From the very first notes, Joesef’s debut album ‘Permanent Damage’ promises to take listeners on a cinematic journey of heartbreak, triumph, and self-discovery.
Words: Neive McCarthy.
Sometimes, you know from the very first notes that an album will absolutely bulldoze you. It will knock the air from your lungs and leave you completely reeling. The cinematic strings that open Joesef’s debut like a curtain drawing back make it immediately evident that ‘Permanent Damage’ will do what it says on the tin. Immersed in the world of Joesef and the experiences that have defined his past few years, it’s an album set to irrevocably alter you in the best way possible.
That first track may as well act as a warning to proceed with caution. Here, feelings will get hurt. Tears will be shed. Hearts will inevitably break. And you’ll be by Joesef’s side throughout it all. “I wanted it to feel like you’re right there with me, in the taxi pulling up outside of his house,” muses Joesef. “It sounds like it’s falling apart until you get to the end. I’ve always loved music that’s a bit like a film. I want the whole album to feel like that. I want it to feel like you’re stepping into a house that I’ve built and take you about it.”
From the get-go, Joesef achieves that. It’s late-night overthinking in a bedroom lit only by a streetlight streaming through the window. It’s a deep conversation in the bathroom of a party, laughing with a gaggle of mates in the kitchen the next morning. It floods every inch of space, moving from room to room and never failing to lead you along too. A reactive deep thinker, Joesef’s writing brings you into the centre of those experiences.
“I have quite an erratic brain,” Joesef admits. “It helps to see something in front of you. Sometimes I can get pretty fucked up when words are just bouncing around my skull; music and writing is an extension of the experiences I’m going through at the time. It’s quite cool, sitting and listening to my first two EPs, I can hear the change in myself, and it’s like reliving it. Picking the scab open and letting it bleed again. I’m very lucky that I get to immortalise parts of my life in quite a vivid way.”
“Listening to my first two EPs, it’s like reliving it – picking the scab open and letting it bleed again”Joesef
The story of ‘Permanent Damage’ unravels at the hands of these memories, vignettes of the rise and fall of this bewildering love and the devastating aftermath. It’s in filmic snippets of stolen kisses you know can only end badly, in recollections of lazy mornings spent drunk in love, in tears made starkly visible under flashing club lights. It plays like a film reel as the album progresses, desperate moments clung onto and carefully preserved.
“My life is based on nostalgia,” says Joesef. “I’m very nostalgic, man. I spent such a long time romanticising the nostalgic aspect of my work, but I heard someone say that nostalgia is like a terminal illness, and it’ll kill you in the end if you let it. You can waste a lot of time dwelling on the past and romanticising the bad things. It’s a bit of a trauma response, nostalgia, because it omits the bad things that have happened; how would anyone go on with their lives if all they thought about was the bad stuff? Nostalgia can be good sometimes, but as I get older, it’s a bit of a mindfuck. It doesn’t really serve anybody well. As good as it is to romanticise your life, I think I get to do that in my music. In reality, it’s not really a good thing.”
With that outlook, it becomes clear how ‘Permanent Damage’ was ultimately an act of excavation. A ripping out of the heart, of the root cause of those feelings and learning to move forwards regardless of their impact. Each track is an exorcism, a release. Some of the roads travelled on the album are dark, twisting paths, where coming out unscathed seems unlikely, but that’s an important lesson learned here.
“I’ve got a lot of clarity over that aspect of my life. As I was writing the album, it was to get through the breakup, but I realised halfway through that I was more devastated by the fact that I would never be the same. I would never be the same person. You lose a bit of yourself when you break up with somebody, or even if you’re in a happy relationship. You become quite emotionally, physically and mentally tied-in to someone else. It’s a strange experience. I definitely struggled with losing a lot of myself after and not really knowing who I was without somebody, but I think, inevitably, change is a good thing. No matter how uncomfortable or hard it feels at the time, eventually, you’ll thank the person or the situation for the experience that you’ve had together or with yourself. Every setback you take is a foot forwards.”
It’s a learning curve the album struggles with, continually engaged in a tug of war between revelling in the angst of past memories and trying to shrug them off. “I won’t apologise,” Joesef sings on ‘Didn’t Know How To Love You’, a track that simmers with both rage and a tenacious ability to take ownership over who you are. Elsewhere, he surrenders to the hurt and admits he can’t quite get past this pain – ‘Shower’ sees him soulfully plead to go back to that time, all to a haunting, smooth track. He flits between these two states throughout, embroiled in a turmoil that sees him dance on the edge of being too gut-wrenching before tugging you back into a new, giddy-on-life side of the record.
“There’s a time and place for it,” Joesef explains. “A lot of the music I grew up listening to was Motown. I was really inspired by the delivery of the songs; these glamorous women, like The Supremes, who were singing about really depressing and dark things while dancing with their hands in the air and moving side to side. I’ve always loved that sentiment of the dark in the light. It makes it easier for me to perform and take it to the stage. If I was up there every night breaking my heart, it’d be very difficult and unsustainable. Some songs are quite difficult, but some of my shows have been quite hectic, and it’s good to get that positive out of a negative experience. Some of my shows have had people taking their tops off and dancing, and it’s hilarious. I like pulling people in with the melody, but if they listen to it, it might strike another chord with them; I like that there’s some depth to that.”
‘Moment’ is a relentless, shimmering example; as it plays out, it’s not hard to envision the arms-to-the-sky release it might provide in a live setting, a crowd before Joesef moving along in sheer bliss. Yet, as you lean in closer, it becomes apparent that it’s more bittersweet than it first seems – as he sings about losing a connection with an ex and willing things to go back to how they were, the gleaming surface of the track seems less than shining under closer inspection. His blend of effervescent beats and unfailingly honeyed vocals provide the perfect stage to unleash those darker thoughts and recollections without it leading to tears, time and time again.
“I find it quite difficult to articulate my emotions sometimes in a day-to-day setting,” says Joesef. “I’ve always struggled with that aspect of my personality. I am quite a deep thinker, and I’m quite an inherently sad person when I’m by myself sometimes. I’m sure most people are. It definitely comes from the Scottish mentality of ‘oh, it’s not that bad’, make a joke of it, make it silly. Music lets me exercise a part of myself that I’ve never really necessarily had the tools to do that with. I feel like it helps me empathise with myself a wee bit more, when I play songs for people, and they get it and connect with it. Therefore, I feel more understood and like I’m not the last person on earth, and I’m not the first person to feel like this.”
It’s something that isn’t immediately apparent when you hear Joesef’s music, but behind this figure who vocalises the stark truth of emotions we have all felt, there’s a larger-than-life character that’s evident even across a video call from his mum’s house in Glasgow. Filled with anecdotes, like the time when Rina Sawayama’s super powerful jet fans left him struggling to move on stage (“my mouth was so dry that I was actually dying”), there’s a light-heartedness to Joesef that means you cannot help but crack up, despite the tell-all devastation his lyrics often cause.
“If you listened to my songs and you’d never met me, you’d think I was this big dickhead who cries all the time”Joesef
“It’s so crucial for me. If you listened to my songs and you’d never met me, you’d think I was this big dickhead who cries all the time. It’s important for me that it’s not all doom and gloom. I’m a jovial, happy person; if you met my mates, I’ve always been the class clown, making jokes – my whole family’s like that. You can’t get a word in edgeways because everyone’s just shouting ‘bastard’ constantly.”
Those people are equally crucial, though, for Joesef. From his mum, who can be found at his gigs, shouting “I squeezed him out!”, to his mates, who he plays homage to on the glorious ‘East End Coast’, to his hometown, too – all these people and places combine to make Joesef’s music what it is. It’s something he bonded with author (and literary hero) Douglas Stuart over, when the pair recently met. “There’s such a specific thread between me as a young, queer guy growing up in the East End of Glasgow in poverty – he described it in such a visceral, vivid, beautiful way. I’d never experienced that kind of representation before. The way that he uses words and tells stories has been a massive inspiration for me in my writing, and his ability to make really brutal, horrendous situations feel beautiful at times is such a talent. There are a lot of parallels between mine and his life, the way we have both grown up. I never thought I’d get to meet him, never mind have a conversation with him. It was one of the best days of my life.”
As much as Joesef praises Douglas for his articulate, spectacular way of capturing things, it’s a talent he undoubtedly shares. ‘Borderline’, one of the album’s most intimate moments, soars into being from easy, muted strums to an almost choral finish. It’s also an example of Joesef’s songwriting prowess; each beat hits as though it’s happening to you directly, vocals wrapping around you and drawing you into that room, that conversation, each admittance. “Sometimes, there’s a sense of urgency and emotion in a demo that you cannae really recreate. When there’s no pressure, you do your best performance. It’s like pressing record by accident; we’ll just try it. Before I got into making an album, I thought it had to be strict, and the goalposts had to be really tight, but it’s taught me a lot about spontaneity and how chance has a lot to do with the magic of creating music.”
Magic is the right word to describe ‘Permanent Damage’. It’s an alchemic world of fiery oranges, muted pinks, gently pulling you by the hand into the thick of a blaze. It invites you to watch a world fall to those flames, but by the time ‘All Good’ rolls around, you’re struck by the sense that you’ve come out of that more alive than ever. Definitely changed, definitely not unscathed, but safe in the knowledge that under the flame, things can only burn brighter from now on. “Hopefully, it only gets better; it doesn’t go downhill,” Joesef laughs. “What’s the point in moving forward if you’re not getting better? Maybe I’ll hit my peak in the next couple of years, and then I’ll just start to sound like fucking Pat Butcher or something. Bit of an icon, I’ll take the earrings, but she can keep the voice.” ■
Taken from the February 2023 edition of Dork. Joesef’s album ‘Permanent Damage’ is out now.