Joy Zimmerman calls her musical journey "one of reinvention." While folk lies at the root of Zimmerman's music, she is a singer-songwriter, guitarist and violinist who performs regularly as a solo artist and as a member of the Joy Zimmerman & Jimmy Dykes Band, not to mention her gospel and spiritual work. Zimmerman's background in social work and social justice informs her music, with lyrics that address topics of "loss, connection, empowerment, bliss, and meaning." Enjoy our interview with this multifaceted artist.
Introduce yourself and describe your music for new listeners.
Hello, music lovers ~ I’m a singer/songwriter who grew up playing violin in orchestras, dancing to R&B with friends in inner city St. Louis, listening to rock and alternative with college friends, and singing harmony whenever I could. I’ve melded my all-over-the-map musical taste into eclectic songwriting and performing.
My story is one of re-invention. I didn’t discover my solo singing and songwriting voice until later in life. Since music is a never-ending pursuit, I love that you can jump in at any time, constantly learn new things, improve your craft, try new styles, and collaborate with new partners.
Folk rock is probably the closest, most consistent description of my music. I perform solo, in a duo with Jimmy Dykes and with a full band. Besides vocals, my main instruments are guitar and violin. I’ve also written and recorded spiritual music, including several songs with a gospel choir led by Mark Kibble of Take 6.
You have a degree in social work. How would you say this background informs the songs you write?
I pursued social work in graduate school because I have always felt strongly about promoting social justice, community and resilience. After raising kids and working numerous social work jobs, I now weave lots of life experience into song. All roads have led here. My study of human dynamics and interactions finds its way into lyrics about loss, connection, empowerment, bliss, and meaning.
It’s been a delight to incorporate my original songs and music into workshops for kids, youth and adults on a wide range of topics. Music connects us and deepens our experiences like no other medium I know.
Talk about your creative process. Do you have a dedicated and space set aside to write music?
My creative process usually starts with a musical hook or song idea. I brainstorm lyrics and consider how to make this new song unique. (Early on a friend observed that many songwriters end up with songs that all sound the same, so I vowed to try to avoid that tendency.) The next step is connecting my musical and lyrical ideas into a giant puzzle. Some songs flow easily and quickly, while others are a struggle from start to finish. And it’s often complicated knowing when a song is finished.
I have boxes of lyric scratchings on napkins, playbills, post-it notes, etc. that I periodically sift through. I’m long overdue for a culling session in my new music space, the upper level (formerly the attic) of our new house. I love looking out over our backyard and finding inspiration in nature. Inspiration also arrives via offhand comments, observations, emotions I’ve struggled with or stories I want to tell, as in Say My Name about 19th century French sculptor Camille Claudel.
When did you start writing songs? How would you say your writing process has changed over the years?
I began songwriting about ten years ago after I started playing guitar, performing in a band and singing lead. I spoke with songwriters, attended a few workshops, and dove in. After years of playing only violin, learning to play a chordal instrument made all the difference. Each new guitar chord would find its way into my songs and open new possibilities.
Over time I’ve had many more opportunities to “road test” my original songs live. Ultimately a song should mean something to you, but the highest compliment is hearing that one of your songs has had an impact on someone else. This type of feedback, along with some songwriting awards, have helped me be braver and censor myself less.
It’s tough to balance creative time with performing, practicing, arranging gigs, promotion and the rest of life. My hope is to consistently carve out more time and space for songwriting in the new year. My creative output seems to have seasons, sometimes due to increased discipline and sometimes due to a mysterious wellspring of ideas. I’ve learned to ride those waves a little better.
What inspires you about music in Kansas City?
The breadth and depth of talent in this city is seriously ridiculous. I recorded my first three albums in Nashville with studio musicians, and the two most recent ones here in Kansas City. I’ve found the musicians here to be every bit as good as those in Nashville. I feel fortunate to get to play with great local talent, including my duo partner Jimmy Dykes.
The music community in Kansas City is vibrant and supportive. For listening and performing, we all enjoy stellar venues from the Kauffman Center to Knuckleheads to recordBar and on and on. Art and theater also thrive here, so there’s great cross-pollination. All of this adds up to a creativity-rich city which improves the quality of life for everyone.
So many great books, movies and music, so little time, but here are some of my favorites:
Joy's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog:
Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon—and the Journey of A Generation by Sheila Weller – A detail-rich biography of three iconic singer/songwriters and their impact on music and culture.
Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver – Mary Oliver’s wise and beautiful poems illuminate the natural world and enrich our lives.
Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer by Lynne Cox – One of the world’s best open-water swimmers tells stories of her brave swims, including across the Bering Strait, around the Cape of Good Hope, and in the waters of Antarctica.
This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin – In a mix of art and science, Levitin explains how and why we are moved by music.
Little Miss Sunshine – I laughed so hard I cried at the end of this film, which was a first for me. I love honest portrayals of the bittersweetness of life.
Harold and Maude – This cult classic is the only film I’ve seen numerous times. A celebration of life with dark humor and a great soundtrack.
The Best of Eva Cassidy – stunning
Blue by Joni Mitchell – universal
Songs in the Key of Life by Stevie Wonder – magnificent
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana – cathartic