Some people prefer pop music that behaves like math: once a few familiar variables have been determined—female vocals or male? Acoustic guitar or electric? — the end result should be easy to predict, and always sound the same. That's not the Joy Kills Sorrow method. This Boston-based string band favors a more unpredictable approach relying on musical chemistry and improvisation. Hence the title of their sophomore album, This Unknown Science. All of the members have been touted as virtuosos, and they effortlessly hunt for unexpected outcomes and new discoveries. "We like experimenting and stretching boundaries," explains guitarist Matthew Arcara, an acoustic player gaining a name for himself as both an up-and-coming guitar slinger and luthier. Arcara has taken home several honors at various guitar competitions including Winfield’s National Flatpicking Championship in 2006.
On This Unknown Science, Joy Kills Sorrow's sound is born from the best of two worlds. They start with a base of time-honored timbres and techniques, yet fashion original songs and arrangements that reflect a love of indie-rock and new folk. While the former has made Joy Kills Sorrow proven favorites with the bluegrass circuit, their emphasis on writing arrangements transcending narrow genres allows them to reach wider audiences. Emma Beaton's haunting vocals and the ensemble's rootsy variation on Americana is just as apt to appeal to fans of Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes as committed Stanley Brothers enthusiasts. "It's not that we think traditional music needs improving," Arcara clarifies. "This is just how we happen to play it."
Joy Kills Sorrow brings together an eclectic mix of musicians who each have classical and/or jazz conservatory training, though collectively, they ambitiously utilize their years of study to hone a new acoustic territory yet discovered by many of today's top artists. It's an amalgamation of lamenting music of the heartland, singular stories of heartache and laughter, beautiful string arrangements, and five musicians who grew up listening to indie-rock, jazz, and pop music that churn out impressive tunes with an incredibly contemporary sensibility.
Singer Emma Beaton, who was nominated for "Traditional Vocalist of the Year" at the Canadian Folk Music Awards 2010 and won "Young Performer of the Year" at the age of 18 at the Canadian Folk Music Awards 2008, has captivated critics and fans alike. She quickly caught the ear of bluegrass super-star Laurie Lewis, who says she has a "voice like a laser." A classically trained cellist, she formerly studied at Berklee College of Music and has worked closely with Crooked Still's Tristan Clarridge and Rushad Eggleston.
Bassist Bridget Kearney, who double majored in Jazz Bass at The New England Conservatory of Music and English at Tufts University, is the primary songwriter of the group. Of songwriting, Kearney comments, "A lot of my ideals as a songwriter come from novelists and poets, like Hemingway's idea that to start writing a story, all you have to do is write one true sentence. A song works that way too. You just need to find one seed, the rest will grow from there."
In 2006, Kearny won the John Lennon Songwriting contest for her songs "Sometimes When I'm Drunk" and "You're Wearing My Favorite Shirt." In 2008, she was a runner-up for her composition, "Neighbor Song," which is about hearing your neighbors make love. She finds herself in many bands these days including Lake Street Dive, Cuddle Magic, and The Xylopholks. "Musically, my main influence is indie-rock," says Kearney. "Some of the songs on our new record were sort of inspired by specific artists, like Bon Iver and Arthur Russell."
Filling out the group is Jacob Jolliff and Wesley Corbett. The former is Berklee School of Music's first full-scholarship mandolin student and a veteran performer, who has toured professionally since the age of 11 and shared the stage with such mandolin greats as David Grisman and Mike Marshall. Corbett, a banjo player, has toured nationally with Crooked Still and The Biscuit Burners, and he's currently teaching banjo at Berklee School of Music.
The full breadth of Joy Kills Sorrow's talents is reflected in the range of material showcased on This Unknown Science. At one end of the spectrum you'll find "Reservations," a jubilant tune that kicks off the album in waves and layers—not unlike the all-too-human yearnings and concerns expressed in the lyric—with mandolin and cello interweaving one moment, a single-note banjo melody take the lead the next. At the other extreme is the Spartan "Somewhere Over the Atlantic," its eerie premonitions distilled down to little more than a few plucked notes and Beaton's hushed, mysterious vocal. Whether it's the gentle, intertwined licks that open "Wouldn't Have Noticed," or the joyous ensemble singing during "New Man" (written by their friend Michael Calabrese of Lake Street Dive), Joy Kills Sorrow find myriad ways to marry the timeless appeal of roots music with the excitement of living life to the fullest, right here and right now.
Although the bulk of these 11 selections were written or co-written by Bridget Kearney, they don't truly become Joy Kills Sorrow songs until all five members have put their stamp on a new tune. "We'll sit down in a circle and play it together, and talk about what the dynamic structure has to be, what kind of mood and feel we want it to have," says Arcara. Sometimes that means negotiating the co-mingling of many distinct voices in a single song, such as "Such Sweet Alarms," which finds space for spirited turns on the cello, banjo and mandolin—plus some lovely vocal harmonies—without ever feeling too busy. At other times, the best thing an individual can do in service of the song is set their instrument aside.
"We're always looking after the interest of the music as a whole, even if it means working for months on new material, or making big changes long after we've settled into an arrangement," says Beaton. "We all have plenty of opportunities to show our talents in our music, but it's the understated approach we usually take that makes our music special."
To focus on realizing their musical vision as fully as possible on This Unknown Science, the band adjourned to the Great North Sound Society studio, a converted 18th century barn in southern interior Maine. Since GNSS has a live-in facility, that choice allowed the band to work without distractions or commutes. As Arcara observes, "It's much easier to focus on the music when you're sequestered in a farmhouse for ten days." More important was the opportunity to work with GNSS proprietor Sam Kassirer, who has produced records for Josh Ritter, Erin McKeon, and Langhorne Slim—all artists who, like Joy Kills Sorrow, happily straddle the worlds of roots music and indie-rock. Kassirer further encouraged them to experiment and take chances, whether that meant using five different microphones and an amplifier on Beaton 's vocals, or taking the happy accident when Arcara repeatedly played in three against four at the end of "Jason" and making it an integral part of the final version. "There ended up being a lot of things we fooled around with that didn't end up on the record," admits Beaton, "but by that same process and strategy, we came up with a ton of new stuff that did."
Not that all that sweat and head-scratching leaps to the forefront when you listen to This Unknown Science. No, what resonates throughout this album is that same understated approach that already serves this modern American string band so well; the individual members play their instruments with formidable, prize-winning skill, but they do so in service of melodies and lyrics that can communicate just as powerfully with a Brooklyn twenty-something as a retiree in the Blue Ridge Mountains. And while Joy Kills Sorrow makes it sound as easy as 1-2-3, this isn't music as math; it takes chemistry, trial-and-error, and unspecified quantities of that little something extra to make a record as special as This Unknown Science.