Joseph Coward has had an interesting life. He was brought up in an Evangelical cult called the New Frontiers International. At age 10, he was introduced to music because his suicidal cousin had to get rid of her ‘depressing’ CDs; at age 17, he left his hometown of Brentwood, Essex to chase after something different in London; and now, he’s self-releasing music and collaborating with Thurston Moore.
When asked about his background, Joseph isn’t keen to discuss anything but the facts. “I seem to be talking about my childhood endlessly these days…” he sighs. He’s previously spoken about the bleakness of where he grew up, but that didn’t contribute to any of his attitudes. “It was okay, I think I’d have probably been just about as unhappy anywhere else. I’ve always lived in my head, so where I was as a kid didn’t really seem to have much of an impact.” I asked him if he was often unhappy. “No more than I feel I had a right to be,” he succinctly replied. “I’ve always hated being told what to do, and for the most part hated other peoples’ company. So I just acted out, typical kid stuff. My bad behaviour and my truancy got me kicked out of my secondary school. Anyway, that’s probably enough about my childhood, I think.”
Joseph’s sexuality in his music has always been everyone’s for the taking; dark – and at times unsettling – lyrics of men, women and strange encounters suggest he’s confident in his desires, although that might not entirely be the case. “It was always an unexplored thing for me, even though I’d been physically intimate with people at a young age. I’d never really considered what and who I might actually be attracted to. It’s something I’m still discovering to this day.”
‘Idle Boy’, taken from his debut album The World Famous Joseph Coward, features lyrics ‘I can hear him breathing / he’s on top of me / My God, my Saviour, has abandoned me’ over an impatient, static post-punk drone, that teases and threatens to climax but never does. His crooning, unprotected voice makes you feel like he’s singing with trepidation, but he is, in fact, challenging himself. “I think you have to confront these things eventually, before they confront you. I’d say I’m comfortable with my own sexuality.”
But his relationship with himself isn’t the only one that has required constant maintenance. He has a strong and strange relationship with faith – one that would tire anyone – but being in a position so submissive to religion for so long has been an asset to his songwriting: “I think it’s impossible for something so present in my life not to have informed my work. And my knowledge of the Bible gave me a greater understanding of English literature, which improved my writing tenfold.”
There’s always been an air of celestial fatalism in his music, but when asked about it, he wasn’t so sure. “I’d say that there’s bitterness to my writing but I try and write with humour and some grace.” What is he bitter about?’ I thought. “The indignity of living,” he tells me, with a speed that felt like it was an auto-reply. But when asked if that indignity comes from other people or the essence of life itself, Joseph changed his tune – although he was adamant that life is desperate, because, well, it is. And whilst this self-aware approach to life can be segregating, his art is the means of communication to dissolve this isolation.
Towards the end of our conversation, we spoke about self-destruction and what it meant to be alive. Children, relationships, narcissism, emotional baggage; it’s all terribly transient, he said. He tells me we’re not a species built to last, but says it with reassuring, wry self-awareness. It’s too easy to be burdened with wondering what we’re even doing on this planet, but in his words, “to understand all is to forgive all”, and he’s doing his best to understand like the rest of us.