Artists are sometimes alchemists. They are able to take isolated scenes and moments and turn them into a larger, grander statement about the human experience. It’s always special to listen through a record that feels lost in time. Average Joey’s newest offering, Impermanence, feels like it could have been made at any time in the last 100 years.
Now based in Pittsburgh, Average Joey cut his teeth busking on his many travels around the US. In his life as a wandering troubadour, he’s put together a hefty bag of songwriting tricks that take his songs from dark folk to vaudeville to honky-tonk. Impermanence combines all of Joey’s disparate musical interests into one seamless musical experience.
As horns herald the second song, “Toxic & Fragile,” Joey sings, “If I can’t afford a lesson,then how will I learn? And if I can’t quench my thirst, my desires just burn.” The artist bands together his penchant for melodic folk-songwriting with his knack for poeticism to sound like a 21st century rambling crooner. It’s as if Joey just wandered into town with his ragamuffin crew of sonic explorers and began to play on the promenade. The songs drip with the kind of folk wisdom that only comes from a life lived to the fullest. Joey recalls, “The album explores the darkest reaches of humanity, taking the listener on a relatable journey of hopelessness, acceptance, and meaning making despite the futility of our times.” Songs like “Apres Moi, Le Deluge” or “Jesus Christ & Diogenes Walk Into A Bar” reveal the timeless ache of Joey’s heart. In between all the glass cups or lonesome violins there is a pure human desire for connection and beauty in a world that feels lacking in both right now.
Impermanence feels scatterbrained in a way that truly reflects the attention-span of the world right now. As Joey moves his group of players from song-to-song and sound-to-sound, he does so with appreciation for the past as well as a wild, desperate hope for the future. What more can we ask of our writers?
How do your years as a traveling musician feed into the art you make now? What about traveling and busking makes for good songwriting?
Traveling and busking are really how I learned to play music, and to be a performer. When you’re playing for groups of people walking by, who didn’t expect or sign up for a performance, you have to get good at capturing and holding people’s attention, you have to toe the line between relatable/accessible & weird/threatening (ha!). So, I’d say it shaped me as a performer more than a songwriter.
I will say, though, that busking and definitely traveling shaped my worldview. When you’re bumming around the country you meet real people, often interacting with folks who are on the margins of society – from the homeless to folks in the throes of addiction. This forces you to bare witness to the realities of our culture that often get filtered out of our newsfeeds or TV programs. So, in that sense it solidified my anti-capitalist framework of viewing the world, and I’m mostly interested in writing songs about how those social structures play out, and shape the stories of specific people or relay the messages of how these power structures affect us socially.
There’s a certain mischievous element to busking, I think. At least when I feel like I’m doing it “right”, that means that it’s at least somewhat subversive. To put yourself out there, being vulnerable and singing to people, often dirty, often “road weary”, but having fun – it can function as an example of an alternative to the “straight and narrow” status quo of what “success” looks like for passers by. Some people treat buskers with pity, as if giving them a dollar is an act of charity – but buskers offer a service, and enrich the experience of a city or town or farmers market. But, also, when we are at our most subversive, buskers can embody a rebellion against a capitalist ideology. When a well-to-do kinda crowd walks by and we exchange glances – when I’m really throwing my heart into it, doing what I love, singing what I feel – sometime I wonder if that busybody business man doesn’t, even if for a moment, question the way that they interpret and navigate the world. Also sometimes kids dance when you’re playing and that’s fun.
I wouldn’t be the musician, songwriter, or person that I am without the traveling I’ve done. It is the community of traveling musicians, punks, organizers, and radicals that showed me the ropes of how to survive on the excessed of capitalist waste, who taught me how to play and perform music, and who helped to shape my whole world view. So when I say I’m a traveling musician, it describes what I do, where I’m from, but also a sort of lineage or something. I don’t think I’ll pin down what makes “good songwriting”, but I think getting inspired in a wide variety of ways, but a whole bunch of other weirdos couldn’t hurt! Also, I’ve been lucky enough to experience a lot of beautiful nature in my traveling, and I think that helps too.
How did you manage to maintain a cohesive feel to the album while experimenting with a number of different genres and sounds?
Genres are weird, especially in the sort of post-post-post modern culture we’re in. In the last few years I’ve been experimenting with different “genre” records. I’ll get on a kick of writing “singer-songwriter”ish sort of folk story songs, then I’ll get into writing a few politically charged country tunes, but all of a sudden a hip hop verse or freaky piano jam pops out of my brain. So, I try to just allow the song take shape in whatever form it wants to, without trying to apply too much external pressure to fit it in a certain box. Sometimes it’s fun to make a country song (for example) and put on that costume and take on that “sound” to articulate a certain message. Other times something weird wants to happen that is hard to put a label on and I want to allow lots of space for that, too.
If I’m doing my job right, though, hopefully there is a thread that can be followed thematically, throughout an album or even through all my work more broadly. Like I alluded to above, I’m interested in writing songs that push back against a political, social, and ideological status quo that is inhuman, violent, and objectively destroying the world. Sometimes that means writing some freaky ass screamy piano music! Other times, though, that takes the form of something light hearted, fun, and with a fiddle / banjo backing that you can dance to. That’s another way I think music can be subversive. If you can get a room full of folks moving around and generally vibing to a certain musical “style” that doesn’t feel “threatening” to them, but lyrically you are applying some serious pressure on a worldview that this particular audience may take for granted, I think (I hope) that is a tool to start to get people thinking. I have a song that’s about shoplifting from corporations that you can’t help but tap your toes to, but it has a pretty explicit political sentiment.
Other times those themes take on more metaphorical, mysterious, or musically “hard to pin down” forms. This is, like, the exact opposite of what people tell you to do if you want to “make it”, or be a “successful” musician. If I were following that playbook, I would “pick a lane” musically, hone in on a specific audience, and write the same “kind” of songs consistently. But! I just can’t help how they pop out of my noggin. It makes it hard to “market” or “pitch” myself as a project in general. I’m a folk singer, banjo player who will do acapella group singing, cheeky honky tonk songs, deeply personal or politically sharp spoken word poetry, and also play metal songs on a piano about climate disaster and god. It’s hard to “sell” that – which is probably why I’m very broke always. I didn’t become a folk singer for the money though, I suppose. This genre-bending does allow me to shape-shift, though, to whatever audience / venue / situation I’m in. I can play a family friendly show for a group of blue collar rural folks sitting on a bail of hay. I can also play dingey basement shows for a bunch of young punx with Crass tattoos. I can also do a college lecture hall reading poetry. I can also lead groups of people in song around campfires. Each of those audiences is another opportunity to say what I’ve got to say, taking the form that might be most palatable for that particular group. So, being able to take on those different roles feels fulfilling.
Specifically, my new record “Impermanence” is definitely hard to pin down, or place in a genre category. It goes all over the place. It is deeply dark, serious, and frightening. It’s also theatrical, goofy, and hopefully hopeful. I think it is able to make all these different turns and explore such a wide range musically and thematically because it is connecting dots along the way, never claiming to come to an ultimate conclusion, but hopefully bringing some kind of picture into a clearer focus. I’m proud of how strange it is, yet also cohesive (hopefully!)
What excites you about music these days? Do you think we’re headed in an interesting direction sonically?
Part of what excites me about music is also what is making it so difficult to be a musician. Like with everything, music is being conglomerated and monopolized by large corporations. Spotify is a hyper exploitative platform that you are more or less forced to use as an independent artist. Live Nation (and other big companies like it) have cornered a lot of the market for live music. But, we know that human desire to create, share, and enjoy art and expression and music and creative connection will not and cannot ever cease. So, I have to think that folks who are committing their lives to making music and sharing it, but who don’t “get big” (by whatever metric we’re using) are just going to continue on the underground, and in the DIY ethos and framework. I’m speaking about it as if that’s not what’s already happening – it is. That’s how the music world looks to me, right now at least. All of my favorite musicians (aside from Nine Inch Nails) are people who I (at least kind of) know personally, if not close friends who I maintain regular relationships with. That is really inspiring as a prospect. It brings art and the artists who make it to earth, makes them human, makes their struggles and vulnerability more real. When folks worship Taylor Swift as a demigod and pay small fortunes to see her live shows, it bums me out a bit because there are so many incredibly talented people making heartfelt, quality music playing somewhere in your town this weekend, and they aren’t billionaires, and they don’t ride private jets. They are people just like you. You can talk to them. Any support you show to their craft will be met with tangible, felt gratitude, it wont be another drop in the ocean of their incomprehensible wealth. Your eyes can meet each others’. When the exchange of art becomes so heavily commodified, and the separation between artist and audience is so wide, the experience itself becomes hollow, and the life is drained out of it.
So, while making a living as a working artist is damn near impossible, we all get to follow and support independent artists (if we choose to) who are making incredible shit, constantly! Like, I’ve got a new album dropping of an artist I really admire damn near every week, whether it’s a country/folk singer, a punk band, or an indie rapper. And when we buy their records, it’s like helping a pal. And helping a pal makes your heart feel good!
What do you hope listeners take away from Impermanence?
This record was really ambitious, musically and thematically. I hope I didn’t bite off more than I could chew. In fact, the topics I’m trying to grapple with on this album are so wide in scope and so damn confusing, that I still don’t feel like I’ve said all I’ve had to say (even after working on it for 3 years) and I’m writing more about them lately.
It’s a record about alienation, about the current, upcoming, and inevitable climate disasters that our world is and will continue to experience. It’s about god, religion, and meaning making. It’s about being afraid to die, as an individual. It’s about being afraid of mass extinction – of organized human societies, the human species, and all the others species too. It’s about wanting some explanation for why it is this way. It’s about the futility of having answers to questions when answers still leave you without any power to change anything. It’s about reacting to that disempowerment with violence, self destruction, dehumanization, self-aggrandizement. It’s about trying to let go of attachments to outcomes, attachments to anything, really. It’s about accepting contradictions. It’s about trying to forgive yourself and love others even though we’re doomed.
Ultimately, as I said above, I don’t think it comes to any ultimate conclusions. But, what I hope people take from it is a sense that we are all feeling this invisible pressure, this lurking fear and insecurity. We’re not alone in that experience. You’re not crazy. Sometimes we need to weep and grieve the amount of injustice and violence and darkness inherent to the systems and structures that dictate our lives. Other times we need to laugh and poke fun at the absolute absurdity of it – not to minimize the horror, or diminish anyones struggle or oppression, but because there is a liberation in that cackle. We know that things are going to get worse in a lot of ways. I want people to be reminded of, retain and reinforce our collective humanity through the coming disasters, even if it is naive and futile. We know how the powers that be will meet these moments – with austerity and cruelty and dehumanization. We can combat those things if we recognize our interconnectedness, and take some semblance of faith in the redemptive acts of vulnerability, love, and connection. If we can hold tight to those principles, we can get through damn near anything, I think. Even as the world goes to hell, we can keep laughing, keep singing.