Interview: Josie Dunne is Acing the Industry, Just by Being Herself

Singer-songwriter Josie Dunne is going places. From our shared hometown of La Grange, to giving her career a jumpstart in Nashville, to touring around the country, she’s on a fast-track to indie pop superstardom. And it’s not because of any sort of persona, flashy costumes, big-name collaborations; she’s done it all on her own, on her terms, simply by being herself.

I spoke with Josie in advance of her hometown show at the Bottom Lounge this Thursday, September 26, about it all–how she got her start, her hit summer song “Ooh La La,” and performing at this year’s Lollapalooza. And, to top it all off, she’s gearing up for the release of her second EP this fall.

We’re both from the same town and it’s a very Midwestern, familial, personable sort of town, and you also came from a very creative family where pretty much everyone was doing something artistic. Tell me how that influenced your start and how you got to where you are.

I think with growing up in Chicago but especially in the suburb of La Grange, it’s just it’s such a small, tight community, and I’ve always felt super, super supported by everybody in town. For everybody within La Grange specifically, but also in the Chicagoland area, a win for anyone who’s from there is a win for the whole city. I just feel super, super grateful that I grew up in that atmosphere and I think that has been a driving force in me wanting to do it [music]. I just I can’t imagine doing it without the support. That has definitely been influential to me and my sound, just growing up in a town that had my back. Everyone in my family does something creative, so just being around that has pushed me to where all I want to do is be surrounded by creative things in the world.

“Ooh La La” was a song of the summer for me. It’s very fun and vibrant and just makes you smile. What inspired that sound for you and what was the writing process for that?

I wish it had a cooler story, but the truth is I was in Vegas for this songwriting camp where a bunch of writers organized to go to one city or one studio and then you’re split off into groups and it’s a weekend of intensive writes, so I was a part of the songwriters’ camp and flew to Vegas. I was literally just waiting for my session to start, super bored in the hotel room because I’m not a big gambler and I’m not a big partier, so during the day what do you do when you’re staying on the Vegas Strip? I was just sitting in my hotel I was so bored. So I just started mumbling these melodies. it just came from me being super bored in a hotel room with nothing else to do, and so I wrote that chorus and brought it to my friend Andrew, and together we finished it up.

Is your songwriting process usually more sporadic or more “I’m going to sit down in the next three hours”? Do you do any ritual before you start writing songs, or how do you get in the songwriting zone?

It’s different every single time. Sometimes inspiration will just like strike in a random moment, like somebody will say something, and the whole time after they said that, they’re talking, and I’m just trying to remember what exactly they said. It could strike at any moment, but with me I try to take any moment that I get a melody or a title idea, and I take it and put it down in my phone. I’ll just record the melody on my voice notes or write it down in like the Notes app or in an actual notebook. I keep a notebook with me pretty much all the time and write down whatever the idea was, whether it be for a song or for merch or anything. Then later I’m mostly set up on co-writing sessions, so I’ll go in and meet a writer in the studio and then we write a song together that day, so I’ll usually save a lot of my ideas for my co-writes so that I can have somebody else to bounce ideas off of. So it’s a mix of both in that answer; the moments of writing a song are sporadic and random. You just get an idea and then usually it’s saving it until you get into a session and then you use little tricks and tips like tools in order to write the song and create inspiration in a moment where it’s just a random Tuesday at noon.

The thing I like about your songwriting is it’s very authentic and genuine. What messages do you hope to impart to your fan base through music and what messages are you hoping to distill to your fans?

To me, the most important thing is I don’t take myself very seriously. I’ve grown up in this really supportive awesome community with great friends and awesome family, and I think the people across the board are generally really good with great intentions and the world is a great place and life is good. So for me it’s just reminding people of that, because I think it’s really popular today, like in culture, to hate everything or not care about anything. My goal is just to reinstate that it’s okay to have fun, and the world isn’t a bad place, and life is good. It’s the truth, and I feel like we’re like losing that message a little bit right now in the world, and so it’s so shocking to me because I’ve just grown up around awesome, great, supportive people.

Along that line, the pop sector of music is almost taking itself too seriously, and it’s oversaturated, and a lot of artists present personas versus who they really are. Do you feel like you’ve ever had to be a certain way and what’s your take on that in general?

I’ve never felt like I had to be a certain way. I think I’ve gotten really lucky where, and I’m not just saying this, Atlantic as a whole has really, really, really let me be my own person, write my own songs, and put out the songs that are the ones I want out. I’ve gotten full creative freedom to just be myself. I see a lot of artists that I don’t totally think are representing their truest self, but I think in this world, that comes and goes really quickly. I think that people’s BS radar in the world is so high that if something’s not true to what’s actually there, I think people can see through it pretty quickly. Even with stuff like as little as posting their own Instagram photos or whatever it is, I think people can tell when the artist has touched something versus when they haven’t. And so my hope is that the industry figures that out and the artists start being as true to themselves as they want to be and letting people see parts of them that are not that cool. That’s what I’ve tried to do. It is a weird part I think of the industry right now with everybody trying to be cooler than they are, but I think that is going to come and go so fast that it won’t matter.

You had a big appearance earlier this summer here at Lollapalooza. You were onstage with two different artists, and then you opened an aftershow with AJR. Tell me about what that weekend was like for you?

I can never talk about that weekend and not just be smiling so big. It was the best weekend ever. I had grown up going to Lolla; I found this picture of me, like six or seven years earlier somewhere in the crowd at Perry’s, and I remember being there and thinking the whole weekend like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t imagine, like what if one day I could sing on that stage?” What a full circle moment. I want to do that so bad, and so then to get to step out and do that with Matoma specifically, but also with Win and Woo, and just being on the grounds and on the other side of Lolla was so cool and so awesome.

Your second EP is coming out soon; no release date yet, but you’ve been releasing songs gradually. What can we expect from your second EP as compared to your first EP To Be the Little Fish?

It was a lot of trial and error to get the first EP, and it was just me learning and moving forward artistically. The EP content wise is about relationships that I’ve had in my late teens and early twenties with either friends, romantic relationships, whatever, and me putting this into the different songs in little different stories about how they have helped me grow into who I am.

When you return to Chicago for your show at the Bottom Lounge, what are your must-visit spots in Chicago that you have to hit up before you go back?

Well I know that my first answer is Portillo’s, 1000 percent. The cake shakes are so good. And cheese fries there, too. You can’t go wrong, it’s so fire. Another thing I would say is the art museum. The art museum is so world-class, it’s insane. And if you’re not going to either of those places, the greatest place ever to go in Chicago is Wrigley Field. It’s a classic. I’m the world’s biggest Cubs fan, so 1000 percent if I’m in Chicago, I know the Cubs schedule, and I’m trying to get a ticket to a game.

Sarah Brooks
Sarah Brooks

Sarah Brooks is a native Chicagoan with a penchant for words, music, art and this magnificent city of Chicago. Raised on The Beatles and learning the violin at age 9, Sarah’s passion for music began early in life. Her musical obsessions include Wilco, Otis Redding, Neko Case and Real Estate, but they truly change daily. She can be found at a concert, trying a new restaurant, or running along the lakefront path.