Welcome to Boombox Blitz, an artist spotlight series showcasing overlooked singers, songwriters and musicians who are quietly taking over the world.
If you Google “Joseph of Mercury,” you won’t find much outside of his recent string of swampy throwback singles like the Elvis Presley-pressed “Without Words” and “Find You Inside,” an homage to classic Bowie. When the latter premiered earlier this year, he remained rather reticent on the details of his life, only hinting at a whirlwind of “crises” which sent him spiraling off course two years ago. “It was strange because I couldn’t really back it up; it was this last gasp of a time before,” he brooded about his song “Lips,” a buoyant and poetic tribute to the death of his friend Dakota Kavanagh. The Toronto native, born Joseph W. Salusbury, added, “When life throws up an obstacle, it’s not always a matter of effort, sometimes just a completely different approach. So, that’s what I did. I became a different type of musician.”
But upon a little more digging, his story began to come into focus.
Outside of a few appearances, including a gig at the Toronto Men’s Fashion Week, and a handful of press features (such as this fashion blurb in MTV Canada attached to a song called “Pretty Blonde Boy”), he was rather elusive even then. In an obscure interview with Band Mine, the singer (then going by Joseph and the Mercurials) detailed how he stumbled into music. “I first discovered music through my Grandfather. He passed away when I was about 11-years-old, and left behind a collection of old records. I was unceremoniously drawn to all the ones he had loved the most, the old gentlemen crooners of the 50s and 60s,” he said. “I would sit there and admire the polished and confident men on the sleeves and covers. I could only imagine what [the records] sounded like as I had no means to play them.” He eventually came across “a stack of CDs…featuring the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, and Paul Anka.”
He continued, “I began to mirror their style and sound, and it forever became a part of me and of my voice. In truth I left those sounds and qualities behind for a long time. But one day about two years ago I simply picked up the right guitar in the right room, with the right endless echo, and they all returned to me. I was older now, more ‘myself’ and so I was not simply drawn into mimicry.” The avoidance of mimicry was vastly influenced by an array of mentors he collected along his journeys–Fritz Helder of Fritz Helder and the Phantoms, AZARI & III, Zion Forrest Lee of BOYTECH, and Ian McPhedran of Ostrich Tuning. “These are connections and friendships that I will always cherish,” he said. As frontman of Joseph and the Mercurials–which included members of other groups like Polynesian Bride, Fox Fire and Ostrich Tuning–he did net mild success with the eery “I Want What I Want,” containing a voyeuristic and grainy POV-shot video.
That’s when disaster struck–the details of which remain vague. He subsequently slinked away from the limelight, seemingly scrubbing his social presence as a way to escape the tragedy drowning him and to reconfigure his priorities. His story between 2015 and “Without You,” which dropped from the twinkling lights above into our lap in February, is a great mystery. “I spent my time the last few years, trying to be as productive as I could be, and now on the other side, I have all this music. I’ve gone through eras and phases and changes as an artist all in private,” he said, resisting the cloying transparency that often plagues artists dead center in Hollywood, including Katy Perry. “So now, it’s about delivering that arc, that body of work to the outside world. I’m very excited to find out what it all means to people, beyond the confines of my inner circle.”
On how his three new, stylistically-linked singles made sense to restart his career, he explained: “We thought that this first collection of music should establish a starting point from which we could freely move in any direction.” Without the distraction and mayhem of his rising status, he turned inward to uncover the exact things he was feeling, however dark they may be. And through fine-tuning his songwriting capabilities and his skills on keys, drums and guitar, he learned “that much of who I am as a person is so tied up in what I do, and for better or worse, that’s just so innate now that there’s no turning back. I will do this everyday, until I can’t, whether I am solid or broken, physically or emotionally, it’s just what I am entirely compelled to do.”
Among his most recent collaborators, who put his creative brawn to the ultimate test, are guitarist Patrick Greenaway (The Weeknd), ilangelo, Majid Jordan, Dev Hynes, Nelly Furtado, and ALP of MSTRKRFT. “You can only ever hope to find yourself in the comparative company of the ‘Golden Age’ [of music]. But the only goal we had in our minds was, and continues be, to simply write and create work that is musical and rhythmic and beautiful and to not really over think it too much beyond that.”
Joseph of Mercury’s complete story might still be akin to a spooky urban legend, but his music speaks loud and clear.