There’s perhaps no better place to discover the next stars of Asheville’s music scene than at one of the city’s open mic nights. Sure, you’ve got to sit through the occasional butchered Bob Dylan cover and lots of half-thought-out, off-key ideas. But even the discovery of one musical gem makes the experience worthwhile.
During a recent stop at the Courtyard Gallery—a cozy downtown venue that hosts weekly open mics that are podcast to more than 100,000 subscribers around the world—that diamond in the rough was Horse Shoe-based singer/songwriter Jonah Michea Judy.
It was a cold, late fall evening, and Judy’s performance drew me in like a warm fire. Seemingly experienced beyond his years, Judy’s singing voice alternately burned with the subtle, whispering urgency of Elliot Smith and the overt, in-your-face aggression of Kurt Cobain. And for good reason: I soon learned that Judy’s angst, like that of the singers he channels, is rooted in a hard upbringing.
Much of the material on Judy’s debut album, Milk Sink, explores his experience as a recovering victim of abuse. “I was doing a lot of healing and learning during that time, and still am,” Judy reveals after his set. “That’s just where I’m coming from … I’m never intentionally trying to be dark. … It’s just good to scream into a pillow instead of screaming into a person.”
After several unfulfilling experiences working with producers and studios, Judy ended up recording the album himself, at home in Henderson County on a four track. The results lack catchy hooks, but the approach allowed him to capture the same sense of intimacy and poetic raw emotion he expresses on stage.
“I’m not really going for anything, it’s just what happens,” Judy says of his creative process. “I try singing [a feeling] directly, rather than holding onto these phrases that have been so overused that they don’t have any meaning for anyone anymore. I try to avoid clichés.”
One of the most engaging songs on the disk is “Decompose,” a track that started out as a collaboration with a friend, but transformed into a tribute to her after she committed suicide. Judy continued to explore the theme of watching loved ones struggle with self-destruction on “Damian” and “Ms. Cook and the Fastening Infants.”
These songs suggest a therapeutic outlet that keeps Judy from falling into the same destructive patterns he’s observing in others. “I’ve met a lot of people who do a lot of self-destructive things and they’re just stuck,” he says. “I think it’s good [to play music]. It helps you deal with it, as a way of coping, and expressing.”
For the moment, Judy is content to continue honing his craft on the open-mic circuit. Catch him at small acoustic rooms while you can. Stewing with ideas and passion, the 21-year-old has plans to start looking for a backing band, and his sound may soon outgrow the stages at local cafes.
“I’m hoping for that to happen when it’s the right time,” he says. “But it’s not about money for me. It’s about the love for music. So I just [play] when opportunities feel good.”
— Jake Frankel
[Learn more about Jonah Michea Judy at www.myspace.com/jonahmicheajudy]