Words by David C. Obenour
Joy Downer is a deceptive name for the Los Angeles-based fashion model turned dream pop musician. Along with the instrumental help of her husband, Jeffrey Downer, the two have put together an impressive debut on Paper Moon. The nine songs featured offer listeners just enough depth of ideas for carrying the melodies. Never feeling forced, the influences of pop run deep with creative synthesizers, soulful horns and inventive beats.
Music is only one dimension that Joy offers on this debut too. Drawing from her experience as a model, elements of glam and no wave are updated for a modern take on how it can (and should) be done as independent pop musician.
Off Shelf: It’s normally just a question for small talk, but the world’s a pretty different place now and I was wondering how you are doing?
Joy Downer: This is a much appreciated question. Honestly, I don’t think it’s being asked enough. I know I’ve made it a point to check in with people this way a lot more during the last few months. That said, it’s been a time of reflection and new perspective on what is truly important to me and what is not. I have become much more of an introvert and homebody over the course of the last couple years. Creation in my home and in isolation was my comfort zone. So the adjustment hasn’t been too difficult for me personally, for the most part. Mentally, it’s been a little bit of a roller coaster. So much information yet not enough information.
OS: Over quarantine, I saw you have performed for AXS TV and EARMILK – how has it been trying to promote Paper Moon with everything else that’s been happening? Has it made you look at the way we both create and consume music any differently?
JD: Yes – that was only a couple weeks in to the quarantine! I was so nervous about doing something like that. It felt very much out of my comfort zone, as well as vulnerable in a new way since it was in my own home/space. At that time, I was less focused on promoting the album, and more just wanting to bring music into homes and hearts that were lacking. Music is so powerful in the way we find connection with each other and with ourselves. I was pleasantly surprised at the way that music seemed to be valued and listened to in a way I haven’t seen in a very long time.
OS: It could be a small thing, but on the AXS performance, you had some pretty prominently placed LPs behind you – Pink Floyd, Radiohead and The Beatles – was it purposefully what you put behind you?
JD: That was in fact intentional – good eye! My husband Jeffrey and I thought we should put some of our records around the room behind us as it felt a bit “meh” and needed a little something. I feel like they were just the most recently played and at the top of the stack. We didn’t fuss too much over it. I don’t own a single record that I don’t love, so any of them would have been proudly displayed.
OS: Did you consider delaying the release? What considerations did you have both ways?
JD: I did actually delay the original release date when the stay at home order went into place. It was so unclear what it was going to be like over the weeks to come, and the last thing I wanted was to be trying to push my music during a sensitive time. So I pushed it by a month to June 5th, and set up a surprise release of a “Paper Moon” video/song release June 2nd. Everything has to be submitted 4-6 weeks prior for all the streaming services, and once it’s been submitted… ain’t nothing you can do to stop that. As timing would have it, the new dates I had set in motion turned out to present a new set of unforeseen circumstances. Initially, I was faced with some difficult feelings for me to navigate – but ultimately – I was humbled and grateful to be able to use my voice and platform to spread some positivity and support in a just cause.
OS: Knowing the world in which you created Paper Moon is a very different place than the world that exists for its release, are you hearing the songs any differently from when you had written and recorded them?
JD: Funnily enough, I do feel that. Particularly one song: My song “GO” was written in a dream I had. I was in the salon from the show Westworld, and was witnessing the AI “waking up” to the truth of their abuse – and their ultimate uprising. The melody of my song was playing on that piano, when I woke up I recorded a voice memo with the lyric “dream, I was inside a dream, somethings awake in me, I can’t go back now.”
So yes, now I feel that it has taken on a new meaning to what’s happening now, and what has been happening within my mind during these last few months.
OS: You’ve got a number of amazing pop sensibilities that come together on Paper Moon, sometimes bringing to mind retro futurism and then also seamlessly incorporating horns from an entirely different era. Can you talk about some of your influences and how you think that shaped your sound?
JD: I am a big fan of music that makes me feel better when I listen to it. For the most part, it seems to typically fall under a pop category. I listened to a lot of pop from the 60’s -80’s – Ranging from folk and blues to disco and electronic. I suppose I have a pop sensibility most naturally for that reason. Even though I often write about unpleasant feelings or experiences, I still like to maintain a sense of hope and wonder in the music and melodies. I enjoy a good juxtaposition with the way I tell my stories.
And in remarks to the horns. I grew up in the Mormon church – which I’m not a member of currently… there are temples where marriages and various sacred ceremonies take place. On top of each temple is a golden statue of the angel Moroni, and he is sounding a trumpet. The track you’re referring to is titled “over and out” and it embodies my feelings of questioning that faith and my own worth and worthiness in relation to god or a higher power. I knew from the get go of that song that I wanted horns because of the personal symbolism it held for me in this subject matter.
OS: Fashion and style also seem to be a part of your persona with Joy Downer. Having done modeling work, how do you see these worlds overlapping?
JD: I have always loved and appreciated fashion. It’s another form of self-expression that I really enjoy. I am very visual. My eye is always drawn to colors, lines and patterns. I guess my time modeling gave me a chance to see a lot of that, and gain even more of an appreciation for the endless possibilities of expression one can channel through fashion.
OS: How do you think your experience as a model informs your live performance?
JD: I appreciate this question because it’s not something I’ve considered before. I would say I am probably programmed in knowing my angles and how to find my lighting more than most. Which I don’t tend to think about but rather just do automatically as a result of repetitive movements and tendencies for years and years. I enjoy expression through performance, and the way I lose myself in it.
OS: Who have been your fashion inspirations for Joy Downer – both musicians and beyond?
JD: David Bowie, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Cher, ABBA, Prince, The Beatles, Janelle Monae, Elvis… I appreciate dazzle and details!
OS: Can you talk about your relationship with Jeffrey when it comes to creating music together? What ways do you find similarities and differences in your influences and in how you create?
JD: Jeffrey is such an important part of this record and the balance and blending of sounds of both light and dark. He enjoys listening to a lot more ambient and experimental music then me, which is an influence that makes for such beautiful layers and textures within a song. He’s got an appreciation for a much wider array of music, some that I can’t listen to without it physically effecting me. I drove him crazy with this intense sensitivity to certain sounds. If it was up to him, there would have been far more jarring – for lack of a better word – and unconventional sounds throughout. That said, there was plenty of very sugary sounds that he was opposed to that I was trying to push. There’s a balance that seems to happen in our process, and the result is wonderful.
OS: Though it’s a weird time to do anything, have you both been continuing to make music in quarantine? If so, what has it been like?
JD: We have separately and together been writing quite a bit, but haven’t yet had the chance to record anything. There’s a lot behind the scenes going on to get the record heard and shared now that it’s out. This is the part that feels like work, making the record felt like good therapy – the good kind.