Though the Boston band Joy Kills Sorrow appears to be a bluegrass band, their approach and sound come from a place that’s more rooted in indie rock and indie folk. They may play banjo, mandolin, upright bass and acoustic guitar, but the songs come out as something different.
Joy Kills Sorrow, which will play at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 5, at the Unity College Center for the Performing Arts, call themselves a modern string band — contemporary song structure and lyrics with old-timey instrumentation. Their inventive, musically complex arrangements can be heard on the band’s two albums, “Darkness Sure Becomes This City” from 2010 and “This Unknown Science,” which came out just two weeks ago.
Bass player and primary songwriter Bridget Kearney, along with guitarist Matthew Arcara, singer Emma Beaton, mandolin player Jacob Jolliff and banjo player Wesley Corbett, formed Joy Kills Sorrow in 2007. Kearney’s songwriting voice is a large part of what makes the band so enjoyable — think about contemporary folk groups such as Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers, who seamlessly blend the old and the new. Beaton’s haunting voice and the mesmerizing string sound of Arcara, Jolliff and Corbett complete the picture.
“We construct our songs from a world completely outside of bluegrass,” said Kearney, 26, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, where she studied jazz bass. “Sometimes it’s a fun exercise to get ideas for textures with the instruments by playing cover songs, and using the mandolin or banjo as piano or electric guitar or something. It’s an interesting way to think differently about the music you’re making.”
Many of the members of the band attended music school in Boston, and all are accomplished performers; Arcara was second runner-up in the National Flatpicking Championships in 2008, Jolliff received the first full mandolin scholarship ever to Berklee College of Music and Beaton was young performer of the year at the 2008 Canadian Folk Music Awards. Kearney plays in several other Boston-area bands, including the more rock-oriented Cuddle Magic and Lake Side Dive, and in 2006, she won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest at age 21. She has been writing songs since she was 16, growing up in Iowa City, Iowa, and has experienced more musical variety in 10 years than many musicians have in a lifetime.
“It’s nice to have the yin and yang of playing in multiple kinds of bands. It keeps it fresh,” said Kearney. “It’s just as nice to have people up and dancing as it is quietly listening. Joy Kills Sorrow is an outlet for a much more emotional, deep kind of expression.”
“This Unknown Science” is a lovely, atmospheric album showcasing the considerable talents of all five musicians. Boston is a particularly good city for virtuosic young players, especially in the realms of folk, Americana and the singer-songwriter scene; the city itself has a long history of supporting bands and artists in those genres. Joy Kills Sorrow is certainly part of that tradition.
In addition to the show in Unity, Joy Kills Sorrow will perform at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 6, at One Longfellow Square in Portland. For information, visit joykillssorrow.com.
Emily Burnham may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.