Pianist, singer and composer Joy Ellis isn’t wasting any time. Just two years after the release of her debut album, her second one Dwell is coming out. Leah Williams spoke to her about finding her voice as a singer/songwriter and unleashing the creative beast:
Last time I spoke to Joy, in the run-up to the release of her album Life on Land, there was excitement and passion for sure, but there was also a touch of hesitation. Identifying primarily as a pianist, taking the helm as singer/songwriter was all a bit new and naturally induced some questions: would she be taken less seriously as a pianist now? Were her lyrics any good? Would people like the music? (Here is that interview)
Despite any trepidations, the album was received to acclaim with 4-star reviews across the board, with the meaningful, poetic nature of her lyrics gaining particular admiration. A “startling debut from a British singer-songwriter who sets her cool, poetic meditations… to a suitably restless, sophisticated jazz soundscape” as stated by Chris Ingham from MOJO.
And, although humble in this recognition, there was definitely a noticeable shift in Joy’s demeanour when I met up with her at Cafe Oto a few weeks ago. She’s ready to grab this path with both hands and is bursting with enthusiasm for her newest release, excited to get out on the road with it, and is full of ideas for future projects. One of which is a rather intriguing sounding jazz opera…
But for now, the concentration is on Dwell. “This is really a development of my first album,” says Joy. “I guess you could say they’re kind of a pair. I actually wrote a lot of the music for this album straight after releasing the first.”
A continuation of certain themes and melodic ideas can certainly be heard – helped of course by the excellent line-up (Rob Luft, guitar; Henrik Jensen, bass; Adam Osmianski, drums) remaining the same – but there are differences too. This album seems to move away slightly from considered introspection and more towards celebration, finding the positives or peace in difficult situations and embracing the good times.
“Writing music helps me to process and reflect all the things I’m experiencing,” states Joy. “Life’s pretty good at the moment! So this album is quite uplifting and accepting of things you can’t change.”
Indeed, as the title track Dwell states: “There’s nothing you can do / Every day you’ll lose/ And every day you’ll gain / Cos’ nothing stays the same” – a lyric Joy says was inspired by Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now.
Evidently, one thing that hasn’t changed are the poetic, emotive lyrics. They’re clearly far from being an afterthought. In fact, Joy often writes the lyrics first, finding this ends up inspiring the musical elements. Although she does joke that this isn’t always the case and she still gets blocked, with one particular song on the album finding her improvising lyrics in the recording booth.
Lyrics and music have both really found that sweet spot, being highly personal but also relatable and reflective of the wider human experience. Daffodils is a beautiful piece written to mark the arrival of fellow singer and friend Helen Burnett’s baby daughter. Lyrics such as “the birds were singing triumphantly sweet and clear / And the daffodils shone like sunny stars proclaiming you were here” are ones that many will surely identify with.
And then there’s One Minute in Manchester. Immediately, this track feels distinctive, and not just due to its musical fluidity and the larger, more ethereal sound that seems to reach out beyond itself and encompass the rest of the album. The weight of the subject matter is clearly felt too. Joy admits this track felt particularly charged. The Manchester bombing happened just days before she arrived in the city for an emerging artist residency led by Mercury-nominated singer ESKA. That day, she joined countless others out on the city’s streets for a minute’s silence.
“This horrific thing had happened, and although I was there in support as an outsider I was so affected by the event and the strength and resilience of the community,” Joy says. “When the silence was over, people started to clap and within this unifying gesture some began singing Don’t Look Back in Anger. It was quite incredible and a real testament to the people and the city.”
At first, it was just something she wanted to explore and work through, admitting she wasn’t even anticipating using it. “As soon as we started recording it, though, it became obvious that everything else was leading to that tune and that it was a pretty crucial part of the album.”
Overall, there is a feel of musical freedom pervading this album. Perhaps there was more willingness to explore and experiment with the sound this time round? “On the first album, I was really conscious of keeping it traditionally ‘jazz’. I was scared of not being taken seriously or not being given the chance to play in the jazz clubs I wanted to,” Joy says. “But for this one, I just wanted to let go and pursue all the different musical ideas I was having.”
And as a classically-trained pianist who is now “completely obsessed with the spontaneity and expressivity afforded by jazz improvisation”, and who has been influenced by a whole host of other musical styles and genres, it would certainly be a shame for Joy’s own music to be limited in any way.
The UK album tour kicked off in St Ives in September and has dates through to next year with the official album launch at The Vortex on 14 December. There’ll be plenty of special guests there, including Binker Golding, Fini Bearman, Helen Burnett, Miguel Gorodi and Alice Leggett. And not only will the audience get to hear the new album, but Joy is excited to try out a whole lot of other new material too.
She laughs when I look surprised at this. “I just enjoy the whole process so much. I’d be ready to record another album in January if I could!” But for now, time to enjoy the inevitable successes of Dwell. (pp)
Dwell is out on Joy’s and Adam Osmianski’s new label Oti-O Records on 29 November, with the title track released as a single on 1 November. Available from all usual outlets.