He hasn’t released an album yet, but after an EP and fewer than ten gigs, Glasgow singer Joesef is already drawing comparisons with Amy Winehouse and Chet Baker for his intimate, confessional lyrics and delivery, writes Fiona Shepherd
Earlier this year, a soft, crooning voice made a big noise when Glaswegian singer Joesef landed fully formed with the track Limbo. This sultry, soulful, androgynous ache of a song about the emotional void after a break-up sounded unlike much else doing the rounds and became something of a social media sensation.Little was known about Joesef when he made his live debut a week later at a sold out King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut. It has duly been pointed out that the last artist to sell out the venue prior to officially releasing any music was Lewis Capaldi. But Capaldi had years of graft behind him at that point. Joesef, meanwhile, was a 24-year-old musical rookie who grew up in Garthamlock in the East End of Glasgow, where music is not typically regarded as a viable career choice. At least in Joesef’s house, music was a passive pastime.
“It was an alright childhood,” he says, keen to scotch any grim-out-east narrative. “We didn’t have a lot of money but a lot of love. And no matter what was happening there was always tunes in the background.”
Al Green and the Mamas & the Papas were the special – or any – occasion soundtrack. Joesef’s older brothers were into gangsta rap; he preferred the mellower contours of A Tribe Called Quest. “They’re more romantic and the way they rap is more conversational.
“I went through a wee techno phase, as does everybody in Glasgow,” he says. “I’d go to [legendary Glasgow club] The Arches when I was younger, sneaking in with a fake ID, and got into dance music. But I was always rooted in the music I was brought up with.”
After leaving school, he enrolled in a sound engineering course as a way of being near music with no thought of creating it. “I was trying to have my cake and eat it, but sound engineering is so technical and I was lazy. I wasn’t really listening in college, I was too busy being out my box.”
A boozing buddy heard him sing California Dreaming at an open mic night in East End venue St Luke’s and was so impressed he became his manager, encouraging Joesef to try writing his own songs.
His first effort was “about being in a taxi and being mad with it” but through DIY trial and error he struck on a silky lo-fi soul jazz sound he has dubbed “sad boy music.”
“This is pretty leftfield, me doing this,” he says. “I didn’t have any money or any pals who make music so I just had to do it all myself, totally immerse myself in it. When I told my brothers I was doing music, they thought I was being a DJ.”
Singing may have been the love that dare not speak its name but since going public, Joesef has been upfront about the love gone sour that inspired his first songs. Limbo and Loverboy detail the fallout from his first relationship with a man with a poetic frankness and yearning delivery which has drawn comparisons with Amy Winehouse and Chet Baker.
“Growing up being gay or anything less than a big straight guy had negative connotations,” he says. “I wore Docs to school, it was gay. I quiffed my hair up, that was gay. Just being honest about what the songs are about, if any wee boy from a scheme could hear it and think ‘he looks like me, he sounds like me, I don’t feel like a weirdo for feeling like this,’ then that’s good. The people I grew up listening to like George Michael were flamboyant, out-there people. I feel a bit more reserved than that.”
Not so reserved, however, that he can’t be playful with his marketing – apparently, the pink Joesef balaclavas are flying off the merchandise table whenever he plays. By the time of his next hometown show, a festive bash at SWG3, he will have clocked up a grand total of ten gigs – though that number is set to increase considerably next year.
Joesef freely admits that without music as an outlet, he could easily have headed down a self-destructive path. He was sacked from a previous bar job for showing up drunk for his shift – serendipitously, just as his music was starting to garner a rapturous crossover audience. Since his spring awakening, he has also released the exquisite six-track EP Play Me Something Nice.
“That’s good that it landed alright but that sends me back into my own head and I question myself all the time,” he says. “When I’m down, I’m really down, and when I’m happy, I’m really happy. I feel things quite intensely. I can’t create on demand. I write in bursts. It’s just normal stuff that people are going through but at the time you feel it’s only happening to you – being lonely is a universal feeling.
“When you make a tune, it’s like breathing out, that’s what it feels like. You need to lick the ground a bit to make good art – that’s where all the best art comes from, s***e things happening. It’s good album fodder being sad, isn’t it?”
Joesef is still some way off releasing an album. Like Lewis Capaldi, the masterplan appears to involve garnering more live experience with his band (all seasoned players in Glasgow indie bands such as The Lapelles and the Van Ts) and stoking anticipation across his diverse, burgeoning fanbase.
“I think I’ve got enough bangers in the cannon to keep firing them out for a good while yet,” he says. “I always want to be better. I’m in competition with myself but trying not to take it too seriously. When I started I wasn’t that ambitious. I feel like I kept falling off the bike and my manager’s put the stabilisers on. I was quite directionless. Making music has made me more ambitious to be a full time tunemaker and given me a bit of a lust for life.”
Joesef plays SWG3, Glasgow, on 23 December. The Play Me Something Nice EP is out now on AWAL