Singer-songwriter Josie Man on vulnerable lyrics, feeling like an outsider and why sometimes the most painful experiences make the best songs
If you’re in need of a chirpy, feel-good playlist (and let’s face it, who isn’t right now…) Josie Man’s new sugary sweet EP, aLOVINGboothang ticks all the boxes. The 21-year-old’s first self-penned single, Colours was released last year (stream at your peril, it’s a serious earworm) and on first listen feels cheerily upbeat, with its quirky, dream-like video to match. But behind the lyrics to many of her songs, she says, has been a deeper struggle to find self-acceptance. Growing up in South London in a dual heritage family (Man’s father is from Hong Kong but grew up in Forest Hill and her mother hails from Catford) her music – she terms it ‘identity pop’ – has become her way of discovering who she really is.
Here, she fills us in…
Let’s talk about Grow which you have kindly performed it for us on Instagram. Where did the inspiration come from?
I actually wrote that last year with this girl called Hannah [Yadi]. We had a really close bond and we got to a session and were just really sad. We looked at each other and cried. We were kind of crying with happiness but sadness as well because we were really proud of each other for getting through a hard time. It was a ‘look where we are now’ kind of thing. So that’s what Grow is all about – we can go through really hard times and grieve but we can also appreciate those times. It’s definitely a special one.
The idea of grief and appreciation feels very timely right now, doesn’t it?
Yeah. It was going to come out with my first EP, but it didn’t feel right. So it’s mad that it came out at exactly the right time now.
The lyrics in your songs feel quite vulnerable and soul-baring in places. Does it ever feel scary putting that kind of material out?
Yeah it does. But music for me is like a release. So it does feel scary being so open, but at the same time I know that everyone has their own things as well. So it’s quite nice to be able to share things with other people so they don’t feel alone all the time. I know what it feels like to feel no one gets it, so it’s comforting when someone else does.
Is that the music that you connected with growing up, lyrics that made you feel less alone?
Yeah. When I was younger, I used to pretend to be in music videos looking out the windows, being really dramatic. Words were really strong for me, definitely.
Which artists did you love growing up?
I loved really girly American R&B. And Avril Lavigne. I also liked really old music like the Bee Gees. And Hairspray the musical and The Little Mermaid. The only music we didn’t listen to was rock. Avril Lavigne was the most rock we’d get….
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I think during this [lockdown] period, it’s actually come from a place of hurt. And wanting to turn it around and make it something I can be proud of. Because there’s such a strong feeling with hurt, you’re able to turn it into a positive or learn from it. It’s been really hard to find inspiration from fun things because we’re not able to do any of it, which is really sad. It’s very limiting. But I think [it’s also important] not to feel pressured because we’re all in the same boat. Letting myself be able to not do things was a big part of it, too.
What’s your song-writing process like, do you keep notes in your phone?
I’ve got loads of notepads! I’m definitely a writing down person. And I always doodle, to get my brain working. I wouldn’t say my brains weird, but I feel like it has to be woken up with pictures. So to get my brain flowing, I write words down that I think I’d sing nicely, or words that just come out. Then I work around those words.
You’ve spoken about feeling different and your dual heritage. Do you think your upbringing has significantly impacted the way you write and perform?
100% definitely. I think where I’m from, the area I live in, I just didn’t feel like I was supposed to be here. But then it felt like home. So it was kind of like, ‘I don’t really understand why these people don’t get me’. But it definitely shaped me because I don’t know who I’d be without going through it – I might have been working in an office, not being brave enough to express myself. And I wouldn’t be where I am. So it kind of forced me to accept myself quite early on. At the same time, it wasn’t a nice thing to have to accept yourself from young. My family and close friends are also the reason why I am where I am, as well.
I’ve seen you speak about people making fun of your fashion sense and so on. That must be hurtful?
I think now if I walk down the high street near here, people either laugh or love it. It’s really confusing. It’s like, ‘Oh, I thought I looked really good’ and it makes you doubt yourself. For a while, I was still going out in what I wanted to, my big shoes and stuff. But I was really embarrassed and I’d avoid certain areas which wasn’t fun. But now I’m fine with wearing what I do because I feel so comfortable in what I wear. I still don’t really understand why some people are mean.
How do you switch off from negative comments?
It’s weird. During lockdown was the first time people were really saying mean things [online]. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I did not sign up to this’. It took me a while to understand that their comments about me are not my responsibility. Some of the comments don’t even make sense, but they still affect you. Now I’m like, ‘If you want to say something mean that’s absolutely fine, but I can’t let it affect me’. I don’t know that person and they don’t know me. But yeah, it definitely shocks you when you see a mean comment or DM. You’re like, ‘I wish I hadn’t seen that’.
Your dad was the dragon in the Colours video. How was that?
He really can’t like dance, he’s got no rhythm. They had a guy in the front of the dragon – he’s the person that does the head and stuff. And then my dad was like the bum at the back, not moving in time at all. I felt so sorry for him I wanted to cry [laughs].
Lockdown has been a strange time for many. Have you learned anything about yourself?
Lockdown gave me time to reset and think, ‘OK, what’s making you unhappy that you haven’t had time to sort out?’. I think I don’t say no to things and setting boundaries is really important. It’s something I really want to keep doing because it’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re not saying no. And rest is very important, we must all rest. I’ve also learned I’m really sensitive. But it’s OK to be sensitive – it’s not a bad thing.
Is there anyone you’d love to work with in the future?
I’d love to work with someone like Rex Orange County. There’s so many people. Maybe someone like Ari Lennox as well.
Which of your songs is the most special to you?
I think it’s Four in a Row from my EP, just because it’s about my family and I love them a lot.
Grow is out now