Jess Spence

Listening to Grace Joyner’s new album, Settle In, is like diving into an ocean of sound. Working with co-producer Wolfgang Zimmerman and an array of top-notch Charleston musicians, Joyner creates a vast sound for her second record, layering synths, subtle-but-insistent percussion, and beguiling melodies into something close to electronic dream-pop.

In fact, songs like the slow, spacey “Everybody Loves You,” the bass-driven uptempo tune “Fake Girlfriend,” and the minimal keyboard-based ballad “What A Shame” are so soothing on the surface that it might take a few listens for Joyner’s probing lyrics to sink in.

The slow-burn melody and near-waltz tempo of “Love is A” are so alluring that one might not notice that the full lyric is “Love is a bitch.” At one point in the first verse, Joyner sings “I’ve always been a pushover/ Don’t you think I know it/ And all you boys that fall in love/ You could just f***ing show it.”

There are moments like that scattered throughout the album. Lines like “How hard is it to be sweet to your fake girlfriend,” hit like poison darts couched in cotton candy.

“I feel like I’ve always written music that way,” Joyner says. “The lyrics are heavier and more emotional, and the music balances it out a little bit. I don’t have a formula for how I write songs; they kind of come out the way that they do, and I go from there. That’s just part of my style, I guess.”

When looking at themes, her lyrics seem to discuss failed romantic relationships, but Joyner says that the themes on Settle In are bigger than that.

“It’s kind of like a look into this period in my life when I was grappling with a lot of big choices,” she says. “I was finding the path I wanted my life to take and deciding what was important and what wasn’t. I wouldn’t say that it’s an angry record; it was just a reflection of a time when I was making some big decisions. I’ve always taken a pretty straightforward approach in my songwriting as far as the lyrics go, so it was more being honest, being straightforward with myself, and recognizing my feelings.”

Joyner says she’s able to express herself musically much more easily than in normal conversation.

“It’s definitely an outlet for me to express my inner emotions,” she says. “Sometimes when I’m writing, it’s like a therapeutic process, but sometimes I’m not even really aware of how much I’m feeling these certain things, and writing music really helps me be honest with myself about where I’m at emotionally.”

When making Settle In, Joyner and Zimmerman looked back to 2016’s Maybe Sometimes In C and expanded on the sound of her debut. The producers brought in musicians like Contour bassist Khari Lucas, Brave Baby guitarist Christian Chidester, E.T. Anderson’s Wilson W. Wilson, and Gold Light’s Joe Chang, along with Joyner’s longtime collaborators keyboardist Camille Rhoden and percussionist Nic Jenkins.

“We were trying out a lot of different things and being exploratory,” Joyner says. “We kind of liked to bring in a few different ears based on the song, so there’s an array of local musicians, and I was a little more adventurous with my production and my songwriting style. I feel like I took what I learned from the first record stylistically and amplified that and explored it a little bit more.”

The album’s centerpiece ballad, the stunning “Million Dollar Wound,” is a duet with Julie Joyner, Grace’s mother.

“That song was written about her two grandfathers,” Joyner says, “my great-grandfathers on my mother’s side. So I wanted her to sing on it. The first half of the song was about my great-grandfather who was injured in World War I. It was what’s called a ‘million dollar wound.’ He was waiting in a ditch for three days before someone found him, and he was sent to a hospital in Paris and then was sent home. That was before he met my grandmother, so had he not survived that, none of us would be alive. I wanted to reflect on that pivotal moment in my family history.”

The second half of the song is the flip side of that survival story.

“The second verse is about my other great-grandfather, and he actually misdiagnosed himself with cancer; he had a stomach ulcer, but he thought he had cancer. And he didn’t want his wife or his kids to have to see him go through that, so ended up dying by suicide because he didn’t want his family to see him get sick. So both of those moments are big turning points in my family, one a life being saved and the other a loss of a life.”

Joyner says that recording the track was a moving experience for her, and not just because she was exploring her family’s history.

“My mom has always been a huge supporter of me and my music,” she says, “and I’ve always found her voice and music extremely soothing. So it was very special to be able to share that experience. And then the content was so emotional that there were definitely some tears in our eyes in the studio. Ultimately I’m just really thankful that we could do that together.”