VRSTY mastermind Joey Varela grew up worshiping at the altar of Usher and Michael Jackson, artists who inspired his own soulful, mellifluous vocal style. But his artistic path permanently forked in high school, after a friend invited him to his first heavy music concert — an impressive triple-bill at New York City’s Webster Hall headlined by post-hardcore act From First to Last.
“After that show, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life — that’s it,’” he says. “I watched Sonny [Moore] get onstage, singing and working the crowd. It was like, ‘Holy shit, I need to do this. How is this guy commanding this huge [audience]?’ I fell in love with it and never looked back.”
But the story is more nuanced than a blanket shift from R&B to rock: The most compelling part of Varela’s music — the very thing that makes his band so unique — is how seamlessly he combines those two sounds.
That fusion instantly turned heads on VRSTY’s debut EP, 2020’s Cloud City — including the fittingly titled “Massive,” a barnburner piled high with emo screams, detuned metal riffs, arena-rock guitar squeals and a sultry after-midnight croon. It also became their proper launching pad, becoming the most-played song on SiriusXM station Octane for two straight weeks that year.
But Varela and his bandmates (bassist Javy Dorrejo, drummer Chris Cody, guitarist Paul Gregory) took another leap with their debut LP, Welcome Home, which is simultaneously hookier and heavier than their earlier work. Not that any of this has ever been planned for Varela — in fact, mapping it out would be counter-productive.
“I gotta be honest: I never think about that ever,” he says of his stylistic hybrid. “I’m free-form, I guess. When we start writing, I’m like, ‘Let’s just have fun with it. If what we’re doing sounds good and feels like us, that’s the only thing that matters.’ I don’t want anything to feel forced.”
The material flowed naturally: Varela drew primarily on songs he wrote before they got signed, rounding out the project with a couple newer tracks (“Welcome Home,” “Sick”) workshopped with regular producer Andrew Baylis.
“I actually never stop writing, so I had a bunch of music ready,” Varela says. “But when the pandemic happened, I sat down and was like, ‘I have all these songs with parts I might wanna change,’ so I really started hammering them out. It’s a good combination of older songs I’ve always wanted to use and songs I just wrote on the spot.”
With his collaborators in his corner, Varela stretched out beyond his fleshed-out (and fully realized) demos: “Paranoid” hinges on a dynamic contrast between the verses’ spacey electronic balladry and the choruses’ heavy attack; opener “Finesse” features a head-turning guest spot from rapper-singer Kalan Beal (Notions); meanwhile, “Soul” incorporates a number of dizzying tempo changes and breakdowns.
“It was based on this really weird dream I had,” Varela says of the latter song. “I watch a lot of horror movies at home, and I’m super into old rock and roll lore, like how all these old blues players from the ‘60s and ‘70s are like, ‘I sold my soul to the devil.’ I always read about things like that. One night I was at home playing that intro riff on acoustic guitar, and I went to bed not thinking anything of it. And I literally had a dream that I sold my soul to the devil. I wrote the song based on what that would be like. If I did that, how would I feel? How would I use this? I woke up and wrote the song that day.”
The album’s sonic centerpiece might be “Never Again,” built on a funky vocal cadence and sprawling textures sparked by co-writer Cody Quistad, singer-guitarist of Florida metalcore band Wage War.
“[Cody] went into it wanting to do a straight up rock song,” Varela says. “But right before we started the writing session, he was like, ‘Hey, I listened to your music, and you’ve got this poppy, soulful voice, so fuck it. Let’s not worry about what we should write. Let’s just write anything.’ I had this idea for the lyrics and [hook]. I was like, ‘I have this song where I want to write a love letter to who I was in the past. If I could go back and have a conversation with myself, what would I say?’”
One good option would be, “Congratulations.” Years after that life-changing From First to Last show, he’s followed the dream to the limit — unconcerned with the borders of genre, unwilling to box in his vision.
“[We’re in] a renaissance of music,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what genre it is or where it’s coming from — people are like, ‘Good music is good music, and we don’t give a shit.’ And I think that’s the sickest thing ever.”