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Interview | Joey Pollari

May 01, 2024 6 min read

"Love is often haunted by our phantoms":  The artist talks latest music video, "perfume".


Love and its ghosts are at the fore in the musician, actor and director's haunting new visual.


Photography by Jacob Bixenman


“It’s the clearest declaration of love yet; haunted and holy,” Joey Pollari says of music video “Perfume”, released today, taken from April sophomore LP, I'll BeRomance — a stirring intertwining of blues, Americana, and folk songwriting, led by the quietly commanding 30-year-old. The visual, reflecting the post-relationship emotional melange that comes as love’s early rapture lingers and the torment of its absence takes hold, sees Pollari initially anguishing in a desolate house, mottled by the light of love, but crowded with the shadows it leaves.


Such emotional dissonance reflects the fact that, at the time of the song and album’s creation, some five years ago, the now-bygone relationship was in its infancy. The track’s mounting melodies and amiable early production are emblematic of the seemingly eternal bliss youthful romance draws you into. As the visual unfolds, we see Pollari conjuring that dreamlike trance and the lover who provided it, from its spectral manifestation. “I almost sing the lover into existence, and his presence transforms me in return. I come to life, too. It becomes holy work,” Pollari tells Man About Town.


The artist’s talents have long sprawled across acting (American Crime, Love, Simon, The Inbetweeners), music and directing, but on I’ll Be Romance, they coalesce with the most striking harmony to date. “Those loves have always been merged,” he says, “but on Romance, I think you can see the adoration of those inspirations more clearly.” His heterogeneous artistic profile befits the songwriting that sits front and centre — poetic, philosophical, instinctive and marking him as a clear descendent from the deftest of music’s authors who precede him.


Head below to watch the “Perfume” video now, and read our chat with Pollari on its creation,I’ll Be Romance, emerging from grief and returning to screens for upcoming rom-com,Things Like This


Hi Joey! Massive congratulations on I’ll Be Romance. The project’s been out in the world for a few weeks now. Talk us through the experience of releasing your sophomore compared with About Men. Where would you say we find you this time around?
You find me on the other side of the river, walking off a porch of my own design. Because of the grief of losing my father, for About Men, I wasn’t aware of anything other than water and emotion — the visuals are rightfully water-bound. Grief eclipsed me totally. With the making of I’ll Be Romance, I became aware of more beyond the water, and so I fell in love. Now releasing this record, I’ve fallen out of love, but I’m also out of the water.


We love the “Perfume” video. Can you unpack what you wanted to convey with the visual and how the story unravelled?
My friend, the director Andrew Hebert, presented the idea of being haunted by a lover. I found this quite interesting because love is often haunted by our phantoms — I wrote about this on “Riddance Is A Natural Feeling” on the record. Fantasy is a kind of ghost that haunts love. So for “Perfume,” Andrew and I elaborated on the idea of haunting to be an awakening of ecstasy.


Your work documents queer life via a musical lexicon we’re less accustomed to hearing telling queer stories – folk, Americana, for instance. Do you find power in unabashedly sharing your life in an arena where it might be less expected?
I think the arena of Americana has been lived in by queer artists with good variations, so I was only seeing where my feet landed inside of it. With “Romance,” the expectation I thought could be “less expected” was that there isn’t much folk writing in the way of Bill Callahan or Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy that’s queer. Knotty lyricism, psychological folly, varied voices, that sort of thing. I feel good that the record has tried to mark an angle on that.


The album documents two very resonant but contrasting life experiences — grief and the rush of a new relationship. Can you tell us about how those two themes unfurled alongside each other and how you feel when you listen back to the record now?
I thought I was beyond my grief enough to love. I thought my love was strong enough to abate my grief. And while my love has since overcome my grief of losing my father, at that time, at 25, I couldn’t see the mirrors that grief placed in the way of loving. I was boxing with phantoms, trying to call them forward, but I only got so far. That’s a condition of being young and in love: you only get so far.

Listening back to the record now, I’m very happy. It inhabits voices of dejection, ecstasy, transience, healing, and wandering that were all endemic to my mid-20s. In a way, I ended up calling my phantoms forward after all! They wrote the record for me. A welcome realisation.


We hear that much of the record was born out of creating loosely and impulsively. When you went into the creative process, did you have any preconceptions about what you wanted to make? Did the final product surprise you?
Impulse is a lifeblood of my songwriting — I am always searching for the “automatic” line. When I wrote “Perfume,” the line “At the bend of any season / All war becomes a star” came to me suddenly while staring at my lover. In “Johnny Guitar,” the line “We scrap in the gourds / You stymie my jeans / I’ve got wrapping paper on my feet” was automatic too. I build songs around these impulses of lyric. It’s like following a mystery.

When it came to the recording process, I had a palette of songs to reference in the sonics — things like “Whiskey Girl” by Gillian Welch or “He Needs Me” by Nina Simone. But when the songs came, they surprised me with their introversion — the songs felt frail. My producer and mixer, Theo Karon, answered this frailty with a bevvy of tools to expand them. They grew larger, had to be cut back, then enlarged again. This is a good comparison to the work of grief. You let the emotion ride, you cut away the nonsense, you let it grow again. You try and overhear yourself. You see how far you get.


Much of the album’s creation took place when you were 25 – can you tell us more about the gap between working on it to releasing?
I had done the sessions for this record while prepping to release my previous record, About Men. I was uncertain about how to release that record because I had no compass. So in part, there was a delay because of wondering. Then the pandemic hit. My producer and mixer moved to Europe. The mixing process took a large delay in waiting for equipment, nearly two years. The album cover took months. Each aspect was a test of time. But Romance wasn’t finished and mastered until a year or so ago. Things take the time they take. I learned things in that time.


If you had to create a playlist that summarised what you were listening to during I’ll Be Romance’s creation, who/what would be on there?
I have the playlist in front of me: Portishead — Roseland NYC Live, Joni Mitchell — Both Sides Now, Talk Talk — Spirit of Eden, and Sibylle Baier — Colour Green. Wide open spaces, the “live” feel, the intimacy of lyricism.


Aside from music, you’ve got a role in rom-com Things Like This on the horizon. What excited you about that project?
I’ve had a certain history of playing darker roles. When I was in Love, Simon, playing a potential love interest, calm and collected, that was a nice change. So when Max Talisman reached out about this — a romantic lead in a rom-com — I felt it would be a good challenge to be myself, not play too much characterisation. The character in Things Like This has similar themes to the singer of I’ll Be Romance. A good match.


Finally, what’s something 2024 has in store for you that people might not expect?
A short film is on the horizon. Another album, maybe two. I need to close the romance trilogy I’ve written with About Menand I’ll Be Romance — it’s high time to light it up in flames and get to the heart.


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