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Josh Osho: A portrait of the artist in a digital age

"People just want to connect. If I put my heart in it and people connect that’s the most important thing."

Josh Osho performing in Dublin in September 2012
Josh Osho performing in Dublin in September 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Even if you’ve not heard of Josh Osho, you’ve probably heard his music: it’s been played everywhere from ITV’s football coverage to the Queen Vic this year. His most famous song, "Redemption Days", is about rising above your weaknesses in order to become the person you want to be.

The concept is important to Josh. His favourite book was given to him by his father. It’s called The Black Jacobins, and it’s by the historian and critic C L R James. The book is about a man called Toussaint L’Ouverture. This is a picture of him:

Image via WikiCommons

It tells the story of the Haitian revolution, which took place between 1791 and 1804. It’s an incredible tale: you may not know that at the time the French were espousing “Libertéégalité, fraternité”, they were simultaneously trying to quash a rebellion among the slaves of Saint-Domingue. The French bourgeoisie found the idea of slaves adopting their own revolutionary principles incomprehensible. Toussaint was born a slave but quickly became their leader, and thanks to his martial and political skills, Haiti became an independent state. As James writes: Although born a slave, "both in body and mind he was far beyond the average slave".

Josh likes this: “It’s a really complete book. It shows you the depths and extremes of people, but also the ability to transcend - not just the community you come from – but yourself; your own resentment and bitterness.”

Josh’s second-most famous song, "Giants", is about people, or experiences, or things, to which we relate in order to feel most free.

Toussaint L’Ouverture, needless to say, is one of his Giants.

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Alan White: I was thinking about geniuses the other night. Creating art is about expressing yourself - but you can’t avoid the influences that have gone into you. And some geniuses - the influences are obscure, or they react to them in such an odd way that you can’t see them - I was thinking of Bill Hicks, Andre 3000, Richard Pryor, Oscar Wilde – actually C L R James would be a good one - they’re artists you experience for the first time and you think, “Where the hell did these guys come from?” I mean, in James and Wilde’s case they even say what influenced them, but you can’t really see how it works. Then you’ve got another kind of artist - where you can hear the original influences and what they’re doing with them, but they just take it to a totally different level.

Josh Osho: Like Michael Jackson -

AW: Exactly. And Amy Winehouse.

JO: You can’t really choose your influences. There are lyrics, or melodies or diction that come into my subconscious. When you’re in the moment of being creative it flows out. When I became a professional musician it felt like shackles were put on me straight away. As far as other people are concerned musicians have a sound; an identity. Over time I started to realise my most progressive moments were coming when I stopped saying: “This sounds too bluesy, or this sounds too folky.” You just have to let go. Just be a vessel. That’s why I called my latest EP the John Doe EP, and have a song called “Forget, to Remember”. There’s a comma there for a reason: you have to forget everything you think you are to remember what you really are.

AW: For ten years all I wanted to do was write. And if someone had said that to me back then - I mean, I spent ten years thinking, I really want to sound like this writer or that writer, and then suddenly I wrote a couple of pieces and didn’t think about it, and the weird thing was that all those influences still came through.

JO: There’s a part of yourself that’s omnipotent. That’s the creative moment – you start with something tangible, then you’re almost like a God for a moment, and then you step back, and you’re human again. At that point, you can analyse it and break it down. And quite often I read back something I wrote and don’t understand where it came from. There are all these layers you never saw. It’s like Amy Winehouse – she always starts with something tangible – little conversations, or moments, raises them to the level of art, and then in the ears of her listeners, it becomes something different again.

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This is a video of Josh performing a song called "Ebenezer Hotel".

In his teenage years, Josh fell out with his mother. He contacted the council and moved into a hostel in Lambeth called the Ebenezer Hotel. Detached from his family, scared to talk to his friends about his experiences, he found himself alone in a grotty place, full of drug addicts and asylum seekers. One day he came home to find his room had been burgled. Most of his possessions had gone. He felt desperate; feral.

A little later, Josh was sitting on a sofa in a friend’s flat in south London, looking at his guitar, when a riff popped into his head. Dung-a-dunga dung. Dung-a-dunga-dung. It fitted with some words he’d been writing about this period – two words, in particular: “Depressing confessions.”  Suddenly, he had a chorus. Later he’d fit those words with some he’d written about his time in the Ebenezer Hotel. It was one of the first times he’d let himself go artistically.  

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AW: This is what gets me about the music industry. It says...

JO: “Josh Osho, soul sensation”...

AW: Yeah, “the new Seal” or whatever - and I listened to that song, and I just thought - nah - this is a Bo Diddley blues lick from about 1950, and it’s coming from the same place – responding to adversity. I love that cover you did of "Jesus Walks". It’s one of my favourite videos on YouTube:

Because - what is it? Hip hop? Folk? Soul? And if I look on your site, you’re posting stuff by Nick Drake, and Howling Wolf – and I think a lot of the things you say about social divisions and how they make it easier to sell a narrative, they’re true of music too.

JO: That’s it. Genre is division and it’s all about profit. We can market an identity and our customers will reinforce the division. Let’s make them think Josh is soul or blues or whatever - and my whole time has been spent fighting that. Even yesterday my mum asked what set I was playing, and she asked why I wasn’t playing "Redemption Days", because it’s my biggest song. But people just want to connect. If I put my heart in it and people connect that’s the most important thing.

AW: It’s like when Nirvana did the Unplugged in New York show, and the MTV bods were asking Cobain when he was going to play "Smells Like Teen Spirit", and he tells them, “Well, um, actually, I’m going to play some stuff by the Meat Puppets and a Bowie cover...”

JO: Ha!

AW: But the thing is - he was right, you know? That’s why it’s such an iconic gig.

JO: Marketers need to make you think there’s a lot more than there is and a lot less than there is - so sounds are divided, there’s more of them, but at the same time there’s a lot less to connect to. If you love Nick Drake, you can’t love the Fugees. But it all feels the same to me.

AW: I remember when I was a kid and I learned the minor pentatonic scale on the guitar. And I suddenly thought - hang on - I can play that Pink Floyd track now, but I can also play Muddy Waters, and loads of Britpop - I couldn’t believe it. And the only difference between all of those genres is feeling. Technically, it’s not so different.

JO: Exactly – rather than having a parochial mindset, you can see how it’s connected. And it’s not just true of music. At the minute I’m reading Mein Kampf. Everything Hitler did was justified, to his mind. But the misdirection comes, essentially, because a lot of his experiences were very parochial. His entire vision was based on a small perspective of the world.

AW: Would you say the internet’s changed that?

JO: We call the internet revolutionary. But revolution comes from connecting with your environment. How can you when everything’s external? A lot of stuff online is vacuous. Characters and personalities are manufactured. People’s perceptions of me for example - once upon a time the only way you knew me was if you met me, or saw me perform. Otherwise, you didn’t. But now there’s this saturation of false identity. People can flesh out their insecurities and be the person they think everyone needs them to be. And it’s far too easy to generate knee-jerk, simplistic reactions to things.

AW: That’s exactly what I wrote a while back. It’s like a chainsaw – powerful, but read the instructions.

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One of my favourite lines by Josh is in the chorus of his song "Even in War". It’s only six words: “Even in war, the birds sing.” Here’s why:

1) Rhythmic bathos. I like the two stressed syllables of the final two words. They’re almost making the point that he could have put so much more in there – there’s all sorts of different things going on during war, especially modern wars like Iraq or Afghanistan: children play in the streets; women and men go to the shops and barter and haggle and have sex and – but he doesn’t need to describe any of that: just that birds sing. And we notice them. Which leads to -

2) Compression of meaning. It’s like the end of "An Arundel Tomb" – “What will survive of us is love.” There’s an ambiguity about it, so you can choose what it means to you – maybe it means nothing, but if it means something, then it carries an emotional charge of some sort.

3) Simplicity: I think of Gerard Manley Hopkins writing about how a bird “rebuffed the big wind” – a great writer with thousands of words like “rebuffed” at his disposal, and then he goes for “big”, because there’s something childlike about how the bird makes him feel, and likewise I think Josh is trying to portray a childlike view of the world that’s at once less complicated and more honest.

4) I’d heard this story about how Monet had been asked to donate decorative panels to the French government to mark the end of the First World War, and they’d wanted something symbolic of the nation’s greatness but instead he’d gone for his water lilies because actually it was more truthful – they said that, sadly, life just goes on, there is no real winner, but there is beauty because there’s always beauty in life, somewhere, whatever’s happening (like Josh will say later in this piece life is a process) and actually I told Josh this story about Monet but it turned out I was totally wrong, because it was Monet’s friend Georges Clemenceau (the former Prime Minister), who persuaded him to hand them over, but I still like that story anyway, and while it’s not truthful it’s true, the way that Josh and I describe Arsenal when Henry and Pires were playing as “pure” even though there’s not really any such thing because ultimately football is just people kicking a ball, and that’s really what the moment of artistic contemplation is: a moment of truth, and good art forces these moments where all of the above hits you, all at once, the connections formed in microseconds, which is what happens when I see Josh playing and notice that every couple in the crowd seems to be holding each other and swaying together and I tap notes in a blank phone text that say “Bathos -> Arundel Tomb -> GMH -> Monet” and a few days later try to work out what the hell I meant.

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AW: I struggle with the question of whether the internet’s been a good or bad thing for the creative industries. I mean, on the one hand, it’s much harder for a guy like me to make money. But on the other hand, I can get my writing out there much easier than ever before. It’s a more transparent, honest experience.

JO: I don’t think it’s easier or harder than it’s ever been. It’s about adapting to change. For a while the music industry allowed loads of people to become multi-multi-millionaires, but no one really knew who they were. And now it’s like the 1930s. If you want to make it, you have to go and play every single venue. There’s always been two types of musician - there’s the people who make music out of love, and the people who make it out of fear. And the people who make it out of fear do it for money or fame.

AW: And it’s a vicious cycle between them and their fans, isn’t it?

JO: Totally. The riots are a perfect example. A lot of these people turn on the TV and see trainers, cars, and clothes. If these mediums are telling you that this is success and success is growth and expansion: well, we have an instinct to grow and expand. That’s being a homo sapiens. We believe who we are, is what we have. I was in Clapham Junction watching these kids I know putting their lives, their future at risk - for a fucking pair of trainers.

AW: In a way it’s fine for guys like us - we want to create. That’s what we’re going to do, and stuff will get in our way, but we overcome it because we know what we want to do above all. Not everyone wants to create, but there’s something positive they want to do with themselves.

JO: With kids from ethnic minorities: you go in a classroom and ask if they want to be a lawyer, an accountant, a pilot - they say no. But they want to be a musician or a sportsman. The reason is when you turn on the TV, when do you ever see that success attributed to your reflection? You don’t see a successful black lawyer or architect. They’re brought up in an environment with a lack of identity. There’s a mental parochialism - a lack of connection. They go to school and think they’re different, even though they bleed and shit the same colour.

AW: It’s funny, because you cite so many black role models – L’Ouverture, but also Harriet Tubman, Lauren Hill –

JO: You know, it goes back to the manipulation. There are artists out there like Lauren Hill but there’s a reason more like her don’t get promoted - and there’s a reason it’s difficult for me to break through but I look up and see, say, Cher Lloyd or 50 Cent. There’s no lack of people with open minds - but expansion means unity. And people profit from the perception we’re divided, or not connected.

AW: Like you say, it’s true of more than music.

JO: I wrote about Palestine and Israel recently - there are families on both sides that don’t want to die, don’t want to go to sleep to the sound of rockets and explosions, but they’re told they have to live that existence because of their national identity. And what is that identity, really? Centuries before they were Canaanites, and before that they were nomadic.

AW: Have you ever heard that E M Forster quote? "If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." He places the personal above the political. In a weird way it takes us back to that "Jesus Walks" cover: things are more connected than they seem, in life and in art.

JO: If you look at where hip hop came from - it’s a corruption, of funk and disco. Likewise, without slavery you wouldn’t have the blues, without the blues you wouldn’t have rock and roll, and so on. Once you accept life is a process; a cycle, it’s unnerving, but it’s also empowering. It doesn’t mean that power comes free of responsibility, whether it’s having to do a day job, or shitty corporate gigs. You still need to do whatever it is that allows you to be free, but the important thing is: you’re still free.

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23/11/2012

Last night I saw Josh perform live for the first time, at the Scala in King’s Cross. He was looking forward to the gig, but London crowds could sometimes be a struggle: too cool for school. He was on a four-part bill that included Gabrielle Aplin, whose version of Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s “The Power of Love” is everywhere thanks to a certain John Lewis advert.

And Josh took the stage, and launched into "Ebenezer Hotel", and I turned to my left, and half the crowd hadn’t seemed to even notice him, continuing to chat among themselves. He was right about this crowd: young, trendy, mostly white and mostly bored.

And then, little by little, they stopped talking to each other, and started listening to him. It was probably the chorus of “Giants” that tipped the balance – suddenly everyone was bopping their heads.

Then Josh addresses the crowd. “I hadn’t wanted to ever write a love song, because I thought it would be a load of clichés. Then I fell in love. And I had to write a song about it. So I called it The Clichés.”

His band put down their instruments. Josh picks out a delicate pattern on his acoustic guitar. The verse is a quiet, smooth little entree to the rasping chorus: “Oh baby/Look what you made me/I’m screaming the clichés.”

When he stops, there’s a tiny little silence before the crowd burst into applause. And in that silence, I hear a man’s voice from the back of the room.

“Beautiful.”

He’s made a connection.