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Joy Kills Sorrow: This Unknown Science

| September 19, 2011 | 0 Comments

Some people prefer pop music that behaves like math: once a few
familiar variables have been determined—female vocals or male?
Acoustic guitar or electric? — the end result should be easy to
predict, and always sound the same. That’s not the Joy Kills Sorrow
method. This Boston-based string band favors a more unpredictable
approach relying on musical chemistry and improvisation. Hence the
title of their sophomore album, This Unknown Science. All of the
members have been touted as virtuosos, and the early 20-somethings
effortlessly hunt for unexpected outcomes and new discoveries. “We
like experimenting and stretching boundaries,” explains guitarist
Matthew Arcara, an acoustic player gaining a name for himself as both
an up-and-coming guitar slinger and luthier. Arcara has taken home
several honors at various guitar competitions including Winfield’s
National Flatpicking Championship in 2006.

On This Unknown Science, Joy Kills Sorrow’s sound is born from the
best of two worlds. They start with a base of time-honored timbres and
techniques, yet fashion original songs and arrangements that reflect a
love of indie-rock and new folk. While the former has made Joy Kills
Sorrow proven favorites with the bluegrass circuit, their emphasis on
writing arrangements transcending narrow genres allows them to reach
wider audiences. Emma Beaton’s haunting vocals and the ensemble’s
rootsy variation on Americana is just as apt to appeal to fans of
Mumford & Sons and Fleet Foxes as committed Stanley Brothers
enthusiasts. “It’s not that we think traditional music needs
improving,” Arcara clarifies. “This is just how we happen to play it.”

Joy Kills Sorrow brings together an eclectic mix of musicians who each
have classical and/or jazz conservatory training, though collectively,
they ambitiously utilize their years of study to hone a new acoustic
territory yet discovered by many of today’s top artists. It’s an
amalgamation of lamenting music of the heartland, singular stories of
heartache and laughter, beautiful string arrangements, and five
musicians who grew up listening to indie-rock, jazz, and pop music
that churn out impressive tunes with an incredibly contemporary

Singer Emma Beaton, who was nominated for “Traditional Vocalist of the
Year” at the Canadian Folk Music Awards 2010 and won “Young Performer
of the Year” at the age of 18 at the Canadian Folk Music Awards 2008,
has captivated critics and fans alike. She quickly caught the ear of
bluegrass super-star Laurie Lewis, who says she has a “voice like a
laser.” A classically trained cellist, she formerly studied at Berklee
College of Music and has worked closely with Crooked Still’s Tristan
Clarridge and Rushad Eggleston.

Bassist Bridget Kearney, who double majored in Jazz Bass at The New
England Conservatory of Music and English at Tufts University, is the
primary songwriter of the group.  Of songwriting, Kearney comments, “A
lot of my ideals as a songwriter come from novelists and poets, like
Hemingway’s idea that to start writing a story, all you have to do is
write one true sentence. A song works that way too. You just need to
find one seed, the rest will grow from there.”

In 2006, Kearny won the John Lennon Songwriting contest for her songs
“Sometimes When I’m Drunk” and “You’re Wearing My Favorite Shirt.” In
2008, she was a runner-up for her composition, “Neighbor Song,” which
is about hearing your neighbors make love. She finds herself in many
bands these days including Lake Street Dive, Cuddle Magic, and The
Xylopholks. “Musically, my main influence is indie-rock,” says
Kearney. ”Some of the songs on our new record were sort of inspired by
specific artists, like Bon Iver and Arthur Russell.”

Filling out the group is Jacob Jolliff and Wesley Corbett. The former
is Berklee School of Music’s first full-scholarship mandolin student
and a veteran performer, who has toured professionally since the age
of 11 and shared the stage with such mandolin greats as David Grisman
and Mike Marshall. Corbett, a banjo player, has toured nationally with
Crooked Still and The Biscuit Burners.

The full breadth of Joy Kills Sorrow’s talents is reflected in the
range of material showcased on This Unknown Science. At one end of the
spectrum you’ll find “Reservations,” a jubilant tune that kicks off
the album in waves and layers—not unlike the all-too-human yearnings
and concerns expressed in the lyric—with mandolin and cello
interweaving one moment, a single-note banjo melody take the lead the
next. At the other extreme is the Spartan “Somewhere Over the
Atlantic,” its eerie premonitions distilled down to little more than a
few plucked notes and Beaton’s hushed, mysterious vocal. Whether it’s
the gentle, intertwined licks that open “Wouldn’t Have Noticed,” or
the joyous ensemble singing during “New Man” (written by their friend
Michael Calabrese of Lake Street Dive), Joy Kills Sorrow find myriad
ways to marry the timeless appeal of roots music with the excitement
of living life to the fullest, right here and right now.

Although the bulk of these 11 selections were written or co-written by
Bridget Kearney, they don’t truly become Joy Kills Sorrow songs until
all five members have put their stamp on a new tune. “We’ll sit down
in a circle and play it together, and talk about what the dynamic
structure has to be, what kind of mood and feel we want it to have,”
says Arcara. Sometimes that means negotiating the co-mingling of many
distinct voices in a single song, such as “Such Sweet Alarms,” which
finds space for spirited turns on the cello, banjo and mandolin—plus
some lovely vocal harmonies—without ever feeling too busy. At other
times, the best thing an individual can do in service of the song is
set their instrument aside.

“We’re always looking after the interest of the music as a whole, even
if it means working for months on new material, or making big changes
long after we’ve settled into an arrangement,” says Beaton. “We all
have plenty of opportunities to show our talents in our music, but
it’s the understated approach we usually take that makes our music

To focus on realizing their musical vision as fully as possible on
This Unknown Science, the band adjourned to the Great North Sound
Society studio, a converted 18th century barn in southern interior
Maine. Since GNSS has a live-in facility, that choice allowed the band
to work without distractions or commutes. As Arcara observes, “It’s
much easier to focus on the music when you’re sequestered in a
farmhouse for ten days.” More important was the opportunity to work
with GNSS proprietor Sam Kassirer, who has produced records for Josh
Ritter, Erin McKeon, and Langhorne Slim—all artists who, like Joy
Kills Sorrow, happily straddle the worlds of roots music and
indie-rock. Kassirer further encouraged them to experiment and take
chances, whether that meant using five different microphones and an
amplifier on Beaton ‘s vocals, or taking the happy accident when
Arcara repeatedly played in three against four at the end of “Jason”
and making it an integral part of the final version. “There ended up
being a lot of things we fooled around with that didn’t end up on the
record,” admits Beaton, “but by that same process and strategy, we
came up with a ton of new stuff that did.”

Not that all that sweat and head-scratching leaps to the forefront
when you listen to This Unknown Science. No, what resonates throughout
this album is that same understated approach that already serves this
modern American string band so well; the individual members play their
instruments with formidable, prize-winning skill, but they do so in
service of melodies and lyrics that can communicate just as powerfully
with a Brooklyn twenty-something as a retiree in the Blue Ridge
Mountains. And while Joy Kills Sorrow makes it sound as easy as 1-2-3,
this isn’t music as math; it takes chemistry, trial-and-error, and
unspecified quantities of that little something extra to make a record
as special as This Unknown Science.

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