Behind the Music: Interview with Pete Josef

‘The process of creating ‘I Rise With The Birds’ was intense. It really felt like I was making a proper record.’

Firstly, congratulations on the stunning release ‘I Rise With The Birds’. What’s the concept of the album and the story behind it? I do think about albums as stories, or entire pieces for sure. I love crafting the arc of an album, and enjoyed it a lot with this release. If there was a concept at all, I guess it was to enjoy and embrace variety and experimentation, and to throw myself into a process that would (hopefully) bring about some beautiful and worthy music. As with all the music I write, it is about my own journey through life – emotions, relationships – and my thoughts on where we are headed as a species, too. This seems to occupy my thoughts a lot these days and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Ahead of the album, you also released four of the tracks as singles. How tricky was it to choose from such an incredible selection and how did you narrow it down? 
Had I had to choose at the end of the process it would’ve been really tough as I feel we equally could’ve released ‘Mainframe’, ‘Must Be In Love’ or ‘Happy Is The Day’ as singles. Maybe even ‘Night Eyes’ too. As it happened, we went about the singles in a different way. I’d written the album so the label and myself decided to choose what we thought were the strongest four to finish ready for release whilst I completed the rest of the album. I guess you never quite know how a tune will turn out until it’s all finished, and as it happened, there were others that were strong enough for singles once it was all done.

Thinking back, how has your approach to creating music changed in the 5 years between this release and your previous album ‘Colour’? I really had to feel my way into ‘Colour in terms of the production. Lots of experimentation. I think I was less sure of how to put things together and there was actually some quite sketchy recording and editing on that album – saved a bit by the wizardry of mix engineer Greg Freeman, who also mixed this album. The idea I had in my head for ‘I Rise With The Birds’ was very strong before I threw myself in, and I made it in a more concentrated period of time. It really felt like making a proper record this time around. It was focussed and intense.

There are clearly an incredible collection of fellow musicians that feature on your tracks. How did these musical relationships first come about? Ah man you are right there, I feel very privileged to have them on the album. They are all friends I have met along the way and admired as players and people. Many of them I have known for years from the Bristol scene. I used to live with horn players, Nick, John and Ben. A lot of these players featured on my first album too. There are a few new collaborations, for example the string players I met during the Manu Delago Austria tour in 2018, and Blythe Peppino I got to know during the John Martyn Project tour just after that.

‘I was a bit concerned when I put the album together that it was pushing the diversity thing a bit much.’

Equally, how does having so many other people involved your music affect the writing and recording process of your tracks? I always have a clear idea of what I want people to play / sing on recordings and I score all the string and horn parts. Within that though, there is room for ideas and the personality of the players to come through. My writing process is actually quite solitary. I just try to strike when the creativity does, which happens at random moments, and so I end up doing a lot myself and it just kind of sticks. I would like to make more time to play more with others in the creative process for sure.

I recently read that as well as being a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, you entirely self produced the album. What instrumental elements do you bring to the tracks and how does each of your skills set impact the others? Some of it just feels natural to do myself – guitars, some bass, keys, certain horns and some drums and percussion. But there are some parts that I just can’t do myself, or I just know I won’t do it justice. Bill Banwell’s bass playing on ‘Mainframe’, or Justin Fellows’ percussion on ‘Giants’ are great examples. I could never deliver that with the amazing skill those guys have.

And, on the theme of self-production, what are the biggest blessings – or curses – of doing this? Ha! Maybe speak to my wife about that! I consider the whole thing a blessing, but with all else I do it has been hard to make it work with a family. It takes such a long time when you are doing all the recording and editing yourself. I am eternally grateful to Kelly for giving me the time, and am in awe of the energy and dedication she has as a mother. I am aware of what she sacrifices to give me the space and time to do this stuff. At this stage the original stuff doesn’t pay quite as well as touring or more 9-5 type jobs, so I kind of have to do this around other stuff too. I’d love to be able to dedicate more time and put out music more regularly. That’s the dream.

Returning to your debut album ‘Colour’ for a moment, did any aspects of that release provide learning curves for ‘I Rise With The Birds’? Absolutely, as I said earlier, I learned a lot about putting music together in that album. I also had to do everything at that point on a shoe string, so I learned where to invest a bit to up the quality of the music and recording, which I think I have done this time around. I have also learned a lot about recording live instruments in that time, particularly drums which is a real art. I still have a way to go I’m sure, you never stop learning the craft.

Both albums are phenomenally diverse and clearly showcase a huge understanding of the relevant musical influences. How important do you think it is to fully understand the genres you want to create music in? This might sound bad to some, but not that important – not for creating the music. As it happens, I love learning about other cultures and genres so I would like to think I had a fairly good understanding. And I do think that is kind of respectful. But in terms of it being essential to the process, not so much. It’s just all about your ears, and using colour and sound wherever you find it I think.

On your new release, it really feels like you have captured the perfect atmosphere for each track. Were there any dramatic changes of musical direction that led to how the final sound turned out? I’d been listening to a real range of music through this process and was a bit concerned when I put it together that it was pushing the diversity thing a bit much. Especially with tracks like ‘Friend on the Line’ which is pretty country compared to the other tracks. But in terms of the emotion and meaning of the album, and what felt relevant to the narrative, I felt I had to include it. I definitely thought hard about the production of that track to make it coherent in the whole sound. That goes for the whole album – I really thought about the sonic threads that knitted the tracks together.

‘I’d love to be able to dedicate more time and put out music more regularly. That’s the dream.’

As you probably already know, for me Giants really highlights that sense of correct atmosphere and encapsulates the diversity offered across the album. Was this a conscious compositional decision right from the start and did you always plan for it to be the first taster of the album? I always wanted to announce the album with something big – especially as I hadn’t released anything for so long. I was also keen to start with something that had a strong message. I didn’t expect ‘Giants’ to be the one that would receive the most attention, it was more an announcement – in my mind I was building to more ‘pop’ singles, but people like what they like hey. In terms of production, people have mentioned lots of influences – Talking Heads, Fella Kuti, New Sector Movements – but in honesty, it just grew out of messing around on guitar rather than conscious influence from certain artists. It kind of came out as it came out – it was about energy and emotion.

And finally, what are the three standout tracks that have impacted your musical/personal life the most and why have you chosen these ones? My first one would be ‘Snatching Time’ This song haunted me during the writing. The sentiment is close to me right now – it is about making the time to spend with important people in your life. Funnily enough it related to one of the first questions you asked. One of the sacrifices you make doing something as intense as music is that you miss things and miss spending time with people. You give your life to this art, it can become everything, and I need to keep working to achieve balance. That is what this song is about. 

My second would be ‘Mainframe’. I enjoy this track so much. It is one of only two tracks where I collaborated on the writing (with Alex Barck of Jazzanova and Comixxx), and I just love the uplifting atmosphere. I kind of took what those guys did and built on it. It might not seem like it, but it also wraps up so many thoughts and feelings about the world right now, and my place in it. Our relationship with nature and how we define that, my constant desire for motion, and my own inner resistance. 

And lastly, ‘Friend on the Line’. I’m not good at asking for help, and I’m sometimes not good at recognising when other people need help. Part of making this music is to remind myself to take my own advice. I hope some of the words and sounds might help others in small ways too.

Thanks Pete Josef for chatting with Listen to Discover

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Find out more about Pete Josef’s music at: Featured Track Review: Pete Josef: Giants

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