Pickathon 2011: A Conversation with Emma Beaton of Joy Kills Sorrow
Victory Music Review. May 2011.
Next Gen Folk Column
Joy Kills Sorrow has been one of the hottest young folk bands in the US following their sophomore album, Darkness Sure Becomes this City, on Signature Sounds. This notoriety comes from their wickedly complex arrangements and stunning instrumental virtuosity, but mostly from the whisper-soft yet razor-sharp voice of lead singer Emma Beaton. Emma’s a well-known figure among the next generation of roots musicians, and I first met her at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, where she was up late jamming, playing Celtic fiddle tunes on her cello. Born to Scottish immigrants in the far North of Vancouver Island, she traveled with her fiddling mom as a kid, learning from master musicians at folk music camps along the West Coast. She broke out on her own when she was 18, and for a while after that, Emma was one of the best-kept secrets in the Canadian folk scene, respected for her breakout CD, Pretty Fair Maid, which won her Young Performer of the Year at the 2008 Canadian Folk Music Awards. This album introduced a remarkably sensitive interpreter of traditional songs, a singer who was able to draw forth the deep sadness in the old songs, but also to infuse them with a spare, almost minimalist edge. Since joining Joy Kills Sorrow the same year (2008), Emma Beaton has been touring the US and Canada as their front-woman, and bringing along her fresh share of new songs and new energy.
With the release of their debut album as the current lineup, Joy Kills Sorrow has become one of the best known bands coming out of the Boston/New England roots music scene. I asked Emma what she thought of this developing scene:
“It definitely feels like Joy Kills Sorrow is part of a new movement. A lot of really cool, progressive bands are coming onto the scene these days: The Deadly Gentlemen, Sarah Jarosz, Della Mae, just to name a few. Of course all the bands are tied together by being Boston-based, but I think there’s a movement of young people in New England taking their backgrounds in tradition-based music to new places. Della Mae is much more traditional bluegrass-based, but they’re still putting their own twist and voice into it and making it accessible to a wider audience. A lot of musicians here are trying new things and new styles, while still keeping their folk music audiences interested. There’s a ridiculous number of great musicians in New England and New York. It’s a very vibrant scene and so great to see people trying new, cool things and succeeding.“
It’s fun to parse out the different traditions and influences in Joy Kills Sorrow. Certainly the old-time and bluegrass traditions are a huge part of their music, but what would seem the most obvious influence, Alison Krauss (chamber-bluegrass backing, soft high voice, female lead, original songs in bluegrass vein), is a bit of a red herring.
“I’m not much of an Alison Krauss fan… It’s not because of the female-led thing, or the style she does or any of that, I’m just pretty picky about singers – particularly female singers – and her voice just doesn’t get me. In order for me to really love a singer, I have to feel a connection to them and feel like they’re invested emotionally in what they’re singing, and I don’t get that from her… She’s a technically great vocalist, though, and I definitely have respect for her and her success in showing bluegrass to a wider audience…”
And one of the stronger influences, Louisiana’s raging renaissance of traditional Cajun/Creole music, is hardly heard in the music, despite the fact that Beaton travels frequently to Southwest Louisiana and is well-connected to the young generation that’s transforming the music and dance.
“I guess some of my Louisiana connections have come through. A number of the songs I written have a more bluesy feel, as in “You Make Me Feel Drunk” off Darkness Sure Becomes This City. I also brought the Caleb Klauder song, “New Shoes”, to the group, which, although Caleb is from Portland, definitely has a more Southern honky tonk-y feel. I also met Caleb on a trip to Louisiana a few years ago, which is when I started listening to his music.”
Of course, Northwest influences are clear in the band’s current crop of songs. And not only from Beaton. The gorgeous song, “We Will Have Our Day” comes from the pen of Seattle duo Miles & Karina (Dave Keenan and Nova Devonie) and was learned by Joy Kills Sorrow’s banjo player Wesley Corbett (a stunning talent), who studied banjo under Dave. But the bulk of the CD is made up of originals, most written by harmony vocalist/bassist Bridget Kearney. Her songs range between pop lyrics that fit uncommonly well with the jigsaw puzzle bluegrass backing, and simple, joyous odes to everyday life.
Joy Kills Sorrow is a tight instrumental band, made up of young virtuosos on bluegrass instruments. They sound at times like Canadian folk-rockers The Duhks, but with virtuosity more akin to Bela Fleck or other newgrass pioneers. Guitarist Matthew Arcara, mandolinist Jacob Jolliff, and banjo player Wesley Corbett are able to weave themselves together into tightly interwoven instrumental lines, and still burst forth with a killer riff in between verses. It’s a great sound, made only better by the wizardry of wunderkind folk music producer Eric Merrill. Merrill’s been responsible for some transcendent albums in his short time as a record producer. Sadly, he’s now wrapped up in law school at Yale and has given up recording and performing (he’s an incredible fiddler) for the time being. According to Beaton, this was his last recording project before entering Yale. And his subtle touch and intuitive understanding of the rich, organic tones of acoustic music are present throughout.
So what are Joy Kills Sorrow up to now? They’re working on a new album, slated for release this summer, and readying a brand new tour bus for extensive travel. The new album, This Unknown Science, will be released again by Signature Sounds, and features a new producer, Sam Kassirer (Josh Ritter, Langhorne Slim, Erin McKeown), and a new sound made up of almost entirely original material. Emma Beaton checks in on the new album and the band’s upcoming plans:
“Since we recorded Darkness Sure Becomes This City, we’ve really developed our sound. [Jacob Jolliff] had just joined the band not long before the recording of that record, and at the time, playing original material was still a new thing for us. Since then, we’ve done a lot of co-writing within the band (4 of the songs on the new record are co-writes), and really just gelled a lot more as a whole in a lot of ways. We’re still a pretty new band, so even since the last record, we’ve toured a lot more, written a lot more, and even gotten to know each other a lot more. To me, This Unknown Science has a much stronger band identity – like Joy Kills Sorrow, but matured! And better! We’ve taken it in a much more indie-pop/rock sort of direction, not only with the material, but also with the recording process. There’s some organ and piano on there…mandola, octave banjo, and baritone guitar, too. We got some really cool sounds using spring amp on my vocal and a bunch of the mandolin tracks. Basically, I’m super excited about it. And, we just bought a 15-passenger van to tour around in! We’ll be doing CD release shows starting in September and throughout the fall.”
I’ve got a feeling that we’ll be looking at 2008-2011 as a seminal period in a new generation of American roots musicians, and no matter what way you cut it, Joy Kills Sorrow will be at the forefront of that movement. With a constantly maturing sound and as much talent as a Merlefest backstage jam, this is a group that’s gonna stick around.
Check out this video of a song that will be on Joy Kills Sorrow’s new album:
Joy Kills Sorrow: One More Night
And be sure to catch Joy Kills Sorrow at Pickathon this year, Aug 5-7! Held every year at Pendarvis Farm outside Portland, Pickathon is not only one of the coolest festivals in the US, but they’re on the cutting edge of bringing indie folk musicians together with master folk musicians. In addition to Joy Kills Sorrow, Pickathon’s 2011 lineup includes:
The Builders & The Butchers
Mike & Ruthy
and many more!
NOTE: This article first appeared in the May 2011 issue of the Victory Music Review. Published online in the Pacific Northwest, the Victory Music Review features articles, intervies and album reviews of many acoustic folk musicians. Hearth Music writes a monthly column for Victory entitled Next Gen Folk.
See also Hank Davis’ Victory Music review of Joy Kills Sorrow at Wintergrass.