The midtown Manhattan headquarters of Atlantic Records resembles pretty much any laid-back office. Aside from Justin Timberlake’s Man of the Woods echoing out of a nearby office, it’s the portraits of famed Atlantic artists lining the hallways that offer a clue that this isn’t just another stuffy workplace. Powerhouse labelmates Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran are given prominent placement, along with Atlantic’s recent star Cardi B, who catapulted to success late last year with her breakout “Bodak Yellow.”
Meanwhile, in a conference room outfitted with a piano and framed gold records, the team behind singer-songwriter Vance Joy is currently unloading a large box of frisbees. They’re part of a bundle for fans of the artist (real name: James Keough) who purchased his upcoming sophomore album, the long-awaited Nation of Two. It’s the follow-up to his 2014 debut, Dream Your Life Away, which featured a breakout song that was almost as ubiquitous as Cardi B’s own hit. Well, almost.
“I really can’t take credit for it,” says Joy of “Riptide,” his 2014 smash that would catapult him from obscurity in Australia to international pop stardom. “Mostly, a song like that comes about when you’re tuned into the right frequency. It opened up all of the doors for me, and I actually still love playing it.”
“You can have an album come out really quick, but if none of the songs have staying power, then it doesn’t matter how soon it is.”
Considering the song was absolutely everywhere, and as synonymous with the singer as his own name, is he serious? “Well … I’ll only not like it if it’s 7 a.m. on a TV show, and I have to sing in falsetto. But then again, that’d be the case for any song.”
The buoyant, acoustic “Riptide” was a success on many levels. In Joy’s home country Down Under, it broke the record for longest song in Australia’s ARIA charts history. Over in the United Kingdom, it went 4x platinum, and here in the States, it hit the No. 1 spot on the alternative and rock charts, later going 2x platinum. Its popularity essentially gave Joy his entire career.
“Before ‘Riptide,’ I was playing football in Australia, which I loved doing, but it was demanding. Training during the week, games on the weekends,” he says. For money, the future musician had a much different sort of gig. “I had a job gardening,” he says, his eyes lighting up. “Growing and planting stuff, mowing lawns, cutting trees, laying down turf. I loved it. I was outdoors and hanging out with my closest friends. It was good labor and just rewarding.” Deciding to make a go of his musical aspirations, he began performing at open-mic nights around his home city of Melbourne and at age 24 penned “Riptide,” named after a motel he would go to with his family.
As with the path of the majority of recent musical phenomena, Joy uploaded “Riptide” online, and the song quickly went viral. As its profile grew, Joy quit his gardening job in the middle of 2013, right around the time when the Australian medical insurance company Medibank used the track in a commercial. “Suddenly, if someone asked me to get coffee, it was like, ‘Oh, I can pay for coffee now.’”
In addition to being able to finance his coffee breaks, “Riptide” somehow morphed the singer-songwriter into a hip, acoustic-guitar-wielding singer-songwriter, and the 6’4” Aussie was embraced with open arms in the States in an era when artists of his kind are a rarity. In two years flat, Joy went from cutting Melbourne lawns to opening up for Taylor Swift on her massive 1989 Tour.
“I didn’t know what to expect, actually. … It was a little like trial by fire,” he says of the string of arena dates, many of which made global headlines for a parade of special guests. “I was like, ‘Is this going to be easy, or like playing anything other gig?’ And it wasn’t—it demanded more from you.” The sudden success took Joy by surprise. “At the time, I thought it was just a fun ride, though I was definitely very green.”
All of this transpired around four years ago, which translates to a generation in the music industry. (The weeks surrounding “Riptide” No. 1’s place on the charts in 2014 show a bevy of acts, from Kongos to Big Data, which haven’t made much of a mark since.) According to Joy, the hold-up can be mostly traced back to the fact that the singer-songwriter wanted to carefully plot his return and sidestep the cliche of being a one-hit, one-album wonder.
“You can be really timely, which is awesome, but the main thing is the quality of the music,“ he explains. "You can have an album come out really quick, but if none of the songs have staying power, then it doesn’t matter how soon it is. It’ll fly away to nowhere and not be noticed. It’d be crickets.”
Aside from touring, Joy traveled around the world, harnessing ideas for Nation of Two. "It was like, 'Maybe I’ll find inspiration if I go to Berlin or London for a week,’” he explains. “I’d get an Airbnb, write, see a friend, have too many pints of Guinness.”
It was during a trip to Austin’s South by Southwest, in the middle of the rise of “Riptide,” when Joy wrote his big follow-up: the triumphant Nation single “Lay It on Me.” Says Joy: “Something you don’t have control over with music you’re proud of is how well it would do and how many people latch onto that,” he says, with “Lay It All Me” already peaking in the Top 5 on the alternative chart and going platinum in his native Australia.
“I’m really happy to have the audience I do have, and if that grows, that’s awesome,“ he adds. "If I can maintain the level I’m at now, that’s good. All I can control is the songs I write.”
Nation of Two comes out February 23rd.