Sunday, March 1, 2009

Q&A: JoyFocus

JoyFocus is the local duo of singer Holly Joy and multi-instrumentalist Rikk Currence, a husband-wife team that has been making music together since 1999. The two recently released a new LP, "Cyber Suburban Electro Rock Circus," which effectively brings across their desire to fuse a variety of sounds and influences, from melodic 80s pop to guitar-heavy rock. The album is full of hopeful, relatable pop songs with plenty of sincerity and no pretense.

Joy and Currence make no apologies for creating music that doesn't attempt to gel with the latest indie rock trends, or for outwardly dealing with their faith in their material. Combine that with their knack for writing a tune that ingrains itself in your head after just one listen, and you have a truly refreshing Windy City rock act.

The duo took time out to answer some questions about the new record, their place in the current Chicago rock scene and how their faith plays into their music. Read on.

JoyFocus has existed for around a decade, first releasing music in 2001. How has the music and overall project evolved over the years, and how is that reflected on your new album, “Cyber Suburban Electro Rock Circus”?

Rikk: With this record, we feel like we might have finally “arrived,” so to speak, as artists both musically and lyrically. We’ve been trying to etch out a very tangible & distinct “JoyFocus sound” over the years, and we feel we’re one step closer to achieving that with this album. We also feel that even though it’s not such a popular notion anymore, we’ve created a very cohesive and listenable album experience with “CSERC.” It’s not just a collection of singles, and it’s not one single with some filler around it. We feel it really is something you can listen to in its entirety and enjoy. We’ve poured our hearts and souls into this record, and hopefully it shows.

Holly: Wow - decade already? I think JoyFocus has grown tremendously over the years. We have experienced so much in and around our lives in that time frame, obviously. I think ultimately the transition from band to duo has been the biggest push toward growth for us. We do everything ourselves, and we like it that way! I think what you will hear on this new record is a lot of the personal trial and triumph that we've been through. I also hope that people hear a glimpse of the hope we try to project in everything we do.

How does making music as a duo, or more specifically a husband-wife team, impact your music? Does it make the creative process easier, or are there certain challenges that come with being so close?

Rikk: I feel bad for Holly sometimes because married or not, I can be just plain difficult to work with as a musician. Seriously, I am not always fun to be around during the creative process – I am a control freak of epic proportions. Once I have an idea in my mind, until it’s been realized both musically & lyrically in a manner I deem perfect, I become a relentless diva on a quest for that perfection! I might need to get over myself!

That said, Holly would be any writer or producer’s dream to work with because she’s both mega talented and agreeable – a consummate professional in the studio at all times. She’s also very humble, which is one of the qualities I admire in her the most. She would definitely be Paul, I would be John (in personality only!), or she would be Roger and I would be Pete (although my mustache is cooler). I think you see the dynamic I’m talking about here.

I think our relationship does yield a chemistry that you can’t manufacture. We’re best friends, and have been for 17 years. As a husband and wife, we’ve been through the highest of highs and lowest of lows together. That fact alone makes our connection to one another through the music unique and powerful. Again, you can’t fake that sort of thing and it shows in the music.

Holly: I think making music as husband and wife is a tremendous advantage. That’s especially true when your partner is your best friend. We experience a lot the same things, the same way and can pour our hearts out in that very moment together. I think it’s a huge advantage in that we go through everything together – even though we may have a different perspective on the process. Also, if I'm feeling something and don't know quite how to articulate it, Rikk is really great at helping me find my voice. Are there also challenges? Sure, we have to remember to be professional and shake off any “married people " things we may be dealing with when we work together. It can be a really fine line that we have to walk, and that’s not always easy. But overall, I'd say we reap great benefits from working together!

Although there is an eclectic mix of styles on CSERC, it seems you are most often compared to female-fronted pop/rock acts from the 80s such as Roxette, Pat Benatar and Eurythmics. What’s the one band or musician people might be most shocked to learn is an influence?

Rikk: I’m a huge Frank Sinatra fan. I can also be a big jazz geek. If you were to come to our home, the big surprise would be the streaming Jazz music playing in the background as you walked in. It’s always happening in the background somewhere. Not to mention that as a child growing up in the suburbs of a major city, I have a wicked metal streak that runs rampant some of the time. Iron Maiden, Dio and Judas Priest rule. By the way, speaking of metal, do you watch Metalocalypse? OMG… you need to if you don’t, it’s amazing!

Holly: I think people would be shocked to hear that I'm influenced by Coheed and Cambria, as well as They Might Be Giants. The vocals that Claudio (of Coheed) delivers bring me to tears every flipping time! I cannot listen to any of their music without weeping. The minute his voice comes on, I'm putty. I find that kind of powerful delivery to be unbelievably life-changing.
As for TMBG, I love how they have such a quirky, fun vibe. They're so clever in the way they communicate music.

They’re sometimes subtle, but there are definite aspects of your music that draw upon religion and Christian beliefs. Do you find this has much, if any, effect on the way people react to the music when first hearing it, or even just after reading a review that mentions it?

Rikk: It’s a little weird because it’s always been a part of our musical fabric, but it’s just recently become a topic of serious conversation in reviews and interviews. Unfortunately, here in the western world, we’ve found that in many instances a musical association with Christianity alienates a lot of people and shuts our music out of a lot of situations.Understandable. The word “Christian” has been dragged through the mud in many social, political and even musical situations as of late by believers themselves. In many instances it’s just become another adjective to identify a marketing demographic. It’s quite sad, actually.

I don’t want my music to be boxed in or boxed out because of my personal lifestyle decisions. I’m a musician – it’s my skill. It would be the same as if I were a pizza maker – would every pizza I make be considered a “Christian pizza?” Would I have to make the pizzas in the shape of a “Jesus fish” once my beliefs were public knowledge? There are lots of believers in the world doing lots of things both big and small. I’m certain we’d all be surprised to find out how many have helped, served, or attended to us on a daily basis throughout the course of our lives without making a moral battle cry out of it.

We are who we are and do what we do. We believe in God and as such, feel since it’s a legitimate, functioning part of our life it is “fair game” and does serve as inspiration for some of our music and art. Again, we write what we know, and we know what our experience with God has been and how it plays into our lives.

I can’t vouch for anyone else’s beliefs or experiences but ours. I can tell you that Holly and I are just normal people trying to do our best to make the life we’ve been given the most it can be. You won’t find us protesting abortion clinics, asking for money on television, or telling you that if you’re a homosexual, God hates you. You also won’t find us telling you that if you’ll just go to church, everything is always going to be okay, either, because it won’t.

I swear frequently, smoke cigars regularly and speak my mind daily. I am arrogant, pride-filled and often present myself as the furthest thing the church would ever associate with a living God. I’m a broken human being who needs a savior, which is the entire point of Christianity to begin with. If I could do it alone and do it perfectly, I wouldn’t need a Savior – but I can’t, so I do! That is my belief – how anyone other than me feels about it is irrelevant. Knowing what I just told you about myself, wouldn’t you as an artist find that constant struggle and hope a big enough part of your life to write about? I do.

I want our music to be liked because it’s good and relatable, not because of its socio-moral label or association. If you don’t like our music, don’t like it because you aren’t into our style or don’t think it’s done well. Don’t dislike it because someone you don’t know gave it a label that it didn’t ask for or warrant. Plus, how could you not like our music? :-)

Recently you put a note up on your official Web site addressed to “Christians, churches and religious affiliates” that seems to be written to these groups to defend yourselves as both Christians and rock musicians. Can you fill us in on the circumstances that brought this on, and why you felt it was important to speak your minds?

Rikk: I’m a firm believer in the old adage “begin with the end in mind.” That is, setting proper expectations can better help you to succeed. Once our beliefs became a relative topic of conversation when discussing our music, I decided that instead of saying the same things over and over again, I’d say them once and leave it in a place it could be referenced time and time again. So, if you want some basic answers about us and our belief system go to and click on the FYI link. Read away. Just make sure you don’t bog yourself down with that and make sure while you’re at the site to listen to all of our music – that’s really what we’re about.

Holly: I think most definitely people react when they hear any tone of spirituality in our music. I also think that's a big part of the reason we put our FYI page up. I’d says the majority of folks don't want to hear any talk of God in their music, and I can totally understand why. The current genre of CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) is known for being pretty cheesy and very “copy-cat.” We write what we know, and our relationship with God is reflected in our lives every day to some extent, so obviously it’s going to show up in our music as well. The FYI page is important to us because we want people to understand that we're coming from, which is what a lot of people would consider a different point of view.

CSERC includes a cover of the classic Eurythmics single, “Here Comes the Rain Again,” which is a very appropriate choice for your sound and style. Are there any other specific songs or artists you’d like to take on in the future?

Rikk: It’s funny you should ask. The plan for our next record is to have a limited edition version available that will not only be the album itself on CD, cassette and vinyl, but will also have an EP of covers exclusive to that package. All the covers will be songs that were popular from 1981 to 1989 – the golden age of popular music, in our opinion. I don’t want to give anything away, but it’s going to be a great little bonus. We are also talking about recording some originals and covers later this year to be available as free downloads from our Web site.

It seems that it would be tough to recreate the sound of your recorded music in a live setting, especially as a duo. Do you ever get out to play live, and if so, how do you make it work?

Rikk: At the moment, we’re gearing up to hit the road – hopefully this summer or fall. As a rule, we don’t feel our music translates all that well just for the sake of “being played.” We normally only play live when there is a desire for people to see us. Trying to capture folk’s attention on a Tuesday night at the Beat Kitchen isn’t really our thing. Our music isn’t good background fodder or served well by being placed third in a six band bill. Our feeling is that our music requires an element of drama & majesty to be as effective as it is on record – it requires a “show.”
The musical direction of the show can vary depending on the venue or opportunity. Holly and I can do more intimate performances with just her voice and an acoustic guitar. We also have a show where it’s me playing multiple instruments as need be and we are accompanied by a computer augmenting the rest of the tracks. And yes, we do have a band that we can play with for big events or opportunities. We’ve got something musically we can do live to entertain at any level.

It’s safe to say that as a 80s pop/rock-influenced husband wife duo, JoyFocus holds a pretty unique place in the current Chicago indie music scene. Would you say this has made it easier or more difficult to get people to take notice?

Rikk: Well, it’s interesting. Chicago is known for a lot of musical genres - blues, power pop, metal, alternative, hip hop – but not really any combination or amalgamation of genres – which we clearly are. We aren’t the Pumpkins, Disturbed, Kanye, or Wilco, so it has been a little daunting to get people to take the type of notice we’re looking for. Then we have the whole “duo” thing to explain.

However, we did recently have a great piece done on our record by Jim DeRogatis of the Sun-Times, and national and international press have been raving about this record, so hopefully this could be the beginning of a new chapter for us. I think although our music makes us a unique entity in the Chicago indie scene, the scene itself may have some expectations that we aren’t going to meet. We’re not afraid to be liked or popular, which is not always the greatest attribute in vying for “indie street cred.” Many Chicago music fans like their new artists to be obscure and self loathing, which is pretty contradictory to what we do. See our dilemma? Couple that with the fact that our music has overt spiritual overtones and we like bands like Def Leppard and Queen and you realize Chicago’s current musical landscape can become very difficult for a vehicle like JoyFocus to navigate. Hopefully our music is strong enough to defy the norm and we’ll be playing sold out shows at the Riviera, Chicago Theatre, or Allstate Arena sometime in the foreseeable future.

Holly: I think any time you're as obviously different as we are, people will take notice, for better or for worse. I also think our sound, although different from what’s typically happening in the local scene here, has an element that feels familiar and accessible that a lot of music fans relate to.

What can people expect next from JoyFocus?

Rikk: Longevity. Like I mentioned, we’re hoping to tour this summer or fall. It would be great to land an opening slot on a major tour. Then we’re going to keep putting out records and making fans until we are physically unable or forcibly prohibited. Then, when we are unable to participate in music, we will let ourselves get fat, watch a lot of “Matlock” and “Antiques Road Show” and complain about whatever the current trends in pop culture and politics are at the time. Isn’t that the American dream? :-)

How can people find out more and pick up your music?

Rikk: “Cyber Suburban Electro Rock Circus” was released on February 14, 2009 and is available exclusively on iTunes worldwide for now. We’re currently looking for a physical distribution channel for the record, both nationally and internationally.

As always, everything JoyFocus happens at Please stop by, check out some music and say, “hello!”

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