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Thursday, October 12th, 2017
He took beatings for his art, in the boxing ring and out on the streets. He sang for his life in East Endfootball pubs, delved into the dirt of hedonism and regret for inspiration and needed a message frombeyond the grave to keep him on the musical path. It’s been a battle, but Joseph J Jones was always fatedto fight his way to stardom.It was, after all, in his blood. The 25-year-old soul survivor’s grandad on his mother’s side was a jazzguitarist who played for the BBC in the age of swing and his grandmother on his father’s side was a concertpianist who would fill his childhood home in the Essex enclave of Hornchurch with music. Not that theirtechnical skills rubbed off on the young Joseph – his life as the biggest and best new voice in 21st Centurysoul only began at fourteen, when a classmate tricked him into singing in front of his first audience.“We were in music class, all messing around, playing with the keys,” he explains, “and Sinatra was blaringout so I just started mimicking him, messing around. My mate went ‘Oh, you’ve got a really good voice!’ andI went ‘nah’. He tricked me into singing in front of the whole class. There was this other room in the musicclass and he was telling people to come and listen when I was just messing around. You had to do yourproject, in Year 9, you had to record it and I just thought I’d sing. The music teacher heard, and then shewanted me to sing in halls. It spurred from there, my mate egging me on to sing.”Before long, half of Essex was won over. Joseph’s musical education was strangely linear, he immersedhimself in the music of each decade in turn, and as the 50s and 60s gave way to the 70s a new love for JoyDivision drove Joseph to pick up the guitar at sixteen, write his own songs and take his rich, classicallysoulful voice out onto the East End pub circuit, playing solo two-hour sets of covers. “I wanted to dosomething that was rough and ready and raw but with a soulful voice. I also wanted to learn my craft, and itwas a good learning curve. When you realise that you’re singing in front of one person who’s asleep in themiddle of the bar, drowning their sorrows, you think that anything after this is a bonus.”For a while, Joseph tempered his sophisticated soul side with rounds in the ring, following in his father’sfootsteps by taking up boxing, until he realised he was becoming a punch-bag to help better fighters moveup the rankings. “I remember one of these fights, it was this tough Irish guy, he just battered me. I’m notashamed to say it because we was on different levels, different age groups because I was a big lad. Afterthat I was looking in the mirror, thinking ‘cut up here, bruise here, I think I’ll stick to singing from now on’.”An ability to handle himself didn’t go amiss on the pub circuit, but Joseph quickly learned to sing his wayout of trouble. “I did a pub in Bermondsey, and there was the FA Cup final between Liverpool and WestHam, and I was gutted because we lost. This guy comes up to me before the gig and he’s like ‘whathappened, who do you support?’ and I said ‘Oh, I’m a West Ham fan’. He goes away and whisper, whisper,whisper - it’s a Millwall pub. So I’ve got to sing for two hours in front of Millwall fans who know I’m a WestHam fan, all coming up to me with their tattoos and the lion crest. But surprisingly, it went down well. One ofthem asked me to do his daughters’ christening for fifty quid!”Five years of winning over hostile pub crowds made Joseph J Jones a master, but close to giving up. Untilhis grandfather mysteriously intervened. “I went through a big period in my life where I was didn’t knowwhat to do,” he says, “you’re singing in pubs and in the end I hated it because who are you singing to?Nobody wants to hear you, and everyone’s requesting ridiculous songs like ‘Can you do Britney Spears?’. Itwas like ‘what am I doing?’. And I got jumped one night coming out of a pub, really badly, they kicked myhead in. I was fed up with it altogether. And then, this woman who was a medium came up to me on thestreet and said ‘I got your granddad Fred with me’. I was like ‘what? He’s been dead twelve years’. Henever saw me do any music. She told me so much stuff that you’d never believe could come true - when Iwould be signed, when I would do this, when I would do that, what happened in my past life. I was going togive it up! She said ‘your granddad said please do not stop doing music’.”By the time the medium’s premonition came true and Joseph signed to Communion Records in November2015 at the age of 23, having been spotted at a Dalston pub show, he’d crafted a batch of universallyrelatable soul tunes with a sharp modernist twist, set to see him ranked alongside Sam Smith andRag’n’Bone Man as a pivotal figure on the Millennial soul scene. “I love Johnny Cash,” he says, “and whenyou listen to ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die’, how do you reflect that in a song of today? I findpeople today really want big songs again and that’s my music. I love storytelling, I love telling those songsand having those twisting, suburban, street-y edges to it. Not trying to be someone else, but doing theseuniversal songs that people can relate to. I’m really proud of how the songs have come out.”As his writing developed over the nine months it took to complete his debut album, the first strands ofJones’ music crept out. In May 2016 his debut single ‘The Video’ appeared, a sombre, piano-led neo soulbeauty about the vast difference between alcohol-fuelled euphoria and the realities of real love the morningafter. “Have you ever seen a photo of yourself smashed with friends in the morning and think to yourself,‘Fucking hell, look at the state of me’. At that moment in time it’s amazing, you’re on another level, you’re inecstasy, but it’s never the same when you watch anything back.”While ‘The Video’ showcased Jones’ heartfelt, downbeat tone, his inner Kanye and Gorillaz fan leapt to thefore on its September follow-up ‘Whisper To A Hurricane’ from the ‘Hurricane’ EP, boasting artful clublandbeats that drag classic soul right up to date. “Bobby Womack with Gorillaz was unbelievable,” he says, “Ialways loved that electric, earthy soul stuff.” The track revealed a more electronic side which Jones wouldexplore further in his collaboration on future-rave track ‘All or Nothing’ with drum’n’bass producer Kove, amusical relationship that’s on-going.“I always wanted to not just be perceived as another singer,” he explains. “I always wanted beats, I alwayswanted hi-hats, I always wanted that feel.”His May 2017 single ‘Gospel Truth’, meanwhile, returned to his more melancholy electronic side, mergingemotional piano balladry with rousing electro-gospel and couching his romantic desolation in religiousterminology. “I’m not really a religious person,” he says, “but I’ve had a fair bit of spirituality in my lifethrough getting over certain stuff and it’s always been this dark thing to me, spiritualism and Christianity, it’salways had this dark undertone. I just put it in the words of a love song. That song is a little bitblasphemous, but in a good way, tilting your hat to it. It’s just a play on not being able to get what you want,not being able to hear a prayer being answered. It’s almost ‘the atheist sings gospel’.”Themes of devastation, longing and loss run through Jones’ music, featuring heavily on the debut albumrecorded over two sessions at Church Studios in Crouch End, London and due for release early in 2018.Take ‘The Dirt’, the EP track that became an online sensation (800,000 streams and counting), aheartbroken paean to drinking until you forget yourself.“’The Dirt’ was about a pretty dark period in my life,” Jones confesses. “The afterparty would carry on untilridiculous hours, doing ridiculous stuff and you just think ‘when is this going to stop?’. Me and my producerRich wrote it. We were going through the same experience at that time. We were like ‘I feel like dirt’, andthen ‘Oh, that’s what we’ll call it’. That song was written in three hours, and it was done. It was like ‘fuckinghell, maybe we should just write the album in two days and be done with it!’ You get people on socialsquoting your lyrics to ‘The Dirt’, and it was like ‘that’s really resonating with people’. They’re doing stuff theyshouldn’t be doing, they’re feeling lower than low and then they’re trying to break out of that and just feelinglike dirt, that’s what it was about.”At Joseph’s growing headline shows across Europe, 2016 festival appearances and his support tour withJack Savoretti, ‘The Dirt’ and would stun audiences to pin-drop silence and earned Jones a wide anddiverse fanbase. “The Savoretti tour was a realisation moment. I think it was in Leicester, this kid came upto me saying ‘will you sign this?’ and then there was a 20-year-old with his boyfriend ‘can you sign this’ andthen a mum and her daughter, and then it was an older lady, this is a huge scope of people. I got a lot oflove off that tour.”The album, Joseph explains, is “about coming into that manhood period and what happens after theafterparty, what happens after these late nights. It’s a young man coming of age, trying to find his way outof it all. How best can I get out of this life? But at the same time, not wanting to get out of it at all. It’s aboutmy dealings, I suppose. You know, just getting over them and realising where I am in the world. It feels likea big album, it’s very bombastic, but there’s close-to-home stuff in it.”But where does all the melancholy come from? “Joy Division, really. I’ve always been into the poetic deathsof these artists. I don’t know why it resonated with me. Ian Curtis was just amazing. There’s somethingwithin his songs that sparks something in me. I want to say stuff that’s real, I want to put it in a melancholyway. I only listen to music when I’m sad. It’s just the dark side, I suppose. I could never write a happy song,I could only write sad music.”As Jones sets about building his fanbase further with relentless touring in 2017, he arrives at anadvantageous time for the new wave of soul, with Rag’n’Bone Man popularising the art of incongruousmodern soul-men. “I think what Communion liked is that I sound pretty cockney,” Joseph laughs, “so it’s likethis geezer singing these heartfelt songs. There was this nice juxtaposition.”Out of the darkness, Joseph J Jones is stepping into a future inconceivably bright. The spirits will it.