There is a new Josh Pyke album, Rome, out this week, his first in five years – the kind of gap that begins to look serious rather than restful, and potentially lethal in a media world of shortened space as much as shortened attention spans.
But there not being that much music for everyone to judge it on yet (though what we’ve heard suggests his trademark melodic gift, mid-tempo rhythms and vocal warmth remain unchanged), I tell Pyke that he is going to have to do the heavy lifting of describing the new songs.
His answer would be laced with irony if he could stop laughing. “That’s my favourite question: how do you describe your music,” he says.
Apparently, it’s both kinds of music: country and western, I proffer. “That’s right, always. And a bit of urban.”
Well, nothing says urban quite like beardy white boy from Balmain Josh Pyke after all. “That is what I’ve heard,” he says. “It’s been the talk around town for a long time.”
More seriously, what can be discerned so far from singles Doubting Thomas, You’re My Colour and Home is that Rome grapples with the idea of acceptance. Accepting that things will go wrong, that lives will end, that happiness is not constant, and that you can’t “fix” everything.
For some of us, say those with a parent stepping into the emotionally and practically challenging experience of dementia – which asks that we understand “wishing it better” isn’t going to make it better, and that accepting the “reality” of your parent’s perceptions may be the kindest step - these songs feel like more than theory.
“The whole album was very much about acceptance, that you just go with it,” says Pyke, who is surprisingly candid about that fact issues with anxiety forced him off the road and into a kind of emotional and intellectual rehabilitation two years ago.
“My wife always says, some days are just like that,” says Pyke. “When I’m having a bad day, whether it’s through having bad, anxious thoughts or it’s just a shitty day like we all have, she says to me, she says it to our kids, you can dwell on these things, these awful things that are staring you in the face, but some things you just can’t change and you can push against at all you want, and tie yourself up in knots about it, it doesn’t help.”
It turns out his wife is not the only source of wisdom for Pyke. And no, I don’t mean the scam self-help books shouting their bromides at you from every bookstore.
“My father-in-law, who is an old Vietnamese Buddhist guy, when we first had kids he was always like ‘be the water’,” laughs Pyke. “Which we say all the time now, not just with kids but in relation to life: there are some things that you just feel helpless in the face of. We all feel that with Covid; we all feel that with particular elements of our government; we all feel that with international politics; I’ve felt like that with changes in the music industry over the years.
“There are things, times, where you have to be the water and accept such things. It’s a message that relates particularly well in these times, though I wrote the song two years ago.”
Well, it’s not as if all these anxieties only manifested in March. Two years ago we were two years into a Donald Trump world, watching Britain and Europe be torn asunder and wondering what social pillar our own government would undermine, under fund or just plain destroy next.
Still, “be the water” sounds sensible enough – don’t fight the inevitable; adapt yourself to it - but learning how to do it as a hell of a lot harder than saying it.
When Pyke stepped out of an active presence in the music industry (though he was publishing a series of children’s books and working on projects such as Indigenous literacy) what did he have to do to learn how to be the water?
“It was a process,” he chuckles, knowingly. “The anxiety was manifesting itself in some really bad and prolonged panic attacks. Not just your 15-minute panic states; it was like days at a time of extreme fear. To be totally honest about it, there was counselling, I did a lot of meditation, read a lot of mindfulness books, this sort of stuff, and tried to handle it that way.
“Eventually, it wasn’t getting better so I went on medication and that was something that I pushed against a lot, because I had that stigma against that kind of route for these kind of issues, but it was the best thing I ever did.”
Again there’s a palpable mix of tension and relief, or reticence and honesty, in Pyke who has always kept a curtain around his private life – especially his family – and deflected as many personal connections as he could when his songs were discussed. Drugs are hardly new to a musician’s story; these drugs though still feel like the unspoken.
“You read in books about mindfulness, which I’ve done a lot of work on though I don’t consider myself a huge mindfulness dude, but as you say it’s all very well to say you need to shift perspectives. I felt like I needed some medical intervention to allow me to do that, to break negative thought patterns,” says Pyke. “It was like a circuit breaker and from then I’m no longer on medication. It took a few years but I feel like that perspective has remained, and the most important thing is I feel like I can recognise those thought patterns and now I know what to do to get out of it.
“The reality of in my situation was it was a solid two to three years of actual, active work to get to a point – and it’s a lifelong process - where I can even say now things are better than they were.”
For many people, maybe especially anybody who works in a creative area, one of the fears at the back of your mind – ok, maybe really front of your mind - when medication is suggested as part of the treatment, is what will it take away from your ability to be a regular person, but deeper still, what will it take away from your ability in, and drive to create?
Pyke agrees that fear was a factor for him, but he also reveals that he wrote about 40 songs in the years “away”. Creativity didn’t end, it blossomed. When did he realise that he hadn’t lost that intrinsic part of him and maybe in fact had enhanced it?
“It was pretty early on,” he says. “I realise that my anxiety was feeding my creativity in one sense, but not in a positive way. I was anxious about being creative. I was like, I’ve gotta go down to the studio today and write a song because that’s what I do and if I don’t do it then I don’t deserve to be a self-employed musician with this life that I fucking love man.
“I love creating, I love being able to spend time with my kids, I love touring when I do it, and I love having access to this well of creativity, and I was very concerned that medication would just stop it.”
It dawned on him that this anxiety to create, the guilt that flowed from not being engaged in obvious creative pursuits if he had the temerity to take a day off or finish a day without a song emerging, was stifling. Fear was a short term motivator but not a great long-time support and when he stopped wanting it so much, it was as if he opened up.
“Once that was gone I was just free to create in a much more organic way,” says Pyke. “Instead of doing what I had done for years, which was basically locking myself in the studio and force lightning to strike, I was just much more open and relaxed about the process.
“It opened me up, as you said, and in that time I wrote so many songs. And I wrote six kids’ books and I tried all these other projects - some of them worked, some of them didn’t - but I was engaged in creativity in a much more free and less pressurised way than I had been since before it became my career.”
The thing that a lot of people don’t understand about depressive episodes is that it takes up so much mental energy that in fact you are drained even as you seemingly are doing nothing. Which of course feeds into your inability to deal with your emotional and mental state. And hiding it drains you even more. That’s one vicious circle.
How has he dealt with the exposure – to family and friends, firstly, and now the public – of this part of him?
“In terms of family and personal life, I just feel so blessed and fortunate to have the relationship I have with my partner, to just be open about stuff. It’s like with anything uncomfortable, if you can be open about it, it just immediately takes away 80 per cent of the pressure you feel. Keeping things secret is what really screws you up. Being a somewhat public figure in certain circles, I definitely found that harder because I just don’t like talking about this stuff, but at the same time I do realise that there is a value to other people.”
A value in showing that it happens to others? Even in these relatively enlightened times, mental health still feels private and isolating, not just shameful for some people but inexplicable. Not everyone has the language to describe it, and not everyone has an example up close to point to or learn from.
So, yeah, public examples such as Pyke, can be a bridge. Even so, he doesn’t want to paint himself as some selfless secular saint.
“I’ve said this to you I think many times, some artists write songs and they do believe that they are people who can help other people through their music, and that’s part of the motivation for why they make music. I’m being very honest about this, that’s not why I make music,” says Pyke. “I make music because I love making music. It’s a completely selfish pursuit and it is a really amazing and fortuitous secondary impact that some people who listen to it get some inspiration or joy or help from it.
“Acknowledging that that is the thing that happens meant that I did suddenly feel like I had some responsibility to be a bit more open and honest than I would normally be about my personal life.
In relation to this particular issue. It’s a bit scary. It’s not a comfortable role for me, but at the same time I see that there is value in it and I do feel responsible to talk about this particular thing on the off chance that that an equivalent of me, male or female as a teenager, can listen to these things and realise that they are not alone.
“Like I said, 80 per cent of the issue is feeling like you’re alone in these moments and in these feelings. That’s the really devastating part.”
Rome is out August 28.