Probably more than any other genre of music, the singer-songwriter lays the most on the line. Sift through the annals of music and it becomes apparent how solo artists use their work as a way to make sense of the world around them. Johnny Cash tried to reconcile his own flaws with music that did not so much explain his inner psyche as much as they took the listener to the places he’d been. His tales cut close to the bone.
Joyce Saunders is part of that tradition. The 29-year-old singer-songwriter’s debut album Thick Enough to Stand On is an acoustic collection of melancholic, yet ultimately uplifting, songs that question the life around her and find answers on her own terms. It’s less about being lost, than it is about finding acceptance in confusing times.“Sometimes my songwriting is a reflection of some of the things I see around me in society,” the friendly Saunders says over coffee at a downtown shop. “I like to write songs that cut through pretension and go right to the heart. I write songs about mortality, vulnerability, frailty and love. I write silly songs too.”
Saunders began playing guitar as a teenager in Old Barns, just outside of Truro. Drawing on the influence of the Indigo Girls and Neil Young, Saunders began to play local open mic nights in high school.
She moved to Halifax in 2000 and became friends with several veteran musicians on the singer-songwriter scene, including Rose Cousins, with whom she briefly formed the Rose and Joyce Band. She later hooked up with Ashley Moffat, a co-worker at the Museum of Natural History, to record a well-received educational children’s album under the name The Wilderbeats.
That’s when, Saunders admits, other priorities started to get in the way of her musical ambitions. After releasing a 2002 live disc recorded at the Agora Church, where she leads worship, Saunders took a break from her burgeoning music career to concentrate on her job in earth education and tourism interpretation.
But after laying low for nearly two years, the urge to perform was too great to ignore. She called Benn Ross, the former drummer of the Rose and Joyce Band, to see if he could offer her any help. He offered her a place as a singer in the newly formed Benn Ross’ Fabulous Band.
“I thought, ‘I need an outlet,’ so I called up Benn and I told him, ‘This is what I’ve been going through, is there any opportunity for me to sing back-up or anything?’” Saunders says. “He told me about the band and I’m thankful for that because it got me out again.”
At the same time, friends encouraged her to lay down some of her tracks, offering her financial help to do so. She headed to Ultramagnetic Studios to record with Charles Austin once a week from March until September.
“I just had to forget about my own depressed ideas about who I was, where I was going in life, and just do it,” Saunders says. “It really felt like a discipline and I know that in time it will be more of a joyful experience.”
Laced with strings and harmonica, Thick Enough to Stand On is a journey of redemption and taking stock of one’s life. It’s a culmination of four years of songwriting and many more years of playing countless open mic nights in small venues.
“Be Gentle,” is where Saunders is at right now—trying to find her way, but much more acknowledging of her place. “Scaffold” is a metaphor for society searching for fulfillment in the wrong places. “Shadowsong” is about wanting to be close to someone on a self-destructive path. Saunders says she’s not surprised that some consider her music Christian.
“I think that everyone is on some kind of journey, some kind of continuum, they have certain ideas about spiritual things and I think anyone could identify with any of that,” she says. “And if they don’t, then well, that’s OK.”
Like any introspective singer-songwriter, Saunders isn’t afraid to share her ups and downs as well as the lessons she’s learned on the way.
“My roommate today was playing it and really digging it, singing along,” Saunders says. “I think that’s probably the highest compliment is when people just sing along, they get something out of it or that it reaches them somehow.”
Joyce Saunders w/Benn Ross’ Fabulous Band, October 13 at the Khyber Club, 1588 Barrington, 9pm, $6.