Polished and precise, yet buoyed with an airy grace, JOY IKE paints with a broad palette that defies easy categorization. Born to Nigerian immigrants, the singer/songwriter’s music, voice, and writing have drawn comparisons to many great female musicians including Nina Simone, Laura Nyro, and Regina Spektor. But her percussive piano-playing and soaring vocals give homage to her African upbringing. After leaving her career as a publicist in 2008, Joy has spent the last 10 years playing thousands of shows across the country. A write-up on NPR’s All Things Considered says “The depth of subjects she tackles in her poetic lyrics are perfectly complemented by a unique blend of neo-soul, with just the right dash of pop…a truly compelling act to watch in person, with the ability to create an intimate setting in locations big and small.” Ike is currently on tour in support of her new album, Bigger Than Your Box.
Chenango Sessions Ep. 123
Joy Ike crafts music at turns soaring and plaintive, draped around a voice all dusky suede. Fiery, free, and immediately arresting, Ike possesses a powerful instrument which she wields with humble virtuosity. As warm and beautiful as the lovely tape hiss on an old jazz record, Bigger Than Your Box leaves the listener uplifted, perhaps a little teary-eyed, and very much satisfied.
Ike began playing music in earnest while in college, gravitating to piano as a tool to aid her greatest passion – songwriting. “I believe good music is simply poetry with a soundtrack”, she says. Out of college she worked her hometown scene in Pittsburgh, PA, at night while working for a book publishing firm during the day. The untimely 2008 passing of her brother caused a sudden shift in perspective. “For the first time, I truly felt the brevity and uncertainty of life”, tells Ike. “I left my job one week after he died.” Rushing headfirst into uncertainty shaped her 2008 debut LP, Good Morning, which explored themes of starting fresh and beginning again. Five years of striving towards her dream of making it as an artist lead to 2013’s All or Nothing. Through those years Ike garnered praise from the likes of NPR’s All Things Considered, who called her “…a voice and talent beyond her years,” and SoulBounce which described her music as “…a sensational slice of urgent piano-soul.”
Live, she has shared the stage with Cody Chestnut, Allen Toussaint, Butterfly Boucher, and more. Drawn to both down-tempo folk and indie rock as well as mainstream pop, Ike writes from a place of purity, following her muse to create art that speaks from the soul. “I always knew I had to create something that felt real,” says Ike, “not conjured to cater to one specific audience. If I could count the number of times people have asked me if I’m a jazz, gospel, or R&B singer…I’ve spent most of the last 12 years being told to ‘sound more black’. What does that even mean?” While her music might be incredibly soulful and rhythmic, it has always resonated more within the folk world, and for that she makes no apologies.
In 2011, Ike visited Nigeria with her family with a new instrument in tow and a desire to break out of her creative head space. “I remember sitting in my Uncle’s house in Abuja trying to wrap my head around how to play this baritone ukulele, make it my own, and capture a sound that couldn’t be found in my piano”, she says. The new instrument gave her a fresh perspective, and a profound realization of how much her heritage has in fact contributed to her sound. That experience led to a new passion for sonic globetrotting; an exploration of Nigerian folk artists Ayo and Asa, Greek-born musicians Magda Giannikou, Israeli-born French artist Yael Naim, and Caribbean-British singer/songwriter Laura Mvula. “It’s really been eye-opening to pull myself out of this ‘American’ sound. I was so unsure of how to navigate my professional music world based on what genre I ‘picked’. Now I know I don’t have to pick.”
Bigger Than Your Box is a celebration of that freedom, and of the joy of self-liberation. Written over a four-year period that included a relocation from the comparatively small Pittsburgh to the gritty, thrumming metropolis of Philadelphia, the record is joyously defiant, standing proud and wrapped in blasts of global color. It dares us to believe in ourselves, to knock down the walls of fear and doubt we build around ourselves. “This is an open-armed invitation to dive head first into the unseen” says Ike. Bigger Than Your Box boldly explores what Ike often refers to as “divine discontentment”; the restless middle ground between what is and what ought to be. “The spiritual mystery of life and the ever-present Spirit of God that embraces us in our most helpless state.”
When the time came to put the music to tape, Ike turned to Boston, MA, producer Dave Brophy (Will Dailey, 2016 Boston Music Award nominee for “Producer of the Year”). Brophy, known for his percussion work with Howie Day, The B52s, and many more, is also featured prominently as a performer on the record. “I specifically searched for a producer who was a drummer” Ike tells us. “I wanted someone who would give the percussion elements personality and see them as a prominent force on the album; not just as a metronome keeping all the other instruments in their place.” Ike got what she wanted, and the songs on Bigger Than Your Box are lush and vibrant, and positively alive with movement.
“These songs are like a piece of newspaper in a stack of wood;” says Ike, “starting the flame that makes the whole thing burn. I want my music to give folks their second wind. I want them to rumble and inspire, shed apathy, and pump life back into lifeless situations.” Confident, empowering, and full of nuance, Bigger Than Your Box seduces at first blush. A perfumed jewelbox of a record, new secrets await discovery with each listen.