All photos by Rebecca Miller
Josef Salvat is telling a story, and I’m fully invested. We’re leaning in, conspiratorially, largely because we’re sharing smokes on a Brooklyn rooftop where cigarettes are strictly verboten, and we’re keeping low to avoid getting caught. His story could be a critical scene in a coming-of-age movie starring the outsider drifting between high school cliques—the cool kids, a.k.a. the “alpha group,” the “beta group,” the losers—just a kid unable to find his tribe. Around 12 or 13, at the encouragement of his grandmother, Salvat started learning piano, and when she passed away he poured his grief into writing songs with keys at their core. So there’s young Salvat searching for his place in high school’s hierarchy. He tells me he had four friends.
“I remember wandering around the playground for three months trying to adopt new groups and nothing worked,” he says. “But then I performed the first song I ever wrote on piano in assembly to 700 people—the whole school. It was a song called ‘Eulogy.’ And the lyrics were, ‘Even on a day like today I find tears in my eyes.’ It was about my grandma, but I turned it into a love song. It was so emotional. There was this ripple of sneakers as I started singing, and I was like, well fuck it, I’m doing this now, I’m here. Then that stopped and there was silence. I got to the end of the song and I got a standing ovation—and they'd banned them standing ovations the month before for being too rowdy. I walked out of assembly and everyone was coming up to me saying, that was super great! So I was respected for what I did, but no one wanted to be my friend. I understand that, though, because I think I was a bit of a dick actually! I was probably quite arrogant, speaking over people, a know-it-all, different. And not very nice, maybe.”
I ask him how he is now. “I think I’m a nicer person now,” he says with a smile. “Life beats that shit into you, doesn’t it? Ultimately life seems to be about your relationships and how you can be a better force in people’s lives, and that generally makes everybody happy—including yourself—so that’s kind of what my mission has been.”
All of which makes sense, in life, sure, but particularly when sinking into Salvat’s debut album Night Swim. It’s a record that distills the space between two people, a record for romantics, and for those still searching. It pulses with the unalloyed thrill of new love and the bitter tang of regret. It’s strikingly polished pop lead by a crooner with a voice capable of quivering thighs. Some songs are bright and upbeat, his hit “Open Season,” for one, and “The Days,” for another, but Night Swim hits hardest in its slowest moments. His songs are languorous exhalations, poised in melancholy, accepting redemption and submission. Of course it’s not all roses—in his self-reflection Salvat is unsparing. On “The Audience” and “Secret” he admits what he calls his “cunt-ish” behavior, confessing compulsive infidelities.
The strength of his own compositions aside, it was a cover of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” that initially turned the spotlight on this Australian-born, South East London-based singer’s original work. The stripped-down rendition—lifted from his debut EP In Your Prime—gave Salvat a career-making boost when it soundtracked a French Sony TV commercial back in 2014. While France is still home to his largest fanbase (“Open Season” went to number one in the French airplay charts), international appreciation for Salvat has been growing at a steady clip ever since. Night Swim was released at the top of 2016, well over a year after it was completed. With such a lag, the singer’s been lowkey working on its follow-up since last fall. Whereas every tune on Night Swim was composed soley by Salvat (“I needed to prove something to myself”), more recently he’s been loosening the reigns and appreciating the exchange of collaboration. “I love it because working on your own all the time is a little bit lonely,” he admits. Nevertheless, album number two is still a ways off.
Although it’s a summer day when we meet in Williamsburg, the sky is a flat gray, threatening a deluge that would turn Salvat, dressed all in white, into the automatic winner in a wet T-shirt competition for one. He’s not lingering Stateside for long, but tonight he’s got a date, the details of which he confesses excitedly and off record. He’s feeling a smidge self-conscious though: The other week he had white ceramic braces fixed to neaten his smile (he’ll be retaining that front-toothed gap). Although his dentist warned him that the orthodontic elastics might become discolored with certain foods, Salvat still indulged in a rich chocolate dessert only to wake up the next morning to find his smile somewhat dulled. “I’m a 28-year-old man with braces!” he laughs. “But I didn’t want to get Invisalign because if you’re going to do something, just fucking own it!”
Salvat showed an early interest in music, but his route to now was full of diversions that took him all over the world. As an only child born in Sydney, Salvat was told by his parents to “do what you want, but do it to the absolute best of your abilities.” For a hot minute he wanted to be a priest. His fascination and ultimate rejection of organized religion coupled with an ongoing interest in spirituality, lead him to dabble in vipassana meditation—in one instance he traveled all the way to India for a retreat. But after high school Salvat swerved expectations and enrolled in law school. He hated it and spent all his downtime writing songs. In the midst of this was a year-long Spanish sojourn to study audio engineering. Once Salvat graduated, the then 23 year old moved to London and stayed afloat tip-tapping into spreadsheets, until he snagged a publishing deal which afforded him the freedom to quit.
Because so much of the power in Salvat’s songs lies in the tangled intimacy of his lyrics, I nosily nudge our conversation towards the stories that inspired them. Some of Salvat’s work crystallizes an exchange, or conveys a range of emotions with mirror-like clarity. On other songs, the beauty is in the ambiguity, a narrative he’d prefer the listener to divine. The boomingly atmospheric “Hustler”—which he wrote while still in college—is one of Night Swim’s most intriguing and popular songs, with a chorus that runs: “I've got the heart of a hustler / With all a hustler's shame / I've got the body of a lover / With a masochist’s brain.” His lines throw up myriad questions, but it’s one of the few where Salvat remains relatively tightlipped.
“The actual experience itself is so raw, I don’t want to talk about that ever—it’s an overshare,” he states firmly. “I guess it’s about negotiating your own barriers and boundaries and how far you’re willing to go and why you do certain things, the masochism, or lack of. Whether something you enjoy doing makes you a bad person. Stuff like that." In the video Salvat moves through moodily lit vignettes, sampling the skin of both men and women.
Before college his most significant relationship was with a girl. They’d meet at Salvat's apartment, he’d play her the opera Carmen, and she’d spin Throbbing Gristle, daubing him with makeup to make him look like Placebo’s Brian Molko. He cringes a little at what he calls this “super wanky, super embarrassing 17-year-old shit,” but he laughs too. I ask him if his girlfriend knew he was bisexual. “Yeah, and she fucking loved it!” he exclaims. “But I wasn’t bisexual when I was with her, and I wasn’t bisexual when I was with [my ex-boyfriend]. I feel like the ultimate betrayal is to cheat with the opposite gender.” Salvat’s next impactful relationship was with the aforementioned man; a partnership which lasted two and a half years. The singer’s perfectly candid about the particulars of why this relationship floundered, but he’s also wholly uninterested in the labels the world is keen to pin to Salvat thanks to his romantic choices.
“After my girlfriend it was like, I must be gay because this is how it works right?” he says. “Then I realized when I was with [my ex-boyfriend], I’m not actually just gay. Then there was a period of confusion where I was like, what am I? Then I realized the only reason I’m searching for an answer is to quickly explain it to other people. For a while [I was like] I don’t want to make an issue about this, but then I decided it’s important because other people were saying, what are you hiding, and I hate that feeling. That’s when I released the ‘Hustler’ video. It’s cool, that’s out, and I just live my life. I have no interest in becoming a spokesperson for alternative sexual identity. That’s not my calling, and I don’t think I’d do a very good job at it. But I’m there waving the flag, loving everyone.”
Salvat’s been single for the past three years, and in that time there have been precipice moments with both sexes, but he’s holding out for something powerful, for that spark. All this relationship talk eventually leads to a whole lot of sex talk. Turns out sex is a subject on which Salvat has some strong opinions—sex before bed always becomes stale and routine, sex before dinner is OK as long as you go out and do something afterwards, and sex on a lunch break is best. "Sex is a very important element in relationships, particularly, I’d say in the first couple of years, particularly in your 20s. If you’re not having sex what’s the point?”
“Every Night” was the first Salvat song I stumbled across back in 2014. I loved it instantly because it’s reminiscent my two favorite songs on Earth: Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” and The Flamingo’s 1959 swoon tune, “I Only Have Eyes for You.” I was freshly out of the most formative relationship of my life, and, although the song wasn’t a source of solace in the traditional sense of it expressing my state of mind to a tee, for me it was an escapist tale. It was a reminder that at some point I might feel it again—that heat when you’re a hair’s breadth away and you know exactly what’s coming. When the mundanity of the day can’t tick away fast enough till you can flee back to your own universe and satisfy that need to devour someone and make everything else disappear.
Salvat is a good sport and indulges me with one more story behind the song: “Sonically that’s my favorite on the album, for sure. That song is like a hot night. It was about punching well above your weight, but you have a sexual chemistry that really works, and it’s fun. And also, as man, coming to terms with the fact that you’re thoroughly average: You’re not 6'2" and built like a fucking brick shithouse with the face of a god; nor are you a weasel scurrying around—you’re somewhere in between. There’s a lot of people somewhere in between.” He pauses. “But it’s not about that, actually, it’s about a whole bunch of other fun stuff. Like fun sex stuff, like how good your tongue works…”
“Wait what? Your tongue?” I ask, “You’ve got special skills?” This is entirely not what I expected.
“Hey!” he retorts. “Yeah, I’ve got special skills!” And then we both laugh.