Over the past decade, the Chicago music scene has given us bold independent singer-songwriters and a host of innovative electronic producers. Mia Joy, one of the city’s breakout acts in 2021, is at the center of this diagram.
His excellent debut album, spirit tamer, showcases his ability to write catchy, shimmering shoegaze pop on the track (“See Us”), then otherworldly ambient soundscapes (“Saturn”) following it all up. Joy, also a multidisciplinary artist, feels no pressure to choose a single facet of herself, blending naturalistic emotion with impressionistic lyricism. “That’s why I called him Spirit tamerbecause really, I feel like I don’t really control what comes out and what needs to be written is written,” says Joy.
His records unfold with the methodical precision of an auteur filmmaker, never adhering to the stilted structure of the songs. All she needs on single “Haha” to convey resignation and a wry appreciation for the inevitability of passing time is a dry laugh. The repeating lines on “Last Night Together” show just how consuming the disappearance of a loved one can truly be.
We spoke with Joy about her efforts to not be easily marketable, how her various creative pursuits overlap, and what prompted her to take her music public.
Manufacturing spirit tamer, your first album, was a process of several years. Now that it’s been out for over six months, are you still planning to promote it or have you started your next phase of writing?
Yes and also yes. All of these things at once. I started writing this album in the winter of 2018, so as you can imagine I’m a bit burned out playing the same material, but I also have this very precious responsibility of performing them for the first time, really. I’m booking my first round and trying to reimagine how safe it could be in the panini.
Also, I’m very patient with myself when it comes to new material, because I want it to be so real and so authentic and I really want to like it because I know when it’s three or four years later and he’s come out into the world and I’m playing him, I want to be really sure that he represents me and that I love him enough to continue playing him for so many years after.
At spirit tamer, Is there a song in particular that you think has really taken all this time to crystallize into what you want it to be?
“See Us” was a long take. Everything came out of a sudden. It also gives me chills, because you know you’re onto something that needs to come out and you’re trying to capture the lightning as it is. I am totally impressionistic with everything I do. I’m multidisciplinary, I do pottery, I paint, I write, I do so many different things and I like throwing paint on the wall, so to speak, and working with my mistakes as I go. they happen. Everything is also intentional, although I leave a lot of room for interpretation. I read this review in which this man said: “I don’t usually listen to young women’s indie rock, but I was surprised to like this.” The whole tone was “I was surprised I liked that. Men can like that sweet shit too. He liked firecrackers, but he didn’t understand my interludes. He said, ‘Yeah, that’s going nowhere’ , which tickles me so much.
It’s like, “Let’s unpack this. What don’t you think is the case? And also, it’s really funny because maybe it’s is not. Maybe you’re just barging into my room and listening to my diary and thinking, “Oops, I shouldn’t hear that.” And maybe there’s a part of you in there too, and you allow yourself to find yourself in new music. I am a great champion of this.
It’s frustrating when a reviewer seems to be proud of not getting something.
I don’t want to be marketable. I shouldn’t tell you this but I don’t want to be fully understood or have a sound so I think when I pay attention to the algorithms and maybe my album doesn’t get as many plays because I don’t that doesn’t fit perfectly into exactly indie or exactly shoegaze or exactly ambient. I’m a bit of everything and that’s what I intend to do. And maybe that doesn’t help my numbers, but I hope I’m not telling you numbers 30 years from now.
Your music is subtle, which can sometimes lead people to come up with nice interpretations. What kind of reactions did you get to your album?
I think it’s important to say Spirit tamer was written after a breakup but is not about a breakup. It’s about coming back to yourself and saying to yourself: “Here I am now, I’m picking up my pieces. It’s about that experience. I think there are only two songs about the breakup itself. “Ye Old Man” is literally about my dad and people misinterpret him as a lover all the time… If you want this song to be about a lover for you, that’s fine with me too. But it’s not like I wrote it.
There are a lot of great hooks on the record that stick with the listener. When you write, do you strive to find the balance between your ambient instincts and the fact that you can write a really catchy chorus?
Yeah. Unfortunately, it’s completely unconscious. That’s why I called it spirit tamer, because really, I feel like I don’t really have control over what comes out and what needs to be written is written. I know that sounds so pretentious and rude, but it’s true, that’s really my mood and where I’m at in my life. I think I approach everything with an open mind or like I’m meditating too, with the instruments on and I know when I find it.
How crucial do you think being in Chicago was to your career progression?
I tried to get out of the habit of spreading all my success and progress to the people I worked with. Of course, I ended up here. But, I feel like every person on this record, down to the text design artist, the photographer, every person is my friend. So it’s so personal and an act of love. I truly believed that people wanted me to succeed. I kind of hold this precious responsibility of the people who love you and believe in you and want to see you achieve… It’s very local and an act of love that I’m even here, which is such a privilege.
You’ve clearly always loved making music, but it’s different to come to pursue it seriously. I think very often in these cases it comes from the people around you instilling in you the feeling that you should go for it. You know you’re good enough to do it, but taking the plunge may require an external push.
I would just change the wording as in, not “seriously”, because I’ve always taken my art and music seriously, but “publicly”. It was a huge jump, an incredibly huge corner in my life. 24 and under, I was incredibly private. I’m still very private, but I was just doing stuff and doing stuff and recording stuff and still in my bedroom, literally a bedroom lo-fi artist. I had to accept the warm and loving embrace of my friends, my partners and my community saying to myself: “You can do this publicly and you will be fine, we can surround you and find people to play in your group . It just happened that way where I decided I was ready to share my inner world, open the door a little more and do more things publicly. I wish I had done it much sooner, but I also don’t think I was ready and I think I needed to incubate a bit longer to find out what exactly my voice was.
Is there anything else about you as an artist that we haven’t covered that you’d like to make sure we mention?
I have no money. My parents are not CEOs or in the industry. They’re artists, but I really want people to know that it still blows my mind that I’m here and I’m so grateful to be here. My 15-year-old self didn’t believe I could be here, and I think even though you don’t quite know your voice yet, I still think young people inherently have the vision and drive. I think it’s also really important for poor kids and black and brown kids to see each other and see that it’s possible. It literally keeps me alive to know that maybe someone like me is listening. That’s what makes it all worth it.