I think everyone’s just trying not to fall apart in any way,” says alt-soul singer Joesef with a nervous laugh. “It’s only who can hide it best.” We sit at two ends of a huge sofa in his PR office in London and compare stories about the concerns of ‘coming of age’. The 27-year-old moved to the capital from Glasgow in 2021, but still romanticizes the city he grew up in. “There’s a level of togetherness that you can really feel there,” he says in a heavy Scottish accent that’s “worse” after he’s been drinking. “Everyone talks to everyone,” says the singer. He can’t walk into the store without being stopped by five locals who ask him how his “mom” is doing. “I think, God, I’m just trying to get a loaf of bread!”
We chat a month after the release of his slick, soulful debut album. permanent damage captures the intricacies of modern relationships, crammed with all their rough edges. Joesef is something of a sonic sponge: aspects of his great loves, Al Green and the Mamas & the Papas, are ringed out with his own guitar-based melodies and synthic modern moments. And there’s that rich, velvety voice of his that Joesef attributes in part to “smoking a lot of fags and drinking a lot of straight vodka.” His songs embody the happy-sad space shared by child heroes like The Cure, with warm, funky basslines contrasting with blue, wistful words.
It definitely connects. This month, Joesef will embark on his biggest headlining tour yet, which will include a sold-out show at the Roundhouse. “I can’t believe I really have to do it now,” he says, swallowing at the prospect of the upcoming performance. Despite his imposter syndrome, Joesef has played his fair share of big gigs. For the last two years he has supported Arlo Parks in the US, opened for his childhood favorite Paolo Nutini in Glasgow and has been interviewed by Sir Elton John, at whom he admits he was grinning from ear to ear “like him.” shark out shark story“.
“It wasn’t really an option for me,” says Joesef about a music career. In 2018, the singer was working in a Glasgow bar when he got a “rat ass” watching a pal at an open mic night. In a drunken flash of courage, he went upstairs to sing “California Dreaming,” and that “got the ball rolling.” Another friend, now his manager, was out that night and heard the silky singing voice that Joesef has become so well known for. “He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” he says. After being encouraged to write music – and then selling out a home show before releasing any of it – Joesef found himself catapulted into the limelight, suddenly popping up on BBC Maida Vale sessions and grabbing shows across the country. It’s a dream for many artists, but it came as a bit of a shock to the system. “It felt freakin’ crazy,” he says. “It’s just really sink or swim – and I’ve sunk a lot”.
Joesef eventually found a way to levitate – although he still feels “terrified” at live shows. He routinely tells the crowd at his gigs that he “shits himself”. He laughs: “I’ve never been good at hiding my feelings”. Rest assured, his nerves aren’t due to a lack of talent, and indeed the confessions foster a real unity between Joesef and his audience. “There are so many cops in the music industry. It can be daunting, stressful and anxious, but once you get on stage, I’ve got you and you’ve got me – and we can all be there together.” A Joesef performance is half comedy, half music, and the Glaswegian entertains with the crowd like they were old friends at the pub. “It’s definitely a Glasgow thing,” he says. “Constantly just making fun of the bad stuff and the good stuff. It’s such an unnatural experience to be on stage and be a musician. People take it so seriously it seems like they’re walking around choking!”
Glasgow is the subject of his latest single “East End Coast”. The song – named after his nickname for the River Clyde, which flows through the city – was written after he had lived in London for a few months. He had felt “isolated and disconnected” from everything he had known before. The track circles a “tempestuous time with this boy”, but halfway through writing it, Joesef realized he was actually singing about Glasgow and the time spent there, which he “would never get back”.
“It was a bit of a crazy place to grow up and it was very working class. I had a lot of family problems – but it was always so full of love and we were always well taken care of,” he explains. Despite all the “darkness”, the city has its heart. “I hate to quote Miss Dorothy, but there’s no place like home. There is nothing like the energy or atmosphere that comes from my hometown, it is very specific and cannot be recreated.” Like all of us when we feel a bit lost, Joesef spent a lot of time phoning home . He recalls his mother’s voicemail: “Remember, I love you and you can always come home whenever you want.” That message made it to the end of East End Coast. “It was nice to immortalize her in this song” and to hear her voice “resonate” through the venues at his shows, he says. “When you play, you feel like you’re flying, and that just lets you remember who you are.”
In recent years, Joesef has learned to accept who he is. He identifies as bisexual, but it took him a while to feel comfortable expressing it. Joesef attended a Catholic school, and biased comments from peers and teachers made him “be invisible.” “I didn’t want anyone to put a target on my back in any way, and that was a big target at the time.” That’s changed now. “It sounds a little crazy,” he laughs, “but the things you hate most about yourself — when you’re old enough to appreciate them — are the things you love most about yourself.”
So much joy is lost when you think about how others perceive you
However, when he shared the new video for his introspective single “Joe,” in which he kisses a boy, Joesef had a slight wobble. “It’s very enlightening, but it was the most liberating thing of all. I can remember thinking I’d never explore that part of me,” he says. “It just felt like an odd, full-circle moment where I was like, ‘Woah, that wasn’t on my bingo card!'” The fear fades into the background now. “I think so much joy is lost when you think about how others perceive you,” he says. “Who cares what we do or how you speak or how you act? You’ll never see those people again, so just be yourself.”
Last January, in a moment of perfect sync, Joesef was chosen by Spotify to have his face pasted onto a billboard in New York’s Times Square as part of a campaign to support LGBT+ artists. “In moments like this you say, ‘That’s why!'” he beams. “It’s really heartening to think of that little guy from back then, who felt like he just wanted to disappear, that there would come a time when he would be celebrated for being different.” It’s clear that Joesef is much more together and “grown up” than he gives himself credit for.
Joesef’s debut album, Permanent Damage, is out now. Watch his live album film here