By Martin Bonica
Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter Joy Ike is bringing her live show through northern Virginia this month, with a show in Reston on Friday, September 13, and another in Broadlands on the 14th. Both are public house shows – a unique setting, but one that has been a crucial element of her nearly fifteen-year career as an independent musician.
These are just two of many shows this year, as she continues to bring her introspective, upbeat, piano-driven blend of soul and folk music around the country.
“In the past year, my touring has slowed down exponentially. It’s been a year of a lot of rest, slowing down, and trying to catch up with myself.” she explains. For context, this year, she has played “probably about fifty to seventy shows”, as opposed to her previous tempo: “about a hundred”.
Joy Ike’s relentless drive as a musician is clear, even with a pared-down touring schedule. Her determination is just as apparent in her music.
Her latest album, “Bigger Than Your Box”, came out in the spring of 2018. It shows off a dazzling blend of soul, folk, and rock, anchored by her percussive piano and powerful voice. The record sounds full, with swells of strings, staccato guitar, fretless bass, and intricate jazz drumming complementing her performance. Despite being richly arranged, often with layers of intricate multi-part harmonies weaving in and out of chorus lines (“I Don’t Know Anything”) or dramatic strings playing off of electric guitar power chords over an intense drum pattern (“By the Fire”), the record never seems crowded, instead reveling in its dynamic range and ability to build and release tension. Every song on the album demands attention, bringing an earworm of a hook, a snappy beat, and a sense of movement that holds all the way until the final chords of “Assurance”.
Upon release, it was met with positive coverage in outlets including PopMatters and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. One track, “Ever Stay”, was featured as a standout by All Songs Considered for NPR’s 2018 Tiny Desk Contest.
Her songs are ultimately positive and assertive, but the spectre of injustice and adversity looms in all of her lyrics. In “Say Goodbye”, a song about moving forwards to follow one’s vision, she sings “you may want to go back where you’ve come / but there’s nothing for you, and it’s not an option / You can’t go back knowing what you know.” In this way, she seems to say, you shouldn’t press ahead because it’s a good idea– you must keep moving because you can’t afford not to. The song’s determination is driven as much by self-preservation as ambition.
The music video for “Hold On” best illustrates the dynamic of her lyrics; the song is upbeat, and the lyrics urge its subject not to give up hope in the face of a hostile world. However, instead of glossing over what “hostile” might really mean, the video depicts scenes of domestic abuse, bullying, and injury.
In these ways, her optimistic and assertive songs cast shadows in which darkness lurks.
“That’s become a signature of mine,” she explains. “I found that in my own songwriting. I enjoy talking about being in between a rock and a hard place, and always looking for that crack in the wall where you can see the light coming in. That’s what I enjoy the most about songwriting; finding a way out.” She believes that this sense of struggle makes the songs’ optimism hit home harder, going on: “If we can create art that is a reflection of what people really struggle with, then the hope feels more palpable, and more tangible. I think people that are looking for things that are real.”
Her songs sound just as full when she performs solo as they do when accompanied by her trio. (Indeed, she writes her songs for voice and piano first, as that is the most common configuration when she plays live – including her upcoming Virginia shows.) Joy Ike is her own rhythm section; her piano style is percussive, delivering chord changes to support the topline melody, but also awash with dramatic pauses, relentless grooves, and punctuated with handclaps and foot stomps.
“Percussion comes with everything I do. It’s so deeply ingrained in me that it feels abnormal to be writing a song without thinking about rhythm at the same time that I’m thinking about piano melodies.” Ike credits this approach to a number of factors, including growing up in a Nigerian household and going to church services where rhythm and melody were a communal experience. She also cites Regina Spektor, Fiona Apple, and Nina Simone as crucial influences, all of whom found a way to use their pianos in non-traditional, dynamic ways.
“While I don’t have that technical ability to dance around the piano or play flowery melodies, what comes quickly and easily to me is finding ways to keep the song varied dynamically, finding ways to pull the sound out and have hard rhythmic stops,” Ike explains.
While Ike’s upcoming Virginia shows are solo, her live band is composed of longtime bassist Jason Rafalak and her sister Peace Ike, who has played with her “since day one”. However, drums on “Bigger Than Your Box” are provided by David Brophy, who also produced the album.
“I wanted to work with someone who could understand and value how deeply percussion is embedded into my work”, Ike says. “I’ve found that in the past I’ve worked with producers who see drums and drumming as something that just keeps everything else in line, instead of seeing drums as a primary instrument. I ended up looking for a producer who was a drummer, and I really wanted their signature to be on the album.”
The album, and the countless concerts following it, are the latest steps in a long and prolific career. Ike began playing coffeeshops and festivals in Pittsburgh in 2005, while working full-time as a publicist for a book company. She honed her craft: “I didn’t know my sound, so I was really trying to get practice and play out as much as possible,” she recalls. “I wanted to play anywhere I could for as much as I could, really to get my name out there, and over time that also equated to honing my skills and building a fanbase.”
In 2008, she made the decision to pursue music as her career, but her background in marketing and experience as a publicist proved to be an invaluable asset going forward. She considers her time as a publicist to have been a “training ground” for her music career, as writing press releases, setting up book tours, and booking radio and TV interviews translated directly into her efforts to promote her own work.
“When I left my publishing job, I noticed that it was almost the same thing,” she explains, comparing her pre- and post-music work: “Trying to figure out how to get a product out there, trying to figure out how to sell the idea to people so that they would follow me along for the journey and ultimately want to buy into what I was doing as an artist and help sustain it.”
From 2008 to 2016, Ike ran a blog called “Grassrootsy”, a music business blog geared towards independent artists. She would write about “all things music; how to route a tour, how to build your fanbase, how to work with promoters and venue owners, how best to promote a specific show, how to hold a house concert.” She also consults with other artists, coaching them on how to carve out a path for themselves that suits their individual strengths and qualities.
“You always have to tweak things to a specific person, a specific career, and a specific genre,” Ike explains. While circumstances differ from artist to artist, there are some universal truths. She urges that artists consider which venues serve their music best, and allow them to connect with their audience. “It’s really about connecting with people, which is ultimately customer service, but that’s a sterile term,” she laughs.
“The one thing I notice most frequently with artists is that if they’re not getting the fans they want immediately, if they’re not seeing the turnouts they want at shows, or they’re not having the social media imprint that they hope for in their early days, they throw in the towel. They might be working on a project, and then after a year they decide to throw it out, jump ship, and start a band. If the band doesn’t go well after a year they throw it out, jump ship again, and they become a duo, or join another band, or go solo again.” Ike warns against buying into the narrative of instant career success. “We live in an ‘American Idol’ culture where we think that as long as you show up and sing on stage for a few minutes, and sound amazing, you’re going to be discovered and everything‘s going to be history from that point on; your career is made.” She warns: “Nothing that’s quality is built overnight. The one thing that I always encourage artists to do is “know who you are and know what you have to offer”. Care about what you have to offer, because there are going to be plenty of times when nobody else cares about what you’re doing except you. If you know that what you have needs to get out there in the world, you’re just going to keep going.”
This advice – especially the part about avoiding an instant gratification mentality – reflects Ike’s own experiences.
“Instead of finding these big victories, it’s been more about learning how to enjoy the small victories,” she says. “The hopes are that one review is going to lead to massive exposure that’s going to lead to a world tour of some sort. That typically doesn’t happen, but I do think that when they keep consistently happening, they build a really great story that builds to a slow climb up the mountain.” Indeed, the victories have been gradual but incremental – playing festivals she thought she couldn’t get booked at, going from side stages to main stages, NPR features, and this year, playing a full concert accompanied by the Chamber Orchestra of Pittsburgh (a connection made via SongSpace at First Unitarian, at which she is a stable at the folk concert series, and which also hosts the orchestra.)
These gradual victories have started to pay off. After years of demanding, non-stop touring, often driving to Chicago and back and making sure to book shows along the way, she is now able to book shows more strategically.
“As the years have progressed, I have decided that it’s always quality over quantity. If i’m not excited about a show, I’m not going to play it. That means by default I’m on the road a lot less. It also means I need to be more confident about asking for what I need at a venue. Booking fees had to change in order to keep it going and keep it sustainable. In some ways the scarcity has been a positive thing; the less I’m playing out, the more value I’m giving to my time, and the more valuable other people see my time.”
“The shows that I’m playing these days aren’t shows that are dependent on how much I personally promote them,” Ike says. “That was one of the biggest reasons for burnout for me – I would spend so much time online, not just booking shows and routing shows, but trying to get people to come out to shows. If you play certain types of events that have a built-in audience already, like a folk concert series or churches… they provide the people and you provide the music. This, for me, is the best equation, since everyone is able to contribute what they do best. If I’m going to chicago, for example, and a concert series is hosting me, then they’re bringing in the audience, and they’re bringing the ticket-buyers, and i’m bringing myself and my band.”
When booking shows, Ike leans towards listening-room concerts. She defines this category as “rooms that aren’t catering to a bar audience where people aren’t necessarily actively listening. They’re more concert spaces; these would be art galleries, art centers, small theaters, churches, and house concerts.”
This approach is at odds with the nightclub circuit, which is one of the most common venues for independent artists to play at. “The average club, they don’t really care about the artist. They care about the artist bringing fans who will buy drinks, and that’s two very different dynamics, and very different booking situations.”
However, in today’s changing musical landscape, club shows are not the only game in town. Both of Joy Ike’s shows in northern Virginia are at houses. A mainstay in cities and underground music communities, Ike sees the house venue as an emerging alternative, where the interests of the artist and venue are more closely aligned. ”They’re a break from the club venue dynamic. They require less work in the sense that you’re asking the host to bring their network, their friends, their family. At the same time, they require more work because you’re working with someone who doesn’t know how to put on an event. The average house concert host isn’t hosting them weekly – it’s not like this is their job. It’s something they want to do. Nine times out of ten, simply because they love the artist that they’re booking, they have a natural connection.”
In her fifteen years playing music, Ike has seen the proliferation of music and musicians over the internet transform the landscape of touring artists.
“When I first started playing at house shows, I don’t think I realized how much of a thing they were, and how there were certain artists who were making their career strictly on playing house concerts. At the same time, it was still thought to be a trendy underground thing that not a lot of people know about,” she says. “I’ve started graviating more towards booking house concerts because booking venues has gotten harder; we live in an age where anyone can make a business out of their art and can do music.”
“Now there’s just a ton of artists everywhere, and everyone’s trying to get heard and everyone’s trying to get on the same stages. Venues that might have been easier to play ten or fifteen years ago are incredibly difficult to get into.”
“It’s just a game of how many people you can draw versus how many people this other artist can draw.”
Playing house shows, for Joy Ike, means “not playing that cat and mouse game, and playing shows that are more fulfilling for me.”
By their nature, house shows are informal; as a result, Ike is clear with prospective hosts about her expectations. She has a section of her website dedicated to house shows, explaining in no uncertain terms: “A typical house concert has a required donation of $15-20 per person.”
Ike explains: “I do think that artists want house concert hosts to know that they are professionals, and to treat them as professionals, and not think any less of them because they’re playing in a home as opposed to a public space.”
“I put that on my website because I find that that’s the one thing I need to clarify the most with hosts. While I love to pass the hat, I do have expectations of what the audience’s expectations should be when I come – that they know that I’m a professional, that they know that I most likely drove hours to get there and that was my whole day.”
Joy Ike has recently joined the roster of Hureau Booking, a boutique booking agency in France, and is planning a European tour in 2020. Beyond that, she hints: “I have a few other projects that I can’t talk about just yet, but [I’m] very excited to be heading into a fresh direction with music in this season.”
Refined by over a decade of practice, experience, and trial and error, Joy Ike is bringing her dynamic music to northern Virginia on September 13th and 14th. Her complete touring schedule, as well as music and videos, can be found at https://www.joyike.com. Her music can be found on Spotify, her tour dates are on Bandsintown, and she updates regularly as @joyikemusic on Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook, and @joyike on Twitter.
Ever Stay music video: