On the opening track of NJ alt singer-songwriter Joe P’s latest EP, French Blonde, he sings among droning tones, tinkling piano and a chugging rhythm section:
“I wish that I was more original / or maybe I am but I would never know / I need to hear it from someone else because I wouldn’t believe myself / I’m not a star, I’m just the next John Doe.”
You’re original, Joe. We’ll say it. And you’re a star. His 400,000 followers on TikTok say that.
French Blonde came out last month, and it’s a marvel—Joe P croons like Rufus Wainwright, often layering in falsetto harmonies in catchy melodies like early Beck, all over affected guitars that rip the air like a souped-up muscle car; the drums, its powerful drivetrain. And that’s just the upbeat tunes.
I know it’s becoming common in the music industry today, but it’s remarkable Joe P turned out such a big-sounding EP mostly by himself in his basement in New Jersey.
“It’s just me and I’d go to my basement or go to Atlantic Records, by myself in most cases, and it’s a lot of me hitting record and sprinting into the live room and playing drums,” he says from the road, somewhere in middle America. “There’s a lot of moments I’m writing at the same time I’m recording and producing. Everything meets at this one point. It makes for this unique situation so I just try to lean into it. Every once in a while I’m bringing in a drummer or someone to play the piano just to collaborate a little bit and get an outside perspective. … You are going to lose some perspective at a certain point, which can be good to a certain point, but if you go too far, you’re gonna come in the next day and say, ‘What the hell was I doing?’
“You need someone there to feel a connection to reality. If you’re alone in your basement, you can feel like everything you do is really good.”
It’s tempting to make a parallel between that thought and the horror movie he shot and produced with longtime collaborator Anthony Yebra that serves as either a companion piece to French Blonde or the best music video of all time. The film, If We Run, features three tracks off the EP, and stars Michael Gandolfini (The Many Saints of Newark), Kevin Interdonato (The Sopranos) and Joe P himself.
In it, a group of friends goes on a road trip to Jackson for the first party of the summer. Horrific things happen, a killer (played by Joe P) is loose, and, in short, shit goes down. Is it a metaphor for the crazy-making isolation of recording an album (and writing recording, scoring, editing and producing a film) in a pandemic? Eh, not really. It’s just cool.
“At the beginning of the whole thing I just called [Yebra] and said, ‘What if we did a horror movie that cuts in with live performances?’” Joe P says. “The two aren’t supposed to make sense together. Once we got the movie fleshed out, we’re like, ‘Man, this is too good.’”
Joe makes a pretty spooky killer. For a humble, seemingly nice, probably harmless creative type, it seems like a fun departure from reality to take on that role.
“Honestly, it was awesome. It was so cool,” he says. “I’ve never done any acting. To kind of put on the mask and wear all the clothes, it got [me] into that character of being this force of nature walking around the room. It was cool. I loved it.”
But the quality of the film and its slightly offbeat character fits in with Joe P’s music and the broader artistic persona he’s creating. That wasn’t the original intention, but he’s running with it.
“I mean, I guess in a way, I like the idea that this is the first thing I’ve done where there’s somewhat of a brand— I hate the word brand, but that identity so much. If you hear a Nine Inch Nails song, when you think of Nine Inch Nails or Trent Reznor, they have a whole identity they created. Or Radiohead. So this feels like the first step into creating that. I don’t know if it reflects the music well but I like the idea that someone can listen to the EP and see the live show and watch this and get this acrid taste in the mouth of what I’m all about.”
An increasingly big part of his creative output—not in terms of energy, but in his audience growth—is TikTok, where he has almost 400,000 followers. All he does, mostly, is strum songs on a guitar. His success there not only leads to more people accessing his work and more people coming to his shows, but it also led to a deal with Neon Gold/Atlantic Records. Joe P was, like many level-headed folks, skeptical of the social platform at first, but he’s taking advantage of it without too much artistic sacrifice.
“It’s funny. The thing I like about is the thing I thought I would hate about it. It’s completely within artists’ control. If you wanna be the guy on TikTok taking requests, that’s what I thought you had to do so I was skeptical and hesitant to take part in it. [But] I’ll just sing a song of mine and play a guitar in my kitchen and if someone likes it, they like the thing I made. There are no tricks, no filters. If someone likes this, they’re liking me for the right reason. I don’t ever think about it, that’s what I like about it. … I can make a video and it can reach one million people. There’s something to be said that in five minutes at home, a million people see it and then I can sit in this van for another month or two and a million people isn’t close to the number I’d be getting [playing shows].
“If you’re in a live show, of course that’s a more impactful connection. But I do think there is something to be said if you can make a video in five minutes and get back to the important stuff like recording and not losing your mind on the road, that’s important.
But sometimes simple and quick is best across artistic outputs. For instance, Joe P included a simple recording of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” which he recorded for an online video platform using a single mic, on the EP. That song has been played to death, and although Joe P’s version doesn’t stray too far from the original, listening to it stripped down makes you appreciate its subtle beauty again.
“It was going to be for this low key thing no one was ever gonna see, but I love how it turned out. It had this vibe to it, … it sounded like a demo and just raw and I loved it so much. It’s the only moment on the record where it’s acoustic. I like having it on there. My biggest thing is becoming the acoustic guitar and singer guy so I try not to, but this is kinda cool. It sounds weird and wonky.
But originality often lives in the weird and wonky, and though not everything he put out on French Blonde or cut into If We Run is both of those things at once, it’s clear Joe P has calibrated his work to supply the right doses of them. Get your fixes of them wherever you get your Joe P products.