By Shannon Carlin
James Keogh once had big dreams of becoming a lawyer, but right after earning his degree he decided he’d much rather be a singer/songwriter instead. While some parents would be pretty upset by their child’s decision to ditch the 9-to-5 world for the life of a rambling man, Keogh’s dad was more than happy to see his son make the switch. Mainly because he always wished he would have become a rock star himself.
“I didn’t want to play guitar when I was 14 years old, but [my dad] got an electric guitar and he was like, ‘You have to play this,'” Keogh told Radio.com. “He always had that regret that he didn’t play music.”
Shortly after earning his degree, Keogh hit the open mic circuit and started going by Vance Joy. He took the name, which he hoped would help separate his personal and public persona, from a character in fellow Aussie Peter Carey’s novel, Bliss. “In the actual book, the character Vance Joy, he’s kind of a grandfather figure,” Keogh explained. “He’s only in it for a couple of pages, but they talk about how he brings people around him and tells these stories and that image just sort of fit.”
Keogh considers himself to be a storyteller, admitting that though he feels a closeness to his music, it’s not autobiographical.”You might start with a thread or a kernel of your own experience, but I think the best stuff is usually picked up from books or films,” he said. “I think I try to find things and combine them and fit them together like a puzzle. The more things you can put together and kind of smooth over the edges, the more you can’t really tell where everything came from and it comes out as an original thing.”
The singer initially started writing his first single “Riptide,” off his debut EP, God Loves You When You’re Dancing, in 2008, but back then he wasn’t that interested in songwriting. He just thought it was fun coming up with random chords and says he didn’t even think he would ever finish the song. But four years later he started working on it again.
Keogh started by writing the melody to the song on his ukulele and revisiting the chords he had previously written for the track. “I had all the bits next to each other and it still didn’t fit together but there was something there,” he explained.
The next five days he spent working on the song, rearranging words to figure out the right order until finally coming up with something that he liked. In the end, Keogh focused on his fears, which include dentists, the dark and pretty girls. But it’s often the line about a particular pretty girl who looks like a certain blonde actress best known for playing Catwoman that fans ask him about the most.
“It’s funny, people are like, ‘What’s with Michelle Pfeiffer and that reference?'” Keogh said with a laugh. “To me it’s like, of course Michelle Pfeiffer. I love her movies and when she was in the Fabulous Baker Boys she was the embodiment of the beautiful woman.”
Nearly a year ago, he posted “Riptide” to Soundcloud and almost immediately the music blogs were picking it up. A few months later he was signed to Atlantic Records, current home to Bruno Mars, Janelle Monae and fellow New Music to Know alum Charli XCX. “I feel like I’m fortunate to write that song because it’s kind of launched my music and then opened a lot of doors,” he said.
With fame comes constant recognition and the question of what name does he answer to, James or Vance? “It’s a bit weird, when I got into a place and it’s, ‘Hey, Vance Joy,’ and I totally accept that that’s the name, and I’m happy to answer to Vance,” he said. “But I guess when I introduce myself, I say ‘Hey I’m James.'”
Not that Keogh thinks of Vance Joy as a character, he says when he’s on stage he’s at his truest self. “If I was a dancer, or an actor, I would have a wall of makeup or a costume or something to hide behind,” he said. “But when I’m on stage, I’m a songwriter who feels very close to his songs.”
Vance Joy hits the road this spring with Young the Giant with the tour officially kicking off on March 1 in New York.