Wesley Joseph Just Knows Highs

01 / 04 / 2024

Images: Francis Plummer

Words: Morna Fraser

When Wesley Joseph tells stories, they’re recounted with an auteur’s sense of pacing and precision, and they unfold like scenes from a film. There’s framing, exposition, the occasional flashback, and always a frenetic cast of characters. It can even feel, at times, like he’s slipping into montage. “Meanwhile, split screen, Dave has lost his phone on the plane,” recalls the 26-year-old songwriter, musician, and filmmaker of his first night in La Tzoumaz, Switzerland, as he launches into a comedy of errors involving stranded cars, herds of running cows, and a potential scam email. This was the outset of a week in May spent in an Alpine log cabin, where Joseph recorded his debut album. He was joined by a circle of close friends and collaborators, including producer Harvey Grant (aka Dweller), and songwriter and musician Dave Okumu.

The surrounding stretches of cascading waterfalls and mountain ranges made for a welcome contrast to Joseph’s hometown of Walsall, an industrial town in the West Midlands where there was little to do growing up. If anything, its lack of creative opportunities only fuelled Joseph’s drive to pursue his own. He adopted a DIY mindset, learning to shoot short films and videos, and later founding the collective OG Horse alongside a group of Walsall artists and musicians, including singer-songwriter Jorja Smith.

If the gloom of his hometown was motivating, Joseph’s household proved inspiring in a more obvious way. His mother worked as a painter and curator, while his father played in a soul band. He remembers listening to the likes of Curtis Mayfield and James Brown at home, as well as more contemporary acts like Gorillaz and Flying Lotus. By his late teens, he was working with his own improvised setup, using a microphone, laptop, and free music software to make beats from the confines of his room, like he was “anywhere else on the planet.”

In 2016, Joseph left Walsall to study film in London, where his affinity for music and filmmaking grew in tandem; both artforms serving as extensions of the other. Pandomony – a short film that he wrote, directed, and scored – is one of the earliest examples of his panoramic approach to storytelling. In it, kaleidoscopic lighting and abstract sound design portray the intense, sometimes surreal, process of grief.

Rolling out a succession of singles in 2020 including “Imaginary Friends” and “Ghostin’” (co-produced by Joy Orbison), Joseph released his debut EP ULTRAMARINE in 2021. At 26 minutes long, the project offered a colorful snapshot of his universe, bringing to life an ensemble of fictional personas in dreamlike vignettes.

On its title track, which is marked by eerie keys and pared-back, pulsing drums, listeners are introduced to a narrator fleeing a trap: “Running through the woods, the sweat is dripping off my earlobes / And the fox is getting closer and the vultures they can see you.”

Following up with GLOW in 2023, Joseph continued his eclectic approach of balancing minimalism with soaring explorations of atmosphere and texture. “I Just Know Highs”, made in collaboration with Leon Vynehall, experiments with Auto-Tune as an instrument, casting Joseph’s falsetto through an expanse of throbbing bass and weighty 808s. The A.K Paul-produced “Monsoon”, meanwhile, stirs with honeyed vocal harmonies, rippling guitar licks, and future-funk synths.

GLOW further emphasized why Joseph’s music defies genre or categorization; why his self-directed videos are marked with a feeling of immensity and otherworldliness. “The thing with my sound is that you can expect the unexpected,” he says. “I’m very boundless. I’m someone that can create music that [can] exist in all seasons.”

Joseph joins our call from his North London base. He details the arduous yet rewarding process behind making his forthcoming release, while possessing a unique ability to snap back into a memory, a place, or an emotion, regardless of where he is. “I think the unearthly vibe of what I make comes from that escapist mentality.” Joseph’s words hang in the air, conjuring up images which unravel like a reel as we speak, until eventually, the call disconnects and the screen in front of me cuts to black.

Morna Fraser: You’re currently working on your debut album. How is the project taking shape?

Wesley Joseph: It’s coming together really beautifully. But the process of making an album is intense. Week by week, you go through different mental states. There are a lot of breakthroughs, while other moments feel like they need more work to get to a high point. It’s not a battle, it’s a war. And it’s easy to be hard on yourself for feeling like you haven’t done enough, but in times like these, doing loads of little things, having conversations, researching something, or making a single sound could result in the best song in the long run. So you constantly have to get back in there. You have to facilitate the most likely outcome for something amazing to happen at all times, even when you don’t necessarily feel like it.

MF: How does it compare to your first two projects ULTRAMARINE and GLOW?

WJ: It’s a level up, a different part of my journey. I wouldn’t have been able to make GLOW if I didn’t make ULTRAMARINE. And I wouldn’t have been able to make this album if it weren’t for the ones prior. In many ways, ULTRAMARINE was the hardest one to create, because I was just making beats in my bedroom. I put my all into it and it made sense to other people, which I didn’t think it would. That gave me the confidence to think less and make things more. To be me and just ‘glow,’ which is how the following release happened. This album’s more of a bigger picture. Ultimately, the goal is to make a timeless classic. I don’t want any gaps in my discography, ever. I want my first album to be regarded as something truly shifting.

MF: You recorded elements of it in a log cabin in La Tzoumaz, Switzerland. How did that trip happen?

WJ: About nine months ago, my friend Mikey K. asked me, “If you could pick one place in the world, a dream scenario for you to make music in, where would it be?” Fast forward to May, and we’re literally on top of a mountain, surrounded by cows and birds; there’s a waterfall and we’re just making beautiful music.

MF: What was the experience like?

WJ: Usually, these kinds of things tend to be anticlimactic. It’s not happened to me personally, but I know it does, when there’s too much around an idea. You go to some crazy place, then when you actually have to make music, nothing happens. That wasn’t the case with this trip. It was perfect, all the people were so perfect. There wasn’t any pressure. As soon as we got there, we started making really powerful music, music that felt like the moment. The whole thing felt like a huge dream. I think that’s why a lot of the music we made in that time felt spiritual and ethereal. Like it wasn’t grounded in reality.

MF: Were there any standout memories from that time?

WJ: There were so many, but the first night stands out. We were driving around, taking photos by a waterfall, and our car got stuck at the bottom of a steep hill. At one point, Harvey walked off into the distance and was whistling for ages. Out of nowhere, these loud bells started ringing and a load of cows came running down a hill towards us. It was insane! Turns out he was whistling this tune that apparently only Swiss cows know, it’s how shepherds call them. He summoned them, like some kind of wizard.

Anyway, we managed to get back to the cabin and Dave Okumu’s flight was just getting in. Mikey and a few others took the car to pick him up. I stayed behind with some people to make music. Later, I got a call from Mikey saying all the motorways in the mountains had been shut off. Then, they ran out of petrol. So there they were, stuck in the middle of nowhere.

Meanwhile, split screen, Dave has lost his phone on the plane. I’m mid-beat back at the cabin, making this song when I get an email from him and it literally looks like a scam. It’s like, “I have lost my phone and I am stranded at the airport.” Eventually, Mikey finds someone to drive and get them petrol, and we’re all emailing Dave so he knows what to do.

Dave finally arrived and walked into this warmly lit log cabin. I remember seeing the sun just starting to come up because it was so late. It was just peeking over the mountains. Then, I found a song from my dad’s old band and began playing it, so we ended up gathering round the speakers, eating food, and vibing out to his music. It was a really beautiful moment.

MF: Was simply being there enough to inspire you to make music? Or did you follow a rigorous schedule?

WJ: We had a rough schedule. When it comes to finishing things – the lyrics, mastering, and mixing – I’m very regimented. But because we’re in the creation process, I’m still trying to work out the corners of the room with the album. So whenever an intrusive moment happens when recording, one of my rules is, “Fuck the schedule.” If we’re working on something and someone plays a riff, or if a conversation sparks an idea and it’s intrusive enough, then we have to explore it. And that didn’t stop the whole time we were there. We would start something, then in an hour another thing would happen, then off the back of that something else. So it wasn’t too rigorous, but it started with the intentions of it being that way, if only as a safety net for a lack of intrusive moments.

MF: You’ve gone from making ULTRAMARINE alone in your bedroom to recording your debut album in the Swiss Alps. How much do you think being in different surroundings has impacted your creative process?

WJ: Growing up in Walsall, a gloomy, working class town where there was nothing much to do, I would make music like I was anywhere else on the planet. Weirdly enough, I can tap into the same feeling of being on top of a mountain from anywhere. It’s how I translate an escape from reality itself. On a practical note, my surroundings obviously inspire me. No matter where I am, I need to have a room lit a certain way, smelling nice and feeling cozy. It can’t just be messy and comfortable. My biggest discomfort is being in a room that’s lit like a corner shop, where it’s that flickering, bright light. I don’t like cold feelings in rooms, especially at nighttime, and that’s when I really make the best music.

MF: I noticed there’s a lot of interplay between night and day in your songs, references to light and color. Is this influenced by the process of making music at night?

WJ: Maybe. Most of the time, I’m making music when no one’s awake or watching the sun come up as I’m thinking about things. Sometimes it’ll be the opposite, when I’m dreaming. It’s like in film, how you light something is how you translate the subconscious emotional context. If something’s lit dimly, it can feel eerie. If there’s a spotlight, you know it’s the focus point, or it could be satirical. If there’s strobe lighting, you question whether it’s real or not. It’s the same way I see light, it can be used as a metaphor for how I see things in life.

MF: You studied film in London. What was the most important thing you learnt from your degree?

WJ: Truthfully, it was self-discipline. It was the balancing of a lot of different things and not necessarily a specific technique. I had to complete several tasks at university, while also trying to make music, and I wasn’t going to do a half job of anything either. I also realized then that as soon as I start a creative project, even if it’s something I’m not particularly enthusiastic about, I’ll twist it to become something that is engaging for me. And I’ll make sure I do the best that I can.

MF: You’ve mentioned the work of filmmaker Kahlil Joseph in previous interviews. What is it about his style that resonates with you?

WJ: I was a big Flying Lotus fan and Kahlil Joseph had made a film for his album Until the Quiet Comes. It was the first time I saw music that I loved interpreted powerfully and accurately to how it made me feel. He took it further, made it deeper and more colorful than it felt the first time I’d heard the music. Everything was amplified. Also, his visual language, the imagery and iconography of it all; his utilization of choreography or off-kilter angles, all these things as a fusion just hit me at once.

MF: Are there any other videos or filmmakers that you’d cite as influential to your work?

WJ: The first video I ever saw that made me really feel something was “Feel Good Inc.” by Gorillaz. I saw it on TV, before there was even a computer in the house. It just permeated my brain and whenever I heard the song, I felt like I was in that cloud with the windmill. With new directors, I’ve been off the radar. If I see a reference, something from a book or real life, I’ll take a photo of it. I’ve got a huge folder of notes for video concepts and things that tie in with lyric ideas for this album. I’m not really looking at full bodies of work in terms of what’s inspiring me and what isn’t. Even though there’s loads of amazing stuff happening at the moment. To be honest, I’m still on top of the mountain.

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