Inverness musician Joshua Mackenzie spent lockdown writing and recording songs as a solo project The |Joshua Hotel – the seven-track EP Closet Romantic is out now
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LIKE many of the best things in life, The Joshua Hotel – Lional frontman Joshua Mackenzie’s new project – started “purely accidentally”.
This week Closet Romantic – the seven-track EP that came out of some liberating lockdown musical experimentation – lands.
It is a digital release at the moment, and on Spotify, iTunes, all the major streaming services.
For those who know the charismatic voice and sometimes playfully surreal songwriting of the Inverness musician, the EP is slightly leftfield of the Lional songs.
But not so far that they wouldn’t fall in love with this too.
And love is the word that hovers over these songs, a preoccupation – love from many angles – that Joshua explored as he wrote, played and recorded everything himself.
"Throughout the EP the songs talk about romance and relationships and love in quite a cynical way," Joshua said.
"But ultimately the person in the songs is still longing for true love in the more traditional sense.
"So even though it seems at times a wee bit cynical in how I am talking about these things in the song, ultimately, at the core there is still a hope and a longing for – I guess it’s just love."
The title Closet Romantic was partially inspired by a Damon Albarn track – though the phrase is a natural fit for the group of songs with their unresolved attitude to love and romance.
"It just came to me," Joshua explained. "It's the title of a composition he wrote for Trainspotting before he launched a solo career. Danny Boyle had asked him to write it – it's just an instrumental. So I've been aware of the term for a long time.
"But it’s not a high profile Blur song and the concept of the title just seems quite fitting."
Just before the release this week, Joshua talked about the contrast between working by himself or with a band. On your own, you can just sit and see it all unfold, toward the finished article.
“There is value to both – when you collaborate with other band members, then it’s more of a team effort and you get different results, things you couldn’t possibly get from working by yourself.
“But in terms of practicality it is trickier doing it with the band, in general, because you’ve got three or four other people’s schedules to be working round, so it’s very time-consuming.
“Given the fact we were in a lockdown, that is how this whole thing started. Purely accidentally, really.”
And in what sounds like a fluid, free way of composing, Josh wrote and recorded these songs.
“While writing the songs, I was recording them. I would just start recording and I was just literally building the songs up with drumbeats and basslines.
“Sometimes I would have an idea for a verse, start recording it, then get a chorus, stop, pause and record that.”
A female-sounding vocal line on some of the tracks turns out to be Josh too.
He laughed: “I almost have a pseudo Barry Gibb falsetto range I can tap into sometimes!”
And for the video to the EP’s also newly-released lead single I Don’t Want To Go, Joshua taps into his feminine side to create a perhaps surprisingly alluring woman on guitar performing to camera.
“A few of my male friends have told me they’ve become very confused,” Joshua laughed. “And I think our bassplayer’s girlfriend was expressing a degree of jealousy..!”
The business of attraction and finding love led Joshua to the subject of dating apps for the futuristic-sounding Love Is An Algorithm.
“It’s saying it’s almost destroying accidental falling in love," Joshua revealed.
"If you are active online these days, love is almost predetermined – it knows who to send your way. It’s a critique about how it has become a pragmatic mission these days to find yourself a partner. And I wanted it to sound very nocturnal and a wee bit sci-fi, but in a retro way.
For someone who has never used dating apps, Joshua outlines for me the way they have come to dominate.
"In the past four or five years they have really become the norm. It was still a little bit leftfield six or seven years ago – 10, there was still a bit of a stigma attached to it.
"When I became single a couple of years ago, I thought it was just an option on the side. But it came in properly maybe five years or so ago, I think – and I just couldn’t believe how it completely dominates the way people look for a partner now.
"It’s almost like it is becoming strange to just approach someone in a bar – which is worrying to me."
The lyrics aptly reflect his doubts with a barely-concealed sarcasm: "... your blood won't rush, but an empty crush is good value online".
It's a different aspect of love that weaves its way through Let Me Go By, which spotlights a dying romance and a plea to part for the sake of the feelings there once were – opening line "I spy two dying roses lying side by side".
In Feel You, there's a claim from the singer: "I've been cheapening the meaning of love" – but more realistically, the concept is just part of a conversation throughout this EP that forces you to explore the whole idea of love and relationships as you listen.
With many of the songs, you are tempted to let your ears wallow comfortably in the lush melodies, indie sparkle and alluring stories the lyrics set out in pithy or poetic phrases, about tempting-sounding relationships ...
That rarely deliver. And wonky keyboards and Joshua's sometimes sinisterly downbeat delivery ensure you know something unsettling is lurking just under the surface, everywhere.
Love Panic has "your haunted house" and a distorted melody – there's another in One For You, a song which could almost have come from the pen of Vince Clarke, so authentic is its underlying 80s vibe.
I describe that one to Joshua as sounding like a fairground ride gone wrong.
"I almost thought of it as a wee bit baroque, something that might be on a Scott Walker song or in a Doors song, but it has electronic beats behind it.
"I do quite like making things sound a bit woozy, sort of broken, almost," Joshua admitted.
A reference to "the Queen of LA" in Your Videotape gets you thinking that the song – like many from the EP – has an international feel, it could have been made – and listened to – in America, France, the Ukraine, Japan, wherever.
Joshua says: "Yes, 100 per cent.
"A lot of the stuff was inspired by films I was watching. And I was watching a lot of French films – I’m going to sound awfully pretentious here,” he joked.
"They just seemed to have more of a substance to them in terms of atmosphere and I wanted to capture things I was feeling from films.
"And they are definitely inspired by lots of soundtrack music as well, these songs. That lyric in particular is about being infatuated with a famous person. They are completely out of reach but you maybe feel your desires could transform reality in some way, but they kind of can’t."
There's a feeling that these songs, slung on some battered retro cassette tape or programmed onto that helpful content chip we'll all have implanted in our cheeks by 2060, would feel equally at home in the 20th or the 22nd century.
Am I saying they're timeless? Yes. Am I saying they are perfect for post-pandemic, late 2021? Yes.
Joshua has been working with Charlie Clark – of Astrid fame – on his new label No Big Deal Records.
"I will now be releasing music through his record label," Joshua revealed.
"My first official release with them is scheduled for late November, but they have been helping with this one.
"Charlie is a really good person to get involved with, and he has been a bit of a mentor for me – I’ve always enjoyed playing gigs with him."
So, why was The Joshua Hotel the right name for this project?
"I just felt that my name, Joshua Mackenzie would have connotations with maybe folk or traditional music.
"And an album I was listening to a lot of the time last year was Morrison Hotel, The Doors album. But they kind of named it after him even though it was a hotel.
"I felt at some point if it would become more of a band, that would give it the option.
"It’s a nice wee limbo between being a solo project, but it could be a band certainly in terms of a live thing."
And Joshua is currently rehearsing the songs to play live and had just returned from rehearsals with the two musicians currently working with him to give The Joshua Hotel a live presence.
"I was down in Glasgow yesterday rehearsing with two musician friends – Joshua Gilbert is playing drums and Louis Slorach on guitar.
"Joshua used to play in a local band in Inverness called Coco Majestic – indie rock, with Katie Gilchrist who now releases her own music as Kate Don’t Wait.
"The reason I am working with these two friends, is when I was writing and recording all this stuff, I was basically sending it to a close network of friends with no intentions of releasing it.
"But Josh and Louis were particularly encouraging with it and it just sort of made sense as it grew arms and legs.
"Josh said ‘I’m calling first refusal on drums’ – so I said ‘Absolutely!’.
"Then Louis who hasn’t really played in a band before – he’s done live performing as an electronic artist, DJing and stuff like that. He’s an all-round production whizz and has given me tips and helped along the way with production stuff.
"He maybe took a little persuading," laughed Joshua. "But he’s on board now – and it’s great. We’re a good little bunch.
"As it grows, we can – and probably will – get a couple more members on board.
"The idea is to make it a sort of, I mean the influence live would be stuff like Talking Heads, really making it quite a celebratory gig."
But there is no date to pop in your diary at the moment.
"Nothing is booked yet.
"Realistically I don’t think it will be till next year, but possibly towards the end of this year we will do something, maybe local to begin with. It is coming, we are working on it."
The EP Closet Romantic is available to stream and download: https://linktr.ee/TheJoshuaHotel
This week, the EP's lead single I Don't Want To Go, was single of the week on The Afternoon Show with Janice Forsyth on Radio Scotland. Listen to Joshua's interview with Janice on Monday here: 2 hours 15 – https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m00101px