Words by David C. Obenour
We all had plans for the summer of 2020. What we didn’t know was that the summer of 2020 had conflicting plans for us.
For Sweet Nobody, the band had slatted to release their sophomore full-length. Lead singer and lyricist, Joy Deyo had an album of songs that dealt with her issues of chronic pains, a fleeting diagnosis, and the emotions of fear, anger and self-doubt that accompanied it. Then these personal dramas became shared as the world was thrown into its own grappling with fear, anger and self-doubt.
A year later, We’re Trying Our Best is finally being released and the concepts ring true to our shared recent past – and all-too-still-present current. But the songs lift above these emotions with pop melodies and optimism that add reflection. Having learned value through distance and hollow omission, it’s an album that feels made for this moment.
Off Shelf: Between all of the events of the last two years, it’s been an incredibly weird and challenging time to be alive. How have you been doing?
Joy Deyo: We’re hanging in there! I think we’ve all developed more appreciation for each other and especially for the things we’re able to do again. Playing shows feels like a privilege now, whereas before – for me anyway – I tended to get more caught up in the stress of trying to make it perfect.
OS: Aside from your emotional connection to them, has this prolonged uncertain waiting period affected how you play the songs?
JD: Honestly, we were all so excited to get back to playing together after such a long hiatus that there’s a fresh energy in it. In some ways we came back to the songs as if we were playing them for the first time again. No matter how many times you play the songs alone at home, it doesn’t compare to hearing the complete arrangement live.
OS: It wasn’t just global issues that you were dealing with on We’re Trying Our Best. Learning to live with chronic pain and the search for a proper diagnosis – how did that translate into the album?
JD: When you know something is wrong and doctors keep telling you you’re healthy, it can make you feel like you’re going crazy. It chips away at your mental health and makes you question yourself. I wrote a lot about the self-doubt that started to plague me at that time.
As the illness got worse, I found myself having to build my life around it. I felt like I was losing my identity to being sick—losing the ability to do a lot of things that I felt defined my worth. I was stripped down to nothing. Important things fell by the wayside and I had to ask for a lot of help. It’s very difficult not to feel like a burden when you find yourself in that place.
After finally receiving a proper diagnosis and learning that Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome was going to be a permanent part of my life, I was simultaneously relieved and also grieved. I had to learn to accept the fact that I have inherent value just because I exist and not because of the things that I do.
I worked through a lot of those emotions in songs that wound up on the album—especially 5 Star Diary, Other Humans, White Lies, Not a Good Judge and If I Should Die Tonight.
OS: Living through the last shared years of quarantine and fear and uncertainty – did you draw more connections with the songs than you had when you wrote them?
JD: Songs do tend to take on a life of their own. If I Should Die Tonight, for example, talks about wanting to fight through depression and self-doubt rather than succumb to it. When we were faced with the pandemic and this new outside threat to our well-being, it definitely gave the lyrics more weight in my mind.
Mostly, the shared trauma of the collective experience made me more ready to share the songs. I was less worried about what people would think because I was reminded that there are things in life that will always be beyond my control.
What I always hope is that when someone hears our songs, they will adopt them and apply them to something meaningful in their own life.
OS: Even with such weighty topics, We’re Trying Our Best is a decidedly joyous and upbeat bent album. What is your own history in listening to pop and how does it resonate with the music you create?
JD: There wasn’t a lot of pop music in my house growing up, outside of the oldies, which were a huge influence for me.
But when my sister got her driver’s license, she would buy these great compilations of like, the best 80’s pop songs or 90’s club hits. We would go on long drives and sing at the top of our lungs to Cyndi Lauper and Roxette and Tears for Fears. I think it was a bit of a rebellion on our part, dancing in the car and cranking albums our parents would never have bought for us.
That’s where I developed a joy for pop music, because it equated a kind of freedom. It meant not being in school or under the thumb of a parental figure. It was windows down, first taste of independence, weekend vibes. I try to put some of that in my songs now, because it still makes me happy! There’s nothing better than a long drive with a great album.
OS: There are some really gorgeous shimmery guitar sounds on the album. Do any moments or melodies particularly stick out to you from the album?
JD: I do love a sparkly guitar tone! The beginning of 5 Star Diary sticks out to me, the leads in Million Yard Stare and Other Humans, anything surfy that Casey does. Brian, Casey and I all write guitar leads for the songs, so it’s really fun to see how they marry together. Casey and Brian both bring great guitar tones to the mix. I would credit both of them with dialing in on that sound.
OS: As a modern indie band, there’s the stylistic choice that comes with production fidelity – going for clean, going for analog, going for lofi. What are the things you look for with production and how did that translate for the new album?
JD: I have a special place in my heart for demos. I like how imperfect and personal they are. We’ve often talked about how we’ve heard someone’s demos for an album and absolutely loved them, only to find that the charm has been lost in translation when it comes to the finished product.
My goal is to maintain enough of that lo-fi, personal grit that exists in a demo and then clean it up just enough. Get the parts a little brighter and the vocals a little more shimmery.
We recorded to tape a lot on Loud Songs for Quiet People. We didn’t use tape at all on We’re Trying Our Best, but I don’t feel like we lost anything. We just have a great engineer, Joel Jerome, who knows how to get the sounds we’re asking for.
OS: Pandemics aren’t the only delay complicating the life of musicians these days with fewer vinyl plants facing higher demand. Have you evolved your thinking toward the album or the promotional cycle when it comes to releasing new music?
JD: I’ll say this, releasing an album is a ton of work! Not only are vinyl plants backed up because there aren’t enough of them, they’re also backed up because practically nobody released any music in 2020. The backlog is immense.
I think at this point the goal is just to get the songs out there in whatever form you can. It’s so hard to record an album and then have to sit on it for a year or more. You can start to lose the closeness and excitement you have for the work.
The best thing we did this album cycle was to hire a great PR company to run our campaign. It made a huge difference!
OS: Have you started to consider touring again yet? How does it feel to think about that? Is there something you find yourself thinking about regularly and missing?
JD: I think we’ve missed playing in general. Not just because it’s fun, but because we’re all good friends and it’s fun to hang out with each other. We’d love to do some touring, as long as it feels safe. It feels like there are a lot of good possibilities on the horizon!
OS: Have you been working on new music? What has it been like getting back into that?
JD: Yes, new music is in the works. We’ve got the better part of the next album demos finished and will be heading to the studio soon. I never stopped writing over the course of the pandemic. It’s something I always do, and have had a lot of time to do over the past few years. We just want to make sure we’re releasing the best of the best!