Joesef: ‘I felt like the last man on earth when I wrote that song.’

The soulful Scotsman speaks to M Magazine about Glasgow, Shuggie Bain, and debut album Permanent Damage.

Liam Konemann
  • By Liam Konemann
  • 12 Jan 2023
  • min read

Things have been a little heavy lately. At least, that’s the suggestion on Joesef’s debut album.

Permanent Damage is half breakup album, half record of re-evaluation. Across the thirteen tracks that make up his first full-length, Joesef reckons with the end of one relationship and the failure-to-launch of another, all the while grappling with his sense of self and his connection to his hometown. Looking back on a difficult period, he finds himself irrevocably changed. This is the Permanent Damage that the album’s title refers to. And the hits just keep on coming.

‘Initially it's quite negative, how you sit with the realisation that you will never be yourself again. Over time you sort of grow into that person and learn to be more comfortable with the person that you are now, as opposed to constantly trying to hark back to a version of yourself that you definitely will never get back again,’ says Joesef.‘It’s about seeing the change, growing into the change and then being comfortable with it. I think that's what Permanent Damage is for me. It’s realising that change doesn't always have to be a negative thing.’

‘It's never is really, it's always good to keep growing.’

Musically, the album is expansive, soulful – introspective lyrics rising and falling with waves of soaring instrumentals. The contrast shows off the strength of Joesef’s songwriting, blending joy with hardship, connection with memories of isolation. It also helps him not to get too bored on stage. 

‘I would be so fucking depressed if it was just me onstage with a guitar. I think it’s important to inject  a wee bit of life in it every now and again,’ he says. 

Permanent Damage is definitely not lacking in life. Cathartic, nostalgic and full of forward motion, the record covers a lot of ground in a short space of time. 

Having already released three EPs, Joesef was spared from the need to announce himself on his debut album in quite the same way as an artist without a longer-form work out in the world. His fanbase was already built, his artistic credentials stamped and approved. But having so much material could have easily backfired. With several releases under his belt, it might have been difficult to decide what, exactly, his ‘debut’ would need to say.

Personal Damage sidesteps all that by taking one personal tumult as a central theme. Born out of a difficult breakup, Joesef uses his interior autopsy of the relationship to open a door on the rest of his inner life.

‘It was this thing that was living and breathing as I was making the album, so it wasn’t something that I had to mine from the past. I was living it,’ he says.

While the experience might have made for good copy, writing about it kept the wound fresh. ‘It was so much harder to get over, because I was sitting in the song every day. But it also – I always think it’s so wanky when people are like “Yeah, it was such a cathartic experience,” but it just gave me a lot of clarity.’

'Writing the album gave me so much structure and time to sit with my feelings. It was like, you know what man, this is how I feel, this is what happened and this is what didn’t happen.'

Confronting his emotions head-on in his songwriting allowed Joesef to process them in a healthier way than he might have otherwise done. While sitting with the fallout from a relationship can drag the healing process out, it also means that the closure it provides is more definitive, more complete. 

‘When you sit with your thoughts as opposed to avoiding them – which is something I’ve always done in the past, usually I’d go and get on it for three days straight to avoid what it is I’m actually feeling – but writing the album gave me so much structure and time to sit with my feelings. It was like, you know what man, this is how I feel, this is what happened and this is what didn’t happen. It was quite intense,' he says. 

Writing an album like Permanent Damage is not always comfortable. On Joe, Joesef takes a deep dive into his own self-esteem. The lead single from the album, Joe is a kind of lyrical test case for the record as a whole. Vulnerable and raw, the track covers the kinds of feelings that are difficult to talk about and destabilising when kept to yourself. It has struck a chord with audiences, but didn’t quite sit right with its creator in the beginning.

‘When I made that song, it was one of my least favourites that I’ve made, but everybody loved it,’ he says. ‘I never really went out and out with mental health or spoke about it, so for me personally it was a bit too close to the bone.’

It wasn’t until Joesef started playing the track live that he realised what Joe was for. The song hadn’t yet been released when he added it to the setlist, but the response it received at shows changed his whole perspective. Especially, he says, the ‘egotistical bit’ in the middle, where the crowd sings his own name back to him.

‘I felt like the last man on earth when I wrote that song,’ says Joesef. ‘I was like, I’m never going to get there, I’m never going to not feel like this. Then when I went and played it live, it was such a unifying experience. Especially at the Glasgow shows, it felt like it was everybody together and I was like, god, I’m not alone. I’m not alone in my feelings here. We’re all in this together. Playing the song live gave it a new life for me.’

Glasgow looms large on Permanent Damage. Part of looking back on the past meant looking back on Joesef’s hometown, how it has shaped him and how he relates to it. He filters all this through East End Coast, a stormy, rumbling track about the past, friendships, in-jokes and home.

‘When I was writing that song, I didn’t really know what I was talking about. I was harking back to these times I had with this boy, when it always felt like the world was collapsing in on us but we had each other,’ he says. ‘I was also thinking about all the shit I used to get up to with my mates, and I was feeling so isolated at the time, and I was like, what am I feeling right now? And then it was like oh, I think I just miss Glasgow.’

The song captures the city’s tempestuous weather, with the sound of rainfall leading in the introduction and thunder building throughout its chorus. It was important to get a bit of Glasgow in on the album, Joesef says.

‘I will die on the hill of it being one of the best places in the world. Specifically the East End as well, there’s such a negative representation of what the people are like and it’s known as quite a violent place as well, and it’s pure not about that. Everybody’s fucking hilarious. We’re so passionate. The community is booming,’ he says.

‘It was like somebody had stood on a landmine. I’d never seen anything like it before.'

Joesef has spoken before about his admiration for fellow Glaswegian writer Douglas Stuart, author of the Booker prize-winning Shuggie Bain and more recently Young Mungo, both at least in part about young queer men in Glasgow. The books capture a previously unseen perspective, speaking to the myriad realities of queer Scottish life and clearing a path for others to follow. 

‘It was like somebody had stood on a landmine. I’d never seen anything like it before,’ he says.  

Like Douglas’s fiction, Joesef’s songwriting has given him the space to articulate things that are difficult or painful in a way that is creative and even beautiful. One part of this picture is his sexuality, which is in some ways inconsistent with what people imagine a working-class man from the East End of Glasgow is like. At one time, the fascination with that part of his life might have bothered him. These days, he tries to bear in mind the impact that his openness might have on others. 

‘When I used to get annoyed at the whole sexuality thing, if there was one wee guy in a scheme, like where I grew up, who was like “I like boys as well, I don’t want to tell anybody” – if he could see me talking about that, and be like “He’s doing it, I’m not alone, it’s fine,” then that’s sound. Job’s a good ‘un.’

On Permanent Damage, Joesef is giving voice to the things that shape him – and making space for others to be shaped by them in turn.