Timing is everything for Joe Fox. It was everything when he unknowingly approached New York rapper A$AP Rocky at around 4am one night on Dean Street in Soho, London, hoping he’d buy one of his CDs and instead landing himself a mentor and time in the US recording on his album At. Long. Last.A$AP.
And tonight, ahead of his gig at the Shacklewell Arms in Hackney, it’s not so much a question of “who is Joe Fox?” – as everyone asked when A$AP dropped his record – as “where is Joe Fox?”
His manager is frantically trying to get hold of him but his phone has apparently died. “He was definitely on his way,” he promises.
“He tends to just wander off,” his PR adds.
After waiting for an hour we slope off for dinner, then get a call just before 9pm to say he’s finally arrived at the pub.
We meet him in the dressing room, where he sits and stands up again, moving restlessly around, always holding his guitar, strumming a few chords of Prince’s “Kiss” before taking a seat.
“What took you so long to get here?” is the obvious first question.
“The girl I was with was driving us down from Bristol and it took ages,” he says. “I’ve got this actual lyric that says I don’t show up on time. Everytime I sing it the audience laughs, they're like, 'oh f***, yeah, he's a d***head'. But I always make sure that I'm there for the gig. And soundcheck. I'm here,” he grins.
For his forthcoming debut album, on hold from 2016 but finally due out this year, Fox has been recording with the Dap-Kings, which sounds as though it was quite something to witness in the studio.
“For me, as a musician, it turns me on," he says. "It’s amazing. They've played with Dan Auerbach from the Black Keys, so many different artists.
“Bringing my songs and their production together, that music. And ‘Sweet Song’, my acoustic song, I think that'll be even more fun with the band on it, yeah?”
He stays in touch with his mentor now he's back in London; Rocky keeps tabs on his career and was the one who picked “Aftershow” as Fox's first single from his debut.
Fox had five tracks on A$AP's own record, which presented him to puzzled new audiences as a mysterious singer-songwriter with little in the way of a social media presence.
His voice stands out even on an album featuring artists like Kanye West and MIA; Schoolboy Q called it a “sample voice” and an engineer reportedly tried to Google his lyrics sampled on the track “Max B”, only to be told: “No, that's Joe.”
“There's a song called 'Pharsyde' on the album which I love,” Fox says. “We took ages making that. We used to get drunk or whatever in the studio and just make a song, but that one took a week.”
Then there's “Fine Wine”, about relationships: “We went and met up with Future, which was the most hilarious thing I’ve ever done, because Future showed me his California. So obviously it was writing songs, but there was this element of the A$AP Rocky way of living.”
Despite this he doesn't feel like being in London is anything remotely like going "back to normal".
“Not really,” he says slowly. “Because I’m not the most normal person anyway. I had spoken with some people who were like, 'What’s it like now? Ah your life’s s***'," he says laughing.
“But it was just another experience, it's cool to get to know someone like that. Usually if you’re an artist writing about something, it’s a girl, it’s your girlfriend but… oh God I don’t wanna sound like a d***head.
"But when two musicians meet, the songs me and Rocky made, I couldn’t have done the raps, he couldn’t have done the singing and written those hooks. So it’s really fun. I remember on 'Holy Ghost', I did the singing, and he just sat down in half an hour and wrote the whole rap."
He stands up and paces around the room.
"We’re kindred spirits," he says. "I keep pointing out to people, how many f***ing celebrities walk through Soho, see a guy playing a guitar and say ‘Be on my album’?
"People don’t do stuff like that anymore, celebrities are so in a box now, they’ve got their teams and people who tell them what to do, and they never do anything human, and that night, the whole thing was so f***ing surreal, it fit perfectly into the tapestry of my life because that's how I was used to things happening. Not meeting people through f***ing message boards."
Fox sat in on an in-depth interview two years ago where Rocky responded to the furore over his track “Better Things”, which featured an explicit couple of lines about Rita Ora. Fox gives a small smile when it gets brought up now and flops back down onto his seat.
“I’m not his dad, he’s got his own... he struggles a lot," he says after a moment. “Because he’s a lot of different things to different people. I don’t think he’d mind me saying that.
“He’s a businessman, but to kids on the street, they know he came from the same place they did, and he can never shake that. And in the fashion world he’s a trend-setter, and he's a rapper.”
“I’m in the early stages of my career, but...” he goes off on a tangent. "I don’t hang out with singer-songwriters ever. I don't have one friend who's a singer-songwriter. I have acquaintances. On the album they're all like pop stars. But guitar singer-songwriters, that's a lie. I have one. I have a few. But I don't hang out with musicians all day. I tend to cannibalise the people I meet for songs."
Fox is a massive fan of The Kinks, so I mention a new song Dave Davies did with his son Russ which is just about to drop.
"What?!" Fox exclaims. "What?! I saw them live and it was the best thing they've ever done.
"I’m gonna go through all The Kinks now," he says and starts to play ‘Sunny Afternoon’ on his guitar, singing in this gorgeous crooning voice, then to 'Thank You For The Days' and ’Well Respected Man'.
“There’s just so much colour in those songs,” he says when he comes to a halt. “I think they were kind of a precursor to David Bowie. Bowie had the weirdness but I find the transition from Kinks to Bowie really easy."
He loves the heritage of his own record label, Island, along with the people that work there. "Everyone there loves music, literally everyone," he says. "I’m quite cynical about the industry, as I think most artists who write their own songs are. [Island] is a major, but it’s a cool label.
"When Rocky came to the hotel in Piccadilly Circus he asked me who I was gonna sign to, and I said Island and he was like [doing an impression of Rocky]: 'I get it, I get it, the Marleys, the Marleys’.
"And I was like… 'they had U2!' The whole night he was like that: 'The Marleys, the Marleys'," he says laughing. "But for me it's also Nick Drake, Cat Stevens...”
There was an interview that quoted Fox as saying he didn't listen to any new music, but it sounds as though they caught him on a particular day.
"Of course I listen to new stuff,” he says, frustrated. "On that day [of the interview] I wasn’t listening to much new stuff. I listen to everything. But I spend so much time writing so I don’t really listen to much new stuff then. I love Sigrid [another Island signing], she’s amazing. And she’s such a nice person as well."
It’s almost time for him to perform so we wrap things up and head back upstairs where fellow up and comer Cosmo Pyke is finishing his support set.
Fox walks onto the stage quietly, without fuss, and murmurs a “hello”. “This one’s called ‘Aftershow’,” he says, and begins.
The audience falls silent as he sings, sparse guitar chords beneath his lonely, calling vocals; a voice that sounds as though it belongs to another decade. Don't be late to this one.
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