Joe Fox never set out to be famous. He was just writing songs because he wanted to — or even, because he needed to. “I’ve found a lot of people I’ve met really love being noticed,” he observes. “A lot more people do their jobs for others’ recognition than I thought. I don’t really. I’ve just always always made music because I enjoy it.” It’s this dedication to craft and a total disregard for trends that makes Fox’s voice unique in the landscape of 2016. A student of every great songwriter from the Beatles to Bob Marley, he brings a classic structure to the mind’s eye of a listless and disenfranchised child of the inner city.
Paradoxically, it’s this headstrong mindset that led to Fox’s discovery. He takes a different approach to the Soundcloud generation, and in 2014 was busking and selling his CDs on the streets of London. When, by a fluke meeting in Soho at 4am, Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky heard Fox sing, he immediately knew he’d found someone special. Fox played a melancholic folk tune with fable-like qualities and a rough edge, titled ‘Listen Up Katie.’ “Whose song is that?” Rocky asked. Fox replied that it was his own — and Rocky immediately invited him to the studio. Their extraordinary collaboration began that night, with Fox crashing on the spare bed in Rocky’s hotel room. Six of his already written original songs formed the basis for new songs on Rocky’s number one studio album At.Long.Last.A$AP (including on the woozy standout ‘Jukebox Joints’ alongside Kanye West). As Billboard noted, “Fox anchors almost a third of the album.”
The year since the album’s release in summer 2015 has been a whirlwind for Fox, between joining Rocky on a world tour to promote the album, signing to Rocky’s production company, AWGE and his own record deal with Blue Flowers/Island Records. He’s hung out with Daft Punk, and been told he’s a great songwriter by Danger Mouse. But Fox stays unfazed by the chaos of the music industry. “I feel like my life was more surreal before,” he muses. “It has more order now.” “Music has saved me, a lot,” he adds. “It’s religious.” But it didn’t always seem within his reach. Fox, now 25, was born in London, and initially lived in a hostel in Paddington after his mother was disowned by her family for having a mixed race child. After she was later forced to flee a violent relationship with the help of police, Fox’s mother raised him and his younger sister in women’s refuges around the country. Due to moving around so much in his childhood, and a spell of home schooling, Fox didn’t study music in the traditional way. “Music always seemed like a very elitist thing,” he says. “I had a friend who had a guitar, and I used to think it was a real bizarre thing that he had a guitar in his house.” He also didn’t consume music in the same way as his peers, ignoring what was current and devouring classics by Prince, Bob Dylan, and Etta James.
But he did eventually get his hands on a guitar — his friend would let him come round to play, until he bought his own from a charity shop for £20 and taught himself some chords. From there, a lifelong obsession with the craft of songwriting began.
The Acoustic Alley Sessions EP, is an introduction to Joe Fox the same way he began making and selling his music: alone with a guitar. As he puts it, “these songs are lifeblood. The first song he played for Rocky, “Listen Up Katie,” is on the record, along with other songs that date back to his busking days. ‘Radio’ is a dizzying, sweet love song with a chorus that pierces; ‘Head Down Low,’ meanwhile, taps into a more menacing voice, warning of the perils of inner city life.
Acoustic Alley Sessions exposes Fox’s blisteringly honest songwriting style and raw, blues tinged voice. Some tracks, such as the haunting opener ‘Like Jesus,’ deal with the strangeness of being newly thrust into the spotlight. “Among my old friends, there was a sense of real jealousy,” he says, describing what it was like to return to London after touring America. The song is a defiant anthem, warning: Work out who is worth you/ ‘Cause they’re all gonna hurt you.‘Autopilot,’ too, deals with fake friends. The chorus, Everybody loves you when you’re rich and famous, was written when Fox was living in L.A. and getting a surreal insight into Hollywood life. “No one Rocky introduced me to had ever taken the bus really,” he explains. “I used to secretly — because I didn’t want to look like a weirdo to them — take the bus all the way down to Santa Monica. And I just had that chorus going around in my head.”
“I write completely alone,” says Joe. “I usually just get a compulsion to write. I’ll be in the middle of something, and be like, ‘Fuck. I have to go.’” He laughs — because it is phenomenal, to see how that compulsive passion has somehow led him to where he is, against all odds. “It’s like a profitable madness. I didn’t know it was profitable until now. Before all this, it was just a madness.”
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