With a hit single—the strummy, propulsive anthem “Riptide,” which spent five weeks atop the Billboard Alternative chart this fall—major festival gigs, and a North American headlining tour, Australian singer-songwriter Vance Joy was already set to finish out 2014 as one of the buzziest new-folk troubadours since Bon Iver. And that was before Taylor Swift (perhaps you’ve heard of her) tapped the former semiprofessional athlete born James Keough to open on her world tour kicking off May 20.
“There hasn’t been that kind of ‘big’ moment,” says Keough, who played his first proper gig only two years ago. “It’s been such a steady burn.” Odds are that things are about to get a lot hotter.
Although Keough and Swift haven’t hung out yet—or even spoken on the phone—they’re already mutual fans. Swift’s acoustic cover of “Riptide” went viral last month, and Keough is a longtime admirer. Her recent hit “Shake It Off,” he says, “is just great songwriting.”
Vance Joy isn’t quite a Ziggy Stardust-style rock-god alias. Mostly, Keough says, he was just tired of people butchering his surname. (For the record, it rhymes with “neo.”) “I was embarking on this adventure with music and I was keen to have a new name”—so he plucked one from a novel by the Man Booker Prize-winning writer Peter Carey.
Before he found his alter ego, Keough earned a law degree and played Australian football semi-professionally. He didn’t even share his musical ambitions with his teammates until the coach singled him out one night at an after-practice dinner: “He knew I could play and put me on the spot. He was like, ‘Jimmy, bring your guitar and get in front of everyone.'”
The Catwoman’s Meow
In a memorable “Riptide” line, Keough calls a paramour the “closest thing to Michelle Pfeiffer that you’ve ever seen.” So how does a millennial end up crushing on an actress who was People‘s Most Beautiful cover girl when he was a toddler? It came, he says, from a childhood obsession with Batman—including 1992’s Batman Returns, in which Pfeiffer famously played Catwoman. “That scene where she loses her marbles and smashes up her little pretty pink apartment,” he says, “and she’s guzzling the milk and it’s going everywhere—it’s so good! For whatever reason, it just lodged in my mind.”
This article appears in Entertainment Weekly‘s Nov. 14/21 issue.