Joanna Barker’s voice is a thing a of magic beauty, a potion you wanna drink up, it has the warbling, striking, vibrato qualities of a bird song, and like her east coast sister Jenn Grant, her vocals play themselves like an instrument, doing something a little more than merely singing. It’s hard to articulate, and what more could an artist strive for than a talent that can’t be put into words?
While her vocals have always shone from behind her guitar, she’s laid her guitar down for her new electronic project with Grant King (Pathological Lovers; Big Space, Other People), and Essex’s sound brings that unmistakable voice to the fore, and, to new heights.
For Grant, a mightily talented guitarist, also voted “Best Keys/Pianist in Town” by readers of The Overcast, Essex’s style of music offers up a new and welcome outlet, different than the rock and jazz improv bands he spends most of his time in these days.
“Grant’s so easy to work with,” Barker says. “He got me singing harmonies I didn’t know I could sing, and I never thought I’d play piano in front of Grant King, let alone write a little something with him over my shoulder. But he’s such a great coach. And very much a humble genius. Watching him in the studio is just, mesmerizing really.”
As for the origins of the project, Barker says she’d been carrying around sets of lyrics and melodies that she didn’t know what to do with. “They weren’t for acoustic guitar and vocals was all I knew. So I asked Grant to do an RPM in 2015. We started working together on this tune right off the bat.”
They decided against the RPM, opting put a lot of time into “Little Icarus” and the beginnings of a few other ideas instead. But they’re both so busy, “Little Icarus” may be all we get from the duo. Local illustrator/designer and musician Krista Power put the video together, from footage Barker provided her.
You can download “Little Icarus” down on Bandcamp. The song sounds like a true collaboration, from two people who should be working together. Barker was very sincere about how liberating and productive she found their synergy.
“I’ve always felt as if the music I’ve made in the past was limited by my skill set. Which is fine! But working with such a well-trained and experienced multi-instrumentalist and producer like Grant opened up so much for me as an artist.”
As for Grant, a busy man, if you ask him “why Joanna, for yet another musical project” he says “Well, why not? She’s wonderful!”
Grant says he was sitting in his living room by the fire with his partner Amy Joy last January (Grant and Amy have recorded some great RPM albums together as Other People) when he get a Facebook message from Joanna, pitching the idea of an RPM collaboration.
“Having done a few RPMs, I knew these old bones didn’t have the gusto required to pull off a full RPM,” but the idea of doing something with Joanna, without time constraints, appealed to him. Prior to the collaboration, he says he mostly knew Joanna as an acquaintance from the music scene.
“I had heard her sing live a couple of times and was always impressed by her voice. And I thought it might be fun to do something not in her comfort zone, and it turns out, that’s what she was after too. I was pretty busy with other stuff, and I didn’t want something to take over my life, so we decided to treat it like a band rehearsal, and get together once a week and chip away at something.
“We had no idea what to do, and honestly the first time we got together I think I may have scared her a bit with some drum beat made out of explosions and factory sounds or something, but we quickly learned each other’s aesthetic, and we have been basically on the same page ever since. It was a lot of fun.
“She had a melody and some words, and we just started filling in the blanks. We knew we wanted some kinda different thing for the coda, so we came up with a progression that was a 10-bar phrase … it made it seem like the loop of it doesn’t end; kinda circular.”
From there, in keeping with their careful let’s-not-rush-this craftsmanship, Barker stewed on what they’d created for a couple of weeks, “and what she came up with on top of it was so great,” Grant says. “I was really impressed at how it came together.”
Grant also gives “many props” to Justin Merdsoy “who really made it pop with his mix and master.”
As for the band name, an autocorrect mishap can take the credit. They’d been going back and forth via text on which of two bands names they wanted to use. “Grant said he liked both, and meant to say ‘You choose, I’m easy’ but he sent ‘I’m Essex’ by mistake. And with that, we had three names that we liked!”
But as it turned out, Essex was the name of the town in Massachusetts where Grant had his first lesson with his master teacher, “and that was that,” Barker says. “We liked the sound, the look and it held some personal significance.”
Neither seem particularly certain what will come of Essex, though reaction to the song has been very encouraging, especially from musicians, including “Uuuugh this is so good!!!!! Moremoremore!!!!” from one member of Hey Rosetta as a Facebook comment.
Grant says he’s kept busy “trying to get this guitar thing down, but I realize that’s a lifelong endeavour.” A humble assertion from the only guitarist in town who could give Duane Andrews a run for his money. While guitar, and presumably Big Space (from whom he is the guitarist) get the lion’s share of his interests at the moment, he doesn’t see any reason Essex wouldn’t make some more music.
“I have some busy work in the next few weeks but after that, who knows. Maybe we’ll start chipping away at something else. She’s told me she has some more melodies and words, and well, that’s what we’re always looking for.”