The pressure to create a lasting legacy is one that often weighs on the shoulders of musicians – and it was certainly at the front of Josh Pyke’s mind while recording The Beginning and the End of Everything.
On first glance, the name of the new record seems eerily foreboding. “A few people have said, ‘Oh God, does this mean…is it the end? Is this your last album?’” Pyke chuckles. The name’s origin is a lot less dramatic in reality. “When I was making decisions about songs and writing songs – the production, the lyrics and everything – it kept on coming back to ideas about like, desire, and leaving a legacy and how you wanna present yourself,” he says. “That was always at the beginning and end of every decision I was making.”
Since Pyke’s ARIA-award winning 2007 debut Memories and Dust, he’s crafted an enviable career as Australia’s foremost proponent of folk-pop. Besides releasing three more successful albums, he’s also been involved with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, pioneering the ‘Busking For Change’ initiative, and has even found the time to play in Basement Birds with Bob Evans, Eskimo Joe’s frontman Kavyen Temperley, and Steve Parkin – and yet Pyke is still trying to reconcile with the notion of legacy.
Ironically, this fourth studio album was perhaps the most natural record to produce for Pyke. “I just felt like this album, more than any other album I’ve done, was really instinctive and really flowed from beginning to end. Creatively, I felt really…virile, for lack of a better word,” he laughs.
“It just felt really creatively exciting the whole time, so it was something that I just wanted to pursue. If it hadn’t felt right I wouldn’t have done it,” Pyke says. He just finished touring his previous album Only Sparrows last December, and says a lot of the songs for this album were written on tour, simply because that’s when he’s most musically focused.
Pyke talks about being inspired and intimidated by Leonard Cohen and Paul Kelly, two revered and prolific artists still forging incredible creative careers. And Pyke’s new record is not without inklings of self-doubt, especially so in ‘Feet of Clay’, an affirming toe-tapper that recognises those feelings and overcomes them.
“I basically had a full meltdown,” Pyke says. “My confidence had gone, I was thinking, ‘I don’t wanna do this anymore, I just wanna have a normal job’. Then I was reflecting on what I was saying and I was like, ‘You’re being a dickhead, you’re being pathetic. You’ve got this beautiful life, you’re able to do this thing that you love for a job,” Pyke said, telling himself, ‘you’re just being an idiot, this is constantly your weakness!’”
Although his 2011 release Only Sparrows enjoyed a quieter reception, there’s no doubt that his collaboration with Katy Steele stirred a few hearts. Pyke admits that he found it hard to feel emotionally connected to that song, as he was essentially sharing it with someone else in collaboration. The singer-songwriter did venture to write more with other people this time around, working with Whitley and a few others, but it was ‘All the Very Best of Us’ with Holly Throsby that seemed most worthy for inclusion on the album. Pyke attributes the cohesion to the fact that Throsby, a childhood friend of his, was trying to place herself in his shoes throughout the whole process. “She was great, she pushed me melodically. Where I would usually fill gaps in, she was saying, ‘Just leave that gap’,” he says. “When it came to the recording, I feel like I kinda pushed her to sing a different way than she normally does, so it felt like a really healthy collaboration.”
A gift for storytelling is a pre-requisite for venturing into the world of folk songwriting, and Pyke is no exception. He says that he has always been an imaginative person and this clearly finds an outlet in his music. Pyke tells me about his mate’s speech at his own wedding, where his friend spoke about Pyke’s vivid imagination and the imagination games they’d play together as kids. “I don’t remember being the kind of leader of those things, but apparently I was,” he laughs. “I remember always writing stories and stuff and I see now in my older son, he’s just like me. He just loses himself in these imagination games for ages, and I was like, ‘Where does he get that from?’ and my wife was like, ‘That’s you, that’s exactly you!’”
Of his own parents, Pyke says he was lucky that they steeped his musical upbringing in classics like XTC, Led Zeppelin, Jackson Brown, James Taylor, and (early) Billy Joel. But when Pyke hit adolescence, it was heavy rock. No exceptions. “Soundgarden was my favourite band as a teenager. They’re a heavy band but there are moments of quieter songs and I was really drawn to them,” Pyke says, offering some explanation for his incongruous adolescent listening choices.
In terms of his own music, Pyke says he finds it hard to be objective about his progress and development. “Musically, I’m a much better player these days,” he says. “I think I have a more refined idea of what I wanna do with songs. I used to be really afraid of resolving something in a way that would be really pleasing to the ear and I would always try and find some other way to do it,” Pyke continues, “but now I just think, if something sounds right, it’s right y’know?”
Pyke brings it back to instincts and what feels natural. “For me, music has always been about following my instincts and I just feel like my instincts are more honed and I trust them more now,” he says. “I still feel just as experimental but it’s experimenting with a weight of experience behind you, as opposed to just floating around in the dark. It’s more about consciously looking for new things as opposed to things being new because you’ve never done them before.”
Pyke says he’s looking forward to playing the new songs on The Beginning and the End of Everything tour, which finishes up in early September. It’s very likely that this tour will spur a few more new songs as it has done in the past and so the question arises: will he ever take a break?
Ignoring expectations and legacy pressures, Josh Pyke seems set to stick around. “Sometimes I think, I’d love to stop and have a break but the fact is, even if I did stop publicly, I know that I’d just be making music in my studio at home anyway,” he admits. “It makes me the happiest and saddest that I’ve ever felt to do music, and you get addicted to those sorts of extremes. As long as I’m still feeling creatively fresh and inspired, then I can’t really see a point in stopping.”
BY KATIE DAVERN