Philadelphia plays home to a handful of gay singer-songwriters, but few possess the soul and raw talent of Brewerytown’s Joshua Thomas (formerly billed as Josh Schurr). His first and latest album, Halfway, has become a mainstay on my Spotify queue. It’s a beautifully haunting set of songs that finds the 25-year-old crooning softly over acoustic piano and guitar. The title track also serves as his official coming out. I asked him about that and a host of other things this week when I shot him a few questions in anticipation of his live show on Nov. 14 at Tin Angel.
You moved away to New York for a while to pursue your career. What made you come back to Philly?
I had moved to New York for school, which quickly fell flat. I stayed for another year just sort of floating around and figuring things out. I then moved back to my hometown, [Marlton] New Jersey, for about half a year. While I love my parents, six months was plenty. Philly seemed to be the smartest move, and I quickly found it welcoming, affordable and musically diverse. I was able to work at coffee shops during the day and create at night, without busting my ass to pay the rent. Five years later, I'm still doing just that.
Which coffee shops have you worked at?
I worked at Good Karma Café for a few years before moving on to Elixr Coffee and moonlighting at Menagerie Coffee in Old City. I have a slight obsession with coffee, and you'll probably find me at numerous coffee shops around the city even when I'm not working.
You had a chance to meet your biggest inspiration, Joni Mitchell. Can you tell us about that experience?
Joni was the first artist I'd ever heard that made me fully consider a career in music. I had never heard anything like her before, and began to understand the art of songwriting and its importance in my life shortly after the first listen. I hadn't really begun to sing yet, and piano played a small part in my life. I picked up my fathers guitar after hearing Blue and began to teach myself based around Joni's open tunings, eventually putting up covers of her songs on YouTube. Through a wild series of events, she ended up seeing some of these videos and I found myself standing outside of her release party for her 2007 album, Shine. She recognized me, embraced me, told me she loved the videos, and walked me hand-in-hand into the party. Honest to God. At the end of the night she said to me, "Thank you for paying such close attention to detail in my work." That was a turning point in my life, and I fully dedicated myself to music after that night. When Joni Mitchell tells you you're doing something right, you should probably do it.
The title track of your last album, Halfway, was a coming out of sorts. How have things changed for you as an artist since?
I wrote that song around a time when only a handful of people knew I was gay, and I truly felt that I was half a person. It was a cathartic song to write, and even more so to record and release to everyone in my life. It took some time and experience to get to that place, but once it was over I was able to fully embrace myself and the work became more honest than ever. And I guess the most obvious change would be the inclusion of what my friends like to refer to as the "pronoun." Oooh he said "HE"!!
Any other songs on your album speak to your experience as a gay man?
In the past, I didn't write much about my personal life because I hadn't publicly come out and was too afraid to let something out in song. But on the last album, I have a little song called "Down Here" that I wrote about becoming disillusioned with the church and that judgmental environment in which I grew up. On the next record there will be a lot more personal content, since I'm fully open to express it at this point in my life.
What can we expect from your next album?
The next record is going to be quite personal lyrically. It's a compilation of songs written throughout the past year and a half. Very piano driven, and lots of room for some string arrangements. Definitely guitar work on there, and I'm expanding my vocal range on this one as well. The new batch of songs are always favorites, but I feel especially proud of these ones and excited to share them with everyone. Hoping to have it out in 2014.
Where do you hope to see yourself in 10 years?
Still evolving, growing, creating. I hope that I can expand my audience, tour a lot more, explore different themes and genres. I ultimately would really love to find myself in a place where I can make music full time, without having to work a second job.