Vance Joy (James Gabriel Keogh) was born in Melbourne in 1987 and graduated from St. Kevin’s College in 2005 where he was a year ahead of Nick Murphy (aka pop star Chet Faker), and later graduated from Monash University with an Arts/Law degree in 2014. He was a promising AFL footballer and was recruited by Coburg to play in the semi-professional VFL competition in 2008-09, and despite attracting the interest of several AFL teams, by 2010 he had decided to concentrate on his songwriting and performing.
His early musical influences were Paul Kelly, The Whitlams, Ben Folds, INXS, Roy Orbison, Motown and Bruce Springsteen, and he started out on the Melbourne open mic night scene, traipsing around the bars, pubs, and cafes with his ukulele and guitar. He gradually honed his live performance skills and cut some demo tracks, in 2012 he adopted the stage name Vance Joy, which was inspired by a character in the Peter Carey novel Bliss.
Riptide had been about five years in the making before it was released as a track on Joy’s debut EP God Loves You When You’re Dancing, it had started life in 2008 when Vance wrote the first few chords and opening lines, but because he thought the embryonic song was too simple he shelved it for the next five years. In 2012 when he was developing tracks for his EP he recalled his earlier efforts which he subsequently married with the melody line of another song that he was writing and ultimately the final version of Riptide began to emerge.
The title of the song was inspired by a memory of family holidays to the seaside and the “Riptide Motel” at Queenscliffe (Vic) above, where the Keogh clan would stay. The apparently random stream-of-consciousness lyrics which are crammed with opaque metaphors, also had personal significance for Joy, as he has remarked “Around the time I wrote the song I met this girl, and I asked her what she did and she was like “I‘m a magician’s assistant.” I didn’t really know where to go from there, but I bet she never gets tired of laying that line on people.” The catchy chorus came to Joy as he was humming his way to get some food for dinner at Coles, and then he sought feedback from friends and family by uploading the first verse and chorus on his Facebook account, and was encouraged by their feedback.
As Joy composed his songs on guitar and ukulele he needed to collaborate with other musicians to complete the song, bass guitar, drums and keyboards were added for live gigs and Joy initially recorded and produced the song with drummer Edwin White (above) in just one afternoon at Red Door Studios, in Brunswick (Melb), with additional production subsequently completed at The Shed Studios (Melb) by John Castle, below (Megan Washington, Kate Miller-Heidke, Josh Pyke).
The rise of Vance Joy’s popularity happened so suddenly for Keogh, who had primarily been playing solo, that he only had a few months to organize a live band before playing his first official live show under his new moniker. “I just got a band together in mid-2012, and we played our first show in October of that year,” he said. In January 2013 Joy released his debut single From Afar, an indie folk song about loving someone at a distance, and not knowing how to connect, it was the first single taken off his debut EP, and turned out to be a classic sleeper until 2018, when Vance’s post-Riptide success encouraged others to go back and re-evaluate his earlier songs, and From Afar ultimately climbed into the top 10 in the UK, and notched up local sales in excess of 70,000. The promo film captured the pain of unrequited love, for both a young gay boy and an older woman whose husband is unfaithful, a sad and sensitive song which wore its heart on its sleeve.
The release of Riptide in May 2013 was embraced by FM radio stations and the song quickly rose to #6 on the local charts, it would prove to be a real stayer, by 2015 it had occupied the ARIA Top 100 charts for a record 107 weeks, surpassing the previous recordholder, Lady Gaga’s Poker Face. The romantic, acoustic folk-pop of Riptide, with its blend of youthful nostalgia, quirky ukulele riffs, and adrenaline-rush of non-linear lyrics – “I was scared of dentists and the dark/ I was scared of pretty girls and starting conversations/ Oh, all my friends are turning green/ You’re the magician’s assistant in their dreams”- proved to be a winning combination, and the song would chart top ten in 16 countries, including #6 in Aust, #1 in the US, and #10 in the UK, notching up global sales of 8.3 million. With local sales in excess of 630,000, Riptide became the second biggest-selling single of the decade on the ARIA Charts, behind Gotye’s monster hit Somebody That I Used To Know. In September 2014 Joy released his debut studio album Dream Your Life Away which had been recorded at Bear Creek Studios in Washington (USA) with producer Ryan Hadlock (Foo Fighters, Lumineers, Milo Greene), and was a #1 hit here, #2 in the US and Canada, and top forty in 8 other countries, selling in excess of 1.2 million copies. Two more singles were lifted from the album, Mess Is Mine in 2015 which was released via digital download and clocked up global sales of 1.7 million, while the fourth single released, First Time, failed to really impact on the charts.
The music video for Riptide was directed by Dimitri Basil and Laura Gorun, Basil is a Colombian-born filmaker who trained in Australia, and Gorun, a Romanian-born director/actress who appears in the clip as a singer. The video interprets many of the lyrics literally, so when Vance sings about being scared of dentists, we see a girl with a mouthful of dental gear, and for “my friends are turning green” an image of American dollar bills appears. While many music videos are arty and actually avoid directly referencing the lyrics, this clip does the opposite, and interpretes the often-absurd lyrics as literally as possible, even deliberately mismatching the lip synching of the singer with the subtitled lyrics displayed on the screen.
In November 2014 Vance was invited to become support act on Taylor Swift’s global 1989 World Tour, after Swift had performed a version of Riptide on a BBC Live Lounge segment, he toured North America, Australia and the UK with Swift and enjoyed massive global exposure, which sent his record sales soaring.
He released his second studio album, Nation of Two in 2018 and it was a sizeable hit debuting at #1 locally, #10 in the US, and climbing to #2 in Canada for sales of 1.0 million, the first single lifted from it was Lay It On Me which was a moderate hit at #18 in Aust and #31 in the US while the second single Like Gold was only a minor hit in Aust.
Vance Joy has enjoyed great success thus far by writing and recording catchy, breezy, toe-tapping songs that are occasionally interspersed with others that are melancholic and more introspective, at times his music is overly sentimental and not always distinctively original, and these are the challenges that he faces in the future.