Joy Kills Sorrow has new uses for traditional sounds
Joy Kills Sorrow sports at least two top-flight instrumentalists in the form of mandolinist Jacob Jolliff and banjo player Wesley Corbett; guitarist Matthew Arcara and bassist Bridget Kearney have impressive chops as well. But the single most defining feature of the Massachusetts-based quintet is singer Emma Beaton, who’s been graced with a set of truly spectacular pipes.
Bluegrass veteran Laurie Lewis, an occasional collaborator, has described her as having “a voice like a laser”, and that’s not far off the mark. Even more remarkable, though, is that in Joy Kills Sorrow her vocal prowess is almost always in service of another’s words. John Lennon Songwriting Contest winner Kearney writes most of the songs—a state of affairs that, so far, seems to be working out well.
“The whole job of a singer is to convey meaning,” the Qualicum Beach–raised Beaton explains, checking in with the Straight from backstage at the Calgary Folk Music Festival. “So no matter who’s written the song—whether it’s the person singing it or somebody else—it’s really important to get behind the lyrics of the song and find a way to relate to them.”
That’s not always easy, she adds. On Joy Kills Sorrow’s second full-length, This Unknown Science, Kearney’s songs range from simple declarations of love to darker and more enigmatic musings, and the bassist isn’t always forthcoming as to what the latter are about.
“Sometimes I’m like, ‘I don’t know what she’s feeling, and I don’t know how I feel,’ ” Beaton admits. “There’s been a couple of times where I’ve said, ‘I’d actually rather that we didn’t do this song.’ But in every case we stuck with it a while longer, and eventually I figured out a way to relate.
“Conveying emotion,” she adds, “isn’t about singing in the way you think you should sing based on what somebody else felt when they wrote the song. It’s about finding your own way to connect with it and performing that.”
It probably helps, too, that while Joy Kills Sorrow uses classic bluegrass instrumentation, its approach draws almost as much from indie rock as it does from the music of the Appalachian Mountains. Like their peers in the Punch Brothers and Crooked Still, Beaton and her bandmates are part of a generation that’s finding new ways to make old sounds work.
“Out of those groups, I think we have more of a pop approach,” says the singer. “But it’s a similar idea; there’s younger people kinda deciding, ‘Hey, we love playing these instruments, and we love traditional music, but let’s see what we can bring to these instruments that’s modern. How can we put a modern spin on traditional stuff that we’ve been playing for years?’
“We’re not trying to sound like a rock band,” she adds, “but there are rock or pop sensibilities that work, and we can utilize them in the music we write.”
Joy Kills Sorrow plays CBC Studio 700 on Wednesday (August 8).