Interviews

I’m led by that very long process — Vocalist and composer Pete Josef returns after five years with his second album, ‘I Rise With The Birds’

Five years have passed since vocalist and composer Pete Josef released his debut album, Colour. During this hiatus, he felt the need to completely step away not only from making music but from even listening to it, an emotional reaction he ascribes to the overwhelming intensity inherent in the art of music making.

Using this time to focus on other things like “building stuff, starting a family and making a home,” the Bristol-based artist was eventually able to rekindle his love for music. This love shines through in his second album, I Rise With the Birds, released on October 16 via Sonar Kollektive.

Usually, when I receive an album, I listen to it at least a couple of times before deciding whether I’m going to cover it. In this case, only thirty seconds into the opening track, I was frantically writing an e-mail to set up this interview. Almost two months after hearing it for the first time, my enthusiasm for it has only increased and I can confidently say that it’s one of the best vocal records I’ve heard in years — a splendid, thoughtful, intricately-crafted work that combines soul, pop music, jazz and electronica.

In this in-depth interview, Pete and I discussed his new album, his musical influences and how the five years away changed his creative process.

Let’s start off with you creative path leading up to I Rise With The Birds. After releasing your debut album, Colour, you took time off from music for five years. In your press release, you’ve stated, “I started to lose my way with it, I found it disorientating.” Could you please tell me a bit about that?

I think, having been through that, it feels like a natural and healthy process. I mention in some of the liner notes that music is very intense for me. It’s something I do all day. It’s my profession and my hobby. It’s everything.

Initially, when I started feeling like I want to get out of music, it didn’t feel good. It felt like something was wrong. It wasn’t a healthy thing. But, in fact, having some time off and doing some other creative stuff in different areas made me realize that this is going to be the way my relationship is going to be with music, perhaps from now on. I don’t think anybody can predict how things are going to evolve, just like you can’t predict what you’re going to get into or who you’re going to fall in love with. You’re led by your emotions and you’re led by your energy levels. So I feel good about it. And I feel good that I’ve managed to make this record. I loved making this album.

One of my fears, having made Colour, was that I wasn’t going to feel that excitement about making music again, but I definitely have on this one. It’s been a wonderful experience. I’ve traveled a bit to meet and play with other musicians and I’ve made most of the album in my home, which is a place where I now feel very settled in. I live kind of in the countryside, so that’s a big theme of the album as well. It’s my transition from being a city dweller to moving to the country. And I have two children. That changes everything, really.

There have been huge life changes. There was some other stuff that happened in that period that I suppose influenced my ability to be able to focus on music. It had to do with bereavement. Some people close to me died and I was very affected by that. I think the process of grief really affects your ability to be able to create.  Conversely, sometimes that grief also channels into your creativity. There are probably two sides to it. It’s been hard but it’s also been cathartic.

I Rise With The Birds is beautifully put together. There is so much going on there, musically.  At its core, however, it still feels like a soul album. How did you get into soul music?

My parents were both musicians in the church and I used to sing four times a week in the abbey. So my very early memories of music around the house were almost exclusively classical and choral music. That went all the way up to my teenage years, when I went to secondary school and met lots of other people with lots of diverse tastes. When you make that transition as a kid, your horizons get kind of blown open, don’t they?

The first album that I bought when I was thirteen was Bad by Michael Jackson. That was a sensation at the time. Obviously, there was soul in that record, to an extent. He comes from probably the greatest soul label ever. It was just a huge global sensation, especially off the back of Thriller and all of that. I was jumping on the same bandwagon as every other thirteen year old kid. But I guess I heard something in that record which got me intrigued and got me looking for other similar artists and researching the subject a bit.

Another one of the first albums I bought was a compilation of Marvin Gaye duets, with Tammi Terrell and Diana Ross. I just finished a book called Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On and the Last Days of the Motown. It’s a phenomenal book — so well-written. Marvin Gaye has been an obsession of mine from then until now. I keep coming back to him and discovering new stuff. Throughout my teenage years, it was all about that, as well as Nirvana, Cypress Hill, hip-hop. Basically, hip-hop, soul, grunge and rock. It was all mixed in.

When I was sixteen, I started working in a music studio and I met this guy who is a drummer. He’d been on tour in the troop for Riverdance. He had just invested hundreds of pounds in loads of albums on CD. Remember those thick CD wallets with the handle? He had maybe five or six of those. I used to go into the control room late at night after everyone had finished in the studio, get really baked and listen to all these albums.

That’s when I discovered all of the Stevie Wonder catalog and the period from 1970 to 1980. It blew my fucking mind. I couldn’t believe that there was a guy out there who was making music like this. I was in awe of the writing and the playing across the board, but also just his voice. I’d never heard anybody doing that with their voice before. Even Marvin Gaye. Marvin Gaye was a phenomenal vocal talent, he had so much emotion and heartbreak in his voice. I’ll always respond to that with him. But Stevie Wonder had something different. It was effervescent, it was soaring and it was melismatic. All the crazy stuff he did with his voice, which I guess set the scene for modern RnB singers, even still to this day. I don’t know if there were many people before him who were doing that.

You know, listening to both records, it did make me think of Stevie Wonder a bit.

Definitely. Because of those early years of listening and listening, there will always be some of that in me. My listening has broadened hugely since then, but I still get this reference with him. I’m always very happy when people point out the other nuances that come into my music too. I think, sometimes, if you double-track a vocal like he used to do so much, people will say, “That sounds like Stevie Wonder.”

Some of the reviews of Colour stated that the music just sounds like Stevie Wonder. I was always disappointed with that, because the flavors in that album came from so many different places. I wasn’t listening to huge amounts of Stevie when I wrote that record. I was listening more to West African music and roots music and jazz. I would never be critical of that, though. I think it’s a good thing to have people see and present ideas about your work through their own prism. But I get excited when people point out other things as well.

For example, in the first album, there is a song called “Move On.” The way I play the guitar in that tune is very much like West African articulation. Some people call it clawhammer style. I’d been listening at the time to lots of Ali Farka Touré and, occasionally, people would say, “Oh, that song really sounds like a West African thing.” I’d be like, “Yes, you got it!” So it’s more about my own self-indulgence.

I think it’s just a natural part of the descriptive process for human beings to need to make some kind of comparison as a starting point. As soon as you say Bob Dylan, it immediately conjures up a sound world. It conjures up a culture and all kinds of feelings. It’s kind of like a metaphor.

I was very impressed with the way you use your voice. Not just the technique, but cadence, enunciation, all of that. Can you tell me a bit about how you relate to your voice and how this relationship evolved throughout the years?

Well, my voice was one of the things that I fell out of love with over this period of time when I wasn’t so involved in music. I think that, for a lot of singers, it’s the same. We have a delicate relationship with our voice, because it relies on this tiny set of muscles, which are inconsistent. Some days it feels tired and some days you don’t feel like you want to sing. I probably had an up-and-down relationship with my voice.

But I have to say that, in the period of recording this album, I’ve enjoyed singing as much as I ever have. A lot of it was recorded throughout last summer, which was a really hot summer here in the UK. I just have such great memories of singing day in and day out and loving every second of it.

For “Night Eyes,” I was listening to a very particular Nina Simone album I have on vinyl, called Nina Simone and Piano. It’s such an amazing record. She does a cover of a Randy Newman song called “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” which is just amazing. It floors me every time.

With singing, I’ve always been a bit of a chameleon, because I’m very influenced by what I listen to. If I’m in a phase of time where I’m listening to an artist or a couple of artists, I’m naturally inquisitive about how my voice would feel, in that context. I’m not sure if it’s a conscious thing, necessarily. When I recorded the “Night Eyes” vocal part, I was, in some way, trying to evoke the emotion of Nina Simone. Even in the piano part, there’s something there that I felt was channeling that kind of atmosphere. I think I’m influenced a lot by other singers.

And also, technique is something that I’ve worked on a little bit more in recent years. Through that, I’ve just discovered new ways of using my voice. Like with every instrument, through a bit of study— the tone color that you use, the rasp, the grit, the vowel sounds, all of those kinds of things — it broadens out the palette. I really enjoyed doing that. It was a combination of just listening to lots of new people and working a bit on my voice.

Some singers I know have a very natural, very consistent voice. They can sing any time. Maybe I was a bit more like that when I was younger, but I feel like, nowadays, it takes work to keep my voice where it is. I say “work” but it’s not really work. It’s pleasure. It’s just singing lots. And I’m singing a lot at the moment. I’m singing and playing a lot. That’s a cycle that I have to be in, in order to be singing live and performing live and enjoying it.

It’s also important to me to enjoy the recording process. I used to find it really hard, because I used to do take after take after take. I’ve stopped doing that. If I come into the room and I don’t record the vocal within a couple of takes, I stop, do something else, and come back another day.

In addition to your own vocals, I greatly enjoyed your use of backing vocals and harmony with other musicians. Tell me a bit about how you chose the musicians for the album, especially the other vocalists. There seems to be a very close, intimate connection.

It is an intimate relationship. Rather than going out and looking for singers to do a certain thing, I feel like they’ve come to me. I’ve written those parts with them in mind, because something feels like it has worked.

I’d known Marie (Lister) for years in Bristol and I’ve heard her singing a lot of times. I’ve always found her voice really moving. But I was working on the song “Move On” at the time and she just happened to be hanging out with a friend of mine. We just started becoming friends. It felt like the process of us singing together happened very naturally and over a period of time. It came together like that.

It was a similar thing with Blythe (Peppino) who sings on the first two tracks of the new album. I’d heard her singing loads before and we collaborated for a project that I had put together. It was a tribute to John Martyn, the British folk singer. I asked her if she’s be up for doing some stuff for that. Again, I just felt that something was happening and I felt like I needed to capture that combination. It all happened through friendship and through other projects.

Tell me a little bit about your creative process for this album and whether it changed at all as a result of your time away from music.

Good question. It happened over a long period of time, definitely.

Regarding the lyrics, I have two approaches. It’s almost like two job descriptions. I’ve vocaled a lot of dance music in the past. When somebody sends me a dance track, I have to deliver something. It has to be in a certain timeframe and I get paid for doing it, so it’s a transactional thing. I feel like that is a commission, almost. I have to use every bit of my craft as a songwriter in order to package something that’s going to work.

With my own stuff, through the personal nature of the music I’ve released so far, I don’t rush anything. Things come to me when they come. I do work and I do rewrite, but only when I feel like the song is a certain way down the process. For example, there’s a song on the album called “Snatching Time” whose chorus took a long time for me to unlock. I knew there was something not right about it. I revisited it probably a week every day. I’d come in and I’d rewrite that chorus.

What makes it harder for me is that the emotion of the song has to be the first thing. I have to feel every lyric I’m singing. It’s important that, when people hear the music, they’re feeling what I’m feeling, to some extent. It’s a long process. It has to be, because that’s how it’s coming out.

And I listen. I listen, I listen, I listen. When I’m in the car or around then house, I’m always listening to my music. Maybe that seems weird or egotistical but it’s just because I want things to be ruminating and then coming out in a way that feels natural and authentic to me. This might sound like spiritual waffle. (laughs) I mean, it’s taken me five years to release another album. This is the reason why. It’s because my ambition is for every song to feel like it’s very important to me and that it’s going to connect with other people on that level. I would find that hard to do if I were just writing week in and week out and giving myself deadlines all the time. And I have that other side of writing I do, so it feels like a good balance for me to just let this happen and unfold as it wants to. I feel like the songs write themselves. I’m led by that very long process. It’s like a diary, I suppose.

As I’ve mentioned before, this is a very complex album, with so much going on also on the instrumental side. You’ve got horns, strings and synths that often give it kind of a retro, ’80s feel. How did you choose the instruments?

One thing I knew right from the start was that I really wanted to work with orchestral strings. I’d done it a bit on the first album but I hadn’t really explored the textures that you can create with strings and articulation — things like those very short staccato parts on “Giants” or “The Hard Yards,” where there’s lots of pizzicato. I’ve really enjoyed listening to other artists who are incorporating orchestral arrangements in their work. I’ve been listening to lots of classical music and film music as well. One of the first things was that I knew I wanted to work with string players. In fact, I knew exactly the string players I wanted to work with, because I’d met them in Austria on the Manu Delago tour I’ve been on, in 2017, or 2018. I think six or seven of the songs have string arrangements. I enjoyed that so much — just building those textures.

In terms of the electronic influence, I had quite specific production briefs for a couple of songs. “Mainframe,” for example, is totally inspired by the late ’70s Herbie Hancock era. Songs like “Stars in Your Eyes,” from Monster — those disco-funk tunes, but with great orchestration. Like Quincy Jones’ work on Off The Wall, for example. It’s kind of a self-indulgent attitude. I just really wanted to create something that could achieve that kind of sound.

And you’re right about the ’80s thing. That’s come back around in a big way, hasn’t it? With Stranger Things. I hear younger guys now describing a certain synth sound as, “Yeah, that’s really Stranger Things.” When you’ve lived through the ’80s, you’d probably compare it to stuff that was happening back then in New Wave music or something.

I also bought a synth that really influenced the palette of sounds I was using. It’s this small analog synth called Minilogue. It does this really cool thing with two oscillators, where you can get the sound working, but slightly out of tune with each other. It gives you that slightly wobbly, wonky kind of sound, which is where that stuff came from in “Giants.”

A lot of it is just toys; having toys around the room. I’ve got stuff here that I love experimenting with: an old tape machine, various different types of guitars and different basses. I think I used four different bass guitars on the album, because I really wanted to achieve a particular sound. And then, of course, the rootsy jazz-blues kind of stuff: the double bass and the drum kits that I used. I really experimented with them. Even the sound of the kit that we used. We used a 19060 Gretsch kit.

Every part of the process was lots of experimentation, lots of discussion with friends and other players about how we achieve a certain sound. The mix of the different sounds came together as it did on each of the tracks partly due to choices of instruments but also due to the personality of the players. Everyone has a personality and that all comes together in a particular mix. I hope it’s worked. It feels like it’s worked, to me. I have a thing: if I get a track back or if I finish tracking on a song, if I’m feeling emotion — quite often I’ll cry if I love something — that’s quite a good litmus test for me. If it’s worked, I’ll feel something overwhelming. That’s what I’m aiming for.   

I loved the artwork on the album cover. How did you choose that?

That’s an interesting story as well, because I’m really fussy about the image on the albums. Ollie from Sonar Kollektive is so great, so patient. He’s a very good diplomat. He has to communicate between me and the designer. And some of the things I say are totally unreasonable. (laughs) I’m amazed that it’s all happened but I’m so happy with the way the singles look and particularly the album — the color on the album and the way the birds are positioned.

When I first saw the cover for the Colour album, I actually didn’t like the color on it. I asked my wife about it, because we have this famous homeware company called Laura Ashley and they kind of make wallpaper like this. When it first came through, I said to my wife, “It just kind of looks like wallpaper to me.” She said, “Look, don’t respond to it. Give it a few days, come back to it, keep looking at it, ask friends, get opinions.” And I’ve really grown to love that album cover as well. It’s really beautiful. People often say that they love that cover.

I think the artwork enriches an album immensely. I collect vinyl and often times when I’m listening to the music, I will just stare at the artwork. It becomes part of the story to me.

I’ve recently seen a lot of album covers that are quite minimal. I get that that’s kind of a thing. It’s a trend. With everything, you go through phases. Sometimes, I hear the songs and I think, “What an opportunity for a beautiful piece of art to accompany this piece of music.” I hope that’s a thing that maybe will be rediscovered. Who knows?

Because of my love for vinyl, I usually listen to albums sequentially. I often talk in my reviews about the “narrative coherence” of a particular work, which is to say the overall story of the music. Was track placement at all a factor for you when you put the album together?

I knew it before I even recorded the songs. The story of the album, or the arc of the album as a whole, is hugely important to me. So many of the soul albums I’ve listened to over the years and loved, like What’s Going On, have a good story arc. That album is a narrative from start to finish. It takes you through emotions and it takes you through big political topics, social topics, environmental topics. It’s such a huge album for me. I’ve always had that aspiration. When I first decided I wanted to make an album — which was years after I’d been performing and touring with lots of other artists — that was near the top of the list of what I wanted it to achieve. I wanted to make an album with a story.

The other thing is that, when I moved to Bristol, I started working with Roni Size and Reprazent. When Roni would write his set list for the shows, he would be very particular about where things rise and where they fall, where you have moments where Dynamite MC would talk to the crowd and get them in a particular place and suddenly a bomb would go off and you would go somewhere else. I learned a lot from working with artists like Roni, where narrative is really important — on an album, but also for live performance. I aim to do the same thing when I’m working with the band for live. I want people to feel like they’ve been on a journey and they’ve disappeared somewhere else.

I think every artform is a story. Look at paintings or sculptures. Often times, the composition is meant in such a way as to direct your gaze from one point to the next, creating a narrative arc in the process.

I totally agree. I listened to an audiobook recently, about TED Talks, the guy that runs the TED Talk brand. He talked about how important story has been for human kind since the very beginning of language, and even before. How we would use story for everything — even to find our way from one place to another. It would all be story. The history of our culture is passed on through story and through narrative. I think we’re creatures who learn and who make sense of the world through narrative. It’s so so important. In a way, I can’t imagine making an album where that wouldn’t exist. Whatever music I were making, I would want to have that.

I had a long list of songs for this album. The songs that I selected weren’t always necessarily what I thought would be the best songs. If I needed a song to get from this point to that point, then I would select that song, because that’s the song that would fit into the narrative of the album.

The crazy thing is that, nowadays, people consume music on streaming platforms. I don’t know how many people would listen to the album from start to finish, because they may just put my profile on and hear one song from Colour and one from a remix album, then one from this album. In some ways, I feel like I’m a bit fanatical, but sometimes I say to people, “Can you listen from beginning to end of that album?” Because that’s how I want people to experience it. It’s almost to the point where I’d like to not release the individual tracks. I’d like to just release one mp3 of the album with on breaks. (laughs)

I think these are two completely different experiences with music. Sometimes, I’ll play some music in the background while I’m doing other things and other times, when I’m playing a vinyl record, for example, I’ll just be completely focused on the music, the artwork, everything related to that particular piece of work.

In an ideal world, that’s the way that I would love to listen to music all the time. Unfortunately, because I feel like I’m busy a lot of the time, I’m probably consuming it while I’m doing other things and it’s kind of the soundtrack to something else, almost. Which is cool as well and valid but it’s a different type of experience, isn’t it?

Get your copy of I Rise With The Birds here.

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