Grace Joyner headlines Hearts & Plugs showcase at New Mountain

KEYS TO HER HEART: Hearts & Plugs recording artist Grace Joyner plays a Casiotone organ from the '70s that she received as a gift. “I ended up really loving it. I’m a big fan of eerie, romantic sounds,” she says. “If I didn’t play the organ, I’d feel like something was missing.” Photo by Apartment A

If singer-songwriter Grace Joyner’s path to fronting a band meandered a bit, the end justifies the means. Her debut EP, Young Fools, is eloquent and self-possessed without being overworked or overwrought. The coolness of the spacey keyboard tones and shimmery percussion is well-matched to Joyner’s simultaneously rounded and remote vocal.

The musician — who plays New Mountain on Saturday, Nov. 8 — got her start singing backup for other bands in Charleston, S.C., where she lives. “I thought it was really special to support somebody else’s vision,” she says. “It inspired me to start doing that myself. It pushed me to consider my own vision and pursue my own music.”

Joyner previously performed with Brave Baby and Elim Bolt, both of whom are on indie label Hearts & Plugs. So, when she had some songs of her own, Joyner took them to Dan McCurry, the label’s founder and director. “He was really, extremely into it and wanted to help me,” says Joyner. “He even plays bass in my band, now.”

The Hearts & Plugs stable is small (10 bands) but tight-knit, and includes Gold Light, led by former Ashevillean Joe Chang of Kovacs and the Polar Bear. The label’s cozy dynamic is a microcosm of Charleston’s music scene: “A lot of us have been friends for a long time,” says Joyner. “It’s a nice, supportive environment to go out on your own.”

Part of the singer-songwriter’s process of launching her eponymous project was to brush up on her keyboard skills. She grew up with a musician mother and studied piano and voice as a kid, but “just did not have the patience for piano when I was young.” She gave up on keys for years, returning to the instrument when she was “ready to do it for me, not something that I felt like I needed to do.”

And while in other interviews Joyner has mentioned learning guitar, her instrument of choice is a Casiotone organ from the ’70s that she received as a gift. “I ended up really loving it. I’m a big fan of eerie, romantic sounds.” That synthesizer on Young Fools is a perfect foil to Joyner’s verses, which were inspired, she says in the album notes, by “a difficult, yet incredibly important time in my life.”

There’s a ribbon of dark mystique threaded through Joyner’s aesthetic, from her lyrics to a tattoo on her forearm that reads, “Grace is what matters.” It’s more than a nod to her name: “I love Jeff Buckley and his album Grace,” she told Charleston City Paper. “This quote is one of my favorites. He says grace is what matters in everything — in death, in tragedy, in pain.”

Happily, those inspirational but bleak moments are behind Joyner now. But the musician says it’s not hard to revisit these songs culled from hard times on stage. “Music is a big outlet for me. I’ve never felt nervous performing,” she says. “I can easily remember how I felt when I was writing those songs, but it’s not where I am now.”

Where she is now is front and center of her own project, widening the reach of her tour and readying for her first Asheville show. Joyner lived in Black Mountain briefly after high school and looks forward to visiting Western North Carolina: “It’s going to be one of those shows where a lot of my family and friends will be there.”

WHAT: Grace Joyner with Gold Light and Semicircle
WHERE: New Mountain, newmountainavl.com
WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 8, 8 p.m. $5

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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