Joy Kills Sorrow embraces roots-oriented sound and straightforward songwriting
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
There’s an earthy feel to the music of Joy Kills Sorrow, a comforting sound reminiscent of backroad gravel clanging rhythmically around the wheel well of an old truck, or the hypnotic lullaby of spring rain on a cabin roof.
It’s rural music, burnished with flourishes of bluegrass and country, and it comes from Beantown. And that, said Joy Kills Sorrow bass player and songwriter Bridget Kearney, often takes people by surprise.
“It’s not where the tradition was born, so it’s sort of unexpected, but there is a pretty amazing folk revival going on in Boston, especially centered around young musicians who have moved there,” Kearney told The Daily Times during a recent phone interview. It’s become this hub for young folk musicians who have been moving out there to be around each other and make music.”
The members of Joy Kills Sorrow are part of that movement. Each comes from a distinct background, and most aren’t natives of the city; Kearney herself grew up in Iowa on a diet of popular music.
“I was studying music in school as well, classical and a lot of jazz, and somewhere in there, I started getting into folk music and songwriting,” she said. “It wasn’t until I joined Joy Kills Sorrow that I was really a part of bluegrass music at all.”
In fact, her previous band included two saxophones, drums and bass; her introduction to bluegrass was akin to a painter being handed a new color wheel of exotic shades from which to create.
“It was kind of like having a new instrument to play,” she said. “It was really fun to translate the musical concepts I had in my head to a new set of instruments, and it’s so inspiring to write music that’s a little bit different from the way you would usually hear these instruments played stylistically. It’s really fun to come at it from a pure song-and-music approach rather than saying, ‘This is the role this instrument has to play.’”
Joy Kills Sorrow started out as a self-proclaimed “modern American stringband” in 2005, releasing a self-titled debut album in 2007. Two years and several albums later, the group’s lineup is a powerful one: Founding member Matthew Arcara was the 2006 winner of the National Flatpicking Championship held each year in Winfield, Kansas (a contest won three times by local teacher/virtuoso Steve Kaufman); vocalist Emma Beaton was the 2008 Canadian Folk Music Awards’ Young Performer of the Year; and Kearney herself won the 2006 John Lennon Songwriting Contest. Last year, the group released “Darkness Sure Becomes This City,” and a whirlwind tour schedule has taken them to foreign cities Kearney never dreamed she’d ever play.
“One that stands out for me was when we did our first tour of Europe last year, and we played at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, Scotland,” she said. “We had two shows going on — one of them was in the Royal Concert Hall with these amazing musicians like Mavis Staples and Tim O’Brien, and two hours later we played at another venue in town opening for Anais Mitchell and Hadestown.
“It was a super-amazing day, and it was definitely the high point of our tour over there. It was great seeing the world a little bit and playing on the same stage with a bunch of musicians that you’ve admired for a long time.”
Part of what makes the band’s music so appealing, in addition to the skill of those playing and the way their instruments harmonize on an infectious level that touches the wilder places of the heart, is Kearney’s songwriting. Having studied English in school, she first debuted her songwriting to a college poetry class; the instructor hailed its honesty, and she’s only gotten better in the years since.
“I guess I’ve always wanted the song to be something that’s very clear and makes sense,” she said. “I’ve never been into the type of songwriting that’s more obscure or vague; if I’m going to throw flowers and birds into a song, then they better have a good reason for being there.”