Joy To The (Music) World

Photography by Cathryn Farnsworth

In many ways, Marla Joy is a throwback. Channeling artists like Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin, she sings with a power and rawness rarely heard anymore. In stature, she’s diminutive, which makes the magnitude of her voice and stage presence truly surprising. She’d fit in seamlessly at Woodstock or the Chelsea Hotel in the early ’70s. (She often jokes that she was born in the “wrong era.”) As a performer, she’s a veritable rock star, taking over the stage rather than being dwarfed by it. She also really puts her long brown tresses to good use—so much so that it makes one wonder how she’d ever perform without them. Big, chunky jewelry, black leather and heavy eye makeup complete the look. This girl has the talent and the style, which—combined—scream “future star.”

Born in Toronto, Canada, Joy had an unconventional childhood, to put it euphemistically. By 14 years old, she was on her own, moving from one friend’s house to another’s every few weeks.

“There were many days when I didn’t have anywhere to go,” says Joy. “I’d sleep in people’s basements or on their couches, carrying my clothes around in garbage bags. I wanted so badly to be normal.”

During this time, she found solace in music. But not just any music—the music of Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye all deeply resonated with her.

“I describe my music now as soul with grit and edge,” she says. “It’s the opposite of smooth, pretty soul. Most of my influences come from music that was produced between 1968 and 1972.”

While Joy is currently considered a very promising up-and-comer, it’s been anything but easy for her to get to where she is.

“I’ve been through a lot, but I don’t regret any of my experiences. The ones I had no control over made me stronger, and the ones I messed up on my own taught me humility and resilience.”

It’s easy to see how this perspective penetrates her music.

“I feel every single word every time I sing them,” she says. “The grit, the rawness, that will always remain in my music.”

Her past has also given her a relentless determination and drive.

“Before I met my manager, Damon DeGraff, I sang wherever I could at whatever time and place. At one point, I was even taking 15-hour bus rides just for the chance to sing for 20 minutes at a New York City venue.”

And as true determination is wont to do, it paid off.

“I met Damon while performing at Bagatelle one night. Since then, I’ve been around so many people who believe in me because they know what I am capable of becoming.”

In the past three months alone, under the management of DeGraff, Joy has performed at Arlene’s Grocery, Don Hill’s, RDV and Bowery Poetry Club in New York City, as well the House of Blues in LA. She’s also opened numerous times for Citizen Cope while he’s been on tour. Most notably, though, she’s putting the finishing touches on her debut album, being released by dGi Records.

“I am welcoming all of this hard work with open arms,” she says. “This is who I am—the music, the songs, the performing, the struggle, the ups and downs. For me, there is nothing else. There is no plan B.”

– Amy Zalneraitis