Josh Pyke is an Australian singer / song writer whose career stretches almost 20 years. In between writing, recording and releasing music and touring the world, Josh has also found time to author four kids books, advocate for Indigenous literacy, foster up-and-coming Australian musical talent and home schooling his kids during lockdown.
Josh recently taught himself Procreate to create the video for his latest single ‘Your Heart Won’t Always Weigh A Tonne.’
Hey Josh, thanks for taking the time to chat. Can you tell us where you are currently based, and how long have you been creating?
I'm from Sydney, currently living just a little down the coast for a few months. I've been a creative professionally for about 20 years, whether that is making my own music or producing music for other people. I also do music for TV and film, and I'm working on an ABC Kids (Australian children’s TV channel) show at the moment. And I also write kids books — I've got four currently, and there's another one coming out at the end of the year. Those are my main creative outlets, and now high profile animator is one of them as well.
We’re big fans of kid’s books at Procreate, but didn’t realise you were the author of four books. How did you get into writing children’s literature?
My wife started out in children's book publishing when we first met. So I was already really familiar with that world and when we had kids, we’ve got an eight year old and a 10 year old, we read so many books to them. Some of them were amazing, and some of them I just didn't think were that good. Instead of being an armchair critic, I decided to try and actually give it a go myself and hone the craft.
And it is a really particular craft. Writing kids books is kind of like writing a song. I felt like I had been primed to do it, because you have to tell a story in a really short amount of time. It has to not give the whole story away plus has to leave a lot of room for the illustrator to do their thing, and also for the parents to add their own world to it. So there's a lot of things to take into consideration. At first I just wanted to try the challenge, and then I just really fell in love with whole world of children’s literature.
We've had a lot of kid’s authors say you have to tell a story on each page that leads to turning over the next page. Is that your experience?
Yeah, for sure. A lot of my books, the ones that I'm focusing on now, are all rhyming books. That makes it even harder in a way. It's not like when I write songs, I don't really think too much about rhyming to be honest. But when I'm writing books it's often really specific stuff, and it has to be spot on every time. I also don't want to patronise the kids, so I'm trying to use words they wouldn't otherwise hear but then have the rhymes makes sense, which is quite a challenge.
Do your kids read your books?
Yeah. One of my kids went as one of my characters Chatterpuss to Book Week, which was nice. And he did a reading for his class of another one of my books called The Incredible Runaway Snot for his class. They're a little old for them now to be honest, but they're always my sounding board.
We love ‘Your Heart Won’t Always Weigh A Tonne,’ what inspired the song?
The song was written during lockdown, and was very much part of that. All of my songs are me basically trying to work out emotional stuff through my writing. And that song was very much a bolstering of my own sense of hope I guess. We were in the first round of lockdown, it was all such an unknown you know, and I was already cancelling shows. So it was just this call to arms, that it won't always be this hard. I was kind of trying to convince myself of that as much as anybody else.
So that was what really inspired it. That and a few other little things, like I tuned my guitar in a different way that day, and so that suddenly inspired me to do something different. It was this combination of having something new, and then also being completely stuck in a Groundhog Day kind of world where I was a bit freaked out about the future. I wrote something to try and encourage myself to remain positive.
We also got a bit of break up vibe from it as well. That feeling of being broken hearted, but knowing that time heals all wounds.
The thing I love about songs is they can mean lots of different things to different people. There's three or four of my songs (I’ve written) now that are about my kids, and my love for them. People have played those songs at their weddings. For them it's a romantic love song. So I love that songs can have all these different meanings. I think that a good song can be universal like that.
We suspect we already know the answer to this but, which took longer — writing the song or creating the video?
Definitely creating the video, it took a long, long, long time. First, just learning how to do everything in Procreate — I was learning mainly by watching YouTube videos, which are great. There's so many great Procreate tutorials online.
And then there was just jumping in and doing it. First thinking of the idea, then the idea became more elaborate as I was going along. So then I had to make the story more elaborate. It was a bit of a labour of love, that's for sure.
How did you come across Procreate? And how did you find the animation feature and think, ‘You know what, I could do something with this’?
Procreate itself just kept on popping up on my Instagram feed — other artists doing things in Procreate, and I thought that looks really cool. Then my old MacBook Pro died, and I went to the Apple store and there was somebody giving a live tutorial on Procreate. That blew me away and so I bought an iPad Pro and I was like, ‘Oh, all things are leading to Procreate.’ That's how I discovered it.
Then being in lockdown I realised I didn't want to do another clip that’s just a performance or something like that. I've done so many of those down the years and it was gonna be really, really hard to try and organise anything else with everybody in lockdown. So I just wanted to try something new. It was as much to keep my own creative output going during lockdown as well.
I've always loved animation. I just think it’s an art form that allows for unlimited imagination as long as you have the patience to do it. I love that idea. I like the fact that even someone in their forties, who’s never done anything in the visual arts can pick it up and make something.
I'm not claiming that it’s very slick or anything, but you can make something no matter who you are or what you're doing. I found that a really gratifying process in and of itself. That's kind of a metaphor for what the song means anyway. So it just felt like a good way to use creativity in a pretty dark time.
Teaching yourself Procreate and then creating a video in it is an interesting challenge to set yourself. How was the process?
It was good. In terms of the program it's really cool, but it's also really simple. I had to do some work arounds, not around the program itself, but in terms of my skills with the animations. With frame-by-frame there were certain sequences where I did the whole thing then realised that it was going to play backwards for instance. So I had to start all over again.
That process of learning about frame-by-frame animation was a pretty steep learning curve. But Procreate itself was very intuitive. My kid is all over it. He loves using Procreate. He's always hassling me to get my iPad so he can do these COVID inspired artworks that he's been working on, which is pretty cool.
Having put yourself through a tutorial crash-course, do you think you will keep going with your own animations?
Yeah, definitely — I do these YouTube tutorials called Average Guitar Tutorials where it's me just teaching only my songs. I'm not actually amazing technically, I can't read music or anything. So they're quite average tutorials, which is why they’re called that.
I did a little animated introduction video to those in Procreate. And just this week, I did a bunch of instagram tiles for Book Week where I just drew over some of the characters from my books to suggest some Book Week costumes. That was all done in Procreate.
I'm now doing a bit of mucking around with another film clip idea. I don't know if I’ll end up doing it or not. But animation is quite a meditative process, because it's so repetitive with little changes. I find it quite relaxing. So yes, I’ve been using it a lot.
Did you grow up watching a lot of animation? Do you have any favourites?
There was a cartoon series called The Mysterious Cities of Gold, and that I loved. It inspired that notion that animation’s limits are only set by your imagination. The story is about these kids going on this adventure to find Esteban's father and the lost cities of gold, and it just really captured my imagination when I was kid. The animation itself was my first introduction to that manga style (of animation). And then more recently — I’m just a massive fan of the whole Studio Ghibli cannon. I've watched a couple of documentaries on Studio Ghibli as well, and the way they do animation is still very much frame-by-frame. That's insane. So yeah, I do love it and I think it's an incredible art form.
You’re also an Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF) ambassador. How long have you been an ambassador for, and how did the association come about?
I've been an ambassador for the ILF for about 12 years now. That came about through my wife's association with the book industry back then. The organisation was started by Susie Wilson, who owns and runs a bookstore in Brisbane. She started it all those years ago, and I heard about it through my wife Sarah.
I've always been passionate about the idea of bridging the gap, (Indigenous) reconciliation in general, and how crap our governments have been about it down the years. I wanted to do something, and they didn't have any musicians involved at that point. It seemed like a good fit because literacy is not just limited to writing stories or filling out forms. Literacy comes in so many different forms, music being a lot of them. So that was when I got involved and it's been great. They do amazing work and their organisation has evolved a lot over the years, which is really, really wonderful to see.
Tell us a little about your ‘Busking for Change’ events?
Those events were to raise money for the ILF because I'm not an expert in Indigenous literacy, but I felt I must support it. I couldn't go out and help the ILF with that sort of thing, but I knew how to put on gigs and raise money.
The great thing about the ILF is they do books in language and that are written by the people of the community in their language or several languages. So they're really very culturally appropriate. That all costs money to publish, and to do the trips out to the communities. I just started putting on these gigs, because I knew how to do that and we raised about 50 grand ($50,000) over three years, which was great. We had excellent acts like Passenger, Boy & Bear, Urthboy and Holly Throsby playing. It was great, and they were extremely fun events.
You’re also a big advocate for up-and-coming Aussie musical talent. Can you tell us a little about the Josh Pyke Partnership?
The JP Partnership is in its sixth year, I think. I got to a point in my career where I almost felt guilty that it had gone so well for so long, and I could see that it was hard for emerging artists. Early on in my career I received two grants. One was for $2000 and one was actually a prize — my first iMac computer. And from those two things I was able to buy some basic recording gear, and it really kicked off my whole solo production and recording career.
So I knew that grants were incredibly vital to people starting out. But the thing that I never got from any of these grants was the mentorship element. I came up through the pub scene in Sydney, and there was nobody really doing the singer songwriter thing that I knew. So I didn't really have any idea what I was doing, and I've learned so much over the years — I wanted to pass that on in some slightly more formal way.
So I started the JP Partnership in conjunction with APRA (Australasian Performing Rights Association) who co-funded it. I got my manager and my booking agent to give up their time for mentorship as well. It's been amazing. There's been some incredible acts that have come through it. I feel really proud of all the people that have won it and gone on to create such great things like Gordi, Alex Lahey and Angie McMahon are all killing it. They were already doing great without me, but I feel very proud that I was able to help them in some small way.
What’s your favourite Procreate feature, and what do you enjoy about using it?
It's definitely Animation Assist. Obviously that was a game changer for me in terms of this clip. I also love the Motion Blur. I’ll make a big fractal shape in the background and do a psychedelic type blur when you drag your finger across. But because you can't record it, I’ll do a screen recording and use it like that.
If you could add one feature to Procreate what would it be?
I'd love a live animation tool — that would be so good. In Looom I can draw as the animation is rolling, so you can add effects to produce luminescence or little dots and stuff like that. To be able to do that as the animation is rolling would be cool. And also just adjusting parameters whilst the animation is rolling. So you could run the animation, and adjust the motion blur of just one layer while recording. That would be sick.