It’s been twelve years of touring the country for one of Australia’s most respected songwriters, but Josh Pyke isn’t done yet. With 32 regional dates around the country booked, Pyke isn’t about simply regurgitating the same live show, but works hard to make every tour unique, while still making it out alive on the other side. We spoke to the man himself to understand his preparation, as well as new targets he’s looking to hit.
You’ve got such a huge tour happening and largely to towns that rarely have musicians stop through. Has the touring experience changed for you throughout your career?
It hasn’t changed that much to be honest. I mean, the shows have been really consistently well attended since the beginning which is really, really lucky and incredibly fortunate. I’ve always done regional solo touring singe the beginning because I realised I had an advantage in that I could go out to these places really cheaply just by going by myself, and it just meant that the kind of old school organic way of taking your music to the people that want to hear it as opposed to expecting everyone to come to you in the capital cities. It just meant that it was a real focus from the very beginning, especially regional stuff. I think the main this that’s changed for me is that it’s become more comfortable. Back in the early days it was flea-bag motels and not eating because you didn’t have any money. Now it’s more comfortable which makes it more fun, but apart from that it’s pretty much the same. It’s been I think twelve years of going around the country and playing in a lot of the same places which is good actually, because you get to kind of know the publicans, you get to know the area quite well. It’s cool.
But do you think as you’ve gotten older and obviously your personal life’s progressed as well, do you think preparing for a tour and having such a big tour coming up, do you think that your mindset changes in the preparation?
My mindset is focused on making it so I don’t kill myself by the end of it, basically. It’s important, I’ve always been pretty conscious of finding a balance because if you tour too much it just becomes a chore and it’s not fun and I didn’t become a musician to not have fun, and the same as if you spend too much time in the studio by yourself locked away that’s not fun either and you kind of go crazy, so for me it’s about finding the balance and touring-wise I do sort of four nights away, three nights at home, four nights away, three nights at home. Then in the middle of this tour, it’s 32 dates but we’ve broken it up into two four week blocks and then in the middle of that there’s two weeks off and I’m going to New Zealand with my family on a holiday. It’s just about trying to keep it fun because there’re lots of boring, annoying stuff that goes along with running a business- which is essentially what I’m doing, being a self employed musician- and if the payoffs like playing shows to lovely people and basically having fun and being creatively fulfilled aren’t there then there’s basically no point in doing it, you may as well get some other job where there’s less risk. For me this became a job from it being a passion and I have to be really careful to make sure that the passion stays there or this just becomes a job and that’s not how I wanted to live my life, that’s why I pursues music. I didn’t pursue anything else because I didn’t want to have a regular life with those sorts of issues. That’s the goal for me and that’s the balance I’ve found pretty successfully so far.
And I mean, twelve years later it’s not bad to still be in that place.
Yeah, absolutely. I feel very fortunate every day and especially now that I’ve got my studio at home, I feel like that’s been my biggest achievement in music is having this really great space. So now that I’ve got that I feel like I’ve ticked all the boxes of what I was trying to do when I first started, which is definitely a good feeling.
But now you’ve got to set a whole bunch of new goals, right?
Yeah, well that’s always been my issue. As soon as you do one thing… for instance, I never thought I’d play with orchestras playing my songs. I never imagined that but now that’s happened I’m like “okay, I want to play with more orchestras.” I did a song with Justine Clarke from Play School for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and now I want to do a kids’ album so it’s just always evolving I guess.
And I guess you’ve always had those other little things, it’s not just been about your own songwriting and your own performing that you’ve been doing. Obviously you’ve got the Josh Pyke Partnership, but also Busking For Change and all those sorts of other things you’ve always been heavily involved in.
There’s two sides to my brain and I need to use both of them. There’s that kind of advocacy stuff for emerging artists or raising money for charity and stuff like that, I know I have the capacity to do those things and I just feel driven not to wast the opportunities if they’re there. Which is really good and I’m glad I do it, but it does make my life a little more busy at times than I anticipated, like the judging of the JP Partnership, I’m so glad I’m doing it and there’s so much great music. At the same time, it takes such a long time and at the beginning of every year I’m like “should I do it again? Maybe I don’t have the time to do it” but then I realise I’ve got this opportunity to give this money and APRA’s already chipped in the money for it. Then 200 hours later, or whatever it is. But it is good, I’m glad I do it. At first I thought we’d get like 50 entries or something and it’s just gotten bigger every year which is great, it’s what I did want, but I might have to get someone else involved next year because I just don’t have time to do anything.
Just on that, though, is it daunting to have so many shows to prepare for?
In some ways it’s actually less daunting. I started rehearsal the other day and there were four songs that I was like “oh christ I can’t remember how to play those,” like ‘Momentary Glow’ I had no idea what the tuning was, ‘Mannequins’ I haven’t played since about 2008 so I’ve just had to listen to the record. There were a couple of others, but yeah, once those ones are done, I’ve played the songs so many times that it’s more about becoming match fit because the shows end up going for almost two hours and then you’re doing four of those a week, so that’s eight hours of singing, which is a lot, so it’s more about getting match fit and making sure you’re healthy before you head out on the road and stuff like that. So when I say it’s easier, it’s easier because I know I’ve got 32 shows to perfect the show, including soundcheck and all that. It’s less about playing the songs over and over again and more about mentally preparing, which is relatively easy.
You’ve just mentioned a few songs that you’ve got to relearn to play, you tend to have quite a big setlist when you play solo. Does it get progressively harder with each tour to get your set together?
Absolutely. It’s harder and harder, I mean it’s never going to get any easier and I know I’m always going to disappoint some people and please some people, but I literally can’t play everything. There are some songs that I’ve never, ever played live like ‘Covers Get Thrown’ and ‘When Your Colours Go’ and a bunch of songs that I’ve never gotten together as a live song because I guess I never needed to, but I’d love to think that, probably not next year- Ive got some things I want to do next year- but maybe the year after that I’ll maybe just do a series of shows that are just the albums all the way through and all the B-sides and the mini albums and everything and just play them so it’s a 20 song set which is the album and all the B-sides. Just do that one a night. I think it’d be good, I’d really enjoy it from a performing point of view because, like I said, some of them I’ve never played, but also just because I never get the time to play all my songs. You could do like a Paul Kelly thing, which I might rip that idea off at some point in my life, which is the A through to Z idea, but beyond that, it’s almost 100 songs that I’ve released out there now. I’m never going to play a set 100 songs long. I’ve got to figure out some way to play them all.
I guess that gives you some variety in your ability to tour as well.
Yeah for sure. That’s why I’ve always incorporated solo shows and then the orchestra show was definitely something new and then even doing those White Album shows and stuff like that, I want to try and not be covering the same ground every single time. The other thing is, there are so many places to play in Australia. Man, this is 32 shows, we could have booked another 30 I reckon but I physically don’t think I could do that. But it is good to know that you can play so many shows in Australia. But the reason I can do that is because I’ve built it up over twelve years of touring, building up those territories. It hasn’t been easy, you’ve got to go out to the regional areas and actually engage with people in order to do it and it was definitely expensive and difficult in the beginning, but I would highly encourage emerging artists because it’s really good to be able to do that.
Well it’s created a sustainable business model, for lack of a better phrase, for you for the rest of your career.
Oh that’s exactly what it is. You’re building up a network of places that you can play, and you have to think of it as a business in a lot of ways, particularly touring because touring is a business. There are fixed costs and you’re self-promoting every time. It costs a lot of money to tour regionally, even when you’re playing solo, so you’ve got to do your homework and get out there. From the beginning I’d go out and support tours and then I’d go back into them and headline my own shows. It’s a good thing to do.
Well, speaking of supporting bigger acts out there and then going out on your own, Jack Carty who is supporting you has kind of done the same thing and he’s constantly touring regional areas. Is it going to be good to get back out on the road with him after I think two years since you’ve toured with him?
Yeah, for sure. Jack’s a good mate, I chose him because I like hanging out with him. I love his music, but it’s really important if you’re gonna be in a car and playing shows together for 32 shows, it’s important that you get along with the people that you’re going to be travelling with and he’s just a great guy. My crowds have also always been really supportive of the supports so that’ll be really good for him with his new record as well.
Yeah, any chance of you guys playing something together on the tour?
Oh yeah, for sure. We made a couple of little videos in my studio so we’ll probably play those songs. We’ll see how it evolves as well. 32 shows, you’ve got to keep it fun and fresh so we’ll see if something else happens.
You’ve also released a couple of videos this year for ‘Songlines’ and ‘Be Your Boy’ and they both have an odd sense of reflection and finality about them. Was that something you intended to bring out?
Yeah, I mean, did you say ‘Songlines’ has that vibe as well? With ‘Be Your Boy’ I get that because I literally disappear at the end of the clip. Definitely about reflection. ‘Be Your Boy’ is definitely a song reflecting on growing up and reflecting on a time in your life where you’re kind of in between being an actual adult where you have responsibilities and not being a kid anymore. I guess that amazing freedom you suddenly experience and all the things that come along with that freedom, so I wanted to kind of express that, and the film clip was meant to kind of express the end of that period. The complete lack of responsibility period ended for me a long time ago. Before kids even, you just become and adult and you maybe have a relationship or career and suddenly you’re not just responsible for yourself, you’ve got other things and other people to interact with. So that was definitely deliberate with that one. With ‘Songlines’ I just wanted to celebrate that tour and it is a song about putting what you have into something for the concept of songlines from the indigenous Australians’ culture. You put wisdom and whatever into songs as a way of passing that wisdom on and so I really wanted to make the film clip a reflection of what we all put into the live performances and have a record of that. My favourite videos are always tour videos because you kind of get that feel of what it’s like to be on the road with these people. I guess it’s more about legacy for me, you know commemorating these experiences, these cool things that I get to do and just having a record of it.