Formerly known for singing backup vocals for bands like fellow Hearts & Plug label mates Elim Bolt, Grace Joyner stepped out of the shadows earlier this year to claim the spotlight for herself with the release of her debut record Young Fools, a sentimental six-song EP she composed during a difficult breakup. Her full band features percussionist Nick Jenkins, bassist and Hearts & Plugs founder Dan McCurry, and keyboardist Camille Lucy Rhoden. The music that Joyner, an organist, and her band make comes off as beautifully simplistic.
It could have been a lot different, though, had six-string guitars been present.
Tracks like “Wasted Time” and “Love of Mine” are full of narratives that have listeners wanting to hear every word — and that’s not hard to do either. With the subtle beat of an electric drum here and dreamlike tones of a keyboard there, the focus remains on Joyner’s controlled and emotive vocals.
“I didn’t have any idea when I went into the studio what would come out at the end,” Joyner tells us. “At first when we were recording, it had guitar, and it sounded a little bit more rock band-ish. And then we recorded ‘Wasted Time,’ and it was just very minimal, and I knew it was exactly what I wanted. And I love guitar. I’m thinking of learning to play actually, but I just didn’t think it was right for those songs necessarily.
“I know what I do is different than what a lot of female artists in Charleston have been doing lately,” Joyner admits. “I love and respect so many musicians in this town, but I never felt like that was the route I wanted to take — I don’t play guitar so I don’t know how to write music like that. I just felt like maybe my influences pushed me in a different path.”
Joyner credits her close friend and producer Wolfgang Ryan Zimmerman with knowing her well enough to help capture her sound and guide her in the right direction. The album was recorded at his Line Street studio, The Space. “It was important for me [to record with Zimmerman], because I’d never done that before,” she says. “I always sang background for other people. I’d just come into the studio, they’d tell me what to sing, and I’d sing it — so that was pretty easy. And it wasn’t really emotional for me, because they weren’t my songs. But when it’s something you write, it’s different — especially if you aren’t sure how people are going to receive it. But at The Space, he made me feel really comfortable. And he was really very honest with me. We just have a very comfortable dynamic.”
Because Joyner was busy with classes at CofC, as well as her day job with American Apparel (she’s currently a district manager), it took a whole year for Young Fools to come to fruition. But she’s got a different plan for the making of her first full-length record. With her eye on October, Joyner hopes to get a fresh batch of songs recorded in only a month. And though we imagine the tunes may be on the tender side, she says the theme won’t be as heartache-y. “I haven’t been romantically inspired lately,” she says, “so I use work problems, or you know, friend problems, and they kind of end up sounding like it’s a romantic story— and it might not necessarily reflect what I’m feeling about the situation.
“With the new songs, I’m basically rehashing old things. I sometimes draw from past experiences,” Joyner says. “I can still really connect with things I’ve dealt with in the past. I’m not going through it anymore, but I can still feel the same feelings so that really helps me write.”
Deep-seeded influences guide Joyner, too. The heavy stuff of Jeff Buckley helped shape Joyner’s sound, particularly her strong vocals. “I love the way he used his voice like an instrument,” Joyner says. “There was a review [of Young Fools] that said that I sounded emotional, but not theatrical, and I love that because that’s exactly how I feel about him. You can hear the emotion in what he’s saying, but it’s not over the top or too much. It doesn’t sound contrived. It’s natural, and that’s something that really appealed to me when I listened to him when I was younger.”
Proof of her affection for the late great Buckley can be found on Joyner’s forearm, which reads “Grace is what matters.” And no, it’s not a self-indulgent motto. “Well my mom wanted to name me Grace, and my dad wanted to name me Amber so they compromised and named me Amber Grace, so that’s kind of why I did Grace Joyner for the band project, because I thought it would be special for her.
“And I love Jeff Buckley and his album Grace,” Joyner continues. “This quote is one of my favorites. He says grace is what matters in everything — in death, in tragedy, in pain. And I got this after sort of a rough patch when I was younger. Well, I thought it was a rough patch, but in hindsight it’s probably not really that bad,” she laughs, “But I got it to remind myself to forgive people and give people grace and give yourself grace, because I’m not perfect either.”
Friday’s Charleston Music Hall performance will be an album-release show for Michael Flynn’s Face in the Cloud. Grace Joyner and Johnny Delaware will open.