We could all use some hope for the holidays and local musician Joy Ike’s new release delivers an album about “dreaming beyond what you can actually see.”
With the release of “Bigger Than Your Box” this April, Joy has made the kind of album she had always wanted to make when she first started out in Pittsburgh. Her four-year journey to create it took her from that city’s close-knit music scene to Philadelphia, where she felt the need to bring her “A-game” to a more serious market.
As she worked on “Bigger,” the Nigerian American returned occasionally to Africa and visited other spots around the world, gleaning insights and musical perspectives that influenced her sound. In the following interview, the Germantown resident talks about those influences, her approach to songwriting, and why she plays the piano like a percussive instrument. She also dishes on some of her lesser-known creative pursuits.
You’ve said your visits back to Nigeria gave you a new perspective on music. In what other ways has your heritage contributed to your sound?
It affects how I write my music. Growing up in a Nigerian household, music was all around – especially percussion driven music. For me it’s always been about the heartbeat – sound and it’s movement. And that rhythm has been the lifeline of my music. In addition, I know that being raised in a Nigerian home has helped me to see the outsider perspective as well as the American perspective. I spend a lot of time in my songs and shows talking about “the other” the person who might not ‘belong’ or is from the other side of the tracks – whether that be social, economical, racial, etc…
One of your favorite pursuits is travel. How does that influence your music? Do you check out the music scene when you visit other countries?
Traveling reminds me that the world is very big and that I am very small. it reminds me that I don’t need to think of myself as an American artist. it also reminds me that there are so many different types of instruments and ways of making music.
What I found out in two of my more recent trips — Ecuador and Greece — is that there isn’t a traditional music scene in the sense of concerts. You do encounter all sorts of buskers though on street corners and in town squares. Music is spontaneous and a way of life, not something you make time to go and do. You can pick up some of the acoustic fabric of a place through the buskers.
One thing I do love to do when I visit other countries is to bring home an instrument and try to learn to play it. Shakers have been one instrument recently that’s influenced my sound.
What artists have influenced you the most lately?
My latest album was really influenced by Laura Mvula. She’s a British-born Jamaican singer/songwriter. I love the way she uses her voice as an instrument. She also has a keen attention to rhythm that makes for irresistible music. Another influence is Banda Magda, a group led by Magda Giannikou, a Greek artist who lives in New York City. I think of their music as world pop in style but essentially it’s all about rhythm and dance. Magda writes in several different languages and each song embodies sounds from those countries. She also has a lot of visual artistry in her music videos. Her songs have influenced how I think about music from that perspective. Songwriting has always started with feelings for me, but now I also tend to visualize my songs in a way – colorscape, lighting, etc.
Do you have a favorite type of instrument?
I play the piano but I really gravitate to percussive instruments. While there are rules for percussion, just like any other instrument, there’s a bit more freedom and flexibility in what you can do compared to other instruments. Even the piano took me some time to get my head around, which is why I play it like a percussion instrument…because that came most naturally.
Percussion is all about pattern and feeling and rhythm, rather than notes. It’s about working outside and around the structure of musical notation rather than from within the structure. I’m happiest as an artist when I’m working beyond the rules of an instrument.
When I play ukulele for instance, I wind up knocking on it a lot and doing other things that have nothing to do with notes. This approach also translates to some of the sounds I introduce into live performances – like stomping my feet or snapping my fingers or even vocal inflections when I play.
Have you always stomped when you play?
Always, even when I was first starting out. I think I’ve always wanted to dance but was stuck behind the piano.
Like music, food crosses cultural boundaries and language barriers. Do you have any favorite types of cuisine?
I love Vietnamese food. I’m a huge fan of Bun dishes (rice noodles dishes) and, the last few years, banh mi hoagies.
Do you cook?
As much as I can in my free time. My favorite is Asian cuisine. I love sesame oil, soy sauce, basil, cilantro – all the flavors you’d find in Asian dishes. But I also experiment with Indian and Mexican food. I often combine flavors just to see what happens. I don’t exactly know what I’m doing, but it’s fun experimenting. I recently came up with a sushi burrito which was pretty good.
Other creative pursuits?
I love to sew. I also like to shoot short videos too. I wouldn’t call myself a videographer – I’ve got a long way to go — but I do like to shoot and edit video. (I did a quick video for Marguerite Anglin, an artist friend, on her homepage.) I’d like to seriously learn photography, but I’m really focused on music, so it’s hard to find the time.
What’s your favorite recent song to play live? Why?
I think my song, “Ever Stay,” because it starts unexpectedly. I’m used to songs starting with a short instrumental interlude, then verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, etc. – a typical song structure. But Everstay just starts out strong and it’s not what people expect. It’s also a crowd participation song so there’s a lot of energy to it.
Any musicians in the family?
My sister is a percussionist. She plays and performs a lot with me. In the video of “Ever Stay,” she’s the drummer. My brother’s a drummer as well. My family’s always been very musical but nobody in the family had pursued it as a career until my sister and I started performing.
What role models inspired you to make music?
My parents both are musical people. They don’t play instruments but they’re good singers. They insisted we learn piano when we were growing up. They also believed in giving back through music. My dad used to take us to nursing homes to sing hymns to the residents. There was also a spiritual connection to music – it was an expression of our faith from the very beginning.
Were there moment when you knew music would be a lifelong pursuit?
Yes, in 2008 when I lost by brother to cancer. I had been thinking about becoming a musician before he passed, but I didn’t have the confidence to do it. When he died it brought home to me how short and fragile life is and I decided to quit my job and go all in pursuing my passion.
A lot of doors have opened since, which has kept me working hard pursuing a musical career, but it’s a long uphill journey. Staying committed is a decision I’ve had to make over and over again. I’ve occasionally had to ask myself “is this something you still want to do? Do you still love it?” It’s something I’ve had to continually say yes to, especially this year with the new album and all the touring.
How would you compare the music scene in Philadelphia to Pittsburgh?
I love the Pittsburgh scene because it’s where I grew as an artist, but when I came to Philadelphia, I felt I had to be more prepared – to have my act together. People take music making more seriously. Maybe it’s because XPN and NPR are here. I also feel like there are so many more musicians and a lot of competition here. When people go out to shows they expect a higher caliber of performance. I’ve always taken myself a little too seriously, but in Philly it’s a little scary because the audience takes you more seriously too! Hehe.
What’s next for you? Big plans on the horizon?
I’ve got some tour dates in December, but after that I plan to unwind from the touring and the album release. It’ll be a chance to recharge a bit and decide what’s next.
Visit JoyIke.com for more info about Joy, the album, and her upcoming tour dates (local alert – she’ll be playing the Philadelphia Art Museum on Friday, Dec. 28). You’ll also find all her social media platforms (including Facebook, Spotify and Youtube) at the site.
To hear Joy’s interview with Paul Paul of the Germantown Artists Roundtable, click here.