By Roisin Breen

Hailing from Glasgow’s East-End, Scotland’s breakout neo-soul artist Joesef, is as humble, funny and charming as his heartfelt lyrics would have you believe. He’s that kind of person who makes you want him to do well, it’s easy to get lost in conversation with him, and to forget who’s doing the interviewing and he has that special kind of Glaswegian charm that makes you laugh and feel melancholic simultaneously. Sat in a sultry hotel in Paris’ 9th district, the singer spoke openly about his raw and completely natural path into the industry. From a bedroom pop artist to supporting Paolo Nutini at Glasgow’s Hydro, and touring with Rina Sawayama on her colossal Hold the Girl world tour, his debut album Permanent Damage expertly transgresses the themes of heartbreak to longing for home. Not coming from a musical family, but owing his references to his mum’s kitchen radio, with Al Green, The Cure, and The Mamas and the Papas playing all day in the background, Joesef’s exploration of the past is apparent in his deeply personal songwriting. Discover our full interview with him below.

Joesef will play at The Trabendo in Paris tonight, 12th April.


So you’ve recently moved from your home town of Glasgow to London, controversial?

Yes, well sometimes being content can be a bad thing…

Especially for creative people, it can be easy to feel like you’re plateauing.

Exactly, it can just get quite boring. So I like this idea of putting yourself in boiling water and seeing if you can survive. And it’s amazing. I love London. It’s like my second home there now.

Whereabouts in London are you based?

Hackney Wick. 

The North-East of big cities always seems to be where the best neighborhoods are, is it the same in Glasgow?

Yes Glasgow has the same vibe as London – the West-End is the posh snooty bit, and the East-End is a bit more rough and ready, up and coming, where all the creative things are always happening.

There’s always good things happening east. Even Paris is the same. 

I’ve not visited enough to get the geography of it, but I could definitely see myself living here! I would need to learn the language, but I really could see myself waking up here every morning. I guess being immersed in a language is the only way to really learn it as well. I’ve been trying to learn a language with Duolingo but it’s really robotic. And they really teach you nonsense phrases as well, “the turtle ate an apple”, what is that about? When that ever is that ever going to fucking come in useful in France? (Laughs)

And you will be touring here in April! Are you excited?

Very much excited, yeah! I’m Excited to come back to Paris, man. My last Paris show was fucking insanity – it was just madness! I didn’t expect it to be that hectic. It was amazing though. 

Yeah, the Parisians are pretty mad for it, they like a good time.

I feel like my music can be quite gentle at times, but across the board the gigs have been pretty hectic everywhere. Especially in Glasgow, everyone was raving about with their t-shirts off! Manchester as well. That was one of the best gigs on the last tour.

Where did you play in Manchester?

We played at Gorilla. It was so sweaty. Gorilla is so much fun because there’s no separation between you and the crowd so everyone is grabbing you as you’re performing! (Laughs) It was amazing. 

So, tell us a bit about how you first got into music?

So I never thought I was going to be a singer or a musician, I don’t come from a musical family. Coming from a working class background and trying to get into any of the creative industries can be a bit of a fucking minefield. So it was never really in the stars for me. It all came off the back of doing an open mic night night with my mate, who became my manager. I don’t really know how it happened,I just got really pissed (drunk) one night and we got up and sang California Dreamin’ by The Mamas and Papas, and then here we are! (Laughs) I always sang in my house but it was never a serious thing. But after that night, my friend came back to me and he said, “I want to be your music manager. I want to try and see if we can do something here. I think you should write some songs.” It was basically him seeing something in me that I didn’t really see myself. 

How old were you at that point?

I was around nineteen or twenty. I had been at college but I had dropped out and I was working in a bar. He encouraged me a lot and he just said, “Let’s give it a go man. Let’s see what happens.” And then I just concentrated on writing tunes for around two years and then eventually once I started releasing the music, it sort of caught on. So it was a pretty weird start, thank fuck he got behind me because I wouldn’t be doing this now otherwise. It was two of my friends that really got behind me from the beginning. They literally came to me one day with a PowerPoint presentation with a fully realized professional forecast of where they thought we could push it to in the next two years. I was working in a bar and I wasn’t really doing anything productive, I wasn’t very ambitious at the time and I didn’t have many other prospects, so I agreed, I figured, “Fuck it, let’s see what we can do.” That was in 2018, we released the first music in 2019 and did some of our first gigs and we got quite a bit of attention quite quickly, it was a pretty mad time. I was kind of thrown to the lions, so to speak! (Laughs)

So you have used your online presence as a way of directly communicating with your fans?

We initially wanted to start out with ‘a word of mouth’ promotion by using Instagram and Tiktok. Glasgow’s quite small and we tried to harness that. We’ve always had an eye for marketing and visuals are so important to me so it was about presenting it in a really special way, and then it just grew its own arms and legs from there, so to speak. (Laughs)

I love being able to talk to the listeners. I never really anticipated that aspect of making music being so important to me, but being able to get instant feedback from people who listen to it is so important to me. I wake up every day with people messaging me mad, random, sometimes really intense things. It would take a lot for me to message somebody so I always think it’s amazing. It’s a very immediate connection that we’ve never had before. Before it was always down to what the critics were saying, but it’s very much normal people giving their own honest opinions.

Are people nice or do you get some trolls? 

Always nice, surprisingly! But I have had a few trolls. (Laughs) We released the album and tried to coincide it with the week of the album charts, and The Cortinas were releasing an album as well, and all their fans were coming in my DMs saying that I was shit! And I was like, “The number one is safe, I’m just trying to get into the top 20!” (Laughs) You know what I mean?! 

The Cortinas fans coming for you!

I know, I was like, “Jesus Christ, like keep your Dr Martens on!” (Laughs) It was pretty intense. I respect their energy for sure.

The fans of big stars can be the worst if you do anything to mess with them. They’re like armies, aren’t they? One day your fans will be doing that for you! (Laughs)

Hopefully, man, we’ll be going tooth and nail for a number one!

So can we go back to that point of your visuals. They feel very personal…

The visuals have always been very important to me. Before I was a musician, and when I was a child I wanted to be like a painter. I was very shy and I just wanted to sit in my room and draw. So that’s definitely reflected in how I wanted to present the music. I feel like when I’m making music, I can see it. I can see the texture of what a song sounds like. I always want to try and translate that as best as possible so people can understand the record and how I see it. I love stuff like that. I love when it feels like you’re stepping into the universe that an artist has made.

The video director Lewis Henman, and I worked on all the videos together and all the album aesthetics. And Nathan, my manager, is also my photographer. 

PowerPoint guy? 

Yes PowerPoint guy! (Laughs) One half off. Nathan is the aesthetic marketing man. And Lyle is the business man. The aesthetic side of it all has always been important to me and it’s just fun. It really is just fucking class! I love films and it feels like it’s a little slice of making a film. And it’s amazing. 

And that’s your job! 

That’s my job and it’s fucking banging! 

What’s the process you go into when writing music? 

It very much comes in dribs and drabs for me. I’m not really like, “Oh, let’s write a song today” but I write stuff down all the time because I have a very ADHD brain, and it really helps me to write stuff down. I write tunes on the guitar and I feel like it’s pretty foolproof. Because if you write a song on the guitar, you will know if it’s a good song if it makes you feel a certain way. I think if you’re building a song as you’re producing it, you can sort of hide a lot of the bullshit and fill a lot of gaps with unnecessary filler. It can be a lot of smoke and mirrors if you do it that way, so I think it’s really nice to write the song in a really basic way.

So it’s interesting you say about building it on your notes because there’s a poet that I really like called James Massiah and he shared access to a Google Drive on his Instagram for anyone who was interested so you could see him building up his work as he went along. It was a really interesting eye into the writers’ process. 

Oh my God. I would sooner die than let somebody see my notes on my iPhone! (Laughs) Like if something got hold of that I would need to go into hiding I think! 

Yes I sometimes worry about that. What happens when you die, does someone get access to the notes in your phone? What are they gonna think?! (Laughs)

I’m literally insane! That’s pretty cool though. I like that. So anybody could see it in real time? 

Yeah, I think it wasn’t as raw as his notes, it was very much a Google document that seemed to be taken from notes. A little more curated. But it was interesting to see how he built on his ideas, and it goes back to what you were saying about connecting with your fans online.

That’s cool, it’s very accessible. Although I think that there’s such a thing as being too accessible these days. I do love social media but I like to hold some things back online. I think if you give too much away it can be like over exposure.

Fans have come to expect so much of their idols as a person beyond who you are as an artist. The whole idea of artists and musicians having to be role models. Half the time it’s like, “hang on a minute, that’s a 19 year old person you’re talking about.”

Yeah, it’s crazy. I think people hold artists to a very high standard and what is expected of you is constantly changing. Especially for young artists! Of course we’re going to make mistakes. Everyone does. I like going out and getting pissed (drunk) with my friends, of course we’re going to get up to a bit of silliness! (Laughs). It is quite a strange life to be living. 

Are you feeling the pressure to behave in a different way at all? 

I’ve always been a bit of a nutter. Yeah. So I feel like from the get go everyone knows what they’re getting into. I’m Scottish as well, do you know what I mean? (Laughs) So I’ll probably be the loudest person in the room. So no, I don’t really feel pressure, probably from myself, but not from other people. Not outside. 

How are your family reacting to it all? I saw your video that went viral when you told your mum you were going to be supporting Paolo Nutini at The Hydro in Glasgow.

Yes, I took her to the concert and she loved it. She was like, “People are gonna notice me!” I was like, “Mum, come on. It’s Paolo Nutini, no one is here to see me, or you!  (Laughs)

Oh come on, she was viral!

I know! She came to one of the record stores in Glasgow when I was doing a release party for the album and everyone was recognizing her. I told her she could never come to any of them again! (Laughs) She’s a very proud woman and I think she sacrificed a lot of things for us when we were growing up. I know she wanted to be a makeup artist and a hairstylist and she never got the chance to realize her own dreams because she had three kids and she was a single mom. So I think now, she’s sort of living vicariously through me. We’re one of those families, where if one of us is winning, we all win together. So it’s so nice to be able to tell my family, and my mom about all this mad stuff that I’m doing and treat her to things like concerts at The Hydro. My mum doesn’t know where I am half of the time. I put on my story, « I’m in Paris, » and she’s like, “Why haven’t you told me you’re going to Paris!” She doesn’t realize how quickly it all moves sometimes. I’m only in Paris for a matter of hours, I jump on the Eurostar, spend the day in the hotel and then I’m straight back on the Eurostar back to London. 

Are your siblings in the music industry as well? 

No, I have two brothers, and we’re not very alike at all. One’s a scaffolder and the other one’s a mechanic. The very big burly men. (Laughs) Very hilarious though. They’re amazing guys. They’re just very different people as, as most siblings are, you fall from the same tree, but it feels like we’re from very different trees for sure. We’re all doing our own things, they’ve got babies so they’re busy changing nappies and that sort of shit now. So we don’t talk every day, but we’re close.

What are you most looking forward to for your music in the coming year?

I’m just really excited to take the album as far as it can go. We have a lot of festivals planned for the summer that I’m so excited for and we’re going to travel a lot. We’re going to America, Australia, and Japan. I really can’t wait. I actually nearly fainted when I found out we would be going to Japan. Not even for doing the gig. Just actually going to Japan, I want to just go and spend an entire day on the bullet train. I’m just so excited to go and see what we can do with it. There’s so much to be done and so many places to see and it should be fun. 

And who are your biggest inspirations? 

I’m massively inspired by books and other writers. I’ve been reading a lot of Patti Smith stuff lately and also two books by Douglas Stewart, Shuggie Bain and Young Mungo. He’s a Scottish writer from Glasgow and I got to know him through a piece we did together for Rolling Stone. I feel like being a songwriter, or any sort of writer for that matter, you need to be a reader. I think other people’s writing inspires me way more than any sort of musician. Just because of the way people use language and the way they can describe really mundane things in really beautiful ways. And I think Douglas, and Patti, do that very well, in such a specific way. Glasgow’s a very brutal place and some of the subject matter in the books is very hard to read. It’s tough, but it’s delivered in a really unbelievably beautiful way. I think there’s so much to learn through that in terms of writing music and talking about the kind of specific pains of heartbreak, taking the really quiet moments and making them bigger. So I’m definitely inspired by a lot of literature. One musician who inspires me a lot is definitely Tyler, the Creator. I love how singular he is in his vision. His lyrics are so creative.

Do you know he was banned from touring in the UK when Theresa May was home secretary? 

How mental is that?!

I read a very interesting interview with him, in which he compared the standard we hold musicians to, with film and TV directors. The “art” is viewed in a very different way. For example, we don’t expect that every writer of a crime series is low-key someone who wants to go out and rape and kill women. Yet that is 99% of their content. The way he sees his music is a way of ingesting the world and spitting it back out. And it’s sort of like, “If you don’t like how it sounds, go and change the world.”

He is literally such a fucking visionary. Ever since he was young and he was working with Frank Ocean and Odd Future, they completely created their own entire world and it became a subculture within itself, and it’s still felt today. And I think that’s what inspires me. People that rip up the rule book, set it on fire, build their own kind of house. He has all these beats that are kind of off-kilter and he plays with all these really strange chords. I just love him! I’d love to meet him. I know they say don’t meet your heroes but I feel like I’d get inspired by just being around him. He’d probably hate me! (Laughs) Maybe one day he’ll give me a call.

Yes. Such a good era. I think I must have listened to Blonde by Frank Ocean literally over one thousand times. 

Oh my God, it was such a good album! Tha album for me was like the first boy that I’d ever gone with. And we’ve got this album together. And we’d listen to it together. Now every time I hear it, I’m transported back to those times. It’s magical. Frank as well man, his visuals and the way he articulates about life. And the kind of chances he takes on his music, nobody does it like him.

Even his interludes. The one with the voicemail that his mum left him where she is saying, “Don’t use drugs, don’t drink alcohol”…

“Sluggish, Lazy, Stupid, and unconcerned!” Yes! (Laughs) I love that shit, man. It’s iconic . He’s actually the King of an interlude. It’s an entire body of work in itself. Everything is so considered. Nothing feels as if it was there by accident. 

It’s beautiful and you have to listen to it from beginning to end. I know there’s a lot of talk at the moment about streaming music and people no longer listening to albums in their curated form. It must be frustrating as an artist.

It’s true, nobody listens to it in order anymore and it is curated to be listened to in a specific order. It’s funny, it’s like making a menu and somebody eating the cheesecake first. It just doesn’t make sense. (Laughs) I definitely took a long time trying to get the story right with this album and deliver it in a way that felt true and intentional, so I hope the listeners see that and they feel the story when they’re listening. 

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