Joshua Burnside Is Goin' That Way

The singer-songwriter from County Down continues with his studies despite preparing to release EP number three, If You're Goin' That Way, in June

'You know the way you look at an old photo of yourself and cringe at your dodgy fashion decisions, but get all sentimental?' asks Joshua Burnside. 'I guess that's the best way to describe how I feel about my first two EPs.'

What makes Burnside cringe about Seeds (2011) and The Winding Straits (2012) is difficult to ascertain. Perhaps now, at the ripe old age of 23, he hears naivety in his lyrics, imperfections with the production, ill-conceived harmonies, dodgy instrumentation. That, of course, is Burnside's prerogative. After all, perfection is attained by slow degrees.

As for the rest of us, we come to Seeds and The Winding Straits with an impartial ear, unburdened by foresight – and revel in the ambient, textural soundscapes, the inventive time signatures, perfectly-pitched harmonies, multi-instrumentation and an incredibly advanced finger-picking style that might have led John Lennon, had he been alive to hear it, to break a string in frustration.

Seeds and The Winding Straits are much better than the humble Burnside would care to admit. And whilst they are the work of a young artist attempting to find his feet, they are, nevertheless, a delight to listen to. Burnside's command of melody, his skill as an arranger and producer draws unfortunate but inevitable comparisons with that other precocious talent, Nick Drake, as well as Tom Waits and Elliott Smith, who Burnside cites as inspirations.

Such comparisons can be the kiss of death for any young artist. How on earth, one might ask, is he ever to live up to the expectation? The answer is: he already has. Burnside's third act, If You're Goin' That Way, is set for release in June 2013, and is similarly prodigious, eclectic, original, unpredictable, well-produced... Stop me when the kettle's boiled.

Which leads one to wonder: why have I not heard of this young man before? The answer lies at Queen's University, where Burnside is currently studying music, and back in Lisbane, County Down, where he has recorded all of his work at home in his bedroom.

The track 'Black Dog Sin' has already caught the eye of the industry, having been flagged up as a recommendation by Lauren Laverne's 6 Music blog team. A video for the lead single – which staggers and bounces along on waves of hand claps, plucked violin strings and gut-wrenching yells – directed by Darren Lee, has also been doing the rounds on YouTube and Facebook. And a session for BBC Radio Ulster's Across the Line programme is also in the bag.

'I'm not a leader,' sings Burnside on 'Black Dog Sin', 'I'm just a soldier.' But the four remaining tracks on the EP would suggest otherwise. On the evidence of this latest work, Burnside is indeed a leader. Northern Ireland's legions of singer-songwriters should prepare to follow – just as soon as he graduates from uni.

'Black Dog Sin is a step in a new direction for me,' Burnside admits. 'For both of my previous releases, I had a particular mood in mind that I wanted to act as a kind of backdrop. I was listening to Joanna Newsom's Have One on Me, summer was on it's way, and I had a new appreciation for the beauty of my home, having just got back from Beijing, where I lived for a few months. But everything I'm writing these days is much darker, much more experimental.'

Burnside ponders how to describe his sound, and is momentarily stumped. 'I guess "experimental folk" would give you an idea, but the word folk has been warped so much in popular music that it could be interpreted in so many different ways. The experimental element would be due to some of my production techniques.

'I tend to go through phases where I just get completely obsessed with an artist. I had a huge Paul Simon phase, a huge Tom Waits phase, and at the minute I'm listening to Andrew Bird's Break it Yourself a lot. But it's always difficult to describe your own sound.'

That sound has, of course, attracted the attention of the media and, you can be sure, various A&R men, publishers and record labels who should be itching to add him to their roster. Yet Burnside remains an unsigned artist. He releases his work online, without much fanfare, and carries on with his studies as he goes.

'I am not signed to a label, but I've always been a fan of the DIY approach, and it is easier to do it these days what with so many great websites like Bandcamp and Cdbaby,' adds Burnside. 'I feel as if I have been writing songs and gigging for a lot longer than I actually have, like I have been on a very long journey to get to the music I am making now. The challenge now is not to drop out of university.'

Burnside fits into the mould of the modern singer-songwriter who is unafraid to experiment with convention, instrumentation, structure and sound – to travel a sonic path less travelled. From a technical point of view, he is a fan of Laura Mvula's debut album, Sing to the Moon, which is currently storming the charts, as well Zachary Francis Gordon, aka Beirut, who has championed world music since his emergence in 2006.

'I think that influence comes through a bit in If You're Goin' That Way,' adds Burnside. 'I think you should always strive for new and interesting sounds. I play a few instruments such as the banjo, guitar and piano. It's a bit like learning a language – once you learn one, you can pick up another much quicker. I've started playing the accordion a bit recently, too. I've always loved them.'

As for recreating his studio sound in a live context, Burnside has been honing his set in venues across Northern Ireland over the past few years, and next plays live at Molly's Parlour, Lisburn on May 26, supporting Rams' Pocket Radio. For those unacquainted with his fledgling oeuvre, it's the perfect opportunity to catch Northern Ireland's most exciting new talent.

'My live set can be quite different from my recordings,' Burnside warns, 'but I like that. I've arranged trumpet parts for all my latest songs, and I have recruited an excellent trumpeter for the next few gigs, just to see if it works. But so far, it sounds great.' Damn right it does.

Joshua Burnside launches If You're Goin' That Way in White's Tavern, Belfast on June 19.

Joshua Burnside

Topics