He took beatings for his art, in the boxing ring and out on the streets. He sang for his life in East End football pubs, delved into the dirt of hedonism and regret for inspiration and needed a message from beyond the grave to keep him on the musical path. It’s been a battle, but Joseph J Jones was always fated to fight his way to stardom.
It was, after all, in his blood. The 25-year-old soul survivor’s grandad on his mother’s side was a jazz guitarist who played for the BBC in the age of swing and his grandmother on his father’s side was a concert pianist who would fill his childhood home in the Essex enclave of Hornchurch with music. Not that their technical skills rubbed off on the young Joseph – his life as the biggest and best new voice in 21st Century soul only began at fourteen, when a classmate tricked him into singing in front of his first audience.
Joseph’s musical education was strangely linear, he immersed himself in the music of each decade in turn, and as the 50s and 60s gave way to the 70s a new love for Joy Division drove Joseph to pick up the guitar at sixteen, write his own songs and take his rich, classically soulful voice out onto the East End pub circuit, playing solo two-hour sets of covers. “I wanted to do something that was rough and ready and raw but with a soulful voice. I also wanted to learn my craft, and it was a good learning curve. When you realise that you’re singing in front of one person who’s asleep in the middle of the bar, drowning their sorrows, you think that anything after this is a bonus.”
Five years of winning over hostile pub crowds made Joseph J Jones a master, but close to giving up. Until his grandfather mysteriously intervened. “I went through a big period in my life where I was didn’t know what to do,” he says, “you’re singing in pubs and in the end I hated it because who are you singing to? Nobody wants to hear you, and everyone’s requesting ridiculous songs like ‘Can you do Britney Spears?’. It was like ‘what am I doing?’. And I got jumped one night coming out of a pub, really badly, they kicked my head in. I was fed up with it altogether. And then, this woman who was a medium came up to me on the street and said ‘I got your granddad Fred with me’. I was like ‘what? He’s been dead twelve years’. He never saw me do any music. She told me so much stuff that you’d never believe could come true - when I would be signed, when I would do this, when I would do that, what happened in my past life. I was going to give it up! She said ‘your granddad said please do not stop doing music’.”
By the time the medium’s premonition came true and Joseph signed to Communion Records in November 2015 at the age of 23, having been spotted at a Dalston pub show, he’d crafted a batch of universally relatable soul tunes with a sharp modernist twist, set to see him ranked alongside Sam Smith and Rag’n’Bone Man as a pivotal figure on the Millennial soul scene. “I love Johnny Cash,” he says, “and when you listen to ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die’, how do you reflect that in a song of today? I find people today really want big songs again and that’s my music. I love storytelling, I love telling those songs and having those twisting, suburban, street-y edges to it. Not trying to be someone else, but doing these universal songs that people can relate to. I’m really proud of how the songs have come out.”
As his writing developed over the nine months it took to complete his debut album, the first strands of Jones’ music crept out. In May 2016 his debut single ‘The Video’ appeared, a sombre, piano-led neo soul beauty about the vast difference between alcohol-fuelled euphoria and the realities of real love the morning after. “Have you ever seen a photo of yourself smashed with friends in the morning and think to yourself, ‘Fucking hell, look at the state of me’. At that moment in time it’s amazing, you’re on another level, you’re in ecstasy, but it’s never the same when you watch anything back.”
“I always wanted to not just be perceived as another singer,” he explains. “I always wanted beats, I always wanted hi-hats, I always wanted that feel.”
Themes of devastation, longing and loss run through Jones’ music, featuring heavily on the debut album recorded over two sessions at Church Studios in Crouch End, London and due for release in 2018. Take ‘The Dirt’, the EP track that became an online sensation (800,000 streams and counting), a heartbroken paean to drinking until you forget yourself.
The album, Joseph explains, is “about coming into that manhood period and what happens after the afterparty, what happens after these late nights. It’s a young man coming of age, trying to find his way out of it all. How best can I get out of this life? But at the same time, not wanting to get out of it at all. It’s about my dealings, I suppose. You know, just getting over them and realising where I am in the world. It feels like a big album, it’s very bombastic, but there’s close-to-home stuff in it.”
As Jones sets about building his fanbase further with relentless touring in 2017, he arrives at an advantageous time for the new wave of soul, with Rag’n’Bone Man popularising the art of incongruous modern soul-men. “I think what Communion liked is that I sound pretty cockney,” Joseph laughs, “so it’s like this geezer singing these heartfelt songs. There was this nice juxtaposition.”
Out of the darkness, Joseph J Jones is stepping into a future inconceivably bright. The spirits will it.