Faith, Recovery, & the Healing Power of Music

What is very interesting about this ride through Indie Arizona, is that I have really resisted the idea of categorizing myself. I have been told by quite a few folks, that Keep the Greasy Side Down is a weird title, it doesn’t immediately engage the reader, it does not immediately tell you its intent. I guess I like the nebulousness of it, the enigma of it, sure, but really, I like the freedom of it.

I have often said that I don’t really do album reviews. I have, sure, but not many. I do mostly conversations about topics of interest, and then weave them around artist projects. I guess what I am trying to say is that it is very intriguing to me, I guess, for my opinion to start being something that is sought for, asked for; requested.

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Also true, is from the position of an artist, asking for that kind of review is vulnerable. It is not so much an impersonal request for interpretation by a stranger. No, it is much more intimate than that… and gutsy.  But Joyce Luna did it, and she sent me her new album, and opened herself up to a friendly flogging.

It’s a special thing, to have another artist review one’s art. Rather than someone who is solely a music writer/reviewer. There’s a place for that too, but my favorite reviews have always been by people who are artists themselves. – Joyce Luna”

Think about it…. is all about honesty, humility, and risk. It is about putting yourself out there, opening the depths of your soul, your world seen through your lens, to the interpretation of your contemporaries. I am doing the same thing of late in my particular creative work with the University of Arizona Creative Writing Workshop at the UA Poetry Center. It is a harrowing, but welcome, flogging.

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BUY THE ALBUM HERE @ JOYCELUNA.COM

As I sat down to listen to Joyce Luna’s new CD release Every Road We Take, I reread my review of another Tucson based singer/ songwriter: Ivan Denis. In that particular review, I coined my definition of Americana music.

I think of it almost like a triangle. Imagine at one point you have Bob Dylan. On another, you have {James Taylor.. revised. It’s a better example.} And on the third you have Johnny Cash. Anywhere in that triangular field: is Americana Music.”

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This idea of categorization… needing to conform to some sort of given mold, does not simply effect me, as a writer, but it certainly affects other artists across genres as we struggle to market our particular product to a world of prospective fans.

So when Joyce sent me the following message: “That’s what makes it so hard to categorize. I don’t like this. I feel like I fit into the genre of Contemporary Folk, but there are certainly songs, like Sip of Water that are certainly not.” So…. research question: Is Joyce Luna another example of great Americana music coming from Tucson, Arizona.

And with this in mind…. I listened. Why? Because writing about rolling through the world of Independent Art and Cool People from my beloved Arizona…. is how I keep the greasy side down… ride with me.

Ever Road We Take: First impression of an album is its title, it really is. You pick up that piece of auditory art, you look at the image chosen to represent it the title that tries to unify it. This may be a subconscious judgment, but, when the artist makes one of the songs a title track, it invites this thought process into sharper focus. Why this song? What about this song makes it not only exist as its own work of art, but is also indicative of the entire theme of the project? In many ways, a title track song invites a hyper-focused scrutiny. So in the spirit of first impressions, I noticed cliches. That is certainly not something that an artist really wants to hear, but in that context, I am forced to ask what a cliché is, and more importantly, why does such a phrase/ comparison become cliché in the first place? A title like Every Road We Take invites comparisons to Frost, and we have all diverged in that wood many times. Imagery of a phoenix rising from the ashes, clouds obscuring horizons, and dancing with two left feet…. these are all things that we have heard before. But dismissing Joyce Luna’s abilities as a songwriter based on her use of these cliches, although possibly overdone as a device, would be a mistake. Most human emotion, deep, gut feelings: pain, loss, guilt, fear – these are all incredibly universal. They bring all of us far flung and perpetually different wandering souls, together. So the true judgment of an artist, who chooses to explore those images, is what they are able to accomplish by doing so. Upon first listen, of this first track, I was willing to take that road with Joyce, and let her teach me her stories.

We’ll See: What a time of our lives this could be. Joyce’s vulnerability is one of the first things that you will notice as a listener. She is a completely honest, sincere soul expose, and that is obvious from the first few minutes of a listen to her work. As she weaves her poetic, introspective songs around understated acoustic guitar, and sometimes a cello or a piano, one is taken through very familiar mindscapes. In music, as in any art form, this familiarity can be treacherous ground, Not only does a writer run the risk of not being seen as taking a fresh perspective on an old story, she also runs the risk of being misjudged as learned, like a guru with something to say, ‘Hey everyone, listen to me and your life will improve’! A poet songwriter does not necessarily immediately want to be seen as a self help sing along show. Joyce Luna is able to walk this tightrope by staying very close to the connective tissue of her songs.

“I am not a teacher, or a guide, she seems to say… I am a fellow sojourner that happens to sing my soul.

This quality is rare, and one that I find hard to shake in its simplicity as I move into the body of the record.

Love. Dance. Sing! : Live, Laugh, Love! First impressions are just simply not something that we as artists have the ability to control. That said, my recollection of the common phrase, upon listening to the third track does not intend to caste judgment. As previously stated, I am impressed with Joyce’s poetic take on common elements and images, as well as her flirtatiousness with blurring the lines within genre. Upon first listen, and very different than the folksy, acoustic first two songs, this song took me into a revival tent. This song… exudes Gospel, joy, dancing and praising, but in Joyce Luna’s case this exalted deity…. is music and recovery and joy. I found myself, after three songs, still very much intrigued as to the nature of the flight on which this songbird was taking me.

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Choose : As I listen to Joyce’s vocals I am impressed with her range. She has this very vulnerable innocence to her voice, that is hard to mimic. A perfect example is listening to Ariel sing in the songs of The Little Mermaid. She has this little, spoken word that just drips with this open eyed wonder, and it is this same quality that allows Joyce Luna to sing about topics that could very easily come across as heavy handed or preachy. But with her, in that quirky little hidden youthful wink, she is capable of almost holding our hands as a fellow human, singing our songs to the world. There is a beauty in being able to capture that purity.

A Million Years : I absolutely love live music! There is something about the energetic spark that is captured when creative people come together, and interweave their talents into something new, something that breathes a totally new and unique life into the space. When it is good… it is like a magic that is not replicate-able anywhere else. An artist can be a phenomenal songwriter, even a talented singer, but that does not necessarily guarantee the charisma, or presence, required to create that energy in a foreign room…. with strangers. As I listened to the rhythmic strumming of the first few bars of A Million Years, that was my rumination. I found that I really liked this lady’s talent, I completely appreciated her risk taking, and her raw energy… but I was still waiting to hear what would make me want to see her live. I was getting poetry. I was getting heart felt introspective questioning. But…. I wasn’t ready to be a fan traveling to Tucson to see a performance……

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…… Then I heard my favorite tune on the album: Sip of Water. Ivan Denis’s Lick the Spoon immediately leaped to mind, as did Whitney Vale‘s fantastically awesome poem, Cool Water, dedicated to her Dad and his love for the Marty Robbins’ song of the same name. Those two comparisons cascading into my thoughts, uninvited and surprisingly refreshing, is very good company Joyce: very good company indeed.

I was transported to a deeply leather room, lit with purple and shadow. Smoke drifted from the piano player’s cigarette and intermingled with the smoke rings dancing and soothing into each other breathed into vaporous reality by a hundred bluesy swaying patrons. Joyce turns into a loungey vixen, laced with something velvet and textured and swaying just slightly out of focus in the twilight. I am in the corner, remembering reading Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues for the first time, listening to the clarion rifts of the electric guitar, used sparingly on this album, voicing a jazzy soundtrack into my evening. This song, is easily, and hands down, the best song on the album, and leaves me hungry for more from a singer who might be called the Sade of the Desert.

(Why do You) Hide Your Heart : This song was one of the least effective songs on the record, for me. When a poet writes often about common ideas: lost loves, fears of future, choices and introspective, abstract musings – it is easy to loose their message. It is not that it is invalid. It is not that it is not in-and-of-itself beautiful…. it is that there is nothing of it that distinguishing it from a vast array of similar voices. This song does not take us anywhere else or new on this journey down the roads that we take.

Trust : For the most part, Every Road We Take impresses with its very stripped down take on very heart felt, human emotions. What the album may lack in something that is stand out in its difference, it makes for it its ability to deal with these topics with a sincerity that is refreshing. The album is genuine, it is honest, it is forthright. And in that, it is very inspiring, in a world of so much contrivance.

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First Kiss : is the second track on the record that really gives a sense of what a live Joyce Luna show could be. It is catchy, it is fun, it just enough country to imply dancing, but then it plants itself firmly in that folksy side of the field. Joyce is able to provide this soft soundtrack that leads one down the mental imagery of The Sound of Music with a hippy, flower, life affirming, spinning in circles kind of day strolling in the flower fields kind of soundtrack. There is nothing really new about the themes, and there is nothing really super vibrant about the lyrics, but there is this innocent beauty that immediately connects the listener to this simpler humanity. When that is contrived it is obvious. Here, it is not.

Heaven (The Weather Channel Song) : with a bit of Spanish guitar accompaniment, Joyce offers the third stand out song on the album. It is this quirky little song that seems to play on the idea that all we can talk about anymore is the weather. It seems to be the only peaceful topic, and there is really nothing peaceful about it. As I listen to it, it is impossible to not relate to her…. The Weather Channel is heaven… it is where all of us go for refuge in a world where the headlines never stop. In that way, following this catchy little diddy with the two political songs is a very interesting choice.

The final two songs on the album are easily grouped together as the activist songs: We Shall Be Seen and Affirmation (The No Song). That is not meant at all as as judgment; it is simply an observation. Again, with this kind of work, it is easy to be seen as heavy handed, or forceful, if not straight out political. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but when both songs of this nature are grouped at the end of a record, it may be easy to simply… hit stop. The first, is an outright and direct song decrying Gun Violence in the United States. It is a song that relies very heavily once again on Gospel and Choir foundations, but ends up being able to come across almost like a Ghost Children Choir, singing from the Purgatory created by our inaction. It is a powerful message, and not one that I am trying to take away from, it is however, pardon the pun, a song that preaches to its choir, and does not necessarily force a questioning or evaluation of values. The opposition, would simply turn off the record. Similarly, the final track of the album, is a list, almost like Mediate, the now legendary song by INXS, of all of the awful things we ought no longer accept. It is solid, and a good tune, but again…. one that does not necessarily push for a reconciliation of difference, choosing instead to simply preach to its base.

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As I listen to the bongo drums and the chanting refrains of No No No, and the Power of Love and the Power to Survive, of Affirmation, I am taken to a campfire, surrounded by large trees, and staring into the flames. I am mesmerized and hypnotized thinking of all the things I must resist, but I am enlightened at how easy it is to do. All one has to do is light a fire, play a heart song, sing with your friends, and you can change the world. Joyce Luna’s Every Road We Take conjures up these images, she is that southwestern songbird lulling us into a fabulous vision with a guitar and a melody.

I hearken back to my research question: what genre is Joyce Luna? Let’s say we insert an artist like Ani deFranco into the Bob Dylan slot on that triangular field. Let us replace James Taylor with Joni Mitchell. And, finally, let’s replace Johnny Cash with Emmylou Harris. Does that Americana Triangle still hold true? I think that it does. And I think that Joyce Luna is firmly within it, if not a bit on the gospel tinged tip of the field. She is Contemporary Folk, but what it is that?

In a recording of Bob Dylan’s Blues, Dylan once exclaimed, “Unlike most of the songs nowadays are being written uptown, Ten Pound Alley: that’s where most of the Folk songs come from nowadays.  But this, this is a song; it wasn’t written up there, it was written somewhere down in the United States!”

Joyce Luna’s Every Road We Take was written there too…. somewhere down in the Southwest of those United States, in a town of Creosote and Creativity. Tucson, Arizona.  Buy it HERE at JoyceLuna.com

In the end, I am left thinking, is this a positive review? Perhaps the final judgment is this. I immediately sent a message to Bob Hoag, of Flying Blanket Recording, and said, I would be very interested in looking into producing a collaboration between Joyce Luna and Ivan Denis. Imagining their music, but siphoned through Bob’s supernatural ear for percussion, and lyrical phrasing, is a wonderful dream. So yes, it is a positive review. Joyce Luna sparks my interest and makes me curious about her future possibilities.

I can’t think of much else that is more flattering. Or more honest.

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Listen to Good Music my friends, and Keep the Greasy Side Down.

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