Americanagrams: Joy Kills Sorrow
Joy Kills Sorrow, a five-piece band out of Boston, is elevating the art of making tradition sound nontraditional. They are a string band with an indie rock intensity, mixing jazz, pop and roots influences into something uniquely their own. The latest example of their innovative spirit is the seven-song EP Wide Awake, released in early June on Signature Sounds. Matthew Arcara (guitar), Emma Beaton (vocals), Wes Corbett (banjo), Jacob Jolliff (mandolin) and Zoe Guigueno (bass) are already working on a new full-length album they hope to start recording early next year.
We sat down with Arcara, Beaton and Corbett at Crema coffee house in Nashville to dig deep into the big sound on Wide Awake and what motivates them to keep pushing forward as Joy Kills Sorrow.
Can you take us inside the production and explain a little bit about how you achieved such a full, powerful sound on Wide Awake?
Arcara: It comes from a few things, as far as making choices about the arrangements and where we’re voicing things. I spent a lot of time really exploring my register more and trying to stay out of Jake and Wes’s way in the midrange and high end. Really, I was just trying to fill out a rich, full low end sound that matched with Zoe’s bass part. For me, that was a big part of it, like “Okay, I’m really going to focus down here,” and try to find things that fit with the bass really well, really line up and create a bigger pad for everything else to get built on. There were a lot of things with the recording process as well, how we mic’ed instruments, how we compressed them, how we equalized them–instead of putting the vocals in front of the band, we really tried to bring them into the band and get them surrounded by the instruments instead of having the vocals out front and the instruments behind them. We didn’t want it to be, “Oh yeah, look, there’s a little guitar thing back there somewhere.” We wanted everybody right up in your face, more of a rock band kind of mix.
Corbett: It has to do with how we recorded it, how we arranged it and what kind of material we picked to record. I think it naturally happened to some extent. From playing a bunch of shows, we had a few tunes that were along the lines of what Wide Awake is. The audience reaction to them was really powerful, which is not to say that we were not doing what we like to do anymore for the sake of getting audience reaction. It just naturally went that way.
Beaton: We also learned a lot from our previous two recording experiences. We experimented a little bit on This Unknown Science with sounds and doing different treatments for instruments that we hadn’t done before. We learned what aspects of that we liked, what we wanted to throw away and what parts we could improve upon.
What drew you to The Postal Service song “Such Great Heights” to cover it for Wide Awake?
Arcara: We played a residency at the Lizard Lounge in Boston a long time ago and we had this idea of a veto-less cover, where everybody in the band got to pick a tune to cover that nobody else could say, “No, I don’t want to play that.” It was one I picked just because I thought it interesting to see what it would sound like and I thought the beginning little parts would be great for banjo and mandolin. I heard the drum machine rhythm and I was like, “Man, Jake will be able to play that somehow and it’ll sound really cool on the mandolin as a chop drum part.” So we just kind of went with it. We thought it would be fun to learn the tune in a pretty strict manner and then also do what we do well with it. For example, instead of just making an instrumental interlude like what’s on the original, we thought it would be cool to let Jake and Wes fly off and use that instrumental part as the pad for solos. I think that’s really the thing we added to the tune. We added our arrangement and our delivery, but …
Corbett: Other than having banjo on it! (Laughs)
Arcara: Yeah, that’s kind of a given. It also ended up being really fun to play for us.
Corbett: That tune is so much fun to play. It’s fun every night.
Do you have personal favorite songs from Wide Awake?
Beaton: I like all the material. I think every time we work up a new song, suddenly it’s the most fun to play because it’s new. But most of the material on the EP, we arranged pretty close to when we recorded. I’m never really sure when to stop calling something “new”…
Arcara: Until there’s something to replace it?
Beaton: (Laughs) Yeah, but I don’t know, I like playing all of it. It’s all fun for different reasons.
Arcara: I feel like I ebb and flow with things sometimes. When we were making the record, there was this octave banjo part that I just thought was the coolest thing. That was my favorite thing for a long time. For whatever reason, that one moment just really got me. Then some other nights it’s like “Oh man, that part was really great. I really loved that tonight!” Like Emma said, anything that feels fresh and new is exciting. That’s what keeps it fun.
How do you strike a balance between experimenting and keeping the music accessible?
Beaton: We always try to keep the song in mind when we’re arranging. Everybody has the best interest of serving what the song is about. Not in terms of serving the vocalist or making it a vocal feature, but making sure it’s not just “Hey, look at us; we can play this.” Speaking for myself, I don’t sing some crazy shit just because I can do it. It’s about what will portray the song in the best way. I think that’s kind of all we need to keep in mind. We try to vary the sounds, find different parts and work all the instruments together well, but ultimately we want people to feel something from the songs and really enjoy them. It can get out of hand if you don’t keep that in mind and that’s when it becomes, “Well, they’re playing some cool stuff, but it’s just too much.” Sometimes Jake will come up with some really crazy part. And we’ll be like, “Yeah, Jake, that’s really sweet. But there’s no way we’re gonna play that.” (Everyone laughs)
Arcara: This is a sad love song, it doesn’t need that.
Beaton: That sounds awesome, but that’s insane. (More laughter)
Arcara: No, but I feel like the overarching thing is that a song is really just a vehicle for conveying emotion in some way. It’s easy to get lost in forgetting that, to get caught up in the details or the technicality of the music. So we just have to check back in with ourselves and asking “Wait, does this really need it? Is this unnecessary? Does this fit in the flow well, does it feel right?” A lot of times we will rehearse, get a workable version of something, make a little Garage Band computer demo of it, and check it out in the van. We try to go with what feels good rather than maybe what is intellectually correct. If it doesn’t sound right because it’s too experimental, it also doesn’t feel right to us.
Corbett: I think we just have five sets of ears coming from pretty disparate backgrounds all checking in.
You’re all very accomplished musicians who could do a lot of different things. What is it about the Joy Kills Sorrow style of music that keeps you fired up?
Corbett: There’s still so much uncharted ground with this kind of instrumentation. The fact that it is all acoustic, that the people are really making those sounds with their instruments is what keeps me coming back. There’s a hands-on thing about it that I have always really loved.
Arcara: For me, it’s the opportunity to be creative, work with people and collaborate on things. I love those moments in rehearsal where I get really excited because I figure out some way to play some part that I would have never thought of before if I hadn’t been forced to because of the song we’re working on. And those “Aha!” moments where the band clicks and you feel the wave pushing you forward. That feeling is what keeps me coming back and makes me willing to go through the sit down and talk, play and rehearse for hours on end to get that one little gem of a creative moment where everybody feels in the same place.
Beaton: Even the amount of time it takes us to arrange things can be tedious and frustrating, I really appreciate that we take a lot of time. There was a song on our last full-length that we played for over a year before we recorded it and just before we went into the studio, we completely flipped the arrangement around. If somebody comes up with a new idea six months later, we’re all down to try it out and keep on making the arrangement better. Just because we recorded a song doesn’t mean that we can’t change something. It keeps us all interested, it makes it more fun, it makes it more fun for the audience, if they know our material, that we play it a little different, that we keep trying to make the songs better even if they’re old.
Will you be co-producing again on your upcoming full-length album?
Arcara: It will basically be the same thing we did last time: we’ll be coproducing with Dan Cardinal, who will also be engineering. We just had a great working relationship with him, we appreciated every idea he threw on the table. And we’re also five very opinionated, headstrong people who know what we want. We know what we want to sound like. For the most part, we’ve got that figured out. We appreciate input and advice from other folks, but we also just know the answers to a lot of the questions.
Beaton: The really cool thing about working with Dan is that we went into it planning on self-producing and we’ve known him for a while, but he ended up having a lot of ideas. He’s such a talented engineer and awesome guy, he just felt like a sixth band member. It was really cool for us to work together producing; we’d never done that before. It was a great learning experience and it went incredibly smoothly – which I think surprised all of us to some degree. (Laughter) But it was also really nice to still have somebody involved who had one more set of ears that were a little more removed. And his ears are incredibly good.
Arcara: Sometimes we can hear something but we can’t explain what it might be or attribute a solution to it. The really nice thing about splitting the production responsibilities with him is that he didn’t feel the pressure to continually come up with ideas. I think sometimes producers feel like their role is to have all these ideas and change things. Sometimes it can be maybe a little heavy handed. But Dan only brought up ideas when he had actual good ideas that most of the time we listened to. He knew that if he didn’t have something, that was fine. It was just a comfortable way to work.
Is there anything that you want to build on from Wide Awake as you go forward?
Arcara: Personally, I’m really interested to take a lot of the things we did on the EP and translate it into a full-length. Wide Awake is pretty up-tempo, pretty in your face in a certain way. And I’m really curious to see how taking a lot of that approach will work with having some slower and mid-tempo tunes. I want to see how those techniques, ideas, and textures transfer to filling out a balanced full-length record.
Corbett: I’m just exciting to keep developing the sound. I’m really proud of the EP, it’s the most proud I’ve ever been of anything. I’m really excited to do it again, but better.
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