few) opens up new melodic ideas that are quite exciting to pursue. Writing lyrics is always something I labour over and on this one I felt like I pushed myself harder to express some darker feelings whilst still including an element of optimism. I also co-wrote 2 of the songs that made the final album which was creatively really stimulating.
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JE: When you began work on But For All These Shrinking Hearts, did you have a very clear idea of the end product in your head, or did things evolve more naturally?
JP: I demo all the tracks at home in my studio before I show anyone, and they’re pretty developed demos. So I had a pretty good notion of what I wanted. But when John gets involved he’s always keen to let the song lead the way, so, as strange as this sounds, we let the songs take us where they needed to go. Sometimes they stayed pretty similar to the demos, only more developed. But some (like Late Night Driving), changed completely from the demo. So it was a matter of having a foundation of what I wanted, but then being totally open to the idea that things may change a lot.
JE: But For All These Shrinking Hearts is your fifth album. How do you think you’ve changed as a musician since the recording of your first, Memories & Dust?
JP: Everything has changed! I’ve changed as a person, the industry is almost unrecognisable from when I started. My songwriting has changed a lot. But I do think the thing that has stayed the same is more important than what’s changed. Every song I write and release needs to have something in there that I consider to be “integrity”. It’s almost impossible to explain, but there’s a feeling I get when I’ve written a song that I can stand behind for the rest of my life, and when I recognise it, I pursue that song. If I don’t feel it, even if the song is really pleasing to the ear, I cull it.
I think pretty much everything has changed except that, and if that changes for me, or if I stop finding that feeling, then it will be time to find something else to do.
JE: What was the inspiration for the lyric of There’s A Line? The chorus in particular is very evocative.
JP: I just liked the contradiction of how people you love leave you, but that whilst they may go far away, they leave you with something that connects you, that you can’t see, or hear, but can only feel. Some people you may not see again for years, but there’s something that binds you in a meaningful way. I just sang the line and wrote it down…beyond that I don’t find it useful to try and figure out why I was inspired, I just accept the inspiration gratefully.
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JE: There are sections of There’s A Line that are very string heavy. Did you have that in mind for the song from the beginning?
JP: I did have some dodgy string lines on the demo, but when Roscoe James Irwin sent through the arrangements he’d done, it was taken to a whole new level. Our reference for him was “Canadian Pastoral Folk” (!!??) and he came back with such an amazing arrangement that we didn’t need to change a thing.
JE: The music video for There’s A Line is very evocative of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Was that a touchstone for the piece?
JP: Absolutely. Jefferton and I are huge fans of the general post-apocalyptic genre. I’ve been collecting The Walking Dead comics for years, and have read or watched just about everything that can be absorbed in the genre, so it was a real pleasure to try and make something that touched on those influences.
JE: This year saw the return of the Josh Pyke Partnership. What led you to restart the initiative?
JP: I feel really passionate about trying to help young artists. We talked before about how much has changed in the industry, and I just feel that if I can help out with a bit of money and some advice then that’s a good thing. I’ve had a great career, and have been able to have a great life because of music for over 10 years, and I basically just want to help someone else have that.
JE: It’s now been a decade since the release of Middle Of The Hill. After singing that song for that length of time, can you still connect with it emotionally in the same way?
JP: Always! It’s a true story about my family and the events surrounding growing up. I feel very lucky to still be in love with that song after all these years. It being such a very personal song has kept it really relevant for me, and it helps me reconnect with my past every time I sing it.
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JE: You are going to be playing fans first concerts across the country. What made you decide to play fans-first gigs once more?
JP: It’s essentially to acknowledge that without my core supporters I don’t have a career. It’s all very well to have support from record labels, and radio etc, and believe me I don’t take them from granted, but the truest barometer for your success is your connection with your core supporters. So I like to get out early and play new songs for them, reconnect with them, and basically say thanks for letting me do this for so long.
JE: What is your favourite thing about being on tour? What is your least favourite thing?
JP: This is a really simple answer. Favourite is playing the shows. There’s still nothing quite like performing your own songs to people who want to hear them. It’s a beautiful thing that only gets better the further you go along. Least favourite is being away from home. I love my home life. I miss my family when I’m gone and they miss me. But I’ve been able to find a good balance in the last few years, and I know when I start to feel burned out now. I used to just keep going, and that’s not good for anyone.
JE: Tell me something you’ve never told an interviewer before.
JP: A loveless life is a living death.
Josh Pyke’s new album But For All These Shrinking Hearts is out on July 31st.