The Heart of a Hustler
Josef Salvat is a man constantly on the move, looking forward and shifting in emotional and physical spaces. The Australian singer speaks at a million words a second and with a frankness that’s unexpected in a major label pop act about to release his first record.
Salvat’s openness is something that plays on his mind during our conversation, to the point we barely touch on his fine debut album Night Swim - the first collection of songs from the twenty-six-year old Aussie (now based in London, via Paris). It's a somewhat chameleonic record, one that flits between balladry, electronic pop and introspective R&B across fifteen songs. A strong if not necessarily musically cohesive album, it is united through its themes of sex and sexuality, love and the development of the young creator responsible for the songs. Salvat, though, isn’t quite in the mood for celebrating the release of Night Swim:
“Yeah, I call it relieving rather than exciting,” he tells me. “It means I can move on now, from this material. Having said that, I’m incredibly proud and positive and shit like that. It was exciting getting to make it about two years ago and now I’m so happy, I’m just relieved.”
"I didn’t want my music to be ‘gay music’ – I just think that’s so incredibly reductive, and that’s not what it’s about."
I say that I’ve learned over a number of years and a number of interviews that artists seem to want to release immediately and move on to the next project, avoiding all the promotion and chat, that it’s not something enjoyable. Salvat agrees: “Definitely not. I dunno mate, maybe I’ll learn. Everyone tells me I’ll learn. I think it is always this long [the release process] and it’s something I’ll just have to come to terms with if I’m lucky enough to keep getting to make albums.”
It’s been a long time coming in pop music terms for Josef Salvat. Having written songs since his teenage years, Salvat got tongues wagging with his cover of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” which ended up being prominent due to its use in a Sony TV advert. That was back at the end of 2014, and some of the Australians own songs date a lot further back: “I think at the time when I was making it, it kinda felt like two years late even then because I’d been sitting on the material for such a long time,” reveals Salvat. “There was a stubborn thing in my head ‘you have to deal with this first’ before I could start writing anything else. I had to get this off the plate, to clear it through. Had I known what was to come in the next two years I would have probably cut my losses and allowed myself a bit more freedom creatively rather than being tied to this material and these songs…which I love, I love them all and I’m happy with the album I made. That’s why I stuck to them. But it’s interesting the lessons it forces you to learn.”
In asking if the songs on Night Swim reflect a certain period in his life, Salvat tells me, “I guess they were all during that period between eighteen and twenty-five. "Night Swim" was written last year, so it’s within a period which is fairly….formative. I feel like I lived a whole bunch of different lives during that period and I wasn’t necessarily thinking about creativity at all.”
Salvat had no notions of being a pop star, more that he was using music as a coping strategy: “I wasn’t sitting there thinking of myself as being an artist like a lot of my peers were at that age,” he says. “I was just writing music to get by with everything I was doing, psychologically…to stay sane. That’s what these songs come from, and whatever I was listening to at that time will have inspired what was written. They are responses to a particular moment. When I came to choose the songs for the album it wasn’t about what were the best songs; it was kinda about what hangs together best and what’s the most coherent. And it was pretty incoherent, they were all different because I wasn’t writing an album…”
I’m relieved that Salvat shares my view that Night Swim is musically a little incoherent though, I point out, it definitely feels like it’s tied together by theme. “I guess so,” agrees Salvat. “I feel like there are three very broad themes; one is this love stuff, another is trying to be incredibly hopeful about the future – songs like "The Days" and they’re really earnest – they were written more recently as a response to finding life a lot more difficult all of a sudden and trying to remain positive. Before the love stuff came, working out what sort of human you are in your own environment. Those decisions you make in your early twenties about what kind of person you want to be – or at least that’s what you think you’re doing – and having to reconcile past actions with current moments. All your little wounds which seem so great when you’re a teenager haha!”
I’m still left wondering if, because the songs cover such a long period of time (we’re talking at least six years) Salvat can still identify with the young man writing the songs: “It’s funny, I’ll look back on it and I’ll confess that some of the lyrics are super melodramatic,” he explains. “But that’s what it is; I could have gone and changed them and brought them into line but at the time they weren’t melodramatic, they were 100% real. That’s how it felt, it was that intense. It all does loop together and it’s all a bit bittersweet. There was a particular eye looking at the world, which was looking at how you can reconcile the greatness and the badness in the same sentence.”
Salvat continues, saying he’s still the same person to an extent: “I am, because it’s on the same continuum. There’s three different Josefs on the record: there’s "Hustler" and "This Life" and songs like that, then there’s songs like "The Days" and "Closer"…these are really different tones but they’re all still me…but we change, people change. People are in a constant state of change: a song I wrote yesterday or three hours ago is no longer how I feel now. So in many ways no, I can’t really identify with that person but that in and of itself is the point. Everyone is always, and always will be, trying to figure out what they’re actually about.”
The mention of "Hustler" brings me to what feels like the most important song on the record. It’s important for a number of reasons: it feels honest, it captures a young man dealing with a lot of psychological and physical questions…and of course there is the striking video which has got people talking. Salvat is in agreement with the assessment: “Yeah, I think it’s one of the only honest songs on the record actually. I mean, it’s from start to finish honest and isn’t afraid to be seen as that. I think that’s why people connect to it.” Before I can ask what effect that has on other songs, the singer elaborates: “That’s not to say the other songs are dishonest but let’s say they are aspirational. The ones about relationships and the ones about love are not [aspirational] but the ones about my own psychological state are generally aspirational. "Hustler" is looking at a state of affairs and calling it how it felt.”
"Every decision I make with my career is a political statement."
The video for "Hustler" sees a conflicted Salvat take on the persona of the title character. He sings “I’ve got the heart of a hustler, with a hustler’s pain…I’ve got the body of a lover, with a masochist’s brain” and the clip shows Salvat on the prowl, hooking up with men and women. It’s been billed as the first time we’ve seen a male artist kiss another man in the video, and I ask if it was a true reflection of where the Australian was at the time of writing. “Kind of yes and kind of no,” is the tentative agreement.
“That’s what the song is about…sorry, the song is not about kissing a guy. It’s about that process, that confusion and trying to reconcile that stuff. I’d made two songs for that video in the past – one which never saw the light of day and the other I made myself. I had a specific vision but I wasn’t much of a leader at that time or very good at executing a vision….by this stage I had signed to the major label and whilst the song had gone out a year and a half before they wanted to rerelease and that meant a new treatment. We got one back which was interesting but I was running around the city kissing all these girls…I said ‘I can’t have a video that looks like that for this song’. It doesn’t work, I have to be kissing guys as well. So we did it and no-one said anything and no-one really complained about it, nobody overthought it. It was that simple.”
Salvat is sincere in his view that the process was that simple: “I kind of like the way it does it. I’m trying very hard not to politicise it,” he explains. “It’s a deeply personal sort of thing and the song is a personal thing, I’m not trying to be political – and neither is the kiss a political statement. That’s why I didn’t want to have [adopts a mock outraged voice] ‘A GAY KISS IN THE VIDEO!’ because every time I see that I’m like ‘okay, cool’. Katy Perry in the ‘Firework’ video: okay cool, aligning yourself with that – that’s a political statement. And that’s fine, that’s great, people make those…but I’m not interested in doing that with anything that’s personal to me.”
Separating the personal and the political has been a learning process for Josef Salvat. He tells me that “it’s only really in the last twelve months that I’ve realised how naïve I’ve been; every single piece of art is a political statement , or can be read as such. Every decision I make with my career is a political statement, everything I put in a video can be that and I’d never, ever, ever thought about that before.”
I say that I had wondered if making the record gender neutral, in that there are no obvious references to “he” or “she”, was a political statement. Not political as such but it was a conscious decision: “Why is it gender neutral? I definitely shy away from being boxed or being pigeonholed,” he explains. “I didn’t want my music to be ‘gay music’ – I just think that’s so incredibly reductive, and that’s not what it’s about. Equally, some of the songs are not written about girls, but that’s not the point, the point is the sentiment. I’m a human, the person who is listening to it is a human….hopefully I can communicate something with them [the songs]. I guess it wasn’t important so I decided to remove them entirely, and I hadn’t made my mind up about stuff either. It wasn’t important to me. Also, I think some of the songs which sound like love songs are not actually love songs. They’re written about friends and the moment you put gender on something people immediately draw sexual connotations. Maybe it’s a conversation with myself…”
"If you’re a singer or a musician, you have this responsibility to have the strongest identity or personality that you possibly can."
Salvat tells me that the seemingly simple choice of covering Rihanna was an example of his naivety, before he discovered what recording an album entailed: “I did this cover of "Diamonds" and I didn’t realise at the time how it would change everything,” he says of his soulful and stripped-down version. “The decision to do that changed the sound of the album; it changed where I was going to be marketed, my release schedule…it made a really big impact on my stuff. I never thought about that when I was writing it, and it’s the same for the sexuality stuff. I was just writing a song, and now I find myself in this world where I have to think a lot more carefully about it…but that’s good, I think that’s important. If you call yourself an artist you should probably think about what you’re doing and you should consider it a lot more. I’m kind of envious of people who understood that inherently from a much earlier age.”
We return to the subject of gender pronouns; I note that for a period of time, which may be continuing in certain areas of entertainment, when a singer performed a cover song on the likes of The X Factor there was a deliberate and baffling switch of the pronoun so as to avoid the Monday morning tabloid scandal over a man singing about a “he” in a song originally performed by a woman…“I’ve always found that really stupid,” states Salvat, firmly. “I’ve always though that’s really dumb…because it’s a cover.”
Now, though, we hear bands like Years and Years or singers like Sam Smith using “he”…Salvat predicts what is coming: “Yep, Ollie Alexander, Sam Smith…” he begins, a little wearied and suspicious over the artists’ motives. “I think that’s a really interesting thing with music that you can’t get away with in other creative industries, like if you were an actor or something. If you’re a singer or a musician, you have this responsibility to have the strongest identity or personality that you possibly can. Particularly nowadays because that’s what people seem to buy into more than the music.”
Salvat considers the recent death of a musical legend: “I’ve thought about this a lot since Bowie’s death; there aren’t many boundaries we can push anymore, right? And even just saying that, there’s an implication that I do find there to be something not entirely honest about pushing this big, strong identity. That’s not a moral judgement. I think there’s a lot of thought that goes into that…I guess, particularly with men, and male sexuality. That is an area which is still kind of taboo ... unlike female sexuality because it’s still viewed through the male gaze so it doesn’t matter what women do, which is really terrible.” It seems clear that Salvat believes being so open with one’s sexuality is a clever marketing tool, at least with certain artists. “I guess it’s still a statement to be out in music, it makes somebody interesting but it’s not a statement that’s gonna hurt sales any more. If anything it’s a statement that’s going to bolster sales.”
While Salvat doesn’t take the same path as the acts previously mentioned, Night Swim still sounds like a record with a strong artistic statement, made by someone who while perhaps still finding their place in the world is confident enough to admit their confusion. “It’s not that I’m confident in the person that I am,” he says. “Okay, I said some of the songs are not truthful but that’s not like I fabricated things…aspirational instead of dishonest is what I mean. I’m uncomfortable with…every time I have a question about myself and how I’m feeling you just have to assess what is there, you have to come to terms with that. If that is confidence, then fine. I’m not sure what confidence is actually. You can only ever work with what you’ve got, and the best way to do that is to understand what you’ve got."
"I’m not sure I’m comfortable with who I am, and in fact [the confidence] comes from a place of tremendous discomfort if anything. But I have to understand because I don’t know anything else. From knowing that and dealing with that I can come to understand other people’s experiences rather than try to copy another person’s identity.”
Identity is key to Night Swim in that Salvat flatly refuses to be pigeonholed. Whether it’s his sexuality – and in researching this interview I found three different magazines calling him either gay, straight or bisexual – his feelings or his definition of what it means to be a man or masculine, the singer follows his own path: “Growing up it was so tempting to just copy the performance of different types of masculinity or different types of social interaction,” he says. You can hear it in the songs. Alongside “Hustler”, there’s the man in “This Life” who proclaims “If you’re drunk I’ll get done quicker”; yet there’s also the person in “The Days” who sings “and you learn that a soul has got to change”. A fluid take on masculinity for sure, and Salvat says of this “I definitely tried to copy, I just wasn’t any good at it! And it was never very convincing. So I just stumbled along with my own thing…”
"I really love my country and my strongest emotions in terms of my external identity are due to being Australian…but we’ve got so many issues we’re not really willing to address."
To not show concern for the gender norms is also something surprising for a man from a country known, for better or worse, for its uncompromising take on what it means to be a “real” man. I say that Australia often gets a particularly bad rap for the actions of some of its male population…”Well, it gets a particularly bad rap because it is particularly bad,” says Salvat, sternly. “The performance of masculinity in Australia is comical. Straight away, it’s the accent which is the first thing that gets me. None of my friends now speak the way we spoke at high school. Since they went out into the world and ‘became men’ their accents have changed.”
Salvat gives me an example of this: “My mother’s side of the family is from rural Australia, on the border of Victoria and New South Wales and I grew up with a lot of men who spoke like that because they were farmers. And now you have this kid, who went to a really good school in Sydney, who’s come from an incredibly privileged middle class background and who is probably working in finance and has never been over the Blue Mountains, speaking like someone from fucking Broken Hill! To me, it’s kind of absurd.”
It’s well documented that Australia’s societal issues don’t begin and end with masculinity: “I also think it’s quite a misogynistic country as well,” says Salvat, “but we’re all really happy in Australia because we’ve got lots of money and no problems….sooo, while we do have these issues they’re not really that big a deal.” It’s difficult to convey the razor-sharp sarcasm this sentence is delivered with but what’s not in doubt is Salvat’s burning passion for his country. “I mean, I really love my country and my strongest emotions in terms of my external identity are due to being Australian and where I come from. In leaving, I’ve never felt more Australian than when living here…but we’ve got so many issues we’re not really willing to address…”
Now that I’ve got Salvat up and running, he continues on his dissection of Australian life and culture: “Our relationship with the indingeous communities I would say is the worst in the world. Take Australia Day….yeah okay ‘we’re still a new country and it takes some time’….really….I mean I’m not really an activist and I’m not a bleeding heart liberal but Australia Day marks the day we invaded, right. It marks the day we started a hundred year-long genocide. When you go up to the Northern Territories and visit Aboriginal communities, if you drive from Sydney through Alice Springs to there, it’s like stepping from the first world into….it’s crazy!”
“You don’t get that in New Zealand, I guess you do have it in the US but there’s a lot more dialogue about it, Native Americans have a louder voice that indigenous Australians have. It’s bad because sometimes it feels like they’re not even human or they’re not even there. When you actually properly think about it as an Australian it’s sickening. We have a broader problem than that just generally with racism. My black and mixed race friends from here found it the most racist place in terms of the way they were perceived and dealt with…because nobody speaks to them, nobody knows how to! They are so confronted by the colour of their skin…it’s not a negative judgement necessarily it’s just a profound awareness of difference. We have very strict ways of understanding things and I think it’s the same with gender roles as well.”
I joke that it’s been a long time since we talked about the record, even though all these thoughts and opinions are part of what makes Josef Salvat the artist he is – individual and not willing to bow to certain accepted constructs or roles. So I mention the album and its impending release, but Salvat cuts me off - “Come on, let’s face it. There’s a record there, listen to it and if you like it, you like it….there’s a point where it’s not interesting anymore!” It’s said with a laugh, but you can understand his slight weariness after sitting on his songs for two years.
So I end with a look to the future; okay, these songs are done and released – what comes next for Salvat? New material immediately? “Oh absolutely!” he exclaims. “But listen, I’ve given myself a really bad rap here; at the time when I wrote the songs they were each the best song or the favourite song I’d ever written. That’s why they’re on the album. I am proud of every single one of my songs and I’m proud of the album. It’s just that if I thought it was the best thing in the world or the be-all-and-end-all I would stop. I have started on the second album; the moment the album was delivered I started writing and it’s exciting and it’s making me really happy.”
Apart from the new songs developing, Salvat tells me that he’s uncovered something else, perhaps even more important. “I understood a lot of things about the kind of artist I’m gonna be,” he begins, “and that might sound like a really wanky thing to say but I was so uncomfortable with this word ‘artist’ when I started this, but it does mean something! It’s kind of a self-indulgent pursuit but if it’s gonna be done well you have to take it seriously to a certain extent. If there’s one thing I’m annoyed at myself about it’s that I kind of looked down on what it is to write music or to create any kind of art."
"I wrote pops songs – I’m not Shakespeare, you know. I still owe it to myself or anybody who is going to spend three or four minutes listening to my songs to write the best thing that I can…so that’s why I have questions about what kind of artist I’m going to be. You have people like Adele or Ed Sheeran. Tame Impala, even. Their DNA is kind of set and it’s very clear what they are; you have other people who are chameleons who change and explore different things…”
So who is Josef Salvat? He’s the hustler and the romantic, the animal, the aspiring lover and the artist. “I feel like I’m the latter and I think you can hear that in the album,” comes the immediate reply. “It’s taught me so much about what I want to do with everything. I have to do it an album at a time, rather than on one record. I’m getting to be the most extreme version of myself and I want to take more chances.”