How Vance Joy’s ‘Riptide’ conquered the Hottest 100

How did a simple song on a ukulele top the Hottest 100 over monster singles from Lorde and Daft Punk? DARREN LEVIN spoke to the people behind it to find out. Image below by DANIEL BOUD.

James Keogh was reading a book in a cafe in Boise, Idaho, when he heard his own voice played back over the sound system. They were playing ‘Riptide’, a humble ditty he wrote on the ukulele back in 2008, which has slowly ear-wormed its way around the world. “It’s a remote beautiful town, but a small town,” he says of Boise, which formed part of a whistle-stop promotional tour of the US earlier this month. ”[When they played ‘Riptide’] it almost dragged my attention away from the book … Hearing my own voice took me out of the moment I was in – but it was definitely cool.”

A week later, Keogh – aka Melbourne singer-songwriter Vance Joy – and his management team gathered together in a small room at Auckland radio station Kiwi FM. The triple j Hottest 100 was getting down to the pointy end, and when Breakfast hosts Matt and Alex back-announced Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ at #3, things got real. “We huddled around headphones and it was pretty tense,” recalls Keogh. “We were really just celebrating being in the top two, because it was such an achievement, such a special moment.”

His manager Jaddan Comerford was also in the room. “Each time it went down a number, it was like, ‘Oh cool, we got Top 5. Oh cool, we got Top 4. Oh cool, we got Top 3’ – and when the inevitable happened it was just a magical human experience,” he says.

Comerford – who also looks after Illy, Violent Soho and Amity Affliction under his We Are Unified banner – was elated when ‘Riptide’ came in at #1, but not surprised. He first heard the track via Soundcloud back in May 2012 – and was instantly smitten. “I’ve been managing bands for a long time, all sorts of bands – whether it’s the Amity Affliction going #1 [on the ARIA chart] or Illy doing what he’s doing – so I’ve got a pretty broad experience. But when you hear a song like this, you just think that anything is possible.

“Maybe you’re blinded by your own faith,” he continues, “but I can’t picture someone listening to a song like that and not thinking, ‘Wow, that’s an amazing song’. It’s just undeniable.”

“He seems to come up with clever ways of making the ordinary sound quite magical.”

It was ‘Riptide’ that convinced Comerford to track Keogh down, but it was the strength of the rest of his material – “the depth of his songwriting and lyrics” – that assured him Vance Joy would be more than just a flash-in-the-pan. The pair were soon off to the US for their first meetings with Atlantic Records, who would eventually sign Keogh to a five-album global deal.

Back home in Melbourne, as the industry interest started to build, he began playing a residency at a Collingwood tapas bar called Bebida. “Because so many people were interested in seeing him play and meeting him, that tapas bar became a bit of a revolving door for the industry,” Comerford says. “We just wanted people to experience his music in a relaxed manner – and also meet him. He’s a very chilled and approachable guy.”

Among the attendees was Damian Slevison, who fought off a throng of suitors to sign Keogh to Michael Gudinski’s Liberation Music. The God Loves You When You’re Dancing EP was released in March 2013. “We heard a couple songs, but ‘Riptide’ was the standout,” he says. “We were impressed with James’ depth of songwriting and obviously his storytelling; his lyrics and voice, of course. We checked out a bunch of shows and went from there.”

Like Comerford, Slevison first heard ‘Riptide’ online. He can’t recall if it was through triple j’s Unearthed website, or an early clip of the track, which featured a young woman hula-hooping in front of a pool for three minutes. The lyrics, he says, were enough to draw him in.

“James’ storytelling is really evocative. He seems to come up with clever ways of making the ordinary sound quite magical. Like the Michelle Pfeiffer line [on ‘Riptide’]. It’s beautifully constructed around a dropped-down part of the song. In the early days, everyone would sing that at the top of their lungs as much as the chorus.”

“I swear she’s destined for the screen/Closest thing to Michelle Pfeiffer that you’ve ever seen.”

‘Riptide’, says Keogh, was the product of “two separate moments”. He wrote the first two lines (“I was scared of dentists and the dark/I was scared of pretty girls and starting conversations”) and basic chords on the ukulele at home in the Melbourne suburb of Glen Iris in 2008. “I didn’t think too much of it,” he explains. “Then I wrote a little melody line on my ukulele.”

When another section emerged, he fused those spare parts together like a mechanic working on a car. “The first people I played it to were Mum and Dad, and it went down well,” he says, laughing. “I knew it was special when it all come together as a coherent song. I had a good feeling about it. When I played it to people I got a good reaction too. Your confidence is built on a reaction like that sometimes.”

The lyrical starting point for ‘Riptide’ was a chance encounter with a magician’s assistant; a friend of a friend who Keogh met in a bar. “Oh, all my friends are turning green,” he sings in the first verse. “You’re the magician’s assistant in their dreams.” The Michelle Pfeiffer line came later, inspired by her star turn as Catwoman in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. “She’s amazing,” Keogh gushes. “She flips out in a scene and disowns her life as Selina Kyle, the submissive secretary. She smashes all her stuff and spray-paints her apartment black and becomes Catwoman. That stuck out to me – and I thought she was sexy.”

“There’s never going to be another song just like that.”

So is it a love song? “I think so,” says Keogh. “I wasn’t consciously trying to make it like that. You sing it in a certain way and put your heart into the way you sing, so I think it’s easy to construct a love story out of it all.”

The demo version – the one that got Jaddan Comerford and Damian Slevison hooked – was not too dissimilar from the one officially released on the God Loves You When You’re Dancing EP. It was recorded with drummer Edwin White over an afternoon at Red Door Studios in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick in 2012. Producer John Castle – who’s worked with Washington, Gossling and Josh Pyke – added a bit of studio sheen via some reverb, bass and a few extra harmonies. But the barebones, says Keogh, remained the same. “You go into a studio and you put percussion and bass on it, and it fleshes it out a bit more, but once it was written it was done.”

As for those flamenco touches – the exotic, percussive bed that elevates ‘Riptide’ beyond a plaintive folk song – Keogh says they were purely accidental. “That’s just the way I like to play rhythm,” he shrugs.

‘Riptide’ is the 11th Australian song to top the Hottest 100, but the first – as triple j music director Richard Kingsmill noted – to top the poll from an artist that hasn’t released a debut album yet. Keogh hopes to address that in the middle of the year. So has he got another ‘Riptide’ in the can? “There’s never going to be another song just like that,” he says, laughing. “You’re never going to write the same song – every song is different – but as long as they meet the standard you set for yourself that’s all that matters.”

Vance Joy plays the St Jerome’s Laneway Festival, which kicks off in Australia this Friday in Brisbane.