While folk singer-songwriter Josh Pyke will be solo on his “Lone Wolf Tour”, the Sydneysider never feels alone on the road.
“On stage you never feel like you’re alone because you’re engaging with the audience,” Pyke says. “It’s as lonely as touring always is for me – I absolutely love it, but it does take me away from my family. It’s a double-edged sword. I’ve found a good balance in the last couple of years where [when touring] I’ll have four nights away and then three nights at home.”
After a national tour with his full band in support of fourth studio record The Beginning and End of Everything, Pyke is back in troubador-mode for a solo gig in the Hunter this March. The stripped-back performance reflects the making of his latest album, which was an individual project.
“I wanted to go back to how I made records in the past, which was by myself,” Pyke says. “The last album [Only Sparrows] was really collaborative – we had a full band and it was really great.”
While Pyke has never made large departures from the warm folk sound of breakthrough single Middle of the Hill, which was on very high rotation on Triple J when it was released in 2005, his experience of making each record since has been varied.
“Although it might not be immediately apparent when you listen to my records, when I think of my records they’re all very different,” Pyke explains. “[2005’s EP] Feeding The Wolves was based on my demos and we recorded it in my parents’ lounge room and a couple of makeshift studios around the place. [Memories & Dust] was a more professional vibe but was still just me and Wayne Connolly recording it and covering a lot of the instruments between the two of us. [Chimney’s Afire] I produced myself and was doing all the ProTools editing and mixing. Only Sparrows was very much a collaborative thing because I had been solo for so long that I really wanted to expand and let that into my musical life – I loved that experience. When it came time to do [The Beginning and The End of Everything] I had done all these demos in the studio at home that were really developed and decided I didn’t need too much extra influence.”
Pyke made the new record with producer John Castle in Melbourne. The songwriter admits that the recording process is his favourite aspect of being a professional songwriter. “My first love is recording – songwriting is about staying sane, and is something I have to do,” Pyke says. “But recording and producing are things I’m very passionate about. I have a regular Friday night jam session with a friend of mine where we’re recording a real stoner-rock, psychedelic record. Being in the studio is a chance to be a kid again, playing with different toys. Half the time you’re doing crazy stuff. The other night I suddenly had a [mental] bird’s eye view of me and my buddy Dave – we were hitting the concrete floor with drumsticks and a big log to get this particular drum sound. I thought, ‘Wow, this is like I’m a crazy person’. In the studio you feel this mad inspiration and it’s a feeling that I seek out as much as I can.”
Pyke has been prolific since his debut EP, Current Works Volume 1, in 2004. Alongside his own material is work with supergroup Basement Birds, live tribute shows to The Beatles’ White Album and collaborations with 360, Katie Noonan, Wendy Matthews and many others. He is currently working on a collaboration with friend and fellow folk singer Lior.
The songwriter admits that he often considers what it is that continues to drive his creativity. “Over the years I’ve really analysed what it is that keeps me going,” Pyke says. “At times [a music career] is quite hard and also at other times you’re dealing with aspects that I don’t feel comfortable with at all. I completely acknowledge that it’s a part of the gig that when you put out a record you’re going to be judged and people are going to review it. And people are going to speak fondly or negatively about it and either of those can have a strange effect on you. I can read 10 good reviews and then one slightly negative one and I just feel blue all day. And there was a time when I was touring and away so much that it was so hard to keep a normal life going. But the reason that I always kept on pushing forward is that in my musical life I’m searching for the same thing I search for in my personal life, which is balance. I feel like after 10 years I’ve found that, where I can record as little or as much as I want because I have a studio at home. When it starts to feel uninspired and I’m returning to the same studio tricks I just stop for a while. Or I record some weird, ambient soundtrack music for kicks. When I tour too much I just stop and have a break.”
Pyke remains a radio favourite and has won ARIAs. His national tours invariably sell out in most cities. But the 35-year-old holds on to the idea that there are great accomplishments ahead.
“It’s just a psychological battle every day,” Pyke laughs. “Logically yes, it should be that I feel like I don’t have much to prove. But I just can’t stop pushing. In some ways I do feel less pressure because I feel like I have more freedom to experiment and hope that these hardcore fans will go with me on stuff. But on the other hand I always feel like I don’t want to lose what I have. But one good thing which I see as a blessing is that I’ve never had a massive peak [in popularity]. I’ve always been fairly consistent, which I feel very lucky about. I’ve had four top 10 records but I’ve never had a number one [album]. I’ve never had a massive, massive single that’s been smashed on commercial radio and taken me to a new level. I’d rather not have a peak and then spend a number of years going into a trough. It’s been a blessing in disguise.”
Pyke believes that The Beginning and The End of Everything is no more personal than any of his other albums, but deals with weightier subjects. “All of my records are personal because I write from my personal experiences,” Pyke says. “But I think it’s more that the things I was experiencing and wrote about [on the new record] were more personally intense. In the past I thought I knew about love and heartbreak and the challenges of life. And then you have kids and you realise you didn’t know anything about anything. A lot of that informed the [new] songs whether or not it was specifically about kids or the challenges of trying to be a better person, or exploring the changing nature of desire. So those things, put in the context of what I had been through in the past years, made it a more personally intense album, rather than a more personal album.”
Another subject that inspired Pyke’s lyrics on the new album was the idea of legacy. The continued popularity of his music confirms that it has touched people’s lives. “It’s a strange thing writing songs because as soon as you put them out into the world, they don’t really belong to you any more,” Pyke says. “People tell me all the time that they’ve used my songs in their wedding ceremonies and memorial services. It’s incredibly flattering and it’s a beautiful thing that these songs I’ve created go out into the world and have this life of their own and become a part of other people’s lives that I may never meet. That’s a really powerful thing. But it means that the songs almost become less personal for me because they become everybody’s. But then I have these experiences when I’m playing the songs live and I remember exactly what I’m singing about and I can visualise what every verse and every word meant to me at the time. In some ways the songs are more like a diary and a connection to my past and my desires and my psyche. In terms of legacy I feel like the thing that you leave behind more than anything else, more than songs or money, is other people’s memory of you. The thing that you can’t own is the thing you pass on the most. It’s the most objective thing that you can leave – how other people remember you and how you’ve touched other people’s lives. The thing I want to leave the most is that people have a warm memory of me. It’s quite difficult to achieve, but it’s something that keeps you striving to be your best.”
While some artists feel uncomfortable about playing their old material, and revisiting the emotional state they were in at that time in their lives, Pyke remains proud of his earliest work.
“The brilliant thing about playing [songs] live is that they take on a new meaning,” he says. “Every year that goes by I play Middle of the Hill about 100 times. But every year when I sing: ‘You could never really see the top from the bottom, but I don’t pay enough attention to the good things when I got ‘em’, I think about all the good things that I’ve got and how I need to pay more attention to them. So it connects me to my present as well as my past. I wrote that song in my bedroom in my parents’ house because I had to move home because I had no money and I was trying to pursue being a professional musician. Every time I play it at a festival and I hear all these people sing it back, I can’t help but feel how far things have come.”