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Monday, 08 July 2013 08:15

'Country and folk music can really teach you how to write a lyric' An interview with Jeremy Joyce

'Country and folk music can really teach you how to write a lyric' An interview with Jeremy Joyce / Tuan Lee
Written by Robin Wheeler

New York City's Milagro Saints are touring this week to celebrate Woody Guthrie's 101st birthday with their EP, "Mighty Road Songs." Comprised of their interpretation of six Woody Guthrie songs, the band's passing through St. Louis tonight en route to the annual free folk festival in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, Okla.

Along with the Union Electric, singer-songwriter Jeremy Joyce will open Milagro Saints' show at Off Broadway. Originally from Philadelphia and south New Jersey, Joyce has made St. Louis home for several years. A former rock guitarist, Joyce has spent his local years experimenting with folk and Americana music. He released the single "The Afterlife (Is the Life for Me)" last month on the heels of his April album release, "Sleeping with the Devil."

Last week Joyce and I talked over lunch about songwriting, the music industry and Woody Guthrie's continuing ability to change an artist's path.

Jeremy Joyce: I'm in a self-editing stage. How do you really put it together? Right now there's some album versus the single. I don't think albums should be abandoned, but I think that artists need to embrace the single. Where I'm at right now, I've got a record done. I've got a 45 done. We did a whole lot of work to get the physical product.

Robin Wheeler: I love what's happening with the return of the 7-inch in the last couple of years. And the EP. Especially if I'm unfamiliar with the artist, just give me a couple of songs and run with it.

I don't think people should be afraid to put out two, three, four records on their own. You're either in it for the long haul, or you're not. If you're going to put out one record, that might be great. You've got to be twice as crazy to make it work. You could sit around and wait a year to see if anybody picks up your record, or you could just put it out. People are consuming pretty quickly nowadays.

In looking at folk music, do you see the industry getting back to the way things were, after 50 years of major labels running the show?

I think it's OK to accept that it's over. I think about the guys like Bill Monroe, these barnstormers who created their own business, and they ran it. I always think about James Brown and Bill Monroe in kind of the same vein. Cranky old dudes who had fun.

In looking at Woody Guthrie, he always wrote. Went to L.A., got a radio show, then saw what was happening with the Okies, so he started going out to play for them and he wrote songs about what he saw.

I was just thinking about that the other day. I've been watching all these mountaintop-removal coal-mining movies. Nobody is writing about this. I was thinking about all the Woody Guthrie songs that are about dams -- the Hoover Dam, the Grand Coulee Dam, all about generating electricity and changing the river, changing nature for electricity.

Woody wrote those songs because the government paid him to. You're not going to see the government paying songwriters now.

No. In the U.S. we're so focused on money. That's why popular music is going to continue to do what it's doing.

It has gotten worse. I'd like to think that I've just gotten older, but not. It's worse.

I'm not a big Frank Zappa fan at all, but someone was playing one of his albums recently. I was thinking to myself, when are records like this going to be made again? The idea that somebody thought this was a good idea is crazy. But it is a good idea to make records like that. What's getting made that's that adventurous?

Flaming Lips have kind of stuck their toe into that, but not nearly far enough.

Maybe if everyone just says, fuck the record labels, I'm going to make this.

How did you get involved in the Milagro Saints show?

Steve [Pohlman, owner of Off Broadway] emailed me and asked me to do it. I'm going to do a couple of Woody songs. Mostly my own stuff, but I might to "Do-Re-Mi" because I like that one. A lot of [Guthrie's songs] are narratives, like "1913 Massacre." I've got a lot of narrative tunes, and will probably focus on that.

The very first thing that I bought that wasn't rock 'n' roll was a Woody Guthrie record. I didn't know that's what it was. I bought it at a used CD store and I didn't even know what I was buying. I played guitar with Adam Arcuragi. He was into indie folk, and he was my first exposure to acoustic guitars being acceptable. So I asked him, what's this Woody Guthrie album? I honestly had no idea.

Did you not go through the third grade learning of "This Land Is Your Land"?

I don't remember the third grade. I knew "This Land is Your Land" as a song. It's still not my favorite song.

Somehow I went from playing guitar in an indie folk group, to buying an acoustic guitar and a Woody Guthrie album, then listening to the Jayhawks. I immediately went from indie rock to going out and playing Woody Guthrie songs because there was something about it that was really cool.

Do you remember which ones?

"Going Down the Road Feeling Bad." Just the regular ones. Like I said, "Do-Re-Mi" has always been one of my favorite ones, and "1913 Massacre," "Pastures of Plenty." But then I really quickly from there got into Pete Seeger, Townes, Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo. I was more into the rock and roll Wilco, but then I started going back. The Jayhawks and "Miss Williams' Guitar" is like ... yeah. Yeah. It's one of their best.

It's kind of funny, because if I had never bought that Woody Guthrie CD, I never would have picked up an acoustic guitar. I never would have met the person who became my bandmate who was from St. Louis. She gave me my country music CDs. I was going out and playing Woody Guthrie. Before that all I knew was rock 'n' roll. It's so different because I'm an East Coast guy and I didn't grow up with country music.

Now musically I'm coming back to rock 'n' roll. It's been a long trip, but the thing I learned in this whole 10 or 15 years as a guitar player ... and as a shitty songwriter for five or so years -- you've got to start somewhere and you think you're good, but really you're not. And eventually you get good. When I started to write, I wanted to write like fucking Townes. Of course.

But now it's like everything is coming together and I accept everything with the music. I think you can write a song from the Woody perspective. You can write a song from the Townes perspective. These are all people we draw upon. They're all different writers. Bruce Springsteen taught me about putting rock 'n' roll with a folk lyric, which is kind of what he does in a lot of songs. "Born in the U.S.A." is such a folk lyric. The new Del Lords record has that thing about it, too -- that great roots rock sound.

It's been a long trip that started with that Woody Guthrie CD. I used to be a lead guitar player. As a player your view of others is so different. But I think that country and folk music can really teach you how to write a lyric.

Jeremy Joyce, the Union Electric, and Milagro Saints perform at Off Broadway on July 8.

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