We sat down with Joy Postell over a steaming bowl of Pho in downtown Baltimore after the release of her debut album. We spent over two hours talking about Joy’s creative process, her new album, Baltimore Club Music, and her experiences as a completely independent black female artist. Enjoy!
Joy Postell: “Where Is Your Consciousness?”
Joy Postell is an undiscovered gem. After coming across her debut album Diaspora two months ago, we immediately dubbed Joy our Essential & Unheard Artist of November. Her lyrics read like poetry, her voice is distinct and strong, and her music strikes a chord on the very first listen.
After that first listen through the album, you’ll find yourself wondering how anyone could release something that sounds so sophisticated and professional at such an early point their career – especially considering that Joy is entirely independent. Joy has crafted a full album, toured in multiple states, and released 6 music videos without a label, manager, or even booking agent. She is a self-directed creative force that, judging from our conversation, has no plans to slow down.
Within minutes of meeting her, Joy’s artistic ambition was palpable. Less than a month after dropping Diaspora, Joy informed me of her big plans for 2019, including the addition of both a second and third album to her discography. In fact, she’s already written her follow-up to Diaspora and is hitting the studio to start recording the project later this month.
If Diaspora is the new standard, Joy’s next album will be truly special. And we’ll be waiting eagerly.
I’d like to thank Joy for the opportunity to discuss her art at such generous lengths. As a fan, it was a fantastic experience and sincere pleasure.
Joy Postell Interview: The Making of Diaspora
Joy, when I first heard Diaspora a few weeks ago, I was blown away by the incredible maturity in your voice, your concepts, and in the distinctiveness of your sound. How long have you been working on Diaspora?
Joy Postell: I remember going to my friend who produced “HYD” to tell him “I’m going to make an EP!” but I didn’t have a title or a concept or anything yet. The idea for Diaspora came about around 2013, maybe 2014 at the latest. I never sit on music for too long.
When were the first seeds planted for the Diaspora concept? Was it an idea that you started out with or did it develop over time?
Joy Postell: The concept definitely developed over time. At first, I made a few other tracks… I think I still have some in my email somewhere. I made one song called “Free” that was inspired by the Goodie Mob song “Free”. I LOVE Goodie Mob. After I made “Consciousness,” I decided to announce the title of my project, Diaspora. I had every intention to release it that year, but I didn’t even have the majority of the songs that I ended up putting on the project at the time. All I had that year when I went on tour was “Consciousness,” “Seattle,” “Signs,” and “HYD”. The rest came later.
You say you don’t like to rush your songwriting and it shows – your lyrics paint extremely vivid pictures all over the album. How would you describe your songwriting process?
Joy Postell: I try to tell stories in my music and do whatever I need to make those stories come to life. I tried to explore other people’s perspectives and put myself in their shoes. For Diaspora specifically… like “Signs,” I wrote to vent about a situation that had happened. I was seeking a release through my writing. For “Seattle,” I pulled from a few different experiences. For example, I met some people out in Seattle that were heavy on heroin which really stuck with me because I’ve never seen heroin before. For “Consciousness,” I was living in Sandtown around the time of that church shooting, and I had a dream where I was a little kid in the church and got shot. I woke up and wrote the verse right away.
It’s all storytelling, but now I’m writing from different people’s perspectives which has helped my writing grow. I’m playing this character because I want to fully embody the story that I want to tell, so I need to put myself into that character’s world just like an actor would.
You did a lot of musical theater and acting while growing up. Do you think those experiences have influenced your songwriting style?
Joy Postell: I think it’s influenced everything. Even with the tour I’m going on, I’m really involved with the set design. I just can’t help it. For the songs, I have all these videos because I think of it as a play. That’s why I included the skits in Diaspora because it’s all a play to me.
As someone who lived in Washington DC up until recently, I know that there are many artists from Baltimore and the DMV area who deserve much more coverage and acclaim than they get. Why do you think artists in this area tend to fly under the national radar?
Joy Postell: I think it’s mostly about a lack of resources. It’s not an established scene. Like, Billie Holiday is from Baltimore, but unfortunately it’s a place known more for its reputation for crime. We’ve got this reputation that overshadows us and unfortunately it seems stuck, so unless you’re an artist whose music focuses heavily on the streets, people don’t understand.
There isn’t an established legacy in music like in Atlanta, LA, New York or Chicago. I feel like we are breaking a generational karmic cycle. It’s a really big deal for someone from this region to be International because you just broke a karmic cycle and that’s awesome because you are showing the people working right now that it’s possible. You look up and know that if that person’s doing it, you can too.
Although you love spending time in LA, you say that you make better music in Baltimore. Why do you think that is?
Joy Postell: I’m more creative here. LA is a pretty place, but I’ve never been anywhere that is as real or as raw as Baltimore.
What makes Baltimore so real? Is it the people or the environment or…
Joy Postell: People are fake and real everywhere. Baltimore included. But here you can walk around the city and just take in the environment in such a raw form. You see people leaning on heroin on the corner. You know when a new batch of heroin hits the streets here because everyone is out on the street like rodents. It’s a real thing. Over on Saint Paul, after a certain hour, all the girls are walking up and down and you see them getting into the cars. It’s real life. I’m very visually inspired so I like to just walk around and take it all in.
When you are walking around Baltimore and brainstorming, do you like to listen to music from other artists or do you prefer your own stuff?
Joy Postell: I’ll listen to beats usually, oftentimes the ones I’m writing to at the time. I also listen to a lot of trap music to be honest. It’s the sound that I hear in my head walking around Baltimore. It’s dark and it matches the environment here.
I was reading through the credits on Diaspora and if I remember correctly, there were at least seven collaborators on the album. Are they all from the Baltimore area or did you source them from elsewhere?
Joy Postell: It’s probably about half and half. I started the project when I was in LA, so the producer for “HYD” – he’s from LA. “Consciousness” was produced by an LA cat and the people who played on there were also from LA. So it’s a bridge between both worlds. I also have someone from Richmond, Virginia on there – obliv. It came together in Baltimore, but it’s a blend. Like that guy Wolf –I just found him on the internet and liked his beat. [laughs]
How was your Christmas in Baltimore this year? It must’ve been a bit different than in the past with Diaspora finally getting out there.
Joy Postell: Yeah! It was fun. I released a music video on Christmas so that was cute. It was my first Christmas alone, so I got to do what I wanted to do. I slept a lot of the day, I took a bath, I had great Ethiopian food with my friends. A day of rest.
Before the interview, I asked Twitter if there was anything the fans wanted me to ask you about. Here’s a request from one your fans: what did you get for Christmas?
Joy Postell: Cassandra I love you! She got me this beautiful, beautiful necklace from Africa that is made of shells with a really cool shell clasp on the back. My friend from LA, she sent me these cloths from Ghana and a little African pendant she got from a vintage shop in Long Beach. It’s gold – or at least gold-plated [laughs]. I’ve just got to get a chain for it but I really like it. Actually, I think I might have it with me! [rummages through bag and pulls out a beautiful little necklace in the shape of Africa]
Sounds like a great Christmas! In past interviews you’ve told the story about how your mother gave you a Macbook when you left for California, on the condition that you learn to use GarageBand to continue to explore your music and passions. Do you still use GarageBand in your production process today?
Joy Postell: Yes! I use GarageBand on my phone and record with my headphones. It’s simplest for me because my MacBook is old! I still have the same MacBook so it’s really slow. it’s a 2010, but those are actually kind of better because the new ones don’t have a CD drive.
You were listed as the sole executive producer on Diaspora and provided production on at least two tracks. What did you learn during those early days getting your hands dirty with GarageBand that you still put to use today in your creative process?
Joy Postell: GarageBand taught me how to structure a song, how to layer it. I engineered a lot of those tracks myself in my house and just had someone mix them. I learned how to put together a song and go through it over and over again so that when I go into the studio I’m not wasting time. I record myself on GarageBand because I feel more comfortable writing from the solitude of my home. I don’t want to write a full song in a studio because it’s not personal. It feels dense and restrictive. A lot of studios don’t even have windows so I don’t feel like my energy flows there — I’d rather flesh out all the ideas at home. That’s what I’m doing right now for my new album, I’m listening over and over and over and changing things constantly so that when I do go to the studio, I’ll make the most out of it. It’s also really helpful to have a good engineer along to keep me in check because I can re-record and tweak my final versions so many times.
I’m very pro-GarageBand, especially on your iPhone because you can take it wherever you go. I don’t even have to wait to get back in the house now if I don’t want to.
You said that feeling the energy of a space is really important to you when creating your songs. What do you do around the home to make it a space that is conducive to your creativity?
Joy Postell: I have lots of candles and sage and incense that I like to use. This is my first apartment that I’ve ever had to myself, and most of my furniture is vintage. It all carries with it energy from a long time ago – like my mirror from the 1930s. I always have white sheets, white curtains, real wood, velvet upholstery, I have a record player… I just try to create a timeless space. I also don’t like to have things crowded, so I have space to think. Quality over quantity is very important to me with my things. And of course, my plants!
You worked multiple jobs for years to cover rent while recording Diaspora. Why was it so important to you to avoid any financial compromises on the album?
Joy Postell: I just wanted to do it right. I waited so long to put it out and I was recording in the studio and it costs money to pay someone good to mix things. They are putting in time and I am putting in time and even though it’s my first project, it seemed worth it. I feel like a lot of people don’t put much money into their first project because, let’s be honest, this project is probably not going to be the one that makes you take off. It’s very rare, and even when that does happen, it’s usually not really their first project. But in spite of that, I really wanted to come out correctly and set the bar high for myself and my work from the very start. Now I can’t do anything less, or I underperform to my expectations. But even as I say that out loud… [laughs nervously] It’s kinda nerve-wracking.
Tell us about your collaborator Matthew “Mateyo” Lampart. He seemed to have a big role in the album’s creation – he produced 3 of the songs, did some backing vocals and drums at one point, and did incredible work with the mixing on the album. What was your chemistry like?
Joy Postell: I was looking for someone to work with production-wise and I ended up coming to him with a lot done already. Working on “Water” with him was a particularly fun process because I didn’t have that song already written before coming to him. We collaborated openly and the track grew a lot from both of our inputs. He helped tie up all the loose ends in the album and make the project cohesive. I’m so grateful for him because it was such a great learning experience. Like you said, people don’t realize that mixing does matter. We went through like 15 mixes and I feel like we both grew a lot from it because we were always trying to do it better.
For whatever reason, it seems to takes new artists awhile to figure out how important good mixing is. You’ll listen to these early efforts and think “the flow’s great, the lyrics are there, pretty cool beat…” but the mixing just isn’t there. That last 5% can make all the difference, so props to you both.
Joy Postell: Hell yeah. That last 5% really does make all the difference and I think it showed on Diaspora.
If you could pull anyone in as executive producer for your next project, who would you pick and why?
Joy Postell: Probably Raphael Saadiq, if I could choose anyone at all. He’s so seasoned and when I revisit his work I just think of it as timeless. I am really just looking for someone who knows more than me. On my last project, I felt like I was really driving the ship in a lot of ways. But on this next one, I’m looking for people to say “I’ve been doing this, so let me show you.” I never want to be the smartest one in the room, I want to learn. People who are more seasoned, more advanced in their careers, and have been doing this for a living for a while – that’s what I’m looking for.
So, your sophomore album is in the works now, correct? What can you tell us about that?
Joy Postell: Definitely in the works. I’m shooting for early 2019 – maybe March – but it depends on a few things.
Are you planning on having a few features on the new album or is it going to be mostly you, like Diaspora?
Joy Postell: It’ll be mostly me on there again, but there is one feature I would really like to get. BbyMutha, an artist from Chattanooga. I think her work is really interesting and inspiring and I would love to have her on the album. That would be dope.
Diaspora didn’t have any features in the traditional sense, but the album is littered with moments of inspiration from famous black figures like Angela Davis, James Baldwin, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and James Brown. Why did you choose those figures, and what did you hope to communicate by invoking their legacy?
Joy Postell: I chose those figures specifically because I wanted to choose strong black women that I felt drove the culture in a way that may not… you know, we always hear about Martin Luther King but we almost never hear about Coretta. There’s almost always another end to it and I do feel like black women are overlooked in the story. We carry so much of the load but only get so much of the praise.
Do you ever encounter that dismissive attitude as an artist?
Joy Postell: I do sometimes feel that as an artist, but I’m not going to complain because we live in a society that can easily write off women that are perceived as angry or loud. So instead, I wanted to highlight the women that came before me, because I think it’s important to honor your ancestors. If I want to be someone great like Angela Davis or Billie Holiday, it’s important to move forward with grace.
Something I noted about the album was that you did invoke these strong women, but the main perspective seemed to be emanate from the general black experience rather than specifically the feminine black experience. Will you be exploring that perspective on your next album?
Joy Postell: Definitely, that is something that you will be hearing next from me. I’m so glad that you got that feeling from Diaspora because it was something that happened naturally, it wasn’t intentional. It’s a narrative that will continue.
You said that the whole goal for the album was to make people feel. Especially for black Americans: listen to it and feel proud to be who they are. Why is it so important for black Americans to be proud of their roots and heritage?
Joy Postell: There are so many things working against black people to make you not feel proud. Sometimes it’s almost like a “crabs in a bucket thing” where once you get out, you look down on those who are struggling where you were just a second ago. It’s so unfortunate. I’ve even experienced that recently in my own life and it doesn’t feel good. It doesn’t feel good to have somebody who’s been coming around and breaking bread with you for so long say “I’ve gotten enough from you now so bye”. How do we change that? It’s bigger than the black community. It seems to be a thing everywhere. be proud of your roots and remember them. Don’t look down on the people that are where you were. It can be a classist thing even within the black movement.
More specifically, look at Martin Luther King vs Malcolm X. Malcolm X was one of the people, one of the “poor blacks” while Martin Luther King was wealthier, an “uppity negro”. but then towards the end of Martin Luther King’s life, he started spending more time listening to the poor blacks and started getting a little rowdy. They didn’t like that and then they had to kill him, because if he had started to liberate the poor people too, it would have just been chaos!
There are even divisions within the black movement even over skin tones. I’ve had people imply that I wasn’t really black or that my opinion doesn’t matter because I’ve got light skin. there is no singular identity for Blackness and I think it’s important for all different types of black people to have representation in culture so that people can understand that these different lifestyles exist and they don’t make any one more or less black.
The concept of freedom is central to your music and a frequent topic of discussion in your interviews. What does freedom mean to you?
Joy Postell: I think freedom means having the courage to get back up after you’ve been knocked down on your ass a hundred times. Just having the courage to trust again. Freedom comes from within — not being bound by past experiences or trauma, or by what the world expects from you. Sometimes I won’t even talk to people because I feel like other people’s expectations can become reality if I entertain them long enough. It makes me nervous. Freedom is having the courage to keep moving forward even when outsiders are firing shots at you. Staying true to your purpose.
Interspersed throughout “Water” are two samples from a 1978 interview with Angela Davis in which she says, “I mean that’s another thing… when you talk about a revolution most people think violence without realizing that the real content of any revolutionary thrust lies in the principles and the goals that you are striving for, not in the way you reach them.” What goals are you striving for with your personal musical revolution?
Joy Postell: I would like people to believe in art again. I noticed more and more as I get into the business side of things that I am an artist first. We are living in a day and age where music is consumed and spit-up so quickly, and then people are on to the next one. You aren’t even tasting it. You’re just swallowing it whole and demanding more. It’s kind of killing the artists, and it starts with the people at the top.
Look — with dark, there must be light. I can never knock someone getting their money and hustling in their own way, but it would be refreshing to see more artistry in the forefront. I enjoy the fast-paced consumerism too, I won’t lie. I hear certain singles and think to myself “that shit is hot”, even though I know that there isn’t much artistry behind it. Maybe in the engineering and in the producing but let’s be real, too often they didn’t even write the words.
Let’s talk about the album’s penultimate track, “Free Black”, which was a real standout track and a perfect way to wrap up the album. At the end of the song, you leave us with the question: “where is your consciousness?” What are you trying to inspire with that final question?
Joy Postell: That was actually chopped up from a poem by my home girl Ka’Lynn. I just want people to ask themselves where they are energetically feeding into things. What are they thinking about? Do you know where does your consciousness lies? Because that’s where your power lies. yYu can feed it into something that’s going to feed you or you can feed into something that’s going to be your demise.
You’ve noted that “Free Black” contains some influences from Baltimore Club Music. Could you tell us what more about what that means? What are the trademarks of Baltimore Club Music? What makes it such a distinctive sound?
Joy Postell: [energetic drum noises] Baltimore Club: there’s a whole dance and culture around it. I remember, growing up, going to the parties, there was always a Baltimore Club section and everyone’s dancing and battling… it is very much a thing. It’s mostly polyrhythms. When I think about it, I just think that it’s some real African shit to be blatantly honest. People just don’t realize it. It’s very tribal, even the dance moves. The African influence is deeply ingrained in Baltimore Club Music, and it’s ingrained in everyone from Baltimore. If you get it, you get it. I used to go to sleep to Baltimore Club Music and I low-key still get annoyed by it sometimes. M.I.A. actually got a lot of her sound from Baltimore Club. People don’t realize that.
I’d never heard that connection drawn before. Does she have any ties to Baltimore?
Joy Postell: Black Star, who is a legendary Baltimore Club producer – he did a lot for her. He produced for her and was really big in getting her sound off the ground.
Now that Diaspora is out, where do you go from here?
Joy Postell: I’ve got a few tour stops that might still pan out in California and Ohio, but honestly, my mind is moving past it already. Not quite just “on to the next one”, but I’m really ready to get moving on the next project. I’m really interested in putting out music as I make it moving forward, rather than sitting on it for as long as I did with this last project. As timeless as something may seem to someone else, certain things I am dropping currently are no longer relevant to me. I was talking about Freddie Gray on Diaspora, and it’s now years after that happened. It’s great that I was able to embody that and pay homage to that situation, but I think that there’s a certain responsibility to drop things as they are inspired so they can be contextually experienced by the collective.
Most of the reason that this album took so long to put out was just fear. I was scared because I thought it might be too different. I remember thinking that I couldn’t remember anyone talking about music like this… even with some of Solange’s music, it isn’t as direct as what I have been doing. She does it in an entirely different way.
As you continue your career, you’ll be hearing more and more from labels, publicists, potential managers, and other people looking to profit in some way from your artistry. Have you had to deal with anything like that so far? Is maintaining your independent status something that’s very important to you?
Joy Postell: I haven’t had to deal much with that yet, at least not from labels. Just from people that are trying to be nosy. Right now, people are watching to see what I’m doing and how consistent I can be, and I know that. It is important to me to maintain my independence. It’s important for me to take my time but be timely. If someone sends me a contract and tells me that I have to send it back within 24 hours, I will say no. I will get it back to you after I have my time to look over it and discuss it with a lawyer. I just need the time to dot my I’s and cross my T’s and be very specific and intentional; making my own decisions and sticking with them, which can be hard for me.
That is a big emphasis with this next project, committing to my decisions and collaborators. I’ve decided on one person to mix and engineer it and they’re basically my boyfriend now in a way. They don’t know that yet, but I’m going to have a conversation with them and let them know that we are essentially boyfriend and girlfriend now. We are making a child – because that’s what it is! It’s a relationship – a sacred relationship. You are creating something. I don’t care if it’s not a real child, we are creating something important. I’m a feisty person. We are going to get in arguments. I’m probably going to hate you at some point. But we’ll get through it.