Joesef on making a connection with his debut EP

Scotland’s next hope for pop superstardom, Joesef talks humble beginnings, connecting with listeners, and the importance of honesty

Feature by Tony Inglis | 03 Dec 2019
  • Joesef

How many times is it acceptable to write “cunt” in a magazine feature? Because, much like you and me, Scotland’s shining new pop hope Joesef uses the word liberally. “Nobody knew who we were – you kind of had to win them over, especially the older people in the crowd. They’re like ‘who the fuck’s this wee cunt?’”

The 24-year-old mononymous singer is talking about his first gig abroad in Iceland. He returned home the night before we met, only to find himself locked out of his flat. “After spending a fortune up there, I had to pay for my locks to be changed and wait for [a locksmith] outside. It was fucking freezing; my nipples were cutting through my shirt.”

While some people from Glasgow infamously expressed hate towards Iceland after a volcanic eruption ruined flight plans at the beginning of this decade, Joesef’s short dalliance there was a successful one, much like everything in his whirlwind of a career so far.

“Playing in general is new for me,” he says, over a pint in Glasgow’s Merchant City. After singing at an open mic night not much more than a year ago, his friend-turned-manager convinced him of the strength of his voice and to pursue a life as a singer-songwriter. He then proceeded to sell out King Tut’s without releasing a note of music (he claims that most of the people in attendance were “just curious to see if I was gonna be shite”).

Cut to today, he's issued a six track EP, Play Me Something Nice, performed in front of “pure indie boys you could smell the tobacco rollies aff” when he supported Loyle Carner at SWG3; he has his own headline show there scheduled before the end of the year. He's been featured in Vogue, caught the ear of BBC Radio 1 DJs and generated a rare buzz for a true newcomer making DIY pop in their bedroom in Glasgow.

“I’ve never been someone who likes to be the centre of attention. That’s why singing was hard for me to start with,” he says about the hype currently circling him. “I’m trying not to take it too seriously. You’re never as good as people say you are and you’re never as shite as people say you are. If you start believing it all, you’ll end up [up] your own arse. But it’s good to have that attention. It’s definitely better than people saying horrible things. Though I’m sure that’ll come in time.”

For Joesef, everything is “hilarious” or “class”, as it would be for any young person suddenly being thrust into the spotlight, from being able to quit his bar job for the first time since he was 17 (actually, he was sacked a week before the King Tut’s gig, he proudly tells us) to being DMd on Instagram by someone claiming they just “shagged” to his music. “I’ve had loads of messages off cunts telling me their favourite tune or how much the songs mean to them. That was weird though. I’ve no had any dick pics or anything, but it’s making me wonder why I’m no good enough for that yet.”

Joesef grew up in Garthamlock (or “Gar-t” as he affectionately calls it), a housing estate in the east of the city, not known for much more than being close to a large outdoor shopping centre. He didn’t harbour dreams of becoming a famous singer. In fact, Joesef is unabashedly unpretentious, constantly funny and self-deprecating, and far removed from the Glasgow music scene. “Before all this, I was basically just fucking about. I feel like I was fucking about my entire life. Just getting on it with my pals, a pretty normal childhood for someone where I’m from. I always loved music. I thought I’d be a techno DJ for like five minutes. But everybody in Glasgow is a techno DJ.

“I sang to myself at home, sometimes at school, but I never wanted to be out in front. Even when I shared the tunes, my pals were like ‘are you just making these and getting a lassie to sing them?’. Even my very best pals didn’t know that it was something I could do.” 

Going from singing at an open mic night to writing and self-producing a body of work is something altogether more impressive for someone with little knowledge and experience in doing any of those things before. Or as Joesef puts it: “I’m quite lucky that I can actually write a tune. If I couldnae, I’d be a bit fucked.”

Joesef is giddy and energetic in person, but the songs on Play Me Something Nice were ultimately born from heartbreak after the dissolution of a relationship. Tracks like Limbo and Loverboy go very directly to expressing base and universal reactions to breakups; the former an account of that sickening in between period of being in the dark about the future. “It’s good to reap the rewards of the stuff that went into making the songs, because it was so shite. I was going through a horrible time, it was awful. 

“The EP is taking good out of something bad. It’s closure. It was a time that I was holding onto, and now I feel like I’ve let it go.”

In his soulful and raspy lilt, he sings: 'Stuck in that mentality, between littleness and loneliness, I cannot get over this'. It’s a voice that has been compared to Amy Winehouse, though it’s a little rougher and tangy – more Glaswegian. It’s certainly distinct from other voices coming out of the city.

There’s also the profound fact that he’s evoked passionate reactions from listeners while singing about love and heartbreak as a queer person. “Part of the reason it’s become a big thing in my songs is I’ve always been able to tell when someone is talking shite, pure lying and not being genuine. If I don’t believe you when you’re singing, I won’t get it, I won’t take it in. But as much as it’s important, I don’t want it to be a defining factor. No one is asking Lewis Capaldi about being straight.”

A unique voice can be trained, but not learned. Getting to grips with instruments and production software to make bright, beachy, airy lo-fi pop with a kick, on the other hand, is something that takes work. “Hard fucking work,” as Joesef says. “At the start, I felt like I had to throw shit against a wall until eventually something stuck. Because I didn’t have any money or help, I had to make something of it myself. I feel like that’s worked in my favour – you need to be more creative when you’ve got fuck all.

“Now that I’m trying to move on with it, it’s becoming more difficult. Following my instincts seems to be working. I feel like I was at primary school. Next EP will be secondary and the album will be university. Then it’s PhD, motherfucker.”

From afar, it would be easy to sniff at Joesef’s rapid rise – you can imagine a tired, few-times-round-the-block pub rocker moaning that he isn’t someone who has “earned” this success. But what's most refreshing about Joesef’s music is how it has organically connected with people, even as it is audibly still in a very embryonic stage. Joesef has better songs to write, more to learn. It’s how listeners have organically resonated with a young guy, in his feelings, expressing easily relatable emotions in a straightforward way that has set him apart and given him his moment a little earlier in his progression than might be usual.

“People associate with the honesty I guess,” he says. “Sometimes you hear a tune and you’re like ‘that’s exactly how I feel’, and then you don’t feel as bad anymore. I literally just wrote this in my bedroom; it’s pretty strange that it worked. It’s weird cause I’m quite a private person, but this is a bit of you that you’re shooting into the sky like a Batman light. When you’re writing, it sounds like a total cliché, but you don’t imagine how many cunts are gonnae hear it and dissect it. Fucking hell.”

Play Me Something Nice is out now
Joesef plays SWG3, Glasgow, 23 Dec