When we called Emma Beaton, vocalist for the indie-folk band Joy Kills Sorrow, we wanted to ask her all about the Boston-ish quintet’s recent developments. Those include an appearance on the famed radio show “A Prairie Home Companion” and the release of a new, self-produced EP, Wide Awake. That record has sent Americana connoisseurs around the country into a gleeful tizzy, owing to its sly appropriation of rock and indie attitude, delivered in the guise of a trad string band.
But what we really wanted to ask Beaton about was a tattoo. Specifically, the portrait of late country great George Jones that adorns her right bicep. So that’s we did, chatting her up about her ink and more “serious” music stuff in advance of the band’s appearance at the Valley Stage Music Festival in Huntington this Saturday, August 10.
SEVEN DAYS: You have a great tattoo of George Jones. What inspired you to get it?
EMMA BEATON: I’ve been a fan of George for a long time. It was the tattoo I wanted to get first, since I was in middle school. I got a few other tattoos first because I thought it would be pretty bold to get that one first. But eventually I made a bet with a friend about who would get a portrait of George Jones first. And that inspired me to just go and do it a couple of weeks later. By coincidence, I ended up getting it on his 80th birthday.
SD: No kidding? Do people ever misidentify whose portrait it is?
EB: Yeah. Some people think it’s Hank Williams. Other people think it’s, like, a cowboy relative of mine. It’s sort of an uncommon photo of him. He’s so young, and he’s wearing a cowboy hat, which he didn’t usually do. If you weren’t familiar with him, I could understand why you might not know who he is.
SD: The new EP is the first the band has self-produced. Why do that now?
EB: It was partly because we were doing just an EP. When were thinking about possibly doing a full-length, we had been planning on working with a producer again. But with an EP, we decided it would be a good opportunity to try our hand at self-production. It’s a smaller project and a little more manageable. I think we also felt that we’re at a place where we’ve had enough experience working together and learning from producers in the past that we’d be capable and comfortable doing it.
SD: What did you learn by self- producing?
EB: We learned to work together, that’s for sure. I think it challenged us to stretch our ears a little bit and problem solve for ourselves. Instead of having a producer with their ears listening for what it should sound like and how to get it there, we had to start putting our ears in that position and start listening deeper. We had to use the knowledge we had about sound and our instruments to figure out how to make it sound the way we wanted, rather than relying on someone else.
SD: Did your relationship to those songs change during that process?
EB: Probably. Part of the role of a producer is to take a look at everything, the way you’re recording, the performances, the mixing. But also to look at the arrangements from the outside and figure out if it’s the best arrangement. On our last couple of records, the producer hasn’t had to be as hands-on because we usually come in with arrangements we’ve worked a long time on. So we had to look at them with an outside perspective, arrangements we’d been playing for a while, and decide if they were the best way to do those songs.
SD: You recently appeared on “A Prairie Home Companion.” So how was it?
EB: Uh, it was awesome. We had never done a show quite like that before, and it was one of the bigger audiences we’ve played for. It was really cool. I’m from Canada, so I didn’t really grow up listening to that show. But seeing it all come together was so nice. It was just a really good time.
SD: You grew up playing cello before you started singing, or at least became a front person. Did your experience playing cello affect the way you approach singing?
EB: I would say so. I grew up playing folk music, so I don’t read a lot of music. And [I] went to a lot of fiddle camps. Now there are a lot of fiddle camps that have cello teachers, but then it was less common. So I would just go to fiddle classes. And, no offense to cello players out there, but for the most part I don’t like how the cello sounds when it’s played like a cello. I wanted to sound like a fiddle player playing the cello. I would listen to what fiddlers were doing and try to figure it out myself on cello.
I think it’s the same with vocals. Technique is a huge part of having stamina and range and ability. But listening to how people sound and finding which aspects of other people’s singing I like and how to incorporate that into my own singing … for me what resonates is hearing that they’re emotionally invested in or moved by what they’re singing. That’s something I take really seriously, to find a way for lyrics to have some sort of resonance with me so that I’m not just going through the paces. Yeah, maybe I can sing it in tune, but if it doesn’t have some sort of connection, you could have all the technique in the world but it’s just going to sound bland.
Joy Kills Sorrow play the Valley Stage Music Festival in Huntington on Saturday, August 10, 1 p.m. $30/35/70/80. AA. valleystage.net
The original print version of this article was headlined "Good Ink."