JOSHUA GRIERSON AND I: THEN AND NOW
By Alex Searle
‘Fuck! This amp weighs a ton!’ I cried out into the brisk night air, nearly toppling down the stairs. I broke into a sweat by the time we got the behemoth into the tiny practise room. He said nothing as we walked in. Having already unpacked his case and tuned up, he was just strumming his guitar quietly in the corner. He looked on us disinterestedly, as if we had been two peculiar foreigners who had just wandered into the wrong place.
‘Did you guys need help with that?’ he asked.
‘No, don’t worry about it, Josh.’ I replied, nursing the giant calluses on my hands.
I arrive a bit earlier than we’d agreed. There is a small handwritten ‘Back in ten minutes’ sign stuck on the glass door. I decide to bide my time, buy some iced tea from the Spar and go over my questions again. I wonder how much he’s changed, if at all.
The street is bustling with activity as I walk back, but I don’t take much notice because the front door to Xupa Xupa is now open. I stride in and smile at the man behind the counter.
‘Hello, Josh.’ He looks up from underneath his grey caddie hat.
‘Alex! How are you man?’ We hug warmly. He seems genuinely excited to see me after five years.
I study the empty shop around me. It’s the most bizarre collection of bric-a-brac, plastic noses, stickers, clothing accessories, souvenirs and other quaint things. Not exactly the kind of day job I expected one of Cape Town’s most talented singer/songwriters to have. A pair of multi-coloured socks on the shelf has me dazed until Josh suggests we make ourselves comfortable at the main window looking out onto Kloof street. I sit on the stone floor while he perches on his Marshall amp. We probably look like a pair of mannequins taking a lunch break to passers-by.
We begin to talk. It would not surprise me if by divine intervention Josh is the love child of John Mayer, Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash. His rich, powerful voice has just the right twang and tenderness for virtually any style. On the guitar he possesses the ability to fill up space with marvellous chord and riff playing without over-the-top soloing. Even from a young age he started honing his unique brand of folk, blues, Americana and acoustic rock.
‘I was brought up on Dylan, Springsteen and the KFM Top 40. I sat there every Saturday taping my favourite tunes.’ One can almost picture an adolescent gum-chewing Josh shooing his younger sister from his room so he could listen to ‘The Times They Are a-Changing’ in its full glory.
He has played with many South African-based bands including Lovehunter and Corazon Latino. In 2004, at the tender age of 20 he recorded his debut solo album EmoKidJosh, a raw but promising collection of a musician’s fledgling talent. I joined his band briefly as a bassist in 2006. Since then he’s opened up for Finley Quaye in Dubai, collaborated with Laurie Levine in the ‘Tale of Two Cities’ tour and played hundreds of incredible shows to a growing fan base.
We have a lot to catch up on, Joshua Grierson and I.
‘I’m still very much a solo artist, but I do need other people’s help. I realise that now, whereas five years ago I was more obstinate.’ I can recall his overbearing ‘my way or the highway’ approach to both performing and writing music.
‘Lyrically, I think I’ve grown a lot. It used to be music first, words second. But now I’m finding myself becoming more poetry-based.’ Many of his lyrics focus on love, life and death with a certain soulful sincerity that’s hard to come by. Josh has always been fond of extending songs during live shows. He will take one idea or phrase and tweak it to become something new, evolving on its own towards a kind of self-immersing catharsis. This can last up to fifteen minutes at a time. A true showcase of ability, mood and self-indulgence, Josh is certainly a niche-market artist.
‘I don’t like to box myself. You start putting boundaries on what is right and wrong, because you’re pandering to the public, and then you lose yourself.’ I used to wonder what a brilliant musician like him is doing not aiming his headstock at the record and radio charts. But as Josh puts it, he could be ‘a Parlotones’ where easy pop tunes would be all in a day’s work.
‘But for me it’s about being honest. I can’t speak for the Parlotones pairing up with KFC,’ he says snidely. ‘It’s a relative thing.’
‘There are many facets to an artist. We’re all onions, but when you show a different side, the public will spit in your face.’
He regales me with a story of a gig he played in Langebaan some years back. Josh recalls it as being one of the few horrible gigs. The intoxicated punters demanded that he play Bryan Adams’ classic ‘Summer of 69’. Frustrated, Josh proceeded to tell them about Ryan Adams, where once upon a time he was heckled for up to an hour by an annoying audience member who requested that very song. Adams gave the pea-brained lout an ultimatum to either ‘shut up or fuck off’. Apparently Josh’s crowd that day didn’t quite catch the drift.
He lights up a Camel, looking cooler than Bogart. The thick smoke hangs above us like a storm cloud. It thunders in anticipation for his less-than rosy sentiments about the local music industry.
‘A lot of the major record labels pay off the radio stations to keep their artists up on the top ranks. They’ve brainwashed people into thinking that this is the only music. So the public is not surfing the web 24/7 looking for new music. Artists get left behind.’
Yes, I also detected that note of bitterness.
The same goes for his somewhat graphic views on the ‘Rainbow nation’.
‘It’s not a rainbow, it’s a fucking splash of colour and it’s incomprehensible. Like puke on the wall.’
‘Ok, interesting.’ That was all I could really muster.
The music was reaching an intense coda. Nick grooved smoothly on drums while Steve was fiddling with the light switch, casting the room into darkness intermittently. I was holding down the bass but I couldn’t concentrate. This entranced figure standing alone in front of the eggboxes appeared in and out of the light like some kind of deliverance. He tilted his head up to the ceiling as if in prayer. Josh was lost in the melody, playing those sparkly chords without missing a beat. Beads of sweat glistened like glow-in-the-dark jelly tots falling daintily onto his guitar strings. His eyes still shut, he began to sing. Words unravelled themselves before him like prophecies, memories of loss and love.
I remember Josh as being quite god-fearing when I first met him.
‘I’m in touch with a life force out there, but I don’t like giving it a name because I don’t like boxes. But for the last five or six years I’ve been slowly but surely shedding the dogma of Christianity.’
From what I can see, it’s made him wiser and more aware of his place in the universe. So much so that he does not forget to greet a customer who slips into the shop while we’re talking about philosophy.
He looks me dead in the eye and unfolds great gems of wisdom.
‘People aren’t afraid of failure, they’re afraid of success.’ It may sound like a Chinese proverb of sorts but as long as you keep your course true, he reckons you’re on the right track.
‘Taxi Violence have done amazingly well in this country without the help of a record label because they remained true to themselves. And good PR, of course.’
I ask him what his biggest challenge is at the moment when he is momentarily distracted by a blonde with legs up to heaven passing the window. No doubt a short attention span is one of them. He grins naughtily.
‘I’ve got the music down, but now I need to learn the business side of the industry.’ Josh is determined to take the ugly bull by the horns without letting it compromise his integrity. I used to think it was simply hard-nosed arrogance that drove his refusal to conform to anything, but today the kudos go to Josh for sticking to his guns with a charisma and spirit I’ve seen few artists dare to have. He’s never been the frivolous type.
‘I don’t care for mansions or big fancy fucking cars. I just want to write songs and people to get it.’ I’m sure moving out of his parents home in Brackenfell is also on the to-do list.
What will the future bring? Josh rubs his hands together feverishly. He is looking forward to more collaborations with Laurie Levine, The Town Criers and Dan Roberts. Another solo album is also in the pipeline, where he promises me he won’t do everything himself. The newest incarnation promises to be an exciting blend of experimentalism and sparseness, with sounds similar to that of Spirit of Eden by Talk Talk.
‘There’s space for Joshua Grierson’s CD in everyone’s house.’
He also fancies following in the footsteps of Phil Collins, Eddie Vedder and Neil Young by branching into film scoring at some stage.
‘I think I’m quite capable of doing that.’ Josh opines.
Our conversation draws to a close. We stretch our legs and stand in the doorway of the shop. Josh lights up another cigarette and we look out onto the colourful life of Kloof street. Cars travel frantically up and down like a colony of ants. A jay-walker is nearly crushed by an oncoming truck. A young boy kicks his soccer ball too far out into the road. A senile old lady tries to remember why she came to Woolworths. Somewhere in the pace of all these things, Josh puts the scene on pause. His eyes have the same faraway stare that movie stars take on when they’re about to say something profound at the end of an epic adventure. Josh does not disappoint.
‘At the end of the day, Joshua Grierson is just a human being trying to figure it all out through melody and song, and to inspire people to question; not only question authority but themselves too. That’s the journey and I hope people come along with me.’
I am beginning to see the change in this 27-year old, and it’s more than I expected. He is not that hot-headed, guitar-slinging kid I met five years ago. Time and maturity have thrown some weight behind his convictions. Today Joshua Grierson is an intelligent and sensitive human being, and it reflects in the music that he makes.
The scene in front of us resumes. The jay-walker screams at the passing truck as it steamrolls the boy’s ball, frightening the old lady who loses her train of thought again.
I was preparing for my year end exams and these Monday night sessions were becoming more of a drain on me than ever. I would show up for Tuesday morning maths classes looking like a Cro-Magnon man. I remember the night it happened. It was the best session of the lot probably because it would be the last time I’d play with Josh. He came to me during a break to inform me that we needed to start practising more than once a week and possibly do some cover gigs.
‘This is where it starts to get serious. I need you to commit permanently.’ He waited for my answer. The buzzing of my huge bass amp was the only sound in the room. I didn’t have a choice but I still didn’t want to say the words.
‘Alright,’ he said, putting his cigarette out on the cement floor. ‘Let’s forget about it for now and just play.’
Photo credit: Alex Searle