Along with his fellow band members he wrote numerous hits including Wires, Half Light, Superhuman Touch, El Salvador and Twenty Four Hours, which featured on their four studio albums.
Joel has now quit the stage in favour of the studio and has co-written with a slew of lauded talent including James Bay, George Ezra, Shura, Rhodes and Gabrielle Aplin.
While we were chatting to Joel to learn the story about his Ivor Novello Award-nominated song Budapest, which he co-wrote with George, we put some questions to him about life after Athlete and the transition from front man to behind-the-scenes songwriter.
What was the transition like from front man to studio-based songwriter?
It’s a very different life. It’s been a huge transition for me. There were a few other people I wrote with in Athlete days for the fun of it – like a friend of mine Ian Archer. He used to come on a couple of tours with us and I’d write songs with him. But other than that, the only other people I’d ever written with were the boys in the band.
When we decided not to make another album, it was weird. I’d never written with anyone else and then within a few months of that stopping I’d written with a whole load of people in many different styles. It was a baptism of fire.
Was it hard for you to know what to do when Athlete ended?
Yes. At that point, I thought the obvious thing would be to make a solo record but I didn’t want to do that. Also, I’ve got a young family and really wanted to be at home for a bit. My publisher suggested I write with people, so it just happened really quickly.
Do you miss the performance side of things?
Yes, I miss the magic of being on tour and performing every night. I miss being in a gang on the road. But at the same time, when that was happening, I was always away from my family so there was a constant inner conflict. I feel that I’ve had it good being in a band and being on tour but now I want to enjoy doing something different. I love being in the studio, I really do.
Songwriters often build up a reputation for excelling in certain styles. What do people come to you for, do you think?
I’ve been surprised by myself! I never would’ve dreamed five years ago that I could write sexy R&B tunes y’know, but actually, it turns out that I’m alright at it and I really enjoy it. I like pushing myself to write in different genres. I dared to try it and let go of my Englishness – but that was just me in an indie band being precious and narrow-minded. If you look at all my records, it’s a really eclectic mix. As a songwriter I want to reflect that. I don’t want to be bound by one genre.
How do you switch between genres? Do you have to study them first?
I think there are some genres you need to study first. I’m not overnight going to be able to make great house music but I think there are certain musical styles that – at their heart – lies a really good song. Then it’s just about groove and who the artist is, and what they want to bring. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing. It’s about trying to help them realise a brilliant song. You’re always just trying to write a really brilliant song.
How does the collaboration process work for you? Do you like to go into the studio with some ideas or approach it completely fresh?
It depends. I do like to have some ideas but at the same time, my role is often to bring out what the other person wants to say. On the whole, I think that just being in the right frame of mind is the most important thing. There are loads of melodies floating round any day for you to pick up – you just need to be in the right headset and you need to be open to trying shit out. It’s about being fearless and not over-thinking stuff.
What have you learned about songwriting through collaboration?
If you’re doing a classic two-day session with someone – which is almost industry standard – it’s almost like a blind date. Meeting on the first day and saying, ‘right then, let’s write a song!’ can be a bit weird. It’s better to meet someone at a café and spend half the first day just getting to know a person. Quite often, that’s how it starts.
If you’re going to do something good together, you have to feel at ease with each other and feel like you can make ridiculous lyrical suggestions that you can both laugh about. Say, with George Ezra, we take the piss out of each other when we come out with some lyrics – but you have to have the freedom to make those suggestions that might be shit. Half the time they’re going to be brilliant.
What have you got going on for the rest of the year?
For the last six months I’ve been making a record with Shura – just the two of us writing and producing the whole thing. It’s the most indulged I’ve ever been in a record. Even more so than the first or second Athlete album. Just be virtue of the fact that it’s just me and Shu doing everything. Remix-wise, beats-wise, she’s really great.
There’s a new girl called Mabel who I’m totally excited about. She’s brilliant and I hope people will hear of her soon.
I’ll take some time off and then be onto album two with George Ezra and a whole bunch of other people. It’s really fun making and producing a record – it’s all quite new to me and it’s really fun. Although I’m looking forward to finding some time to write again.