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Al Joshua - Interview

  by Owen Peters

published: 6 / 11 / 2019

Al Joshua - Interview


After seeing him perform at Ronnie Scott’s, Owen Peters speaks to singer-songwriter Al Joshua about reaction towards his remarkable debut solo album ‘Out of the Blue’, his plans for his next album and the vinyl reissue of ‘I Am Alive and You Are Dead’, his previous band Orphan and Vandals’ only LP.

It’s a Thursday evening, I'm on my way to Ronnie Scott’s to see Al Joshua perform tracks from ‘Out of the Blue’ (one of the best albums of 2019) I should be full of anticipation, looking forward to seeing him play live. Instead I’m uneasy, unsettled, concerned for the evening ahead. Upstairs,Thursday evening at Ronnie’s is set up for lesser known artists. Those with new material, some with a healthy local following, others returning from a sabbatical. Joshua falls into the latter. My gut being full of dread stems from the fact that I've been here before and seen good quality artists die in a room full of noise. It’s a lottery. It only takes a group of excited tourists or end of day workers in need of a drink, and the whole atmosphere is ruined, gone, lost in a cacophony of clinking glasses and booming chatter. By the time Joshua comes on, he is already fighting with the room, which was lost by the last performer. No one was listening to those previous stories of love and regret. Joshua strums through a sequence of chords, looking for friendly faces in the audience. He coughs, adjusting his trademark pork pie hat, rumoured to be once in the ownership of Princes Margaret. He strums and re-tunes as though he’s waiting for some forgotten musical muscle memory to kick in. This is the first time that I have seen Joshua play live. My unease hasn’t settled down. One more cough, a tip of the hat, a nod to the sound engineer, and he begins. Joshua is a wordsmith, sharing emotional events in slow tempo, delivered in little more than a spoken phrase. His opening number ‘Love you Madly’ settles the chatter. The audience move in closer to catch his wording. He is clearly finding the experience emotional. Three songs into his set, both he and the audience have settled. So has my dread. Joshua has found his rhythm. ‘Johnathan’ was a single released from ‘Out of the Blue’ and gained limited airplay. But for anyone conversant with his music this is likely to be a…”I’ve heard this one before” moment. It’s a song about dark nights, rain, rivers, lovers in search of each other against shadows of the night. Right on cue a small party of revellers enter the room, killing the atmosphere with laughter brought in from the busy London streets. The guy next to me isn’t in party mood. “Will you shut the fuck up?” he tells them, accompanied with a hard Paddington Bear stare. They do as they are told. He doesn’t look for accolades, as he eases back into the flow of ’Johnathan’. Two more songs and the thirty minute set is over. The applause breaks the audience/artiste bubble. As if we’ve been on a stop motion film shoot, someone has just cranked up the volume button. I’m just one of the many well wishers. I yell at him over the noise “So how did it (the gig) feel?” He yells back, “I felt okay about it. It was a small step, but a step in the right direction. I just want to find more opportunities to play now and get out there. It’s been a long time since I last played live, and it was very different back then with Orphans and Vandals. The music was different. I was different.” He tells me he has numerous projects in the pipeline. We agree this yelling backwards and forwards isn’t the ideal way to chat. Instead we decide to catch up by phone in quieter more relaxed circumstances. I stay at Ronnie’s for a couple more artists until it’s abundantly clear that no one is listening. Drink, laughter and chatter have won the day. This is a tough place to win over attentive ears. As we get through a brief chat and the obligatory “Can you hear me okay?” I begin by asking him what type of response he’s had this year to ‘Out of the Blue’? Is he aware ‘Johnathan’ has been played over 67,000 times on Spotify? “That’s amazing,” he laughs at the Spotify statistic. ”The album has had no PR, no tour or promotional gigs and almost no reviews, so I’m very happy it is slowly finding its audience anyway. I hope people enjoy it. It was a journey to the underworld and back for me.” I remind him of during our rambling chat at Ronnie’s that he briefly mentioned a new album later this year. Does he have a release date and will the style be any different to ‘Out of the Blue’? “Yes, it will be very different from ‘Out of the Blue’, just as ‘Out of the Blue’ was very different from my first album (with my old band, Orphans and Vandals) ‘I Am Alive and You Are Dead’. I would not want to make the same album twice. I’m very excited by these songs, and the different sound I am imagining for them, and I want to get the album done as soon as possible while the spirit is there.” “I’m working on the songs at the moment, and am hoping to get into the studio with a handful of my favourite musicians, and Tim at Viva Recordings in Highbury to record it within a couple of months, but as always, things depend on timing and money. Time and money. Time and money.” Joshua is always noted for his short-term association with the indie band Orphans and Vandals. Fans will be excited to hear there are plans afoot to release on vinyl the 2009 version of ‘I Am Alive and You Are Dead’. So I checked with him what has brought this to fruition, and does he feel there is a danger this can be deemed a step backwards rather than forward with new projects? “It’s come about just because I kept getting messages online asking for it, and the label Rare Cut (who helped put out ‘Out of the Blue’) and I realised it was almost ten years since the album came out, which seemed like a good time, if a few people wanted it, to do a vinyl reissue. I knew Tim had long wanted to remaster it. And I knew the author and journalist JS Rafaeli (who has now very kindly written the liner notes for the vinyl reissue) had been trying to pitch an article to various papers and magazines about the album as an unfairly ignored gem, and these things all conspired together to make now seem a good time to do it.” “I don’t worry about it being a step backwards. Perhaps if I had been unable to find a path to making and releasing ‘Out of the Blue’, I might have felt it was a step back. But in the aftermath of that album, and in the space before making another album which I’m very excited about, I’m happy to acknowledge and encourage people to listen to my first album with Orphans and Vandals.” “I’ve never been one of those who sees music as something like technology, where the next thing makes the last obsolete. But more importantly, while I wouldn’t want to repeat the music Orphans and Vandals did, those songs are still part of me and my work, and I want people to listen to them, just like I will with the songs on ‘Out of the Blue’ after I release the next album. I want people to listen to them and for me to have the chance to play all my songs live. Perhaps older songs will bring people to hear newer songs or the other way around, and I’m happy with both.” Anyone who has listened to Joshua's projects and musical collaborations over the years will soon tune in to the diversity of themes and lyrical content. So,who, and what are currently giving him inspiration? “I’ve been listening to a lot of Violeta Parra, Shirley Collins, Anne Briggs, Mahalia Jackson, Dave Van Ronk, Leon Redbone, and Norma Waterson and Eliza Carthy. I’ve just re-read most of Angela Carter’s books after reading Edmund Gordon’s amazing biography of her. I’ve also been reading Arundhati Roy, Robert Aickman, Kazuo Ishiguro, and I also get inspiration from friends’ work like my friend Jonathan Kemp’s beautiful books.” Although Joshua has had acclaim and limited success with his music and film soundtrack work, he explains he still working without business support. I’m keen to know why? “Good question,” he begins with a sigh which indicates where do I begin? “I’ve wondered about it sometimes, but I really have no idea. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that if an artist is too singular people don’t see where they fit. But I don’t know. But being an artist is not dependent on these factors anyway or up to the industry. If a person wants to create things, they go ahead and do things anyway”. “But I would definitely like more support. I would very much like an agent for organising more regular gigs - I miss playing live regularly very much. I don’t have a manager, a publisher or PR. Everything I do happens completely off the radar of the industry. This has its freedom which is good, but it makes everything from playing live to promoting an album to raising money for new recordings more challenging. So for me, the more people listening to any of my work - Orphans & Vandals’ ‘I Am Alive and You Are Dead’, the film soundtrack for ‘Set the Thames on Fire’, this year’s ‘Out of the Blue’ and soon my new album - the better, as I hope that will lead to more opportunities and open pathways, doors and adventures.” Joshua asks if I know the work of Ben Wright? It’s a telephone conversation, I’ve no time to look it up. I embarrassingly tell him no. “Well, Ben Wright is a former dancer, now an independent choreographer working in contemporary dance, opera and theatre.” I want to interject and say “Oh that Ben Wright!”. Thankfully I manage to keep it under wraps as a stupid idea. “Ben has an idea, a project, a framework, developing in his clever head at the moment. In broad terms It’s going to be a queer dance duet, and I think he has the dancers he wants in mind. He’s also thinking maybe I should perform the music live instead of using the album recordings - a mixture back and forth between me and the dancers, exploring themes of love and relationships. We’ll have to see how this develops in Ben’s mind, but I’m really excited about it as I think Ben’s work is beautiful.” Be it live gigs, vinyl re-releases, or dance/music interpretations it looks as we will be hearing a lot more from the talented Al Joshua...with or without support. So dear reader in a Baz Luhrmann “wear sunscreen” type manner may I offer one piece of advice. Give ‘Out of the Blue’ a listen. It won’t help your skin, but it works wonders for the soul.

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Al Joshua - Interview
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