Joesef is a young soul with an old soul who’s mastered new soul. And he’s an artist who isn’t afraid of baring his soul.
Since shining through on the BBC’s Sound of 2020 poll only nine months after his first ever gig, the golden-voiced Scottish singer-songwriter has released a brace of #fire singles and EPs. Now, after long months bunkered in a Brixton studio, Joesef’s willingness to go deep is wrenchingly, movingly, powerfully evident in the brilliant debut album the singer and songwriter has recently completed.
It’s even there, bold and upfront, in the album’s title.
“I had an earlier title, Caught in An Endless Sunday, which was a lyric from Fire,” the musician from Glasgow begins, referring to the single he released in September 2021, ahead of three sold-out shows at East London’s Hoxton Hall. In that luxurious electronic soul ballad, Joesef painted a lyrical picture like only he knows how: “I had to burn my house down just to forget the way we used to lie drunk on the floor, just drinking all day.”
“That’s me and my ex-,” he acknowledges of Fire’s protagonists. “That in hindsight is what our relationship consisted of: being off our face. It was fucking mad but I loved it. It obviously didn’t end well but it was class while it lasted. But the song isn’t cathartic – the resolve in the bridge is: ‘There isn’t a fire hot enough to burn you out of my mind.’ It’s about the cyclical nature of heartbreak: no matter how much you try and escape it, it’s always there.
“That song was a bit of a breakthrough for me in terms of sonics,” he adds. “It’s cinematic, a James Bond theme vibe.”
But in terms of providing titular inspiration for the album: as Joesef worked with producer Barney Lister (Joy Crookes, Celeste) in The Dairy in south London across the first half of this year, he realised that, overall, the 13 songs he’d written spoke to much more than a dreary, difficult, comedown Sunday.
“That first idea didn’t feel really representative of how dark some of the songs are. Then right on the deadline, I was looking at a packet of fags: ‘Smoking causes permanent damage.’ And I thought that had a nice ring to it.”
This, then, is Permanent Damage, a break-up album in the classic mould, full of hurt and heart – but also healing.
“The title speaks to the theme of the record, which, for me, is the permanence of heartbreak – it changed the way I move through the world, how I interact with my mates, how I interact in new relationships. But permanent damage doesn’t necessarily mean to me a negative thing. It’s another word for change.” Damage, too, can be instructive, “teaching you about what you do or don’t deserve”.
Those feelings and memories, good and bad, were there in his recent single East End Coast, a song driven by both nostalgia and a huge drum break. “The East End Coast is the edge of the Clyde, which is not the nicest river!” laughs Joesef, who relocated to London at the end of 2020, in between lockdowns. “It’s a personal joke between me, my ex- and my pals. It’s about the tumultuous things we used to get up to – and it’s me missing Glasgow as well.”
There’s more push/pull – geographical, emotional, sexual – in another album standout. Moment is possibly Joesef’s poppiest, well, moment. As he accurately describes it, the track is “a ripper. It’s banging, man, very fast and driving. I went back to Glasgow and saw my ex- and we ended up sleeping together. But something had changed; the feeling wasn’t there anymore. So it’s about wishing we could go back to the way it was, just for a wee moment.”
As a teenager, the lad from Glasgow’s East End knew no one in the music industry. He had only one quick year on a music production course under his belt (“I just couldn’t deal with the wires and shit like that – although I did learn how to use Ableton”). Equally, while his was a childhood surrounded by his mum’s favourite records being blasted out morning, noon and night (Al Green, The Mamas and the Papas, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway), there was no money for music lessons.
So Joesef taught himself the notes and the ropes, becoming proficient on guitar, bass, keyboards and software. He and his manager, a mate from music college, took a similar DIY approach to gigging: they decided they would only play his first gig when he’d sold it out, but also before he’d released any music. And it had to be King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, an iconic Glasgow venue.
The pair blizzarded the city with flyers, Instagram teases of 15-second snippets of songs and word-of-mouth, partly via the punters he met during his 40-hour weeks working at the Solid Rock Café. They even bought a billboard. Still, no one knew he was, or what he was – a DJ? A band? English? – and it was a gamble. But it paid off, the gig packed to the rafters with delirious, newly converted fans.
That 2nd March 2019 breakthrough was followed by his debut EP, 2019’s Play Me Something Nice, and Does It Make You Feel Good?, released in late 2020.
“I think I sound like a wee baby on those, though,” he reflects now. “My voice has totally changed. I was pure singing quietly in my bedroom. But since then I’ve learned to sing better, produce better, structure songs better. I do still love those EPs, they do perfectly capture that time in my life. Limbo is still one of my favourite songs – it was one of the first songs where I managed to say exactly what I wanted to say.”
Equally, “I think when you have limited knowledge, it makes you more creative – you’re doing stuff that no one’s done before. If I knew more about production, those songs would sound too clean.”
Recording his debut album across late 2021 and into early summer 2022, Joesef and Lister focused on doing right by the singer’s songs, and by the circumstances of their inspiration and creation.
In that regard, the “family-like” nature of the music community based in The Dairy was a godsend. And his new musical base came with an unexpected bonus: a friendship with fellow Dairy resident, Guy Garvey of Elbow, whose “pure working class torch songs” are huge for Joesef. Garvey even ended up joining him on vocals on the cool, wee hours jazz of Apartment 22. “We just need a bit more texture in the song, so we just asked him. And he’s such a gentleman.”
Working together closely with minimal outside help, Joesef and Lister were, as he puts it, “balls-to-the-wall and locked down in the studio. But it was amazing, very comfortable for me, very room-like – like a bedroom.”
That was notably apt for Just Come Home with Me. It radiates a woozy, end-of-the-night feel, swathed in reverb and with up-close-and-personal vocals, the sonics moulding around the raw emotion of the topic. Joesef wrote that one alone, back when he was still living in Glasgow, and it was one of the first songs he brought to Lister.
“The production of the song picks you up and puts you down. It’s very dreamy, and it feels a bit trippy. That’s one of my favourites on the album, partly because of how it was made – the vocal is an original take demo from when I made it in my bedroom in Glasgow. I just couldn’t beat that. I felt like I said exactly what I wanted to say when I made that tune, and it still makes me feel sad when I listen to it.”
There’s more whites-of-his-eyes intimacy in Borderline, probably the quietest moment on the album. “It might be the song I love the most, just in terms of how it makes me feel – I cry when I sing it. I think it gives listeners a wee breather. A lot of the songs are quite big, but this is quite stripped back. One of my biggest tunes has been Comedown,” he says of his 2021 track, “and that’s just a guitar and a vocal.
“This song makes sense in terms of the overall story that’s in the record, too,” he continues. “I wrote Borderline about a boy I met after the boy I’m talking about on most of the album. And he was nice and unconditionally loving to me, would do anything for me. But I just couldn’t accept it, because I was so fucked by the nick that that previous relationship had left me in. So Borderline is sad for me because it was nothing bad happened, it was just the wrong time.”
With the album scheduled for release early next year, Joesef is dealing out its treasures carefully. The next single release is Joe, a lush dancefloor-filler where the apparent upbeat feel contains multitudes
“That was another one I just wrote by myself, quite sad and stripped back. But Barney said we could make something more of it, because it was so catchy. The subject matter is a bit close to the bone for me,” he admits. “It’s about not really liking myself. It sounds like I’m talking about a relationship, but I’m actually talking about a relationship with myself. But after we added big Fleetwood Mac drums and a bit of bass, it ended up sounding quite bright. It’s one of those songs that if you weren’t really paying attention, you wouldn’t realise it’s quite depressing.”
He says this brightly – Joesef is an outgoing, joyous, hilarious character. For all the crying, literal and metaphorical in his songs, he can also laugh about his sadness, as fans at his endlessly entertaining live shows will attest. He also knows that, ultimately, creation means catharsis: everything ends, as the title of the album closer has it, All Good.
But to get to that point, he had to write songs that are nakedly, wrenchingly honest. Singing power to truth, if you like. There was no other option.
“I feel like I’m quite a closed-off person in my day-to-day life, I shy away from telling people how I’m feeling. Music is my outlet, because I don’t that therapy or anything like that. If I didn’t have music I feel like I’d really be fucked – I’d probably be an alky or something,” he says with a smile.
Like Douglas Stuart – the Booker Prize-winning author of Shuggie Bain and fellow Glasgow East End native with whom he’s become firm friends – Joesef was stoppered up for the longest time. Then, when each found the platform of writing – prose or songs – these pent-up feelings and frustrations, that had intensified over the years, came out in a poetic torrent.
Even discussing them now, Joesef speaks with a lyrical, impassioned eloquence.
“I feel like I’ve downplayed the things I went through as a result of growing up queer in Glasgow. Just because it serves me no purpose to rehash it with myself. But, aye, it makes sense when you say it like that. It’s so nice to have that outlet after all these years of biting my tongue, walking in a certain way, talking in a certain way, just to avoid getting my head kicked in. As much as I can defend myself and handle myself – and I’ve got two older brothers – it was always better just to blend in a wee bit. And I feel like I would have got into music a bit earlier if it wasn’t for that mentality, of not wanting to upset the rhythm.
“So, aye, music has been my outlet, in the same way that writing has been for Douglas. You can tell your own story, you can take control of your own narrative. That’s really important. People can’t just call you a poof, call you a bender. You’re more than that. You’re a multi-faceted human being with so much more to offer than your sexuality. That’s always been important to me, which is why I’ve always been a bit uneasy with people just focusing on my sexuality. I am that – but I am also so much more.”
In Permanent Damage, Joesef amply, beautifully demonstrates that. On an album that promises to light up 2023, the musician presents of all of himself. In his lyrics, his being from Glasgow – a city of bullshit-free, grasp-the-thistle honesty, all the time – shines bright and hard.
“When I hear people singing and I don’t buy it, it doesn’t move me. That’s your job as a musician: to move people, and give them music they can make their own and attach their own feelings to. That’s why and how I love music. A song can make my day, or ruin it. I love that.”
Are you ready to be heartbroken?