Words by David C. Obenour
Existence is a complicated venture and one that we too often don’t make any easier on each other. Tradition, while it can be beautiful and identity-forming, can also be burdensome with the weight of expectations and shame. Hurt lashes out with more hurt.
But beauty can also bring more beauty.
For her part, jess joy has rediscovered that initial joy and wonder in life and channeled it through music and visual artistry. Using the opportunity of a stage and an audience, every costume, stroke of makeup and inflection of her voice is bursting with raw earnest emotion. Having performed in Moon Honey, PATREEARCHY is joy’s first statement as a solo artist and it demands – and rewards – your attention.
Off Shelf: It may be a small thing, but it was an intentional choice and as a visual artist I wanted to ask – can you talk about the decision to use lowercase for your name?
jess joy: My name is small because I feel I am a small thing. And I am improper. I don’t feel comfortable taking up a lot of space. jess joy is two syllables and not asking for much.
OS: Similarly, your solo debut is named PATREEARCHY, all in caps – is there a reason with the capitalization play there?
jj: Yes, the patriarchy is a large thing. And it is improper. It asks for much – most, actually.
OS: I wanted to ask a few more questions about how you engage as a visual artist. First off, through face painting and fashion and costumes, what additional dynamics do you hope to convey through your art?
jj: My face paint is a nod to the mime white face popularized by Marcel Marceau but adjusted to be more angular, more contemporary, with feminine and angry qualities. I sewed a jumpsuit for the cover from a Rational Dress Society pattern called “The Jumpsuit to End Capitalism.” No one would know this, so I’m glad you asked. What I want to convey is an expressive character that has roots in classical European theater culture, but of their own world.
OS: While this attention to the visual is more common with larger shows, fewer independent artists engage on this level. How do you think the dynamic changes when presented at clubs as opposed to larger venues? What advantages are there in this kind of show in a more intimate setting?
jj: Good point – perhaps larger artists are more likely to have the budget to work with costume designers or stylists. Sometimes I think it is considered uncool to try too hard in the DIY rock and roll sphere, but I absolutely love when bands get on stage in costumes. I started experimenting with large costumes when I sang for my previous band Moon Honey, and often I would feel quite ridiculous coming out on stage in a giant headpiece, covered in fringe and glitter, to an audience of 10 -20 people. But those people remembered us. For me it’s the joy of making what could feel like a common moment sacred. The thrill of the theater to me is seeing something I don’t see in day-to-day life. I want to make people feel something, so that they’ll come talk to me about art and be my friend.
OS: You have such a fascinating voice that you use in dynamic fashion – varying widely on each song. Can you talk about how you approach capturing that very alive spirit for a recording?
jj: Thank you for saying that! When I’m recording I do get very excited and intense, and the more excited and intense I get, the more exaggerated what comes out. I like things to be exaggerated. A painted face gasping can be seen from a far distance – I think an extremely happy or sad voice might be heard from someone very emotionally distant.
OS: Your powerful voice also seems in juxtaposition from the mime visual – an art known for its lack of vocalization – that you’ve been embodying for PATREEARCHY. Is there a counteryplay in what you see yourself as presenting?
jj: Ah, you know I haven’t thought about it that way. In studying the history of mime, not speaking has not always been synonymous. Mime to me is acting, with an emphasis on the body as the primary expression over the voice. When performing, I am often moving back and forth between body movement as the focus and vocalization as the focus, so there is a back and forth pivot. I feel I am presenting both. But overall, I am a storyteller, blending techniques.
OS: Are their other artists that you take inspiration from? Both as singers and performers? What about how they approach their art challenges your own thoughts?
jj: I am inspired by the audacity of Kate Bush, the fire of Nina Simone, the emotional complexity of Björk, the rage of Fiona Apple, the humor of Laurie Anderson. The way that these people present truths is what interests me – how they fully embody their experiences.
OS: In a previous interview, you talked about how PATREEARCHY was not meant as a judgement on how society is but your attempt to free yourself from its power over you. I was hoping you could go further on that. What is it about creating this album that you felt gave you the power to free yourself from that?
jj: Thank you for reading. I think we all have internal fears that often stop us from being fully expressive of our feelings. One of my biggest fears is that if I express my pain, I will not be loved. I was socialized to keep it all inside and appear happy all the time to please other people. To look and sound pretty. I decided with this album that I wasn’t going to let what other people think of me stop me from expressing myself. That is freedom to me, and I want freedom.
OS: As for your audience – male, female and non-binary, how do you hope that same purpose resonates when listening to the album?
jj: I would love if people felt in listening that it was okay to express their emotions, to be free.
OS: America has been going through some traumatic reckonings that were only further exacerbated through a pandemic coinciding with an ugly election season. How do you find yourself feeling about the shakey ground we seem to have found ourselves on in the spring of 2021?
jj: Just like you said with “traumatic reckonings” I feel a bit traumatized. I am fatigued and often despair, having been disturbed over and over and over again. It is my connection with the people I love and the moments of joy we share together that give me the roots I need to stay committed to our futures.