It’s the morning after Halloween and Vance Joy is feeling a bit dusty. Vance Joy—who’s better known to those around him as James Keogh—is currently based in Barcelona, where his partner is from.
The couple’s transhemispheric romance provided the inspiration for Vance Joy’s latest single, “Missing Piece”, which highlights the complexities of long distance relationships and the drawbacks of Zoom-mediated intimacy.
“I see you darling but you pixelate,” he sings in the song’s first verse. “It gets hard to take these days.”
Right now, however, it’s me who’s watching the picture pixelate as Keogh tells me about his Donnie Darko-themed Halloween costume. “In the film, Donnie dresses up like a skeleton,” he says. “And I love the vibe, like the skeleton with the hoodie—very into that.”
Keogh is 33 years old, meaning he’d have been just 13 when Donnie Darko premiered in cinemas in 2001. Although not a major box office success, Donnie Darko became a sleeper hit, particularly among millennial teens.
In the mid-aughts, anyone with a goth-tinged Myspace template listed Donnie Darko as one of their favourite films, alongside Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For a Dream and David Fincher’s Fight Club. The film made a big impression on Keogh.
Watch ‘Missing Piece’ by Vance Joy:
“I remember watching it with my brother. Maybe it was referenced on a movie review show, like David and Margaret? But I remember watching it and it was so scary and exciting and cool. Great soundtrack as well; like, unbelievable,” he says.
Perhaps the most memorable song on the Donnie Darko soundtrack is Gary Jules and Michael Andrews’ take on Tears For Fears’ “Mad World”; another myspace favourite. The film also includes snippets of Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon”, Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and The Church’s “Under the Milky Way”.
The Vance Joy catalogue is almost entirely free of post-punk and new wave influences, but that’s not to say Keogh didn’t have a go at writing moody and angular rock music when he was a teenager.
Keogh grew up in the affluent Melbourne suburb of Murrumbeena and started playing in a band called Hyper Sonic just after finishing high school.
“We were definitely just making songs that sounded exactly like Bloc Party,” he says. “And by exactly like, I mean nothing like, but stealing the riffs, ripping it off. And also Joy Division—I remember writing a Joy Division-sounding song after watching the movie Control.”
It’s interesting to hear Keogh speak about the impression left on him by film soundtracks, especially when you consider how many Vance Joy songs have been used in movies and TV shows over the past half-dozen years.
Watch ‘Long Way Home’
His breakout single, “Riptide”, popped up in both Neighbours and Home and Away, as well The Inbetweeners 2, and it continues to be licensed for US network TV shows and ads. Meanwhile, “Missing Piece” featured in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy fewer than seven days after its release.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. How did Keogh go from aping Bloc Party and Joy Division in adolescent jam sessions to writing uplifting acoustic-pop hits, beloved the world-over?
“A couple of years after the band played its last show, I started writing songs on guitar,” he says. “There was no expectation or evidence that I would be able to write songs really, but I just kept trying.”
These days we think of Vance Joy as an international artist who spends a lot more time entertaining the masses at Red Rocks, Wembley and Coachella than riding the Melbourne tram network. But in many ways, Vance Joy remains a homespun operation.
When Keogh’s not pursuing romance in Barcelona, he lives in the inner Melbourne suburb of Northcote. His managers, Rachael and Jaddan Comerford (of the Unified Music Group), are both from Melbourne, and likewise the five members of the Vance Joy live band: drummer Edwin White, bass player Jono Colliver, keyboardist Chris Mulhall and horn players Will Morrissey and Nic Ryan-Glenie.
“We all live very close to each other, which is nice,” Keogh says. “Touring with your mates, it’s just very comfortable. It’s like being a little family and you’re on a camp together which goes around, so that’s really nice.”
Vance Joy hasn’t played an Australian headline date since the tour behind his second and most recent LP, Nation Of Two, in 2018. Although he’s taken part in many COVID-era livestreams, including Music From the Home Front and Splendour XR, Keogh’s last conventional public performance was in Europe more than two years ago.
Watch Vance Joy perform ‘Fire and the Flood’ live for Splendour XR 2021
He’s getting ready to atone for this lengthy absence, however, with his mega “Long Way Home” Australian tour scheduled for the tail-end of 2022. The run of 13 dates kicks off next September, by which time there should be a new Vance Joy album available.
“I’ve got to get on my bike a little bit. On paper I have enough songs, but I still think I need a few more good songs,” Keogh says. “At some point we’ll have to accept the work I’ve done and then do all the other stuff, like producing and mixing.
“There’s a few songs that I’m really proud of and I want to crack the codes production-wise on a few songs.”
Keogh co-wrote and produced “Missing Piece” with Aotearoa pop master Joel Little, whose credits include Lorde, Broods, Daniel Johns and Taylor Swift. Despite working with such a decorated songwriter, Keogh says the primary goal is to preserve and amplify his individual characteristics.
“I look back at some of the songs that I’ve written and the ones with the most pure fingerprint of me, you’re extra proud of them because no one will really put words together exactly the way you do, even if you’re saying something that’s been said a million times before.”
Eight years removed from the multi-platinum, globe-conquering success of “Riptide”, “Missing Piece” sounds like vintage Vance Joy—i.e. a song built around acoustic guitars, four-on-the-floor rhythms and hushed verses that give way to a cresting chorus with mass sing-along potential.
“I’m happy that I didn’t decide to get rid of all the guitars and I just played the rhythm that I’ve always played,” Keogh says. “Sometimes you think just because you’ve done something a lot, people will be like, ‘You’ve done that a million times.’ It’s hard to know how to pick that line, but I just felt reassured by releasing that song and it not being a massive detour.”
Vance Joy ‘The Long Road Home’ 2022 Australian tour:
Saturday, September 17th
Darwin Amphitheatre, Darwin, NT
Saturday, September 24th
Munro Martin Parklands, Carins, QLD
Friday, September 30th
Riverstage, Brisbane, QLD
Saturday, October 1st
Queen Elizabeth Park, Gold Coast, QLD
Saturday, October 8th
Patrick White Lawns, Canberra, NSW
Saturday, October 15th
Camp Shortland, Newcastle, NSW
Saturday, October 22nd
Lardner Park, Gippsland, VIC
Saturday, October 29th
Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens, Hobart, TAS
Saturday, November 5th
Glenelg Beach, Adelaide, SA
Saturday, November 12th
Barnard Park, Busselton, WA
Friday, November 18th
Sydney Opera House Forecourt, Sydney, NSW
Tickets: Sydney Opera House
Saturday, November 19th
Sydney Opera House Forecourt, Sydney, NSW
Tickets: Sydney Opera House
Saturday, November 26th
Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, VIC