Stream Molly Joyce’s debut full-length album, Breaking and Entering, the week ahead of its release, exclusively on The Road to Sound.
Where do sensations go when they leave a body? Do they disappear, or do they transform into something new, something we may not even have the words for? No one knows the answers to those questions, nor could they be universal. But composer Molly Joyce is on a mission to discover the possibilities. Or, at least, to wonder what they might look like.
Her debut full-length album and passion project two years in the making, Breaking and Entering, is a collection of personal songs that take inspiration from and come to terms with her experience as someone with an impaired left hand. But beyond the personal, she implores us to probe deeper into flawed social normatives, to imagine beyond our bodies. “I love thinking about the end of physicality,” Joyce says, “just thinking of possibilities from unlikely places.”
While disability studies is a central aspect of her work now, it was only during Joyce’s graduate studies that she began to search for a deeper understanding of disability. “Around this time, I was realizing I really was disabled in a way, it was really one of my identities,” Joyce says. As a child, she was involved in a car accident that severely injured her left hand; her arm was nearly amputated, and she lost two out of three nerves.
At first, writing about this personal experience wasn’t easy, nor was coming to terms with her identity. “I think I was really worried that people would think it’s a victim story, or pity, or ‘she just found this new identity and she’s trying to find some line of focus in her work,'” Joyce says. But she decided to embrace her story and her studies, accepting that you cannot control what other people think. You can simply stay true to yourself.
“I don’t feel like the album necessarily describes the whole car accident in detail, but more questions what happens when some of your physicality and physical sensation leave,” she says. She finds excitement in the fact that there are no right or wrong answers. We can each imagine our own possibilities.
The vintage toy organ is a rare instrument, but it was Joyce’s first stop in writing the music for Breaking and Entering. It features a keyboard on the right hand side and chord buttons on the left hand side; its layout makes it comfortable for Joyce to perform on with her hands. But the impetus to find a vintage toy organ was born from visiting her undergraduate professors’ hip Brooklyn apartments, where she’d see collections of instruments like melodicas, toy pianos, and other old instruments.
“I was like, ‘I’ll just collect some of these random instruments that I’ll use once in every five pieces or something like that, and it’ll be a great accessory at future parties,’” she says. So, she went to eBay and bought a tiny one that sat unattended in her dorm room. At first, she was unimpressed with its dry sound. But once she began experimenting with the addition of electronics to the music she made with it, she became hooked, and purchased three waist-high vintage toy organs. Her hobby grew to be so much more than a party trick: it became a way she could express herself.
As a child, Joyce played violin, and then switched to playing the cello backwards as well as the trumpet after the car accident. But in middle school, she discovered composition as a vehicle for expression, and that became her primary interest. “It was all like a big video game to me,” she remembered, citing her instantaneous love of Midi feedback and computer music as original sparks of compositional creativity.
But beyond her interest in putting the puzzle pieces together, composition was a way she could make music free of worry. With the cello and trumpet, she was able to adapt her hands to fit the instruments, but she still felt that her hands weren’t “normal,” and there were still issues in making the instruments work for her body. With composition, however, her hands weren’t the center of attention. “I could just let my imagination run free,” Joyce said, “I didn’t have to think about what my hands could or couldn’t do, or what was uncomfortable.”
The music she creates on Breaking and Entering is lush, combining the twinkling sound of the vintage toy organ with the echoing reverb of electronics. Her voice is another mechanism within the fold, pulsating as harmonies grow and change. The result is mesmerizing, music that envelops you with its vibrancy. You hear the traces of some of her favorite artists in each breath: her teacher Missy Mazzoli’s melodramatic electronics, the Cocteau Twins’ resonant production techniques, Sylvan Esso’s quirky pop. In combining these elements, Joyce is trying to create “a whole other world,” to transport us into a new reality.
“I just wanted to see what would come out,” she says, as she remembers writing “Form and Flee,” the first song she wrote for the album. “I started singing more with the encouragement of a friend,” she recalls. “I don’t feel like I’m the greatest singer in the world, but I guess it is possible.” Finding her voice came easily when the words she wrote came from such a personal place.
On the final version of the album, the songs do not appear in the order in which she wrote them, rather, they tell a story. As she wrote, over the course of a series of artist residencies, she realized the music was forming a narrative arc. It told the story of losing part of the body, and then breaking into and entering a new one — hence the album’s title, a favorite of hers for its inherent duality of meaning. In her work, she wanted to ask what this new body is, using the music she had written to explore the meaning of physicality itself.
“Disability is really an identity and experience available to us all, which I think makes it so unique in terms of identities. It’s born and acquired, it’s temporary and permanent,” Joyce says. Breaking and Entering is about reexamining our relationships with our bodies as they are, not overcoming them. And while its story hails from personal, lived experience, the album itself is interpretive, encouraging us to form our own questions and answers. Joyce makes her home in investigation, and Breaking and Entering is just one stop on her journey. As she concludes our discussion about the concept of the record, her voice illuminates, as if she’d finally found one answer. “That’s what I think I love about it: it’s an endless exploration.”
Breaking and Entering is out on June 5 on New Amsterdam Records. Molly Joyce has postponed her album release party on Friday June 5 until further notice to stand in solidarity with the Black community.
Black Lives Matter. Justice for George Floyd, for Breonna Tayler, for Ahmaud Arbery, for Tony McDade, for the countless other Black people murdered by the police.
If you are able, please consider supporting Bail Funds and other organizations working to aid protestors and to keep them safe as they speak truth to power.
National Bail Fund Network (look up any bail funds near you)
Master Twitter Thread of Places to Donate (Updated Continuously)