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Josh Pyke talks production, streaming and book writing

Josh Pyke is an ARIA Award-winning indie folk singer/songwriter, producer and PPCA (Phonographic Performance Company of Australia) board member from Sydney, Australia. These days, he’s also a published children’s book author. His eighth album Rome is out now.

Whereabouts are you at the moment? Are you under any crazy lockdowns?
Oh, I’m in Sydney. No, I’m not under crazy lockdowns.

Oh, lucky bastard. Have you been getting into all the sourdoughs and stuff though?
No, I haven’t had time for that. I’ve got two kids, so we’ve been hustling to just keep some semblance of normal life going… It’s funny when I hear people saying like, “I have all this time during COVID to make bread and stuff,” and I’m like, “Oh my God. I would love more time,” but no, I haven’t. I’ve had less time than normal.

Less time than normal, that’s even worse.
Yeah, it is. Yeah.

Well, you’re producing a lot of your own music, does that take up a lot of your time at home as well?
Yeah. So I’ve got a studio at home where I’m speaking to you from now, and I do a lot of – I produce other artists as well. So, yeah, I do recording here and obviously produce my own music here as well. So yes, it takes up a lot of time but it’s obviously an awesome thing that I love doing the most, so it’s fantastic having the space here.

What do you get out of working by yourself? Is it very different from working with other people?
It’s just an opportunity to fulfil a creative vision. So when I write a song, I always in my head can hear kind of melodies and drum parts and guitar parts and bass parts and all that kind of stuff. I hear it in my head from the second that I kind of write these songs… I love the creative process of trying to get those things out of my brain. But I guess, I’ve worked with a lot of other people as well. So even in the course of producing my own album, I’m still working with violinists and drummers and I’ll sometimes use a different bass player or guitarist. So there’s a lot of collaboration, even when I am producing it myself. I think that’s sort of a thing that people might not realise as much, is solo artists as well, it’s always collaborative, but for many it’s just like it’s the privilege of being able to kind of have that capacity to fulfil this creative vision, instead of having to try to explain what I’m hearing in my head, I can just go ahead and do it… It’s just like a very liberating and very gratifying experience when you actually hear something come to fruition that’s just been kind of rattling around in your own brain.

Review: Josh Pyke – Rome

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And do you find the same thing when you work with other artists? When you hear their songs, do you suddenly hear all these things in your head that you go like, “Oh, it’d be great if we could throw this in or that in?”
100%, yeah. I mean, I was working with an artist called Bruce Bailey on Monday here in my studio. It was a kind of acoustic track, but I could just hear this slide guitar part in my head, so it’s just having the capacity to get it down, having a lap steel sitting beside me and having a bass guitar sitting beside me, and having a piano and drum kit already miked up and ready to go so that you can just focus on creativity and ideas rather than sort of the technical work stuff. I always like to focus on the technical stuff first and then have it set up and then just get into fast creativity.

Do you find working with other artists that they have ideas in their head and they’re trying to get them out and they’re explaining them in really odd, peculiar ways to you that you have to try and decipher?
Yeah, for sure. That’s part of being a creative is kind of sharing this creative language and vernacular and having the experience that I have of making eight records and doing countless hours of recording is building up those skills, of learning those communication skills, and being patient, and also respecting other people’s ownership and emotional attachment to their bodies of work that they’re creating as well, not trivialising their kind of desires and creative wishes for their songs.

You’ve just kind of got to do whatever serves the song.

Yeah, sure. I bet that’s a bit of a battle when someone’s really quite emotionally attached to maybe a verse or an arrangement or something and you’re like, “No, we should totally do this.” And they’re in disagreement. Does that happen often?
I think, yeah. It happens all the time both with my music and other people’s music and it’s the same with writing. I write kids books as well. And there’s a great phrase from Stephen King, the horror writer. He wrote a book on writing, and he always talks about killing your darlings. So sometimes there’s a verse that you love, or a line that you love, or a guitar line that you love. Sometimes it’s not serving the piece of art the best that it can and sometimes you have to kill your darlings and it’s definitely hard, but you’ve just kind of got to do whatever serves the song.

How did the children’s books get started? Was that just when you had your own children and you were sick of all the other children’s books that are out there?
A little bit, but no, it was more – my wife started – when we first got together years ago, she was working in children’s book publishing. So I kind of became pretty intimately aware of the industry and I just loved the creativity involved and the fact that it was – I think there’s a – it’s not easy to write a kid’s book basically. It’s easy to write a kid’s book but it’s same with songwriting. You got to be really economic. You’ve got to get across a message in a very short amount of time in language that doesn’t patronise the kids, but it allows their imaginations to – and you want to ask more questions than you give answers to, and that’s the same with songwriting. So I was really drawn to the challenge in the same way that I’m drawn to songwriting. It’s just expressing ideas in ways that get people thinking. And then, yes, definitely when I had kids, I was like, “Oh, I would love…” I mean, basically you’re always trying to be seem cool for your kids. And when you’re a parent, funnily enough writing kids books at this point in their lives, they’re only ten and seven, it’s cooler than being a rockstar. So I went down that road.

Well maybe eventually when they’re in their teens they’ll think that you being a rockstar is a little cooler.
We can only hope.

Have you been getting into any of the streamed gigs lately? Have you been tuning into anyone’s live stream gigs or festivals?
Yes, I did Isol-Aid and I did Delivered Live as well. And I watched that a bunch, which is fantastic. Yeah. There’s a lot of stuff like that going on and it’s really positive in terms of creativity and staying engaged and staying connected with your fans. But I mean, I certainly feel that it’s just not a replacement for the live experience. I’m still just so excited and hopeful that that’s something that we can all get back into in the next, hopefully few months, six months.

Do you see any opportunities within the current COVID situation for musicians that they can take advantage of?
I think musicians are disruptive, we’re always looking at new ways to engage. I think we’ve all embraced social media a lot more lately. And I think one thing that is an opportunity is that there’s been a lot more sort of collaboration between artists in terms of social media. So for instance, me doing a podcast with Bob Evans, and I did my Chats With Mates on my YouTube channel where I was interviewing and hanging out with my musician friends online. And I think that that kind of cross-collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas between artists is an opportunity at the moment. I think it’ll probably continue a bit more after COVID, but yeah, I think it’s just challenging because the main way that musicians engage with audiences is live. And then just, I haven’t seen anything really that even comes close to replacing or kind of equaling that, so that’s the big disadvantage that we have.

You release a lot of music. I mean, apart from the kajillion Josh Pyke albums, you did a psych album, you do soundtrack stuff. The CEO of Spotify recently was saying that artists can’t rely on releasing an album every two to three years to survive. What do you think about that, the idea that artists need to be producing more music?
I think it’s a bit of a double-edged sword because the reason that artists need to produce more and more music is because Spotify pays almost nothing to stream. So, whilst I’m sure the CEO of Spotify is super keen to have artists releasing more music on their platform, it’s not easy to release – I mean, it’s easier to release music than ever before, but it still costs a lot of money to produce tracks. It depends on the sort of music you play and if you’re an EDM producer, sure, pump them out. If you’re a folk singer that wants to have piano players and string quartets and stuff on your records, that’s a little more challenging to just bang out tracks every couple of months. So I think it’s a bit of a simplistic way to look at it, and maybe a statement that’s not from a musician, as opposed to a statement from a CEO of a company that happens to be a music company. But I think it’s not as simple as that.

It’s never been more risky than now to try and be a musician or an artist of any sort.

Before you were Josh Pyke, you released music as Night Hour. If you could go back to Night Hour-era Josh Pyke, what kind of advice would you give him, considering all the wisdom that you’ve since gained?
I would say change your name to Josh Pyke straight away. But honestly, I mean, the advice that I would give that guy back in those days is the advice that I would give to anybody, which is if you’re compelled to create then just keep creating, and if you really truly want to make it a goal, but in sense of being a career, you really need to throw your hat in the ring. And I’m grateful that I did that back in the day. And that’s what I still believe is true. The creative industry is extremely hard to succeed in and if you just like it and you want to do it, then go for it, but don’t necessarily expect that it’s going to be a career. If you’re compelled, absolutely compelled, to do it and you know that it’s something that you’ll be kind of very regretful on for the rest of your life and it’ll affect your mental happiness and stuff like that, then you really need to throw your hat in the ring. Yeah. It’s a big risk. It’s never been more risky than now to try and be a musician or an artist of any sort, but that’s what you got to do if you want to do it.

Looking back over your career, is there something in the music industry that you just didn’t see coming? Is there something that has changed so dramatically that you’ve gone like, “Shit, I don’t know how I got through that”, or, “I don’t know how artists are starting now considering this?”
There’s a lot of behind the scenes stuff that most people wouldn’t know about, that were massively affecting the industry. I mean, everybody kind of knows about piracy and how streaming essentially fixed piracy, but it’s the whole swathe of other issues of streaming. But the big thing behind the scenes is things like copyright reform and copyright protection for artists which I’m personally quite involved in. I’m a board member for PPCA and an APRA ambassador for over 10 years. So yeah, the thing that I think I probably wouldn’t have expected is the lack of respect that the government seems to have for creatives. I assume that if a government was to look at it in economic terms, they’d see how much the music industry contributes, or the entertainment industry in general contributes to the economy, even if they’re not thinking of the cultural value. And they still don’t seem to really value it in terms of protecting us as creatives and protecting our creative life. So, that’s something that I do find very surprising.

We’re running out of time. I have one final question for you. If you could collaborate with any artist in any medium, who would it be and what would you create?
I’d love Elliott Smith to co-write and produce a track for me. That would be awesome.