Joy Ike: 'I Do What I Need To Do To Survive'

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Joy Ike's album, All Or Nothing, is out now.

When I first met folk musician Joy Ike after her Rockwood Hall concert last year, I was her voluntary roadie. A group of us -- ranging from friends, band members, and fans -- all lugged equipment to a street you would never know existed if you weren't desperate for a parking spot. On our way back to the busy streets of the Lower East Side to get dessert, Ike realized she forgot one important detail: to check the tip jar. She and I peeled away from the group and walked back to the venue with urgency. I can still remember the loud flapping of bills as Ike counted to see if she made enough tips for gas money. She did, and I was at a loss for words. The life of an independent artist is no joke.

You would never expect these gritty experiences from a singer-songwriter who plays the piano barefoot on stage. But the Pittsburgh-raised, Philadelphia-based artist is resilient: a full-time musician since 2008, Ike founded Grassrootsy, a DIY site for indie artists to learn about the music business. Over the course of Ike's three albums, she's honed her songwriting and production quality to the heights of 2013’s All Or Nothing.

Before her return to Rockwood Music Hall this Saturday, I spoke with Joy Ike again about the far-from-glamorous life of an independent artist, her frustrations with streaming services, and the inspiration that keeps her going.

Imade Nibokun: What was the catalyst that inspired you to go into music full-time?

Joy Ike: It takes something big to bring you out of your routine and get you out of your comfort zone. My brother’s passing [in 2008] was, for me, kind of unexpected. Even though he had been fighting cancer for four years, it gotten pretty bad, but not to the point where we were giving up. I left my job two weeks before he passed away. There’s always stories that make you who you are. I credit my brother for having a huge impact on my life.

IN: What other experiences influenced your album All Or Nothing?

JI: The album is a love album. It’s a bunch of love songs. For me, that was like my growing up album. I wrote it during the bulk of my first real adult years of my life. In my mid to late 20’s. I was learning a lot about life and relationships in general. Not all romantic relationships, but having unconditional relationships with the people in your life. Just what it looks like to care about people. Every single aspect of being fully in relationship, fully loving people, and the implications of that.  

A lot of this album started when I was going to quit music altogether, or at least quit as an artist. How much do I love this? How much do I want to keep going? And what are the cost? The title is just so appropriate because all of the songs were about that.

IN: How do you find the balance between making your faith a very organic part of what you do but not being too preachy?

JI: I can’t say that I’m intentional about making certain types of music. I like to say I write whatever comes out of my heart, no matter how cheesy that sounds. But I think there is an intentional aspect of songwriting where you write something that sounds incredibly cliche and you put it away and wait until you can find a better way to say it.

When I’m writing songs that I would be proud to have on the radio, it isn’t doing the thinking for people but allowing them to process and think and wrestle with stuff and I think that comes down to creating art that gets people to breathe a little bit and room to understand. I heard a quote that really stuck with me. It’s a quote that I wish I knew earlier that gives me a better language about how I write. "Good art doesn’t give the answers but it explores the answer."

IN: You recently posted a photo on Instagram of a check for $8.19 that you received from Pandora. What are your thoughts on the royalty payment from streaming services?

JI: It makes me very angry. It makes me feel disrespected as an artist. There’s a lack of love and respect for music makers and I see it in so many different ways in the music culture in America. I don’t know what to do about it. In many ways, you don’t get the respect that you deserve until you reached a certain level. But you know what, you do what you can. You rely on your fans and you don’t rely on those big guys.

People always ask me all the time if my music is on Spotify. I don’t mind that I think the average consumer doesn’t understand the injustice of what Spotify is doing. Meanwhile, Pandora is having the same problem. They’re not paying artists well at all. But the thing is that I had a lot of people find me through Pandora that wouldn’t find me otherwise. But I know if I had my whole album on Spotify streaming, that people wouldn’t buy the album anymore. Just like in that image: I would make $8.19 for my song being played roughly 640 times, and meanwhile, I would make $10 if someone just bought the album. This is my life, and I have to do what I need to do to survive. 

IN: You also just released a new performance video of your song “Promised Land” from All Or Nothing. How much of that song is a reflection of your personal life being the daughter of Nigerian immigrants?

JI: All of it! That song was started from an Indian girl who was going through the same thing that I was. Her parents were immigrant parents and they wanted her to marry someone who is also Indian, so we were both sharing that whole Romeo and Juliet thing where your parents don’t want you together even though you want to be together so it’s hard to be everything for everyone. You want to make your parents happy and proud but you also want to be your own person. That song is about how to make it work.

IN: Did you experience pressure to uphold the Nigerian name or be Nigerian enough?

JI: Totally. I ran away from it. I tried to keep my distance as much as possible because I felt pressure all the time. I don’t really feel like I want to be a certain type of person that someone wants me to be. Now I’ve come around. I’m older. My parents and their history and my heritage means a lot more now. Feeling safe, feeling like I know who I am now, I can re-enter into this and embrace it not because I have to but because I want to.

Joy Ike performs Saturday, May 9 at Rockwood Music Hall.