“I knew you were going to want to talk about that one!” Joesef laughs down the phone.
I’ve just brought up his new song Kerosene, lifted from his debut EP titled Play Me Something Nice. The track is a swirling production of lo-fi guitars and gentle beats packed full of soul. “When it touches me, started to feel things I’ve never felt before,” he sings in his distinctive stirring tone that adds further emotional layers to the personal lyric.
The reason Joesef knew we were going to bring this particular track up? It straightforwardly outlines his first experience of falling for a guy. “He was my first boy,” he explains. “That was the first time I ever got with a guy, and it was the first time I ever met him as well.” Like Joesef’s songs that have come before it, Kerosene perfectly captures those vulnerable, intimate moments, laying succinct storytelling over a jazz-infused composition. “That was a moment for me because I’d never really spoken about that with anybody,” he adds. “The song talks about not wanting to tell anyone because it was all quite fresh. I do love that song.”
The 24-year-old has been somewhat of an enigma in 2019. He sold out the infamous King Tuts in his hometown of Glasgow before he’d even properly released a track. The only other artist to have done that before him was Lewis Capaldi, and we’ve all witnessed how fast his star rose afterwards. After putting out new cuts Limbo and Loverboy, Joesef went on to sell out another two nights at the venue. When I catch up with him, he’s fresh from those shows and taking some time to recover from the “bit of a mental weekend” that’s passed. Across social media, fans were posting clips from the packed gig showing the crowd singing back Loverboy to him acapella. “It was a moment,” Joesef tells us. “I’m so ready to just keep doing more gigs. It’s definitely put a bit of fire in my belly. I was never really that keen on doing gigs when I first started doing this because I’m pretty nervous with things like that. This has made me realise that gigging is defo what I want to do.”
Over the first nine months of 2019, Joesef has emerged as one of the most exciting new talents in British music. It’s why we chose him to be the first artist we amplify as part of a new collaboration between GAY TIMES and Apple Music called Elevate, with the aim of supporting and platforming LGBTQ music talent as they break through into the mainstream.
For Joesef, the early beginnings of his music career were born two years ago. After his friend – who is now his manager – heard him sing, he encouraged him to have a go at songwriting. The result was his first track Limbo; an ode to the uncertainty you feel with another person at the end of your relationship and not being able to let go. But not only did Joesef write the song, he plays every instrument on the track, as well as having produced it. That, in fact, goes for every song on his debut EP.
“I’ve done everything,” he says. “I did all the mixing, played every instrument, and I just did it in my room. It was basically out of necessity. I don’t have any money or anything like that. I dunnae even have any musical mates. Nae my mates do music. All my pals are plumbers and joiners, so I couldn’t be like, ‘Can you come up to my house and play this for me?’ So I guess I just had to do it all myself because I had to. In the future, I would like to work with other people, but I’m a bit of a control freak as well. I don’t really like people touching my stuff – especially when it’s as personal as it is. It’s so to-the-bone that I’d think twice about working with any old person.”
Joesef was initially taught how to play the guitar by his mate’s girlfriend (the first track he learned was Paolo Nutini’s Candy, he adds), but having honed his craft in his bedroom on his own, he has begun to master the art of DIY song-making. All six tracks on the EP sit nicely together, telling the story of his relationship with one guy – bar one track – that started in a summer and finished in another. His soul and jazz influences shine through, giving the body of work a sonic narrative to complement his tales of heartache. “I feel like I’ve just been through a lot of shite,” he laughs when I ask why he is drawn to writing about the darker moments of love. “I’m not really a serious guy. I don’t really carry myself in a serious manner. But in terms of the music, I’m quite drawn to sad stuff. I kind of get to revel in my feelings a wee bit. I grew up listening to people like Carole King, and all of their songs are matter-of-fact like, ‘I’m in the kitchen and I’m crying because of this.’ There were no hidden meanings. I think it’s better to be straightforward with stuff like that. The best songs are the most simple, but effective.”
He recently described his music as “Sad Boy Summer”; a statement, I ask him, if he still stands by. “The tunes are kind of breezy but the subject matter is quite dark at times,” he explains. “I’m going to stick with that statement what with all this Hot Girl Summer shit happening. I like a bit of Hot Girl Summer as well, but I’m definitely a Sad Boy at heart!”
That balance between light and dark is what makes Joesef’s music so rich and expansive. It’s no better demonstrated than on the EP’s title track, Play Me Something Nice, where the sombre lyrics are offset by a bouncy backdrop. “I just put that kick behind it and the wee maracas shakers as well and it became a bit more dance,” he says. “It’s like a Cafe Mambo Ibiza track. It’s pure like a sunset tune. It’s quite depressing sitting listening to a wee guitar song, so making it a bit more upbeat is kind of putting a good spin on a shit situation. Play Me Something Nice is a really really sad song, but it makes it easier for me to sing when you see people dancing to it.”
As for recent single Don’t Give In, that’s the one track on the EP that’s about a different guy. Joesef admits that the track is the most “matter-of-fact” he’s written so far, even including actual lines he said to the person in question. The track deals with his experience of being with a guy but then discovering he’s still getting with his ex. “It was kind of weird because we were proper together, but then I knew something was going on,” Joesef says. “He basically left my house and I was like, ‘I know something has happened.’ So then I just wrote that song and was like, ‘Ah, fuck man. That’s definitely what it is.’ It was quite cathartic. That song is quite hard to sing because it was quite a recent thing. It’s still a bit close to home. It does help you process stuff though. It’s a cliché, but it is like personal therapy for yourself. I think he knows the song is about him now because the tune is basically everywhere and we have the same pals, so I think he’ll be a bit gutted.” He pauses. “Fuck him!”
It’s Joesef’s honesty in his songwriting that has made listeners connect with his music so quickly. It’s something the musician stands by, saying that “as soon as you’re lying about something people can tell.” That’s what made him want to be open about his sexuality from the start of his career. Listening back over Kerosene, it’s unashamedly queer, putting the first inklings of a same-sex romance at the centre of the narrative. “It was such an explosive thing for me,” Joesef explains. “I mean, it’s quite an insignificant thing. Everybody falls in love when they meet someone they like. But personally, it felt like getting hit by a train. It was unreal and otherworldly. So I wanted to immortalise that in a tune.”
That sense of first love is palpable throughout the song, but for most LGBTQ people that also comes with a level of discovering yourself and an element of secrecy. “Can’t tell my mother,” he sings at one point, “she doesn’t know.” I ask Joesef about that line and he laughs. “We were fucking about for months and I couldn’t tell my mates, I couldn’t tell my family, and then I’d go home with lovebites on my neck and my mum would be like, ‘Oh, who’s the lovely girl?’ I’d just be like, ‘fuuuuck…’ It was this big thing,” he says. “But that’s where the whole Kerosene thing comes from, it was so exciting because we were sneaking about. It was amazing.”
When Joesef did come out to his family and friends, he acknowledges that he was lucky as he had “no hassle” at all. “In Glasgow, the attitude is quite progressive for things like that,” he says. ”Obviously that’s not the case everywhere. But it’s quite a good place to live if you’re like me. I feel like if I was out with a boyfriend, I wouldn’t really think twice about holding someone’s hand. I mean, you always get that wee thing in the back of your brain, but you’re relatively safe in Glasgow in terms of things like that. But as I said, that’s just my personal experience. I can’t really speak for anybody else.”
The singer-songwriter has spoken in the past of having dated both guys and girls and agrees that he’s grown up in a generation of young people who are rejecting labels. “It has been so rigid for so many years,” he says. “But I feel like everything is up in the air right now, and everybody can do what they want. In Gen Z everybody is just experimenting with their sexuality and I feel like it’s just a good time to be whoever you want to be.
“Labels are just so restricting,” he adds. “It’s like food, man – you wouldn’t go through your life just eating the same pasta every day. You might want something else one day. As far as sexuality is concerned, it’s the same thing. There’s so many different types of people – what’s the point in just sticking to the same thing? I don’t get it. It’s just so weird.”
And Joesef is committed to being open and honest about it all in his songwriting – especially if it means being a visible example to someone who has never seen themselves represented. “It’s just been a big thing for me,” he continues. “Just be honest – especially with things like that. I’m from a housing estate, and so if any wee boy from there can see himself in me, that can only be a good thing. I never really had any kind of role models like that. I’m not saying I’m a role model, but I feel like it’s important to be honest about who you are because you might inspire other people to be honest as well.”
As for Joesef, his star is only shining brighter as more people discover his music. He’s played his first headline show in London and continues to write music in anticipation of a second EP – or even an album – in 2020. There’s little doubt that this Glaswegian singer-songwriter is destined for great things, and his first collection of songs already feels timeless.
To finish our conversation, I ask what he wants this first body of work to say. “It was a first love for me. That’s what it’s about. It’s that pure, unadulterated, unfiltered, innocent love,” he replies. “The older you get, the more cynical you become. I feel like when I was writing these songs, all the stuff I was going through, I was just this wee young guy who got to experience all these amazing things. Getting my heart broken was shite at the time, but it’s such a good experience. The main thing from all this is to take something bad and make it good. That’s what I was trying to do.” We’d say that’s a mission accomplished.
Joesef’s debut EP, Play Me Something Nice, will be available to stream on Apple Music from 18 October.
Photography Jakub Koziel
Words Lewis Corner
Fashion Umar Sarwar
Hair Sven Bayerbach at Carol Hayes Management
Make-up Ana Takahashi
Fashion Assistant Miranda Mikkola