Despite the virtual nature of our acquaintance, Josef Salvat’s charming personality makes me feel like I’m sitting across from him in his Parisian apartment, surrounded by lush greenery.
Josef’s made London his home for the last 9 years. “I’m in Paris right now,” he tells me via Zoom. ‘And the curfew started 8 minutes ago, so I’m not legally allowed to go outside at the moment, but nobody seems to give a fuck.’
Josef’s grandmother was a singing teacher and opera singer. He recalls how they would sit at the kitchen table together, playing games where she would sing a melody while he would harmonise. ‘My aunt was a songwriter and a singer, we always had a piano in the house and stuff. in terms of music I made, that was quite a solitary thing. I came from a very classical background and then started trying to write pop songs because I really liked Coldplay’s first album, Madonna and stuff like that.’ Josef attributes his formation melody to these operatic influences.
Lockdown has affected many artists differently, but upon speaking to Josef, it is clear that, whatever the circumstance, he will not allow for his creative integrity and exploratory nature to be compromised. “You fail if you give up and until you give up you haven’t failed,” he tells me. ‘Even if you’re making twenty quid a month, you haven’t failed, and that’s something I hold onto a lot’.
Josef was supposed to tour last year, following a 5 year hiatus. I ask which performances have been the most memorable to him, “I’ve got two,” he responds without more than half a second to process the question. ‘The first took place at Vlieland in the Netherlands, Naar Buiten [or Into the Great Wide Open] festival in 2013.’ Josef explains that this island is so remote that you have to catch two ferries to reach it.
“When you get there, it’s only bicycles, and the whole island is dedicated to this festival,” he continues. ‘My stage was in this little pine valley, a very human scale, it was a beautiful stage. The musician that performed before me was like this ethereal, very calm creature, and there were three other musicians on stage with her while she sang and played the violin,” Josef remembers. ‘Everyone was sitting down cross-legged with their kids. I was thinking ‘Oh this is gonna be a total nightmare’ I had just Brendan, my bassist, on stage, with a lot of electronic elements and the rest of it was track. It was just a half an hour set, so I had just put all my more upbeat stuff into the set list, ‘this is so the wrong thing, this is going to be terrible’. I started with a song called ‘Constant Runners’ from my first album, and within the first fifteen seconds the entire valley stood up and went mental, and I didn’t have an encore prepared, so I ended up singing ‘Hustler’ three times.’
After the set, Josef – accompanied by what seemed like most of the audience – went down the beach and sung acapella together around one of the fires. “I didn’t have anything other than my voice at that point. It was the first time a crowd had gone spontaneously crazy, not knowing anything about me. It was amazing, a first for me and will always have a special place in my heart.”
Josef’s second selection was his headline show in Paris, in Le Trianon de Paris. “It was just such a wonderful audience,” he reminisces. ‘That’s what good shows mean to me; being able to have that relationship.’
“In the first lockdown, it was overwhelming having the free time, where everyone was being fucking creative. I was like *gasps for air* pressure!” He quickly came to reason with himself. ‘Maybe I didn’t create any art during the first lockdown that I was particularly proud of, but I did have a lot of important realisations, and that led to later in the year, me bashing out this EP in a week… I don’t think I’ve ever written this number of songs in a single week, the whole thing was done in five days essentially.’
He felt the pressure dissipate with the lack of competition, the lack of FOMO. Salvat accredits this slowing of the world’s pace for his return to the creative flow that he remembered from when he was younger.
‘I kind of had writers block for five years after Night Swim,” the singer recalls. ‘Sometimes you need to let off some steam, you need to be hedonistic for a moment, don’t judge yourself’. Josef gets philosophical briefly, ‘There is no such thing as laziness, it’s a very industrialised world concept, and it’s a way for us to feel shitter for not being as productive. But in my experience of productivity, it can happen in two seconds, and the rest of the time is preparing for that productivity.’
“There is no such thing as laziness, it’s a very industrialised world concept”
“This time has forced me onto social media,” he continues. ‘In a way I was never really entirely comfortable being on social media, when I started my career in 2013 it was just at the start of it. I often wonder, if someone had told me then, ‘to have a music career you also of have to constantly expose yourself on social media’ whether I would have gotten into music and I think the answer would have been no’. Josef reflects for a moment, ‘but look; this is what I do no and this is the only thing I can do, it’s the only thing I want to do.’
He goes on to express how his relationship with social media has altered to feel more personal, ‘it’s more like family than being exposed, and people have a choice as to what they pay attention and not. Social media’s getting interesting, as I’ve upped the direct dialogue I have with people, I don’t hide so much, because I have no [live] audience – none of us have an audience because none of us can go on stage’.
“It’s a really beautiful thing,” Josef says. ‘There have been people coming back, particularly with this EP because it’s a little more of a hark back to 2015’s Night Swim than 2020’s Modern Anxiety was.’ He expands on how having those messages coming in gave him a purpose in a period which was strange for everyone, and even more so if you are accustomed to performing to audiences for a living. “I might not understand it,’ he says of these online interactions. ‘But I don’t need to understand it, I just need to keep doing what I do’.
Josef uses meditation to cope with modern day pressures. ‘If I don’t meditate, I’d be crazy as shit,” he jokes. The artist explains how his home is in ‘the middle of fucking nowhere’ and he keeps in contact with his family through calls. “The internet where they live is like stepping back into 1995,” he says, whilst mimicking a dial-up tone, ‘so no videos.’
With a support slot on the Paloma Faith tour coming up, Josef expresses his excitement to get back into live shows. He recalls a gig at the Louisiana in Bristol; where he failed to play his massively popular cover version on Rhianna’s ‘Diamonds’. “I was saving it for the encore,” he reasons. ‘But to leave the stage I had to walk through the audience and exit.. I never came back to the stage because the audience left”. Josef chuckles, ‘so many people came up to me downstairs and said ‘why didn’t you play Diamonds? it’s the only reason I came!”
I tell to Josef how refreshing it is to hear that even successful artists experience a form of imposter syndrome. “I’m not meant to talk about because it seems like bad media but fuck it, it’s real it’s a real thing, and everyone gets it.”
I ask about the inner conflict of what it means to be an artist. ‘That’s been the biggest problem of my whole career, ‘where does he sit?’. I think that particularly with the experience of this last relationship I had, which was I think the first time I’ve ever properly fallen in love, and even though it went horribly, it’s kinda changed me.’ The experience of a clearly deep and affecting relationship led Josef to a period of intense reflection. ‘Well what am I doing? should I go on and do something else? well I do the thing that I do, and it brings a lot to my life and hopefully others, and nothing else matters. My favourite artists are people that are just 100% uncompromisingly themselves, and they never fit in their boxes.’
‘I’m just not interested making art for commerce and any time I have tried to do it in the past it hasn’t worked for me, it works for some but not for me’.
With the music industry in the position it is in now, Josef’s creative drive has never been so important. He concludes that it is all about communication. “We’re all looking to connect with people in different ways, and this is a way that, for me, felt right.’ It is how he has survived whatever turbulence he felt, reminding himself why he chose this path at the beginning. ‘I still have more to give, so I’ve stuck with it and that was when I had to get real with myself to get me here.’
If, like me, you were wondering about Monty, Josef’s adorable pooch, well he is currently staying with friends. “He literally got fed, last night, chicken that had been slow cooked in this very expensive white wine, this dog is eating better than I am. And he’s with his little mate Bones. So, they are having a proper riot. He will be coming here. I have everything ready for him to come at the beginning of April.’