Josh Kempen sped onto my radar pretty quickly. In the last year or two, I saw him play a solo show, heard he released an EP, saw his name on all sorts of festival line-ups around the country, saw him again and again with a three-piece band, got wind that he’s signed with Warner Music, and now he’s released a debut album, The Morning Show: an intimate blend of electric guitar folk and 50’s rock ‘n roll.
When I first experienced Josh Kempen’s music, it’s as if he popped onto stages from nowhere. I’m still unsure about the exact timeline, but it appears that impression was partly accurate – he came back to South Africa after traveling and seeing many places and people throughout the world, seemingly collecting stories and love affairs to write an album about?
Leave me if you can, with its simple guitar intro, punctuated by a vocal “one, two, three, four!” count-in, resembled a post-britpop faux-garage rock sound that reminds me of The Kooks and the occasional T. Rex song. You can clearly see Josh’s solo, folky singer-songwriter roots, where the lyrics and vocal melodies are crucial, but the 50’s rock ‘n roll influences spice it up nicely. Yes, Josh also often reminds me of Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, and a less-showy Chuck Berry. He plays electric folk songs with a rock-band instead of a finger-picked acoustic guitar.
The album is full-on powerful and lightspeed energy, punctuated by softer, dreamy and intimate tracks like Dreaming Days. But it’s not always a back-and-forth between rock and intimacy. Opening track The Morning Show, for example, has a kind of loud intimacy – a private moment, shared publicly in a “shout it from the rooftops” style.
And there are even some surprises, like the ukulele-based two-minuter, Don’t Keep Me Landlocked, (Honey). The album really shows off diversity, while everything still feels like it fits into the same collection.
Which brings me to my favourite part about The Morning Show: Despite being rocky, alive, and dance-along, it’s through-and-through a personal emotional expression. Yes, it’s mostly about women, enjoying life, and adventures, but it simultaneously resembles the diary entries we all wish we could make: The girls, the adventures, the dreams, and the “coming home”.
Howling at the Moon is a real earworm. Everybody Gets Older and Lilly are impossible to not dance to. Beneath The Sun, feels like a Icarus-type epiphany, celebrating the wax-winged flight, and embracing the inevitable fall that comes with taking big risks. Tracks like Penny Lane has a real timelessness (though it resembles 80’s British rock), but not sonically reminiscent of The Beatles song by the same name. Overall, the album takes all kinds of life experiences and transforms it into bold, optimistic, and upbeat music.
I find the album title The Morning Show very appropriate: the disc is a show and a party, yes, but a still-getting-dressed one, rather than a rough evening out. It’s the waking up in a safe space, surrounded by friends and family, in contrast to the peacocking, dressed-in-leather and smelling-like-beer that most rock albums are. Josh Kempen gave us a Morning Show – a glimpse into himself – and that makes me feel comfortable, safe, and ready to dance to his music.