Climb aboard, Josh Pyke is taking us to Rome (and it’s the best ride yet)

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Climb aboard, Josh Pyke is taking us to Rome (and it’s the best ride yet)

Words by Tehya Nicholas

Rome wasn’t built in a day; it was built in Josh Pyke’s backyard.

In his sixth studio album – written and recorded in his backyard studio, Timshel Industries – Pyke showcases his astonishing talent for nostalgic songwriting, wistful melodies and moving harmonies. It is the optimism-tinged balm the world needs right now; and a time capsule of Pyke’s rich life experiences.

His first studio album in five years, Rome centres around the simple idea that everything fades. Like the ancient city that inspired the album’s title, Pyke too has experienced marvels becoming memory. Since his debut album Memories & Dust thirteen years ago, he has won a litany of ARIA awards, toured the world, and performed at the Sydney Opera House. But a personal struggle with anxiety saw him place his solo career on hiatus two years ago. Rome feels not only like a musical rebirth, but also a meaningful acknowledgment of the journey thus far.

“For me writing songs where you present a world you want to live in, is part of the [healing] process,” Pyke explains. “I think writing songs has always been my self-therapy. I don’t know how other people deal with their issues, but whenever something is eating me up, the way I deal is by writing songs.”

That process spanned over three years, with Pyke tinkering away writing and recording in his studio. For an artist who has consistently written new music while on highly structured tours, making Rome was a far more tranquil process – something he says he thoroughly enjoyed.

“Sometimes I’d do it while my kids were at school, sometimes I’d go down late at night, sometimes I’d have friends over and we’d jam or whatever. And it was a really beautiful and creative, but domestic experience.”

Fast forward to 2019 and Pyke left his Sydney nest and headed for the fair pastures of Portland, Oregon to mix the album with acclaimed producer, Tucker Martine (The Decemberist, My Morning Jacket, Modest Mouse). Amongst the roses and gorgeous west-coast weather, Pyke says he experienced exactly the creative catharsis he was hoping for.

“Going overseas was kind of like a reward to myself, more than looking to change the aesthetic sensibilities,” Pyke explains. “Every time I heard a new song, I felt like I had more objectivity about the songs that I’d ever been able to have. It was great.”

Indeed this marvellous fusion of time, space and experience has led Pyke to some of his most exciting music yet. The album features shining moments of experimentation, such as the long solo instrumentation in ‘Doubting Thomas’ and the ditty-like guitar in ‘I Don’t Know’, without compromising the sound we have come to know and love from Pyke. When asked about where he thinks this creative liberation came from, he says knowing he won’t get played on triple j might have helped.

“I wasn’t thinking vaguely trying to conform with what might get played on the radio, and that just leads to better work, I guess. It’s a pretty weird thing to be going into writing thinking ‘oh this is definitely not going to get played on the radio’, but at the same time, I’ve never written with an agenda. And that’s the same on this album.”

Although the Australian music industry – and radio stations – do have a penchant for musicians under 30, Pyke does not hesitate to acknowledge this is his best work. Plus, working with Tucker Martine sees him join the likes of Neko Case, K.D Lang and The Decemberists; all longstanding musicians who he recognises are going from strength to strength.

“There’s so many artists [in America] that are still producing art at a level that is really pushing their own boundaries. Better than the stuff they’ve done in the past. And it’s being lauded by the industry and by consumers. In Australia, we really have a culture where once an artist reaches 30, they’re really pushed over into a different kind of world. We don’t really have the industry to support that.”

This gap in the industry left some space for Pyke to explore other creative disciplines. He recalls a pivotal moment when he recognised his desire and ability to expand across mediums.

“One of the other parents who is an all-round creative legend, she knew of my music and we were just chatting in the playground. I said, I want to do what you do; you direct, you write… and she was like ‘you can do all those things.’ She said you’ve got to stop thinking of yourself as a musician and as a creative instead. It was literally like a switch was flicked.”

Since then, Pyke has released an award-nominated children’s book ‘Lights Out, Leonard’, as well as co-authoring ‘A Banana Is A Banana’ with renowned entertainer Justine Clarke. If that wasn’t enough, there are four more slated for release next year. It seems Pyke has got a lot of creative itches, and even more scratching sticks.

So what’s next for Pyke? In October, he has his first tour in two years planned, provided COVID-19 stays at bay. He says he’s looking forward to getting back on the road and reconnecting with audiences.

“I’ll never ever take for granted, or get over the joy of feeling a thousand people, or two hundred people, singing the words of a song you wrote in your bedroom, in your head, when you’re walking around. A song that got you through a hard time of whatever… It’s an incredible feeling. That’s the thing I can’t wait to experience again.”

Us too, Pykey. Us too.

Rome is out August 28 on all streaming services. You can pre-order now.