All pictures in the article by: Nathan Dunphy
Bedroom-pop to new soul: Within the span of almost three years, Joesef moved swiftly from autodidactically creating at home to selling out big venues, while not even having an album out yet. That changes now with “Permanent Damage” on January 13th. On a grey day in November, I met up with the Scottish musician to talk about releasing his debut, the importance of painful imprints and growing up queer in Glasgow.
The coming-of-age story of this artist certainly is a turbulent one. Adolescing in the surburbs of Glasgow, Joesef got in touch with music through his mother’s favorite records and taught himself how to play instruments. He kept this do-it-yourself attitude when playing his first concert without any released songs – and the risk paid off. When I talked to him at the end of last year, the air however was already buzzing with the enthusiasm of what’s to come.
“It’s an exciting time, but it’s such a big step forward that it can never not be scary. I put a lot of work and energy into this, so it being finally out is quite a daunting prospect.” he says. Inspired by the slogan on a cigarette package, the name of the album also sounds rather daunting. “Permanent Damage” challenges a notion we often hold onto that at some point we’ll be completely over a person, that the imprint they left on us will fade. But Joesef thinks about damage not necessarily as a negative thing. “It took me a long time to feel comfortable with these imprints. You lose so much of yourself in a relationship that you need to build back up, yet in the end change always makes you a stronger person. It makes you treat people better, when you know how you’ve treated and been treated badly in the past.”
We all look back every once in a while, to learn from bygone situations or to just wallow in the bittersweet nostalgia of it all. Joesef does the latter very beautifully in the lyrics of “East End Coast”, where he reminisces about his hometown and old relationship. I wonder if it’s good to throw yourself into memories, especially when it comes to songwriting. He nods. “This one is about missing Glasgow. You can get too caught up in the past and never move forward, yet it does help when you feel isolated. As everything around me was changing, I at least had this person or this place to hold onto. And considering music, it is good to sit in those pits of despair at times. I’m more of a positive person, but as soon as I have a guitar in my hand… then I access these dark parts of my brain.” What he mentions, is a procedure that seems common among musicians – writing songs to reflect on your past better, to say things you can’t otherwise put into words. He admits having difficulties to communicate and articulate his inner thoughts and music provides him with an outlet to express what he struggles with.
„But you’re breaking like you’ve been broken before, made the best of what’s left of our house by the East End Coast, you can take it till you can’t take anymore“
East End Coast – Joesef
Joesef prefers to make music out of these struggles right as they happen, but that’s not always possible or healthy, as he explains. “When I’m inside a situation, sometimes I cannot even touch it because I’m so consumed by it. It just hurts too much. To truly understand how a situation has affected you, you might need more time and distance, take a step back.” Does that also apply to his experience of growing up as a bisexual man in Glasgow? He describes Scotland as a progressive country, yet his hometown was quite a hypermasculine space, making him feel torn between trying to fit in and being honest about his identity. “It took me ages to unpack that part of myself, to talk about my experience. There was a time in Glasgow, if you were anything less than a big straight man, you would get your head kicked in. So I think it’s a combination of societal change as well as me accepting myself more.”
Listening to record, the lyrics are dealing mainly with the troubles of a romantic relationship, yet “Joe” seems more like a painful conversation Joesef has with himself about self-acceptance. The stunningly shot music video on the other hand shows a love story falling apart. Who exactly is calling his name now? “It is me. I talk about this negative wrestle I’ve had with myself since I was fifteen: Everybody suffers from their inner critic to a degree and changing that was so overbearing. While making the album my inner landscape consisted of hating myself, basically, and ‘Joe’ was a cry for help. At first, when I wrote it on guitar, it sounded so depressing, but then we put drums behind it, sped it up – and suddenly it became this resilient ray of hope.”
That sentiment seems to run through “Permanent Damage” like a silver lining, embodied by a drive in his music. Looking back at Joesef’s earlier releases, he rather caught attention with silky-smooth, laid-back songs. Now while this softness is still noticeable, the debut album explores a faster and more diverse soundscape. Yet how exactly did he experiment instrumentally? “When I was with my producer, there were no rules. We would just have fun, talk about our influences like old Motown records and Northern Soul – music you could move to, that was heart-wrenching at the same time. Back then, craving the physicality of live music during the pandemic, I started seeking that out through my own sound.” When asked about which particular artists played in the background during the making, he mentions Lady Wray, Phoebe Bridgers, Al Green and The Cure. We both agree on Robert Smith having perfected the art of making sad but boppy songs.
“It also makes it easier to perform tracks with dark subjects at a concert. To see people in the crowd dance to something you’ve broken your heart over is quite cathartic – like a full circle moment.” Joesef does indeed not hide intense emotions or queer, personal stories. Being this open definitely draws so many people to his work, still I wonder how it feels to bare oneself in front of a large audience. “Sometimes when you’re writing, you admit things you would never say to yourself in an empty room, let alone on a stage. That’s a strange experience. But then growing up in Glasgow you couldn’t be anything other than honest because people could smell the bullshit from a mile away. All that makes me so vulnerable in my music as I don’t have any other way of saying it.”, he answers outright, in a manner that fits the touching rawness of “Permanent Damage”.
We just dug deep into the record, turned it inside out, but keeping the tradition at the end of our interviews, maybe there is a thought or feeling left unsaid. “I hope people can take something from the album, even if it is a bit of escapism. Whatever you’re going through, if you listen to it, maybe you can just disappear for a moment. That’s what music has always done for me.” Sounds like another full circle moment, if you ask me.