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Josh Pyke

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote, “There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness.” Nietzsche’s a well known proponent of the idea that existence is intrinsically meaninglessness. However, this isn’t necessarily a pessimistic notion. In fact, in Nietzsche’s view this essential meaninglessness is what drives us to engage in activities that give life purpose. In light of this theory, the idea that love is both mad and reasonable makes a bit more sense.

This weekend Josh Pyke returns with his fifth LP But For All These Shrinking Hearts. Pyke’s now in the second decade of his recording career and the Sydney tunesmith realises there’s no point creating music that doesn’t have a strong emotional resonance.
 
“I probably write 50 songs a year and maybe five of them I will take to demo point,” he says. “They have to have what I call the madness – when I’m writing the song or demoing the song, they have to make me feel something really deeply.
 
“I remember when I was writing [2008’s] Chimney’s Afire, I was living in a two bedroom flat and one of the rooms was a studio,” Pyke continues. It’s an early winter morning in Melbourne and Pyke’s sitting opposite me fighting a cold with lemon and honey tea.“I covered up the windows and everything to block the sound and my now-wife would go off to work in the morning and I’d demo all day – and I’d be in my underwear because it was so hot in the room. She’d come home and I’d be crazy, but I was crazy with joy and the madness of these songs that I was writing.
 
“Unless I feel that emotional fragility and madness and hyper-ness, I don’t pursue it,” he adds, driving the point home. “That is more important to me than ever, because I know what I’m doing. It’s not hard to sit down and write a song, but it’s very hard and it’s very rare to write a song that makes you feel a real emotion for it.”
 
From a lyrical standpoint, several tracks on But For All These Shrinking Hearts interrogate the singer’s relationship with the creative process. Pyke’s debut LP Memories & Dust came out in 2007 and since then he’s rolled out a new LP roughly every 18 months. Evidently, he’s never faced an overwhelming bout of writer’s block. But on songs such as the recent single Hollering Hearts, it becomes clearPyke doesn’t take songwriting for granted.
 
“The background story is years and years ago I read a book called The Path With Heart: The Mescalito Way of Knowing,” he says.“It was about an anthropologist who went to South America and did heaps of peyote and trained to be a shaman, basically. The big bit of knowledge that he learnt out of this whole process was that the only path is the path with heart. In this context heart meant struggle and work – not negative struggle, just pushing up against something. That’s always stuck with me.”
 
It’s seems patently obvious songwriting is the activity that underpins Pyke’s meaningful engagement with existence. “You’ve got to follow the hard work if that’s what’s giving you that emotional payoff,” he says. “And that emotional payoff is kind of the hollering heart metaphor; whatever makes your heart fucking sing and cry.”
 
Although Hollering Hearts includes lines such as “I spend time and money trying to escape myself,” long time fans needn’t be alarmed, as the new album isn’t a radical departure from Pyke’s previous work. There are a few novel elements – Songlines sports a buoyant pop rock chorus, while Momentary Glow is fitted out with immersive ambience – but as with his previous releases, the record revolves around understated melodies, poetic yet slightly off-kilter lyrics and warm, controlled and occasionally conversational vocals.
 
“From the very, very beginning I always said I would never write with an agenda,” he says. “So I just write songs. Over the years there’s been times when people have said ‘You need to do something different,’ and I just look to my favourite songwriters and disagree. I think you can evolve and develop without having to recreate yourself. People like Neil Finn and Paul Kelly – they’re great examples. They don’t reinvent themselves, but their songs sound very different. I listened to the latest Neil Finn solo record and it’s really fucking good. It’s really interesting and there’s some production elements that we haven’t heard from him, but it sounds like Neil Finn.”
 
But, while Pyke’s refrained from reconfiguring his stylistic outlook, it’s not as though he’s consciously hewing to a trademark sound. “I don’t really try to do anything in particular at all,” he says. “I just write songs. I never sit down and say, ‘Now I have to write a new record.’ I don’t really think about writing in the framework of me because I am me. It would do my head in if I started really thinking of myself as a thing that I need to stay true to.”
 
The two aforementioned songs – Songlines and Momentary Glow – were actually both written in collaboration with a co-writer. Momentary Glow features input from Pyke’s old friend Dustin Tebbutt, and Songlines was put together with Jinja Safari frontman Marcus Azon.
 
“When Marcus and I wrote [Songlines], it just happened so naturally,” Pyke says. “We’d never met, but I knew of him; we had the same manager. I was in a café up the road from my house and I heard something come on the stereo and I was like ‘I really want that kind of sound.’ So I was like ‘Who is this?’ and the lady was like ‘This is Jinja Safari’.”
 
Lyrics have always been of central importance for Pyke, so despite his willingness to collaborate, he retained control over the words. “I didn’t want to be influenced by the other guys lyrically, because I wanted them to become my songs,” he says. “I needed to go away and write those myself so that they were 100 per cent personal and applicable to me. It’s more important than ever to me that those things stay true.”
 
Given that these two songs originated in a different manner than what Pyke’s used to, he decided to experiment with an unconventional lyric-writing method. “I read that Jeff Tweedy records whole Wilco albums with a mumble track,” he says. “He’ll sing gibberish and the song will be 100 per cent finished and then he’ll go off to his lake house and translate his own gibberish. So I tried that with Momentary Glow and Songlines. It’s a really bizarre process but it’s really good.”
 
Pyke’s songwriting possesses a range of notable qualities, but the foremost distinction is his lyrics. In many ways, the lyric writing capacity is rather flimsy. Finding an intriguing way to express something while also conveying a unique personality is far more difficult than simply scrawling words in a diary.
 
“I probably find it harder now than I did when I was younger because I have something to prove,” Pyke says. “Whether or not I think my lyrics are good, it seems to be something that people have identified with over the years. I don’t want to go backwards in my life or my art, so they have to be better and better.
 
“I’ve found that just writing is the way to get through it. Whether or not I’m writing a song, I always write. So I’ve just got pages and pages of prose, constant stream of consciousness stuff. The title of the album came from a verse that I wrote that didn’t end up in a song or anything, but I just loved the little line. It’s harder, but I think I’m actually getting better at it just from doing it.”
 
BY AUGUSTUS WELBY

JOSH PYKE’s new album But For All These Shrinking Hearts is out Friday July 31. He’s playing a fans first show at Bella Union on Wednesday August 5.