Words by:
Photography: Duncan Loudon
Styling: Thomas Davis
Grooming: Blessing Kambanga
Photography assistant: Jay Izzard
Art direction: Michelle Helena Janssen
Video: Jay Izzard
Edit: Duncan Loudon

The Serenity Prayer invokes a state of calm.

Its words, etched into countless Alcoholics Anonymous chips, Hallmark cards and TV scripts, crackle like an old public service broadcast over the opening track of Vegyn’s forthcoming album, The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The prayer is used in an array of contexts, religious and non-religious, but the underlying principle is the same: enjoy life in service of a higher power, whatever that means to you. Its appearance in Vegyn’s work is one of many gestures towards a philosophy of ‘letting go’ – something he’s embraced in recent years as part of an ongoing negotiation between creativity, ego and the public eye.

VEGYN wears: Sweatshirt: Burberry

The 30-year-old producer and DJ, real name Joseph Thornalley, has always walked a line between hypervisibility and ambiguity. His unique ability to render the liminal spaces between sadness and euphoria was first telegraphed by James Blake, who played early Vegyn tracks during his 2014 BBC Radio 1 residency, and then later cemented by production credits on Frank Ocean’s landmark 2016 albums, Blonde and Endless. Today Thornalley’s fingerprints can be detected over the work of some of the most boundary pushing artists of the last decade (among them Travis Scott, Dean Blunt, JPEGMAFIA and Shygirl), but he maintains a relatively low profile. Until now his own discography has been an understated mix of mood pieces and hallucinogen-friendly beats – “club music for people who secretly hate clubs,” as i-D once put it. He does interviews rarely and performs live even less. The few social media channels he has are largely inactive.

“I just don’t want to invite strangers into my life in that way,” Thornalley shrugs. It’s 9 a.m. in L.A. and a few days into January 2024. The beginning of everything; slate wiped clean for another year. Thornalley doesn’t go in for resolutions, at least none he’s willing to make public, but he is continuing to learn Korean and “stepping into [his] ‘no’ era” after an experiment to see how much work he could take on backfired at the end of last summer. “Obviously, having a YouTube channel or a fucking TikTok would probably help grow one’s business pretty considerably, but I don’t need to,” he continues, “and I think I’ve gained a lot from… Like, if I heard or saw something and I was like, ‘How did they do that?’ It’s more interesting to try and figure it out yourself than it is to just be told how to do it.”

VEGYN wears: Sweatshirt: Burberry

There’s a heartfelt curiosity at the core of Vegyn’s music that keeps him in a constant state of forward momentum. His discography plays fast and loose with format: sample-packed EPs that test the parameters of dance music, and two 70-plus-track mixtapes that place open-ended ideas and perfectly executed visions side-by-side like Arctic clouds and sheets of glacial ice. An exercise in precision, his 2019 debut album Only Diamonds Cut Diamonds chiselled his sound into a sharp point – the final product a controlled explosion of subtle emotional textures and beats so tactile you can practically feel them between your teeth. Four years in the making, his second album guns for perfection in the other direction.

This new album, The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions, is a masterclass in transportive songwriting born from Thornalley’s desire to challenge himself. “I’ve been trying to do things that I find difficult or scary or don’t really want to face,” he explains.  “I feel like any time you land in a particular comfort zone, you have to try to break out of it.” Eschewing shapeshifting instrumentals in favour of melody and structure, The Road To Hell… is a more traditional album overall, but altogether a new kind of album for Vegyn. There are vocals on almost every track, and he stepped away from the computer more often to write on the piano or guitar – instruments he’s less comfortable with. “I just like feeling like a baby,” he grins. “If I pick up the guitar, I really don’t know how to play it. I have to approach it in a different headspace.”

VEGYN wears: Denim set: Burberry

There’s some familiarity, too. His taste for radio-style drops (“MAKE SOME NOISE!”) remains, summoning a Proustian rush of pre-club anticipation and tipsy laughter as you whoosh over a flyover in an Uber XL. His compositions are still mood-based, continuing to hold life’s contrasts in their palms, just presented in a different way. A Mike Kinsella-style riff emerges from the snapping hi-hats and dial-up connection sounds of Time Well Spent, like teenage years rushing before your eyes on your deathbed. The chord progression for Lauren Auder collab Halo Flip – which has a bit of Bitter Sweet Symphony about it – is sustained as the track swells and bursts over seven euphoric minutes. “With a lot of the songs, it was about preserving the momentum and leaving enough to make them these experiential things that you want to kind of revisit,” Thornalley reflects.

The album has a deep dreamlike quality that’s reinforced by the tracklisting, which traps it in an infinite loop. Opener A Dream Goes On Forever and Last Night I Dreamed I Was Alone are defined by delirious, atmospheric instrumentals that feel like drifting in and out of sleep in hospital – the muffled rush of blood, machine-like glitches, indistinct voices having conversations around you. It’s a vibe he identifies in the 2019 single It’s Nice to Be Alive, too: “It’s almost like… I don’t want to say purgatory, but there’s an in-between. I think there’s an element of sleeping and dreaming where it can be this fantasy and also a nightmare.”

VEGYN wears: Hoodie: Artist’s own

That’s partly why his work is threaded with moments of levity. From the title of his first EP, 2014’s All Bad Things Have Ended – Your Lunch Included, to the girls’ freestyle dancing in the video for Makeshift Tourniquet, humour and melancholia intermingle to mirror the feeling of being truly present – often so overwhelming it’s close to intolerable, conjuring nostalgia for something that’s currently happening. “Laughing and crying are similar feelings anyway. I think humour is a way to get people to loosen up a little bit,” he says, referencing the radio drops by way of example. “I always thought that stuff was great – these moments where you invite people to let their guard down.”

Thornalley was born and raised in Kilburn, an area of northwest London described miserably by Google as “lined with mainstream stores, traditional pubs, and chain burger bars”. His mother was a graphic designer and his father is the veteran songwriter and producer Phil Thornalley, who’s worked with a wild array of talent from The Cure to Pixie Lott. BBC Radio 2 was a staple around the house, blasting a steady diet of 60s and 70s hits that reflected the heritage around him – even though it was often ambiently present or actively in decline. For instance, he lived within walking distance of some of the UK’s most storied recording studios, such as Abbey Road and RAK, but never had cause to engage with them. Spots where iconic venues like the National and the Gaumont State Theatre once stood on Kilburn High Road now serve entirely different purposes (“My dad would always be like, ‘This bingo hall was actually a huge venue and the Rolling Stones used to play here…’”). There’s a cheap Thai food spot called Spicy Basil in the music video for Beauty Stranger, but that’s about as much Kilburn as you’ll find in Vegyn’s work.

[L-R] VEGYN wears: Hoodie: Artist’s Own, Sweatshirt: Stone Island, Leather jacket: Burberry

“I don’t know. What do kids usually do?” he replies when I ask what he got up to growing up in the area. “Just try and disassociate for extended periods of time until you’re not allowed to any more.” Beyond that, he spent most of his time “smoking the worst weed in the world listening to awful dubstep”, occasionally coming across artists like Elysia Crampton (now known as Chuquimamani-Condori) on SoundCloud who reconfigured his view of music, or meeting people locally who were making things he found inspiring, driving him to do the same.

Essentially, Thornalley has benefitted from being in close proximity to the music industry while spending his own career navigating around it. Though he’s keen to obliterate the myth of the standalone creator, stressing that he has a distribution deal and a team of people around him adding value to what he does, all his projects are self-released through his own label PLZ Make It Ruins. This gives both Thornalley and other artists involved a rare degree of flexibility. “At some point, the only way you build real stability as a record label is if you own things in perpetuity, and we don’t do that,” he explains. “My lawyer’s always like, ‘Really? We’re doing this deal again?’ But, you know… I think all the best clubs close. All the best labels die. All dogs go to heaven.”

VEGYN wears: T-shirt: Artist’s own

If that sounds blasé, it comes from a place of acceptance rather than indifference. Thornalley turns his words over gently as he speaks, letting one thought hang unfinished before drifting into the middle of another. In company he’s collected but unguarded, humour self-effacing and deadpan (at one point during the photoshoot he slumps into a chair with his hands folded on his chest and touches his index fingers together, “like Gru”). That sense of ease extends to the way he works, though he gives the impression that any peace on that front has been hard won. “There’s so much egoic desire in music that it’s becoming a trickier thing to navigate as I get older. When I started, I had this intense desire to be loved. I wanted to make things that other people really loved, and create these experiences. And now it’s great,” he laughs, “I don’t care!”

“I want to be an artist that releases a lot of things rather than getting caught up in illusions of grandeur”

That’s one reason, he says, why he now prefers to make things quickly. After the four-year process of writing and rewriting that eventually led to The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions, Thornalley is more interested in short, intense bursts of creativity. “I want to be an artist that releases a lot of things rather than getting caught up in illusions of grandeur,” he says. The album’s collaborations with experimental contemporaries Double Virgo, Léa Sen and Loraine James were born from a more instinctual approach that left little room for second-guessing. Headache – a project produced by Vegyn, written by Francis Hornsby Clark and performed by A.I. – was done in two weeks’ worth of studio time and came out three weeks later. “Obviously, there’s no wrong way to release music. This is purely for my own mental health,” he stresses. “I feel like that’s more rewarding for me than being stuck in this sort of quagmire of self-doubt.”

Despite his constantly evolving approach, there’s a singular vision that connects all of Vegyn’s projects, whether it’s his own music, production work, or the artists affiliated with PLZ Make It Ruins. There’s an air of mystery – a reluctance to give anything away or upfront – shared by his collaborators, and a modern sense of ennui and loss coursing through his work that gives everything he touches a distinct feel. Headache is notably one of the few music experiments with A.I. so far that actually works, partly because it was written by people, and partly because of the concept. Inspired by that time when text-to-speech memes, like the ones of Joe Biden talking about smoking weed, were ubiquitous, Thornalley and Clark thought it would be funny to make a project about the “most unlikable, least relatable guy” on Earth. Thornalley summarises the character of Headache as “this white, upper-middle class, almost aristocratic English dude with a real chip on his shoulder and very little self-awareness”.

VEGYN wears: Sweatshirt: Burberry

The response has been interesting. Some people saw the funny side, others found it to be incredibly moving; many continue to wonder if Francis Hornsby Clark is even real, to which Thornalley says: “Yeah, he just doesn’t have Instagram.”

He continues: “We did an NTS show as Headache and we were like, ‘People will get this. People will understand that it’s actively a joke.’ And then we had a friend of ours text us like, ‘Bro, I’ve been listening to the Headache NTS show all week and I can’t stop crying,’” he says. “I don’t want to make anyone think they’re not right for feeling some intense feelings with it. I don’t want to belittle that experience. Some of it is relatable and other parts are just completely absurd.”

There’s an uncanniness to the Headache project that comes from the sad tinge of the music and the relatability of the writing – a lot of which is about loneliness and alienation, which the use of A.I. actually underscores. A lot of it is also darkly comic, with echoes of Monkey Dust or Chris Morris’ Jam. “It’s the drivel of a constant monologue of somebody that’s so self-obsessed but can’t stop themselves,” Thornalley explains. “It begins with him being like, ‘I’m so lost and I don’t know what’s happening to me! I need help! Why won’t anybody help me…’ and by the end he’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m lost, nobody’s gonna help me and everything sucks. But you know what? I can still dance.’”

VEGYN wears: Jacket: Engineered Garments

In many ways it’s emblematic of his approach to music in general, which always comes from a place of total sincerity and emotional drive, but doesn’t think too highly of itself either. “I’ve spent four years working on this record and I could easily come into the rollout being like, ‘This is going to be the one that changes everything. After this record comes out, my whole life is going to be different and I’m going to be able to buy the jetski,’” he says, affecting a deliberately pompous voice. “But none of that matters. I’ve made this cool thing that challenged me. That was the point. I’m excited that it’s coming out because it’ll be nice to share it with other people, but if nobody cared, that would be fine. The people that I work with might be a little bit concerned,” he smiles, “but if you’re constantly thinking that something’s gonna change your life, all it can do is meet your expectations. Then people are still dissatisfied with that anyway. It’s taken a decade of insecurity and egoic desire for me to finally feel like I can let these things go.”

“When you feel relief, there’s a real sense of sadness to it a lot of the time. It feels upsetting to accept something for how it is. We live in a world that projects these ideas of happiness”

These days he finds more value in his life outside of music. He’s been leaning into his design background and sketching more clothes again, but declines to get into specifics about his other interests in order to preserve privacy. “I’ve got all these neeky things I could get into but most of the time I just like cooking, eating nice food, hanging out with friends. The stuff that doesn’t motivate any kind of pursuit of capital, you know? Just nice things that you are able to do with other people,” he says. “That’s the key.”

Like all Vegyn projects, The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions works precisely because of its ambiguity. The title indicates a split between intentions and actions that runs throughout all 13 tracks, which all have a transitional atmosphere befitting bus journeys, running, doing the dishes, waiting in an airport or any other liminal spaces that encourage self-reflection (one comment on the video for The Path Less Travelled reads: “can’t wait to replay this album while driving in GT7 lol”). Thornalley wonders whether he’s drawn to instrumental music partly because it’s such a rich canvas for people to project themselves onto. “When you go into an art gallery, it’s about experiencing the work. It’s about seeing something and feeling something and trying to become closer to yourself,” he says, considering the imagery of Halo Flip, which arrived subconsciously but seems to represent the album’s search for peace and comfort in an unstable world. “Even when you disappear, you know that you can come right back,” sings Auder – a looping declaration of love.

VEGYN wears: Coat and jumper: Stone Island

“A lot of the record is about letting go – of preconceived notions of yourself, of what a friend really is, of what you expect yourself to be able to do and what you actually do,” Thornalley explains. “When you feel relief, there’s a real sense of sadness to it a lot of the time. It feels upsetting to accept something for how it is. We live in a world that deals in fantasy and projects these ideas of happiness. But you can make your own…” he trails off here and pauses to think, before continuing: “You’re not the things that happen to you and you don’t have to live in the stories that you tell yourself either.”

For Thornalley, the goal right now is to make stuff that’s “objectively interesting and nice to listen to” but also presents an alternative idea or viewpoint that knocks something loose for the listener. “The record’s there as an encouragement to try and find a different way,” he offers, quoting from his track titles now: “The path less travelled… A dream goes on forever.”

The Road to Hell Is Paved with Good Intentions is out on 5 April via PLZ Make It Ruins