24 Jun 2023

Idles' Joe Talbot on overcoming grief through music

From Music 101, 1:30 pm on 24 June 2023

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British band Idles

Joe Talbot of Idles, second from right.  Photo: Supplied

British band Idles are returning to play in New Zealand following a sold-out tour, they are set to play Spark Arena as part of Elemental Nights.

Idles frontman Joe Talbot spoke to Music 101's Charlotte Ryan from America about life, grief, trauma and how to reclaim joy from those experiences. 

Talbot said his drive to write songs, perform and bring his music to people comes from his passion to share a message of love and being good to yourself.

"We are a band that purveys a singular message, which is love... For anyone who misconstrues our violence as anger - open your eyes and your heart to what is merely art, and maybe if you receive the love that we give, they might want to give it in return, and that making love is a beautiful thing." 

The strength of that belief has carried Talbot through tough times, and helped him come out the other side.

Idles frontman Joe Talbot performing in Paris in July 2022.

Idles frontman Joe Talbot performing in Paris in July 2022. Photo: AFP/ Andrea Ripamonti

"I've always been optimistic, very much so - I think to lose a daughter and a mother at the time I did ...and I lost my cousin as well... and to go through addiction at the time I did - whether I put that on myself or not - it was still a challenge.

"But no matter how dark it got ... all these things that happened ...it's always going to put you in a bad place. A trauma gives you some sort of hurdle, whether it be a huge black cloud, depression, triggers, whatever it is. It manifests itself in many different ways. 

"Grief and trauma is a malleable beast, and dependant on how you've been educated in life and the privileges you've had  or the lack of is how you react to these things - once you have reacted, there's just a bunch of choices that you can make in order to get through it." 

With his return to Aotearoa to play here again, Talbot said he was very aware of a friend from New Zealand who died recently, Craig Stevens, one of the firefighters who died in a landslip at Muriwai during Cyclone Gabrielle on 13 February.

"He was a beautiful human being, and he died saving people. 

"He was a great son, a very wonderful loving son and a great father. A great friend of mine from back in Bristol ... it's nice I get to speak of him, he was one of life's very special people ... I'm glad I knew him." 

Facing pain and tragedy seems to be something Talbot does not shy away from. He sums it up with perspective and focuses on what it directs him to. 

"The fact of the matter is that I'm just very lucky in that I had a support network of people, financial stability, and no depressive gene in my body - so I'm just very lucky. 

"Some people may see me as unlucky, but I see myself as lucky, because I managed to get through all the things that I got through, and come out with love in my heart and a lot of people around me that carried me, and I'm allowed to be around them and travel around with them and celebrate and look into the eyes of the audiences and see that love. 

"And I have a healthy daughter and I see that love in her eyes, and I feel it every day. And I think optimism is a gift I had since birth, and love is a gift I have from myself and from everyone around me, but that's something you can manifest - optimism is something you might be able to learn if you're lucky, but love is something you have to build and carry and maintain and respect and spend it - as much as you can. 

"And embrace life when you can and when you need to stay safe and recover and be still and find peace in whatever dark corner you need.

"I started this band because I needed salvation and I needed safety and I needed a family, and I needed something much bigger than myself and I found it, and I'm very lucky."

Idles (Joe Talbot front centre)

Idles (Joe Talbot front centre). Photo: supplied

Soul music is a strong current that underlies Talbot's musicality, but has also been also deeply influential on those beliefs about how and why he approaches music.

"The thing I learned about soul music from a very young age is there's just this unbridled sense of strength and power through love and a reflection on pain, and a celebration of faith - whether that's in other people, in love, in god, whatever it is. Soul music to me is just a manifestation of the human spirit.

"I was always drawn to it as a child ... soul music's just in my heart. It educated me on how to be unhinged, to not allow other people's judgements to stop me expressing myself to my fullest in my art - it doesn't mean I go around breaking down every time I'm sad or happy, you know - in life you need to have some sort of emotional stability and maturity, but that's not what art is for. 

"Art is to straddle you into the universe and make you feel part of the magic of it all, and you don't want to have rules there. 

"You don't want to care what people think of you - the whole point is that you dance like no one's watching, and I think you should sing like no one's watching, and you should write music like no one's watching, because life's too short - and when you feel that magic of the unbridled soul thing you can't be and you won't be."

Becoming a father has also fed back into his music, and forced him to re-examine his ideals and how he lives, Talbot said.

"I love it [being a father] - it's beautiful. It gives you a sense of equal fear and joy in equal measures, and I think it's taught me to unlearn a lot of things.

"You know that thing I say in one of my songs: if someone talked to you in the way you talk to yourself I'd knock him out - I've got to teach my daughter a sense of inherent confidence and self love and to not worry too much about what other people think. But also to respect other people and all these things. 

"It's like relearning because I want to live by example. So I'm learning every day, it's a really amazing and steep learning curve that I'm very, very grateful for, and she's the most beautiful and amazing thing that I've ever seen and I love her."

Idles are now working on writing for their sixth album, Talbot says - expect more of that raw energy and passion. 

"I've got a real hunger at the moment to write songs that make people dance." 

Idles perform on 24th July at Spark Arena as part of Elemental Nights.

Click here for the Givealittle set up for Firefighter Craig Stevens' family who died at Muriwai, as mentioned in the interview above.