Wednesday’s show with Steep Canyon Rangers at the Sinclair will be Joy Kills Sorrow’s final public performance of 2013, and its return to a hometown stage comes at the close at one of the most prolific years the band’s seen to date. Since 2006, the members of Joy Kills Sorrow — currently, Emma Beaton, Wes Corbett, Matt Arcara, Jacob Jolliff, and Zoe Guigueno — have honed their bluegrass chops on traditional instruments, perfecting their banjo picking, or mandolin strumming, or Nashville jukebox-ready pipes with approachable love songs and confident, clear explorations in folk.
Lately, the all-acoustic outfit has relished in the tracks off of June’s “Wide Awake” EP (which includes a killer cover of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights”) and propelled in a harder rocking direction, one that maintains the gusto and superlative standard set by its last record, 2011’s “This Unknown Science.” The band has a new bass player now in Guigueno, but for Emma Beaton, Joy Kills Sorrow’s resident siren, they’re coming into their own on the new stuff they’re working on while staying firmly rooted in an old school place. That means they’re still kicking the drum kit to the curb.
“We had sort of been heading in the direction of a fuller sound, treating our music a little more like indie rock music, even though we play acoustic instruments,” says Beaton, calling from the road.
For Beaton, “Wide Awake” is a proud talking point, as it’s the first effort Joy Kills Sorrow has co-produced.
“We use the instruments that we have, which are traditional bluegrass instruments, to play the music that we play, which is much more of an indie rock thing. We learned a lot of things from that experience, we refined a lot of elements from what we used with [‘This Unknown Science’], and took our favorite things and tried to make the EP as thick-sounding as possible given the instruments we had, while not having a drum set. We’ve been trying to push that just a little step further.
“We’re trying to bring all the energy we have … We’re louder than most bluegrass bands are and rocking a little more. Going into the next full-length, we’re going to take that into that whole recording process and make the record sound as thick and whole as possible.”
Joy Kills Sorrow has plans to return to Boston from wherever they are in April to record its next full-length, and the members are set to do so at a time when the neo-folk revival is reaching the boiling point. This year was kind to the genre they call their own, as seemingly no one could get enough of a new song that involved a banjo strain in any capacity.
Though Mumford and Sons are in the midst of a hiatus, The Lumineers have been mocked incessantly, and bands of suspender-snapping, cowboy hat-toting alterna-folk or grunge grass bands are setting out on tour every single day from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, festivals like Portland’s Pickathon and Newport Folk celebrated milestones, franchise expansions and record-breaking ticket sales. Hell, folk EDM is now a thing, whether we like it or not, and if Avicii’s taking a cue from these stanzas set to steel strings, it’s safe to say that a mostly-bluegrass band like Joy Kills Sorrow has great things to look forward to as people start to realize that an upright bass isn’t an artifact just because it’s unplugged.
“My whole experience in music has been when acoustic music became more popular,” says Beaton. “Mumford and Sons is a perfect example — they bring acoustic music closer to where popular music sits and makes it less abstract. The average audience, their ears are a little more used to hearing the sounds of acoustic music. They know what bluegrass is, and they’re into bands that have mandolins and acoustic guitars and banjos, you know? It makes it less of a foreign thing to people that wouldn’t typically listen to acoustic music, or who didn’t grow up with old-time music.”
According to Beaton, Joy Kills Sorrow’s biggest challenge in 2014 is a sound issue, specifically, “getting loud enough without feedback.” With “Wide Awake” behind the group and the anticipation of studio time in the not-so-distant future, the band continues to take stock of the changing world and industry around them.
“I don’t think our challenges are any different from any other band’s challenges,” Beaton says. “The industry is changing a lot. You’ve got to get out there and stay on the road and keep on playing good shows and enjoying it. That’s the most important thing. I wouldn’t say that our genre is a whole lot different than any other genre. In a lot of ways, it might even be easier for bands like ours that are acoustic bands because there’s a whole lot of acoustic music bands out there. There’s a whole scene of bluegrass bands and we’re fortunate enough that though we play music that is leaning further into a sort of indie rock realm compositionally.”