After signing to Warner Music for the release his debut album, what more does Josh Kempen hope to achieve?
Story by Thozi Sejanamane
Photography by Brooklyn J. Pakathi
It is a rare occasion where one is captivated by art in a manner which haunts the soul. These rare moments see art transcend interpretation, manifesting a truth for the I or the you. While art often imitates life, it is seldom that the form expresses a gospel which transcends language, geography, culture and subjectivity.
I happened to come across one of these rare occasions on the 30th of January 2015 at The Bohemian. Alright, Goodnight were hosting the second edition of their Do You Even Lift events and Josh Kempen opened proceedings. Standing alone on stage with his electric guitar strewn across his chest, the scene was set with potential for the energy to be diluted by the lack of onstage support in conveying meaning. On the contrary, it became clear as he moved into song that his solitude only contributed to a focused concentration in the energy conveyed. Bare and undisguised, the performance was his truth. Without any exertion in his delivery, his words, chords and voice created a musical trifecta which needed no interpretation as it spoke directly to the soul.
It’s been two years since that occasion. Things have certainly changed since that moment. His current set of circumstances are more a fulfilment of the path I envisioned, having seen him perform – an expected occurrence as sure as time itself. Not just change.
I met with Josh to chronicle his journey towards a record deal with Warner Music, which will see him release his debut album, The Morning Show on the 10th of March. We meet at the Italian pizzeria Nonna Mia’s Kitchen in Norwood. Coincidentally, the choice of meeting place has nothing to do with Josh’s Italian heritage and everything to do with it’s close proximity to his rehearsal space, where I joined him after.
Born at the Joburg General Hospital, Josh’s childhood changed when he moved to Brisbane in Australia with his family at age of eight. He completed his secondary schooling at St Peters Lutheran College located in an inner suburb of Brisbane called Indooroopilly. After that, Josh took a gap year and lived in Lake Como in Lombardy, Italy. His intention was to return to Australia to study Psychology, however on his route back from Italy, he stopped over in South Africa where his parents had resettled back to and he was faced with a decision to head back to Australia or stay in Johannesburg. Josh opted to settle in the city of gold. He abandoned his car, clothes and life in Australia just as he had initially left it – and archived a memory box of his previous life, fully intact.
“The thing that initially kept me in Joburg was definitely my family without a doubt,” says Kempen of his decision to abandon his life in Australia.
“Now anyone who knows me knows that music is just my thing and [with]music opening up for me here, there’s no place in the world I’d rather be,” he adds.
Kempen inherited his appreciation of music from his parents. Whilst still in primary school, he discovered his parents’ The Very Best of Frank Sinatra compilation album and learnt every single song on the compilation.
“I have a great video in primary school of me doing a Frank Sinatra performance singing ‘I Get a Kick Out of You’. This was before I even knew I was going to be a singer-songwriter.”
A few years later, his relationship with music evolved from mimicking his favourites to crafting his own. After he got an electric guitar, a friend taught him three chords and he recalls writing a song using those very three chords the same day he learnt them.
Throughout his teenage years, Kempen’s attachment to songwriting grew stronger. Even though he enrolled for a Bachelors of Law degree at the University of Johannesburg, he continued his passion for the craft of songwriting. Eventually though, the demanding nature of his law degree took its toll, drawing energy from his relationship with music to the extent that Kempen thought he had lost his chance to be a musician.
“It was difficult to have a relationship with the future.”
At this stage, Kempen mentions that a switch flicked. With a new energy in place, he realised that he had to commit himself to music fully if he wanted it to work.
“I think any good artist has had a point where there is a complete breakdown and there’s this new self that emerges that is driven and has a strong identity. I was lucky. I feel like I know myself entirely now and there’s a sense of power that comes with that.”
It was this renewed awareness of self that allowed Kempen to heroically maneuver the crossroads of music and law. Where most may have chosen one path over the other, Kempen found a balance which often saw him taking his guitar to work and rehearsing at any and every opportunity. His supernatural determination saw him admitted as an attorney earlier last year, but he admits that “it was a weird vibe studying law and being so possessed to play music.”
As unusual as it was, Kempen made it work finding the time and energy to record his debut EP, Midnight Ship, during the summer break of 2014. The EP was an experiment for Kempen. Knowing that his prominence would only increase following it’s release, he wanted to take the opportunity to be as eccentric as he wanted to be. He also wanted the songs on the EP to surprise him and decided that he would put his vision to Thor Rixon and allow the revered producer the creative freedom to explore it.
“Thor was someone I really trusted. Not because I knew him, but because I was a fan of his. He is prolific and very talented. I’m not gonna say he’s gonna be big, because I’m not sure he wants to be big. I think he’s going to be exactly what he wants to be, which is more powerful.”
While Kempen describes the sound of the EP as underwater folk in homage to his folk shaman Devendra Banhart, the term comes short in capturing the stylistically explorative nature of the EP. One discerns the influence of Rodriguez, Frank Sinatra and Jack Johnson listening to the EP. But Kempen expressed these influences in an authentic manner which captivates the soul. His ability to captivate is most evident on the EP’s hauntingly beautiful title-track. The Midnight Ship EP defied conventional structure by absorbing, acknowledging and updating the past while meeting modern needs.
The EP established Kempen as one of the most exciting emerging singer-songwriters in the local circuit. Kempen has a universal appeal which saw him given the opportunity to perform at both the Chocolate and Wine Festival and Oppikoppi. In fact it was at Oppikoppi where representatives from Warner Music discovered him and began the initial engagements, which eventually saw him sign a record deal with the major. Kempen had interest from three different labels, but Kempen cites Warner’s experience, passion and appreciation of his music as the factors which influenced his decision.
“From that moment where they gave me their card [at Oppikoppi]. I just had the idea that they [Warner] were my team.”
‘The River’ was the first single released through Warner. While the single was released at a time when the 90 percent ruling was just introduced, its playlisting across various radio stations was evidence of the influence Kempen now had behind him in Warner. The single even charted on Jacaranda’s SA Top 20 chart even though it isn’t what you’d call a commercial radio-friendly single.
“We chose to release ‘The River’ because people could listen to it and get a feel of my identity. You get the voice and the style of writing, but it’s less commercial. We knew that.”
They didn’t try fit the mould of what’s already on radio and they got on radio.
I visit Kempen a few weeks later at his new home situated in Parktown. I’m greeted by a wooden floor apartment filled with a mixture of antique and modern furniture. One of the first things I notice is the absence of a television. The centerpiece on the wall is a Bang & Olufsen record player atop a shelf filled with vinyl including The Rolling Stones Hot Rocks and Frank Sinatra’s A Swingin’ Affair. There is a microphone stand set up in the room and Kempen’s guitar rests against the couch. The coffee table is adorned by glasses of wine, a bowl of fruit, the biographies of Jimi Hendrix and Frank Sinatra, and a deluxe edition vinyl of Ryan Adams Heartbreaker.
Kempen received the Ryan Adams vinyl from Jacques Du Plessis of High Seas Studios who shares production credit for Kempen’s forthcoming debut with David Grevler of Anti-Motion Studios. Du Plessis loaned Kempen the vinyl to immerse himself in whilst they were working on The Morning Show. Adams’ debut album has been hailed by Pitchfork as the “greatest breakup album of all time underscored by “musical proficiency, complete honesty and severe beauty.” Heartbreaker (following the demise of his previous band) established Adam’s identity as a solo singer-songwriter, and Kempen is hoping the same of his own debut album. Where Adams took his inspiration for his debut from a break-up with his partner, Kempen writes his debut in the midst of a loving relationship with his partner, Bella Pinto, who features in the music video for Kempens second single; ‘Pistol’. Love and heartbreak are two-sides of the same coin after all.
The greatest thing about Kempen’s music and songwriting lies in his ability to reference particular moments from his life in his music without alienating the listener. While ‘Ysabel Lola’ off The Midnight Ship EP references a very particular moment in Kempen’s life, he has written it in a way which sees the listener put their self in his shoes and experience it as their own moment.
“There’s going to be a shift in this album because I want to start doing things directly.”
Where some of his writing was previously oblique, never one to limit himself, Kempen wants to explore being as direct as possible with his debut.
“[Ysabel Lola] was one of the first songs that I successfully wrote which was direct and about a specific moment whilst still referencing great ideas. People can listen to that song and imagine romance in Italy, but it’s also a really direct song. That was achievement for me in hindsight.”
The majority of his debut album was recorded live at High Seas Studios with his band which consists of Noah Bamberger on keys and Saul Nossel on percussion. ‘Pistol’, the second single from the forthcoming album, sees Kempen again referencing or being influenced by a particular moment (in this case a TED Talk by Tony Robbins titled Why We Do What We Do) while expressing and arranging it in way which anyone can have an emotional connection with it. Musically it’s also something different from the artist, which suggests an intimate album of varying influences refined by Kempen. An album where emotional connection matters most. An album where feeling trumps perfection. An album where honesty is more important than safety.
When I ask Kempen what he hopes to achieve, he modestly refrains from making statements about being a superstar. Even though he was previously nominated alongside Lira for SAMRO’s Songwriter Of The Year award, Kempen is warm, humble and approachable.
“The inspiration I feel when I create and play music. I want as many people as possible on this planet to experience [that]through my music. I want them to enjoy it and understand it in a way that I do”.