Josh Pyke is one of Australia’s favourite songsmiths. With his early releases, Feeding the Wolves (2005) and Memories and Dust (2007), he was an immediate Triple J darling and has since proven himself with a string of critically acclaimed albums and a loyal fan base to boot. I recently had the pleasure of chatting with him about his upcoming album But For All These Shrinking Hearts (to be released July 31) and the musical and thematic inspirations that went into it.
The title itself comes from a poem written by Pyke in the middle of a demanding UK tour in London. In the midst of a 12-shows-in-14-days tour, and “feeling ragged”, he wrote:
You were a shadow held aloft,
In a world less vast
But for all these shrinking hearts.
While scouring through his lyrics for an album title, he found the poem and realised how well it reflected his emotional state. The choice of album artwork fits perfectly with this idea – an old man cranking the wheel of a fraudulent perpetual motion machine. It also points towards the ideas weaved into the music about what Pyke sees as a disheartening state of affairs.
“The state of the world at the moment is not particularly encouraging to me and it’s a shame but it’s the way it is, and it seems like there’s no thought for sustainability,” he said. “I don’t mean necessarily environmental sustainability, I mean like, creatively and artistically and culturally, everybody’s focussed on something which is just forging ahead regardless of the consequences.”
The spirit of the times is a careless one. This has clearly filtered into Pyke’s songwriting. Its opening track, ‘Book of Revelations’, talks of love and death, struggling “to find love buried under duress” and wolves (or dogs, or foxes) looking to “shatter our sorrows like a hunter”. There are seeds of optimism, but the song is ultimately a dark opening track – a far cry from the buoyant ‘Memories and Dust’, the opening track from the album of the same name.
Musically, it is reminiscent of Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and that album’s commentary on the depressing sociopolitical landscape of the early Bush era. He even borrowed a recording technique from Jeff Tweedy, Wilco’s frontman:
“All my life when I’ve written songs, I’ll sit around singing and playing guitar and sort of sing gibberish until it turns into words… [Tweedy] does a similar thing except he takes it to a different level where he’ll record the vocal take as gibberish… Then he’ll interpret what he thinks his gibberish is saying and those end up as the lyrics… [For three tracks] we recorded the demos in my studio and I just sang gibberish and took them with me when I went touring. [I] would listen to them on the plane and the bus and slowly start getting these strange interpretations of my gibberish, which over time refined into proper cohesive lyrics which meant a lot to me.”
“I find it almost impossible to write lyrics with people while I’m [co-writing],” Pyke said, so this technique became a useful tool as well as a fun experiment, which he thinks helps to “unlock your subconscious.”
I got the impression that Pyke sees the process of writing lyrics in general as something of an exercise in delving into the subconscious, discovering common threads between seemingly disparate thoughts.
“Unless you’re writing a concept album you don’t set out with a theme in mind. You write song[s] and your subconscious bubbles up and all these things pop up and it turns out you’ve written 15 songs which have some sort of cohesive theme.”
With his last album, The Beginning and the End of Everything, it was “the end of one phase and the beginning of another”. Fittingly, his new album has a lot of references to a line that needs to be crossed, “the struggles involved in even identifying it and then having the courage to step over that line or having the courage to step back”.
There is an awareness of consequences implicit in these references to lines that appear throughout the album. He has put conscious thought into the sustainability that he believes society is neglecting. Indeed, this attitude seems to underpin a great deal of his artistic sensibility. When I commented on the shift in direction that you can hear in this album, he agreed. Musically speaking, this translates to a less guitar-driven sound, one more intrigued with exploring different sound sources. While assuring me that he has never “written with an agenda,” there is a clear sense of curiosity and a desire to not stand still.
He went on to say that “It’s definitely a natural progression… I guess because [of] the environment that I was set up in… [I wasn’t] afraid to experiment and not worry about ‘what is the Josh Pyke sound?’. I’ve never really subscribed to any kind of sound, I just wrote songs and they sound like me because I’m me.”
Here is a man who loves to challenge himself and it shows. This is a poignant album full of beautiful phrases and melodies that lift you up and hang around in your head for days. Although it may be hard to define any sort of ‘Josh Pyke’ sound, this music definitely feels like Josh Pyke. Fans should be thrilled and new listeners will be gaining something special – an artist who, above all else, is always looking for new, sustainable and invigorating ways of performing and creating music.