Talking to Joshua Speers, I get the feeling that there are very few things he can’t do. The Delaware native is a poet, motorcyclist, handyman, and artist. His boyish charm allows him to quote poetry without coming off as pretentious and his James Dean broodiness is balanced by a nagging feeling that he is wise beyond his years. This comes through in the timeless yet infectious music that he attributes to his love of both Carly Rae Jepson and Bruce Springsteen. There’s an optimism about him that permeates even the saddest of songs. He takes the steadfast dedication of someone accustomed to manual labor and brings it to songwriting in such a satisfying way that you can’t help but root for him to succeed.
I talked to Speers about his quarantine book club, what it was like to work with Kacey Musgraves collaborator Tommy English, auditioning for a tv show, and his major-label debut Human Now.
So obviously this is a weird time for everyone, but it’s a really weird time to be a musician. How are you keeping yourself busy right now? What are you working on, reading, watching, listening to?
SPEERS: I think this is hitting musicians pretty hard, but I feel like we are uniquely equipped for this because it feels just like being fresh off of tour. You don’t really want to go see your friends because you’re worn out and you don’t really want to work on music for the same reason. You just go stock up on food so you don’t have to leave your house and then binge on entertainment. At least that’s what I would do.
Right now, I’ve been sketching and I rented a pottery wheel and put that on the balcony of my apartment. So, I’ve been making pots and setting them aside to go take them to the kiln once this is all over. As for what I’ve been watching, the Michael Jordan docuseries “The Last Dance” is really well done. I wasn’t really a Bulls fan or a basketball fan growing up, but it’s reminding me of how big he was at that time. Everyone loved him. He was basically superman and I mean he did Spacejam, which is perfect so after that, he could do no wrong.
I actually haven't been reading as much. I think with the global sense of anxiety it's hard for me to sit still right now. I'm feeling a bit stir crazy. I go through phases of like binge reading and then other times, the last thing I want to do is sit and read. I recently re-read one of my all-time favorite books, which is called The Art of Fielding. It's a novel about a liberal arts college in Michigan and the baseball team. It's so, so good. So I reread that. Whenever I don't really feel like reading I always go back to books that I love, because you still get the satisfaction of like, "okay, I am reading. I am growing my brain," but it's familiar. I've also been reading this book called The Overstory, which I picked up because I saw Dan Wilson was reading and I'll follow everything that Dan does. He's an amazing man. So I've been reading that and it's slow going, but it's a beautiful book.
I also have this book club with my friend Matt Thomson, who's the lead singer of this band called The Amazons from the UK. Every Tuesday at noon pacific time, we jump on Instagram Live and talk about a different book that revolves around music. Right now we're reading Elton John's autobiography.
I was going to ask you about that. You guys call it Shelf Isolation, right? And the first book you did was Daisy Jones and The Six?
SPEERS: I actually got asked to audition for the show. And I was like, "shit, I need to know what this book is." So the first time I read it was in like four hours cramming before auditioning for the show, which I didn't get but I'm still looking forward to seeing it. I really want to sit down with the author, Taylor Jenkins Reed, at some point because I think she's so smart. I'm looking forward to whatever books she puts out next. I'm definitely a fan.
The book club has been amazing because, as musicians, I think we all have gaps in our music knowledge. We all lie about like bands when someone asks us saying, "Oh, yeah, of course, I know that band." Even some of the biggest bands in the world like Elton John, for instance. There's so much I don't know about his career. It's hard to think about a song like Tiny Dancer as just a song instead of a monument on the Mount Rushmore of songwriting. But when you read a biography or an autobiography, you start to get a sense of who the person actually was and what went into it. Their life story and then they feel like just another musician. It kind of pulls them off of their throne in the most respectful and important ways. You can actually access them, which I think is so important.
I read that you were a poetry major in college. Who some of your favorite poets are and how do you think like poetry has influenced you as a songwriter?
SPEERS: *Laughs* yes that is very true. Well, some of my favorite poets are Elizabeth Bishop, W.B Yeats, my advisor in college, April Bernard, she has an amazing collection called Romanticism. I feel like I go back to that collection all the time. The title of the EP comes from an Auden poem. Human Now is from his retelling of the Christmas Nativity story, but he does so in a way that feels modern. It's just easier to connect to the characters regardless of religion. He talks about the wise men and says, "this journey is much too long, that we want our dinners, / And miss our wives, our books, our dogs, / But have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are. / To discover how to be human now / Is the reason we follow this star." And that always stood out to me as just a great reason to follow anything. So that's really what the process of these songs was to explore how to be human. What does that mean to me in this moment?
As far as how it influenced me, being in poetry workshops in college forced me to share really personal emotions with a table of people. I think you become a better songwriter when you're good at taking notes from other people and you're collaborating with someone else. Also learning how to edit yourself. There's no greater feeling than when you have a verse and a chorus in your back pocket and you just don't want to touch it because it feels so precious and you don't want to mess it up. But I'm a firm believer in going back to edits and ripping stuff open and really striving to get the best-finished product you can possibly get.
The other really specific thing that I think about is calibrating words. In my angsty college poetry classes, everyone wanted to drop the F-bomb and things like that. But the F word is so potent, that if you don't calibrate it correctly, it washes out everything around it. When you're trying to convey an emotion, you have to figure out how to calibrate the words so that they come across without pushing someone away. You have to let someone in without hitting them in the face with what you're saying.
What's your writing process? Do you write lyrics first or does the music come first for you?
SPEERS: It switches around, but for the most part, I get hit by a phrase. Maybe this is the poetry background—the importance of words. But yeah, a phrase will kind of come out of nowhere. Like, "this is what you call a bad night. / This is what you call an empty bed" there's something in that, I can hear how it wants to be sung, there's almost a melody already in there. So when a phrase like that comes, I try to make that the chorus right away. It sucks when you have a really great verse and you can't beat it with an even better chorus. So I make that the chorus first and then work backward from there. A lot of times, you have a bag of music stuff and a bag of words and you kind of shake them both together and you get something from them.
When I was in Nashville writing with Tommy English, we had spent the whole day before at three different guitar stores. We were playing all of these instruments trying to find the perfect guitar to purchase and I kept playing this like one thing that I always play when I'm testing a guitar just to like hear the full range of it. And when we were writing the next day working on this idea for “Stray Bullets” that I kept thinking about, Tommy said, "Why don't you try it over that thing you kept playing yesterday." It was just this perfect marriage of two ideas. So sometimes it's kind of random like that. I try to stock up on a back catalog of phrases and musical ideas for those times.
Going back to “Stray Bullets.” The music video for that is so good. How did you guys come up with that idea?
SPEERS: The idea came actually from recording the song. When Tommy and I were talking about that chorus and how we wanted it to it. We kept saying we put our hands up on the imaginary motorcycle handlebars. And we're just like, this is where the chorus comes in. You open the throttle and you're just like blasting off across this big open lake bed. That's what I want it to feel like emotionally. So when it came time to make a music video, it was an easy treatment to make. When I close my eyes that's what I hear in the chorus. That's what I see in the chorus. I had wanted to work with two different friends to direct it but they had scheduling conflicts so I just ended up doing it myself because I had such a clear idea of what I wanted. I assembled this ragtag group of pals to go out into the desert for the day. It was so much fun.
You've been in a couple of bands and you toured with Caroline Rose as her bassist. What pushed you to put out music as a solo artist?
SPEERS: I just thought I had something I needed to say. Those years with Caroline were so great. I feel like that was my graduate school as a musician. It gave me such a perfect front-row seat to see how someone runs their business, runs their band, communicates with their label, their management, how they structure their team. I remember doing radio in-studio performances with her. When she was being asked questions, I would kind of zone out and ask the questions to myself in my head and it was almost like press prep for me. It was so good to have that experience and she was so encouraging of me. She connected me to people on her team to send songs to and set up other connections around the industry for me, which I will forever be grateful to her for.
I guess I just felt like I could do it. I think for a long time—being from the middle of nowhere in Delaware—you don't really think that you can actually succeed. I had spent six or eight years just like touring in bar bands up and down the East Coast and the next step to a higher level of success just felt kind of impossible. And I think through touring with Caroline, I realized like, "Oh, no, this can actually this can actually happen." So then it was just the process of going for it.
You grew up on the East Coast, but you live in LA now. What do you think are some of the major differences just in general and in the music scenes?
SPEERS: Well, there is a music scene in LA, which is very different than Delaware. That's actually another Dan Wilson nugget of wisdom. He talks about how the only thing that is absolutely essential to being a musician is a community. I think if you don't have a community you have to go where there is a sense of musical community. I wasn't expecting to like it here, but I got so lucky with such a great group of people so quickly, and that just opened up the doors. It's hard for me out here because I miss the East Coast desperately. I miss knowing all the highways, the rest stops on the Jersey Turnpike. I miss Wawa. I miss the colors on the East Coast, the big open fields. I love the mountains out here, but they're not my mountains if that makes sense. So it's an adjustment, but having the opportunity to be uncomfortable in that kind of way and feel a little bit out of place and have to grind. That's such a beautiful thing.
I was listening through, and I really like "Oh Brother." It's a sad song, but it doesn't sound sad. It's very dynamic and progresses really well. A lot of your songs, at least on this EP, they're sad, but they don't really sound too sad. So I was wondering how you write songs that have that kind of emotion but don't feel depressing and if that's something you do on purpose?
SPEERS: I don't know. That's a great question. I guess part of it is like coming back to calibrating when I was talking about poetry. But also, I mean, I love Robyn's songs. They're like dancing and crying, I think it's the perfect pop song formula. There's a sense of togetherness, a collective loneliness, or collective sadness. I don't know if I think about it too concretely. What I do think about is how to convey an emotion and hand it off to someone. I also believe that you don't necessarily have to feel the exact same emotion that I felt. I just want you to feel something.
For "O Brother," I remember the chorus just had to feel like it opened up. Like there was a bigger release. The earlier demo of that song was really quiet and beautiful and kind of hauntingly beautiful. When I brought it to Tommy English he really pushed for, "Let's open it up because there's more aggression in the lyrics. There's more to explore there." We cut it up in so many different ways of like starting with the chorus dropping the pre-chorus before the second chorus. I mean, there are so many different ways of doing that song and we tried for a long time to get it right. I'm glad that it feels logical and like it progresses in that way. Something I'm really proud of in that song is the maintained intensity throughout it, despite it being really big and really stripped down. So I'm glad that comes across.
Is there a song on the EP that you were the most excited to release?
SPEERS: I'm excited to bring “Bad Night” back to attention. I love that song. I very distinctly remember walking into my friend CJ's apartment in Philadelphia on tour. I still have the voice memo of just singing this idea to myself. Also because it was the first one that I put out as a solo musician, that one feels really special to me. That's the song that I'm always trying to beat. When I go to write again, I just want to keep making songs that beat the original brightness and specialness of that song. It's like a sibling that I'm like comparing myself to. I'm like, "I love them, but damn, I just want to be better than them."