I first saw Joy Clark at the now-defunct Carnaval Lounge on St. Claude Avenue in March of 2022. She was part of The Round Up Tour, an ensemble show featuring LGBTQ country and Americana-folk artists. Her soulful vocals and strong, melodic guitar work made me take notice. Clark is a revelation in many ways. She is a singer-songwriter in a city better known for jazz, bounce, and hip-hop. Her songs are specific, personal, and crafted carefully, yet have a broad universal appeal. And after years of working solo and alongside other artists, her star is on the rise. Over drinks at Old Road Coffee on an unseasonably cool March afternoon, we talked about her Westbank upbringing, maturing as a musician and songwriter, and the merits of being your own street team.
The following is an extended version of the print feature
What’s Joy Clark’s day look like when you start out?
You know, lately, I wake up, and I try to eat something and then I get active, I go for a walk. I think I picked that up during the height of the pandemic. I would take walks from the Marigny all the way to the CBD, and then walk back home. And that sort of kept me sane. I kept that. I don’t walk as far anymore, but at least for an hour-and-a-half, I’ll walk. And sometimes I listen to music, sometimes I listen to the sound of the city. I like to be available.
Do you think about music during that time? Do you think about writing, or things that happen to you throughout the course of the day, your life? Where you want to be, maybe?
Sometimes. I’ve learned that that’s my time to process and honestly, it’s not always music. Sometimes it’s just choices that I have to make for the upcoming week, or things that I have to get done, deadlines. But I find that helps me to work out what I actually feel about something. If somebody approaches me to see if I could do this, well, I’m usually thinking about, “Does this feel good? How would this tie into my objective, my journey?”
Has that been something you’ve needed to learn with yourself, to take the right opportunity to make the right choices?
Yeah. I mean, it’s trial and error. I think it’s good to know your boundaries and know what feels good and what doesn’t. But really, you can only learn that by doing a lot of different things and kind of figuring out what actually inspires you in that way.
So you grew up on the Westbank, right?
[laughs] I did, I did.
Harvey, is that right?
I grew up in Woodmere. It’s a really big subdivision in Harvey and actually, the interesting thing—Woodmere used to just be a subdivision, but now when you look at the map it says “Woodmere.” So I think it got that big, that it’s now like a town in Harvey, you know? [laughs] A town within itself… But you know it’s not just Harvey. My grandma grew up in Algiers. My family goes for about three or four generations back. She went to Landry, my mom was born at Charity Hospital. I spent a lot of time in Algiers at my great-aunt’s house, so I’m all over.
Are you Westbank strong?
[Laughs] I am, but you know, when you are a local, you know that when somebody asks you where you’re from… then the next question is what high school did you go to?
What high school did you go to?
The funny thing is, I was actually homeschooled.
OK, so that’s interesting. That takes me to the next question. You come from a musical family?
I do. My dad, he’s a graduate from Southern University. He sang in the choir there. But before that, he used to play in a band on Bourbon Street, I think, called Caboose. Yeah, he’s probably going to cringe if he reads this, but he played in bands on Bourbon. And then when he found God, he got saved and he became a minister and stopped doing that. And he was focused on preaching and pastoring. My grandpa on my mom’s side, he used to sing in a gospel quartet called The Heavenly Stars. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Moses Hogan—he’s a cousin of mine on my grandma’s side. So I do have musicians in my family.
Was it your father’s faith that made him decide to homeschool you, or what was that choice?
That’s a big story. That’s a longer story. But yeah, it was them sort of choosing to take that route in our upbringing, in our education. So I was homeschooled throughout my education, and that actually gave me a lot of time to tinker and come up with my own schedules and really get in tune with myself as a kid. When I think of it in hindsight, there’s always the [thought]: Oh, I didn’t get to do prom, or I didn’t get to do this, I didn’t get to do that. But I actually had a lot of time to explore all the things, all the stages of my life, things that I was obsessed with. At one point, I was obsessed with fishing; at one point I wanted to be a vet. I was very imaginative and then when music came along, that was always sort of there. I really had the freedom to just explore, and I didn’t have the sort of pressures of that high school time or that middle school time where you do have the pressures of your immediate peers at school, like, judging you. I think that was probably one of the strong points of being a homeschooler.
When did music come along? I can remember, from my own personal experience, my parents used to play The Beatles on an old turntable and I remember hearing “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and I heard the harmonies and I thought, well that’s so cool. And that was like one of the first songs that drew me in. Do you remember that experience for you?
Yeah, there were a lot of experiences like that. So, I was from one of those families where we went to church a lot, sometimes twice on Sundays. And then we would go during the week, we would have bible study. So there was always singing, and there were so many songs and so many moments of, this feels really good. You know, I don’t exactly know what we’re talking about but the singing feels good. The communal singing, the live music. I remember it was one of those songs, [sings] then sings my soul, my savior God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art. And I remember that feeling of singing really loudly and being really comfortable, and not thinking about the people around me. I remember just closing my eyes and singing. It felt good! That was one of the first moments. And then I can remember witnessing, like, the church I went to as a kid, they had a church band. And they had timpani, they had the horn section… I remember seeing the guitarist, and I remember just thinking, something about that guitar, I think I can do that. And I was mesmerized. I was hooked. And I just had that knowing, and I think kids… particularly kids, everything is fresh. There is nobody to tell you you can’t do anything. You don’t know how much a guitar costs, you don’t know what kind of guitar it is. It doesn’t matter. It’s a guitar and I’m obsessed with this thing now, and I think I can do it and there’s something about it that I love, and that excites me and gives me energy. So that’s one, that’s church.
What age do you think—
I had to have been five or six at the time.
And I think it’s really interesting that so many prominent New Orleans musicians got their start singing in church. I think of Tonya Boyd-Cannon and other people that that gospel tradition really runs through it. And when I listen to your songs now, there’s definitely a very spiritual aspect to your writing and it makes sense. Tell me a bit about that.
I think about it in retrospect of the types of songs that I’m drawn to create. They’re usually pretty encouraging and they inspire growth and there’s a level of positivity and hope… There is something in me that wants to connect. I can remember one of my first songs that I wrote. I mean, it was a love song but love is about making a connection with a person, a connection with a feeling. So I do come from the standpoint of wanting to uplift, you know? If I want to put a song out, if I want to create something, I do want to connect in a way that hopefully sends a message of hope somewhere in the song.
What age did you get your first guitar?
Well, that’s an interesting question. I got my very first one, it was a little plastic, sort of like a jazz type of guitar? But it was plastic so I won’t say that it was real. I was probably 9 or 10. But when I got a real wooden guitar that you could actually play, I was 12. At that time, I was playing a lot of sports. I was playing point guard on a basketball team. I was playing a lot of softball and I always wanted a guitar and my parents got that for me… It sort of changed my trajectory because I knew that I was serious about it. And there’s a time where I actually stopped playing sports because I was like: I want to focus on my music. I was 12, 13 thinking, I think my sports is going to take away from my creating… People were like, “You’re not going to play basketball anymore?” I was a dramatic kid, I wanted to stop. But I did. I felt like, there is something about me being connected to this particular thing that is going to bring something out of me that I had no idea, but I did. I didn’t really have an idea at the time. I didn’t really know if that was going to work, or if it was going to be profitable. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I really believed that I could do it.
Are you self-taught? Did you have any lessons?
I always struggle to say “I’m self-taught.” I think I did say that in a bio at some point. But yes, if you’re asking if I had a guitar instructor? I have not had a formal guitar instructor; what I had was my ears and my eyes. So what I mean by that, I had my ears. Before I got a guitar, I had one of those little white Casio keyboards, and I remember listening to Boyz II Men, and it was “On Bended Knee,” probably 1995. I was traveling with a basketball team. I used to play for Jefferson Parish Recreation Department on the Westbank. I was on one of the second all-star teams. I was a good player. And we would be in the van and it was a certain number of songs that they would play, all my teammates. They would play Sheryl Crow, “If It Makes You Happy.” There were a handful of songs but I would bring my lil Casio keyboard and I would pick out the melody, just trial and error. And then just by doing it a certain number of times, I would have it by memory and I could play the whole melody on keys, just by pitch, you know? And then when I got the guitar, I would do the same practice on guitar. I would play on one string, and it’s the same thing, but you’re doing it with your fingers, you’re pressing down strings. So I would play entire melodies on one string. I wasn’t even doing chords then. I was just pitch-matching with my ear. And then when I started watching music videos of people playing guitar, I would pause the tape, I would see where their fingers were, and I would make the chord. And then I also had like, a folk VHS tape that my parents bought when they bought my guitar. And I would learn really simple folk cowboy chords, like, first position, open position. And I learned how to strum and learned how to do down-up and learned how to do hammer-ons and pull-offs, and I mastered that tape. That’s how I initially learned, and then I got to college.
I graduated from UNO, but in my second year, well, I’m getting technical but in my first year, the year Katrina hit, I had a music fundamentals class for one week and then Katrina hit. But it was base level, you know, learning the notes on the staff. And then after Katrina hit and a couple years, then I got back into the music program, music studies. And I learned about chord progressions and just learned, like, the basic theory, the circle of fifths, and I learned how to do that. And musicianship actually came pretty naturally to me, because the cool thing about musicianship is that you are using your ears primarily… My instructor was Brent Rose. He was an amazing instructor, I want to give him a shout-out. He would play these progressions and just by me having the self-taught years of listening to the radio and figuring out how to play songs, like, pop songs, or Sade songs, all of that came into practice of, oh, this is why this song goes like this and, this is why, if I’m in the key of G then at some point I’m going to play E minor, and then at some point, I’m going to play D major, and then... You know, those things that were already there when applying them to actual theory and musicianship, they began to make sense. And I was actually good at hearing progressions and hearing the one and hearing the four, the five. I was just putting names on it.
When did you start writing?
Oh, I started writing in college. I was living on campus at UNO, and I started getting the writing bug… I didn’t really know what perspective to write from, so I was just sort of coming out of doing a lot of playing music in church. So I was like: I don’t really know what I want to write about, I don’t really know how I feel about many things right now. I’m still young, I’m figuring out what my voice is. But when I wrote my first song, my first songs were love songs because in college you’re meeting so many different people, you’re figuring out the type of people that you like, you’re figuring out your crowd. You’re figuring out who you are apart from your parents, you know? And that’s when I started writing, and I had a lot of places to play on campus. I would play in the stairwell at Bienville Hall, I could play in the lobby to people. People would pass by: Oh, that’s Joy, you know, “Hey Joy.” I’ve played covers. It was a mode of connection for me and I started to get that writing bug and play open mics on campus and really hone my skills of what my voice sounded like.
The first time I saw you, I believe it was The Round Up Tour and it was at Carnaval—now Siberia—last year and you really stood out. And I was actually surprised to find out you were local to New Orleans because the folk singer-songwriter tradition isn’t something that’s necessarily strongly connected here. But in your stage show, you always talk about: You wanted a guitar (which you have), cowboy boots, and a horse. How did you get into this tradition?
Well, music is music. I don’t think I was thinking about music traditions. I think kids have imaginations. A lot of kids running around with a gun, with cowboy boots on or with a sheriff’s hat or whatever, you know. But I don’t think that was so unique. I think instruments become gendered at some point because of what we normally see. And I’ll be frank: When I was growing up, when I’d go into my local grocery store and I would go to the guitar section, what was presented to me were white guys with guitars.
Eddie Van Halen, yeah.
Yeah, that’s it. That’s just, you know, Guitar Player magazine. That’s who’s there. I don’t see… myself. I don’t see Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I don’t see people who are founders of our most popular music being represented. I didn’t see that until I was in UNO’s bookstore and I was in college. I remember seeing a book of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and that blew me away, because all those years I’ve been looking at these magazines and I would just never see me. So yeah, that would make me feel like, Man! Alright, where are the people that look like me playing guitar? So of course, when you’re young and impressionable, if you never see yourself represented, you do begin to think, well, I’m sort of a unicorn, maybe? But that’s also not true…
We actually have a really strong singer-songwriter tradition here. You know, Allen Toussaint, people like Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino and all that. Do you see yourself in this lineage of New Orleans singer-songwriters? I know you do “Southern Nights” on stage.
I do. You know, I love me some Allen Toussaint and I do feel a sense of connection there, in multiple ways. A lot of his family grew up in the country. A lot of my mom’s side of the family, my dad’s side of the family, they have roots in Baker, Louisiana. My grandma’s side has roots in Donaldsonville and those smaller areas, so, yeah, I do feel the connection with the artist that can turn their songs into stories or stories into songs, and communicate them in such a way where it could be stripped down to one voice, one instrument, and you can capture an audience’s attention. I would love to be considered with those great writers.
So when am I getting Joy Clark playing “The Sweetest Taboo” up there?
Oh, well if you were to see me at my early Cafe Negril days, I would play “Sweetest Taboo” all the time, every Saturday. [laughs] I had to give it a break after a little while, but that song is in my DNA now, I played it so much in my earlier days.
But it’s good to have those songs, right? Because sometimes you gotta scramble up there, sometimes you’re looking at the audience and you’re not getting what you want. There’s that communion between artist and audience and sometimes you gotta pull one out and bring ‘em in, right?
I know what you mean. I found that to be a little bit more of a struggle early on, connecting to an audience. But what I found as I began to craft my own voice is that, in those moments it’s OK to pull out one of your own songs, and it’s OK to shift the room in a counterintuitive way that you might think, OK, I need to give people something that they know and something that they love. But when I back away from it now, people are coming to hear you. They’re coming to hear Joy Clark. They’re coming to hear what you have to say. And a cover is great—I can do it, I can whip ‘em out, but I don’t use them as much as lifelines as I used to. Now I use it as just a small treat maybe later in the set. I’ve been learning this in life: The more you chase something, the more you try to catch something, it becomes more and more elusive. But the more you let go and really give people you and your authenticity, I think that’s when you can break through to people. I mean, it’s being a songwriter, it is being vulnerable and naked and taking a shower in front of people [laughs] every night, and not knowing, oh my gosh, I’m letting all the squishy parts out. And I’m not necessarily a soldier. I’m just someone who is really bearing my heart and bearing my soul whenever I get up on stage. So I try to put the armor down.
You have a lot of confessional songs, or confessional-style songs. I’m not going to assume that the character’s always you, but I think the character is often you, if that’s fair. So in your song “Love Yourself,” you talk about “Girls don’t do this, girls don’t do that…” Being a Black lesbian woman from New Orleans playing guitar, you’re unexpected to a lot of people. So what’s that experience like? Did you get a lot of pushback at first?
Yeah, um, look: Being a Black woman, just in general—if you take away my guitar, you take away sexuality, take away all of that—there are so many rooms that I’m not expected to be in, so many places. I can pull out times where I was walking around my neighborhood or walking around a friend’s neighborhood, and I wasn’t expected to be there. Somebody called the cops because I was getting in my own car, or I forgot the key to my own car. So it’s not just with music, that’s in me, as a person. If you take away music and art, I know what that feels like. And so, yes, that song is talking about my experiences of girls: Girls don’t do XYZ… So I’m making that connection because I know what it’s like to be misplaced and to be invisible, or to be hyper-seen. And I know that there’s somebody else out there that has faced the same thing, someone stereotyping them or profiling them in some type of way. And with me when it came to the guitar, yeah, we’re back to that. I haven’t seen a girl play guitar. I haven’t seen a Black girl play guitar. I haven’t seen someone sing this type of music or I haven’t seen XYZ. Yes, the person is me and I am well-acquainted with being misplaced. I know what it feels like to not be welcomed in a space or to feel like a sore thumb in some space. So, with that song, “Love Yourself,” that’s what I’m talking about and it’s not just to tell my story, but it’s to connect to other people that I know have felt the same way.
You’ve had a lot of success in the last couple of years, where your career has really started to grow, but you’ve been around for a while. You played with Cyril Neville?
I’ve played with Cyril Neville. I’ve played with Water Seed. I played with different singers around the city. I’ve accompanied folks. I quietly made a name for myself in supporting people’s art and supporting people’s set and being a solid musician.
What did the side-person experiences teach you?
I had so much fun doing that, you know? And the lessons of being a side musician, being a support artist, it’s really never-ending. It allowed me to learn and it allowed me to understand space and time and the importance of supporting someone’s art, and the importance of doing a really good job and not being the front person, and bringing someone’s art and someone’s story and someone’s vision to life. I think being a side artist allowed me to expand, to get better as a musician, to learn other people’s music and to also put my own spin on it. I think that’s the beautiful thing about playing here: There are so many opportunities to learn and to grow and to support and to expand. I think that just made me a better artist in translating that into my own voice. And when I played with Cyril, it was about watching, listening. It wasn’t just about playing loudly, it was about seeing when to come down and seeing when to bring the intensity up. You have to pay attention if he’s changing songs… It was a very fluid experience that, as a musician, you need to be put into those situations where you can roll with anything that is thrown your way. So when it came to translating that into my own art, I was just well-practiced at fitting into most situations and still growing and making it sound solid… And I think that that allows you to not only focus on what you want to say as an artist, but showing up for your community as a whole and being a part of that music-making experience.
During March you’ve had a residency at d.b.a. How have you been feeling about that? Have you been enjoying that?
Yeah! You know, that has been one of the highlights of my year so far. Having a residency, especially at home, it gives you the opportunity to cultivate newcomers to your audience. In this past year, I moved around a lot. I played the Grammys with Allison Russell; was able to work with Brandi Carlile a lot and share the stage with these huge performers, these heavy hitters in the Americana and pop scene. I was able to do a lot of that, and I made Guitar Girl Magazine and played Austin City Limits and played at the Ryman at the Americana Music Awards. There’s so many beautiful opportunities that came my way last year and I’m so grateful for them, and also to be able to be at home, to have a place where my home crowd can come and support, and to be in the city that really cultivated my artistry and to be able to come, week in and week out and present art, and workshop new songs and to just get that flow going, there’s really nothing else like that. And for it to be at d.b.a.—When I first started to go out listening to music when I was at UNO, d.b.a. was actually the first club that I went to. I would go to see Walter Wolfman Washington and John Boutte. I remember specifically talking to Walter Wolfman and he was in that side part where you sit. I remember just going to speak to him and he had his whole band around and it was cool! He was a generous soul. I’m really sad that I never got to make music with him, but I got to meet him. And to have a residency at the same club? I can’t even make it up. It’s too perfect.
You just released a live album, right?
Mm-hm, it’s a live acoustic album that was recorded at two sold-out house concerts in Seattle. So it’s called Joy Clark – Live! In Seattle. That happened last year, I’m really proud of it. And I wanted to release it exclusively to CD just for my fans that happened to come to a show. I just wanted to give people something to take home when they come to a show.
And you’re moving up in Jazz Fest? You’re getting on the bigger stage now?
I was in the Rhythmporium! Which was awesome, it was an amazing stage, we packed it out. Lovely crew over there at the AARP Rhythmporium Stage. But yeah, this year we get the Lagniappe Stage which is a larger stage, a stage that I’ve always enjoyed. I actually played that stage with Kelly Love Jones in, I think, 2014. And so I’m proud to be back with my own project. So yeah, you know, you can say “moving up” and I’m happy to be on the schedule.
You’ve been spending a lot of time in Nashville. What are you working on up there?
Oh, I always do a lot of writing up there. I’ve got some writing partners up there I’ve been working with. I’m working with Allison Russell doing some co-writing out there; and actually, I just did a co-bill with Jackie Venson. So, if I’m there, I’m probably working; it’s not just to hang out. It’s to write or to rehearse, and then I’m back home. Nashville was sort of a nice little surprise. I had never gone to Nashville until 2021. A lot of people don’t know this. They think that I’d just been out there. But in 2021, I went to Americana Fest, a festival that I had never gone to before. And I went out there and met some new friends, and I went to the conference and I got in front of some new eyes and I played at the Vinyl Tap with Lilli Lewis out there, and she had me guest on her set and Rolling Stone happened to be there, and we both made Rolling Stone! [laughs] …That’s how work is. You keep showing up and you never know what will come from any appearance, you know?
I think that’s kind of an underrated element that people don’t discuss enough. They see you on stage and all the celebratory aspects of it, but they don’t understand how much work it took to get you to that point. I saw you hanging up posters on Frenchmen Street the other day. Talk about your work ethic a little.
Yeah, I am a hard worker. I’m a smart worker. I don’t mind going things alone. I don’t want to say “alone.” I’m never alone, but I think when you’ve accepted the role as a leader, you will do a lot of things alone first, and it’s OK. And I used to feel like, since I don’t have a huge entourage behind me, or I don’t have this, then people aren’t really behind me. No, I’ve learned and I continuously learn: You have to invest in yourself first. Other things will come along. I think this is sort of the beautiful thing about being someone who was home schooled; I’m sort of used to being a little bit solitary. And I don’t always have to have a lot of people around me, but I always know that I have a support system… I’m a worker. I enjoy showing up and having no idea what an outcome is going to be but totally trusting my own process. Yeah, I was out hanging posters. [laughs] I was out hanging posters for my residency, because it’s my residency. My name is on it. I’m not going to slack on that. I want people to know about it. I invest in a good graphic that people want to have and I try to show up and everything that you get from me is going to be from the heart, it’s going to be genuine, it’s going to be done in good faith and in good grace. And I’m having the absolute best time of my life! I couldn’t even say that I knew that this was going to happen like this but I think I’ve been proving to myself time and time again that really, really good things happen when you show up and you don’t always have to have a plan of how your life is going to work out. But one plan is that when you show up, you’re going to create, you’re going to meet people, you’re going to make an impact, you’re going to get to share your music. The things that you’ve been working on, they’re going to land, even if sometimes they land flat. [laughs] You’ve learned not everything is going to be a winner, but you put it out there. You’ve made a mark and you move on.
Joy Clark will be performing April 15 at French Quarter Fest, April 26 at Wednesday at the Square (with George Porter Jr.), and May 4 at Jazz Fest. For more info, check out linktr.ee/joyclarkmusic and @joyclarkmusic.
Photos by James Cullen
Transcription by Michelle Pierce