As half of soul-pop duo Joseph Lawrence & The Garden, the Ipswich-born Londoner was a rising star signed to a major label. Then he dissolved the band and went solo without any money. Two years later, the musician tells whynow why his upcoming album is worth all the hardship.
It’s Valentine’s Day when whynow interviews Joseph Lawrence over the phone, and the special occasion has put the Ipswich-born singer-songwriter into a reflective mood. “It’s a lovely Valentine’s Day today, because it’s been a blessed year,” he says in his deep voice. “I’ve signed to a label and finished my album, and I’ve just grown as a person, I think. I’m in pole position to get shit done and make an imprint on the world.”
Although he’s speaking with the same assertive and confident tone he’s always maintained, Joseph, 25, sounds more than content with his lot in life. And so he should be. After all, this time two years ago, he’d just broken up his previous band Joseph Lawrence & The Garden and had nothing to show for the four years he’d toiled as a part of it.
He was working part-time in a London clothes shop, barely paying the rent but yearning for as much downtime as possible to write his own music. Any otherwise unoccupied moment was spent journeying from potential collaborator to potential collaborator to see if he could find the chemistry required to make some sonic magic.
Now, though? Joseph has found that long-desired partner in producer and songwriter Benjamin ‘Fryars’ Garrett. He’s three singles deep into a soul-pop solo career: the latest one, ‘BeGod’, is an elegant but triumphant number that backs Joseph’s baritone with pianos and horns. It’s a cut from debut album which comes out later this year. Also, as he just alluded to, the musician’s inked a not-to-be-sniffed-at record deal with RCA, where P!NK, Bring Me the Horizon and Wolf Alice also live. Life’s good.
“Leaving Joseph Lawrence & The Garden meant I had to start again and take a lot of responsibility for what I want,” the musician recalls. “That was to make my own message and get across my own kind of point. But that was tough. I had to write from scratch and do a lot of things I hadn’t done before.
“Past that, I think just having the label and having some kind of force behind you, it gives you even more of that sense of not having an excuse. It’s a bit of, ‘This is real now: I need to make sure I’m doing everything I can to make sure it works.’”
Joseph is a fiercely driven person. You can hear it in his confident and unflinching voice, and the fact he’s never one to dodge or half-answer a question. By his own admission, he’s also a lone wolf, which is probably why, when we speak, his Instagram profile picture is a photo of Batman. He talks repeatedly about the importance of sharing his own message and how “the truth is cool”. In the process, he clears up the mystery around why Joseph Lawrence & The Garden split.
“The truth is that Joseph Lawrence & The Garden would never have been my own message: it would have always been mine and Gibbi’s message,” he says, referring to the band’s sole other member, Gibbi “The Garden” Bettini. “Rightfully so, because it was a two-way thing and he is an unbelievably creative person as well, with his own set of strong ideas.
“We’re both very strong-minded. We butted heads quite a lot. I have nothing bad to say, but I knew I had to do it solo. I’m just too much of a strong-minded person. I can’t split my vision and thoughts in two. It got to the point where I would be lying to myself if I thought I could do that. I had to make the jump.”
The more Joseph talks, the more amazing it feels that the band even lasted for as long as four years. He’s always been self-determined. When he was a lad in Ipswich, his mum was a hairdresser and his dad moonlit as a male model: two creative and fiercely independent pursuits that inspired him early.
Aged nine he used to stand in the centre of the room, by himself, at large family gatherings and sing for everyone there. The musician recalls his mum especially subjecting him to “tough love”, pushing him at every opportunity to make something on his own.
“I said something like, ‘I’ve got a show today and I’m feeling a bit off or a bit tired, I don’t know why,’” Joseph offers when asked for an example. “[She replied,] ‘No, Joseph, there’s no time for that. Go out there, do your best and we’ll talk after.’”
At 16, Joseph moved to London, partially following in his artist of an older sister’s footsteps, but instead attending the British Academy of New Music. “Ipswich was never gonna work as a long-term thing,” he explains. “It’s where home and family are but, from a young age to this day, I need to be inspired all the time. London has a kind of stressful energy, but there’s something creative about it. Everyone wants to be somebody and occasionally you’ll see someone and be like, ‘That is somebody!’, and that’s inspiring.”
Joseph was still studying when he met Gibbi, and the pairing was originally meant to help launch his solo career. However, as The Garden became more vital, mentoring and helping with management deals, the duo each got equal credit. They became more than friends, “like family,” Joseph says. So eventually – when he told his bandmate he wanted their collaboration to end so he could, again, “make [his] own message” – Gibbi was hurt. They’ve not spoken since.
So… what was this message? What were the morals Joseph was so desperate to share that he broke up a band signed to Universal Music and whose debut single had amassed hundreds of thousands of streams? Well, according to the man himself, his forthcoming album is about “the kind of challenges you’ll face having a dream and the cost of having a dream: the beauty and the sadness and the confusion”.
‘BeGod’ is a key piece of that. Joseph explains that, with lyrics like “What if I become god?”, it’s about a turning point in one’s internal drive: “[It’s saying,] ‘I’ve had enough of the doubt now; I’m gonna play God and get myself out of this dark place.’ It’s purely a self-elevating, believe-in-yourself moment.”
For the musician, that dark place was the period immediately after Joseph Lawrence & The Garden’s dissolution. Joseph was the archetypal struggling artist barely making ends meet, yet that unendingly fierce determination pulled him through. He never doubted himself for a second.
“When I first went solo, I was doing five sessions a week with zero money,” he says. “I was just doing it out of a place of ‘This is what I need to do. I need to get better. I need to make music.’ If I want to be this person – partly, the person I am right now, sitting here talking to you – I knew I had to struggle like that.”
The turning point was when he wound up on Benjamin Garrett’s door. The songwriter’s publisher recommended him, and the duo immediately clicked, sharing a desire to create music that was “timeless”. Safe to say, there won’t be any rapping or trap beats to be found on his forthcoming album when it comes out.
“Timelessness is what I strive for,” Joseph states. “That’s what I drill into my management and anyone I’m writing with, especially Ben. What I understand about timelessness is that it’s not something you’ve heard before; it’s paying respect to what you’ve heard before but approaching it with your truth, which then makes it completely original.”
Joseph Lawrence is convinced his music will stand the test of time. And, when a voice as deep and assertive as his tells you that with nothing but confidence behind it, it’s hard to foresee anybody convincing him otherwise.
‘BeGod’ is currently streaming.