Joy Oladokun and Mercy Bell grew up trying to exist as members of multiple communities whose boundaries, organized around race, culture, region, class, religion or sexuality, didn't always overlap. For them, contemporary folk music made self-expression and a sense of belonging not seem mutually exclusive. From opposite sides of the country — Arizona in Oladokun's case and Massachusetts in Bell's — they embarked on journeys to become singer-songwriters who close the gaps between the particulars of who they are and what they've lived and the potential for broad connection. The tracks Oladokun released this year — "Sunday," "Blame," "Sober" and "Blink Twice" — brought melodic and rhythmic elements of pop craft to her confessional leanings. Bell's new self-titled album spanned fetching folk-rock melodrama ("Everything Changes") and indie pop ("Skip to the Part"), and also included expressive, orchestrated renditions of songs she'd recorded in more rough-hewn form a decade back (see: "Black Dress").
The two artists both chose Nashville as the place to get serious about their music in recent years, but with Oladokun's ties to the commercial songwriting scene and Bell's involvement in indie circles, they hadn't crossed paths before World Café brought them together.
NPR Music: What was it about your early encounters with various forms of contemporary folk music that made it feel like an open door to you?
Mercy Bell: My mom grew up in the Philippines, and a lot of that was during martial law. And she'd also grown up during [the Vietnam War], and the Philippines was a front line. So I grew up with her talking about protest music and playing it constantly, even though I was a kid in the '90s and that stuff was from the '60s ... She was a huge proponent of the Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez protest music. I remember her telling me once Peter, Paul and Mary were Top 40-type music when she was a kid. I remember just having my little mind blown: "Oh, that was pop." To me, it was such a cool concept that it's three voices and a guitar and it was popular.
Joy Oladokun: Growing up, we didn't have cable — I could only watch old concert footage. My dad had a shelf full of VHS tapes. The first time I saw the video of Tracy Chapman was the first time I'd ever seen a black female play the guitar.
I grew up in a small [Arizona] town, and it was a farming town. So there's a lot of country music and folk-adjacent music ... I think I was drawn to folk music because I was like, "This sounds like home and it's conversational and it's storytelling and it's human." And then on top of that to see a black woman do it in a way that told the truth of her experience in America and everywhere else that she'd been — I think it opened a doorway for me to say, especially as a shy kid, "You can express yourself through this medium. This isn't just for white guys with mustaches. This is also for you." I think it was a representation moment, and kind of fortuitous that it happened to be the type of music that I grew up kind of loving and hearing in my hometown.
How quickly did you get into songwriting?
Bell: Like you said that you couldn't watch cable, my parents were very strict. I was homeschooled for a while. We couldn't just watch MTV and VH1 or anything. So I'd have to go make musicals, cast my poor cousins and siblings. I would always be writing songs. But it wasn't until [later that] I started to realize that there was a craft to it: "Oh, this is something that people do that's not just fun in your backyard with your siblings and cousins." It was when the Dixie Chicks played "Travelin' Soldier" on the CMA [Awards] or something. And I started to dissect it and learn about pop songwriting and how you should make it easy for the listener.
Oladokun: I think I wrote my first song before I learned how to play somebody else's music. The first song I wrote was about Lord of the Rings, because the movies had just come out and I was obsessed and immersed in this world. And I only knew how to play one chord. So it was just one open E chord of nonsense and me singing about Aragorn over and over again. I think there was just something in me that wanted to express thoughts that it didn't feel safe to [express], speaking-wise.
But it wasn't until probably three years ago that I started looking at it as a craft, that I could spend my time honing and working with other people, and collaborating and opening my mind to making these songs the best that they could be and then sharing them.
What kinds of communities and scenes shaped you and gave you musical outlets during your formative years?
Bell: My mom's Filipino and my dad's a WASP from Boston, and I had all these relatives that watched me and stuff. So when I lived in San Diego, I was a lot more involved in a community there. When we moved to Massachusetts, I was kind of sequestered because it was a huge culture shock, and I dove into theater at that point. It was one of the only things that my parents thought would keep me safe, I guess. I was very, very defined for a long time by theater. At one point, I was also really into Civil War reenacting. And obviously in Civil War reenacting, you have a lot of old folk music happening. And then I started to realize that my politics were very progressive. And then I started to realize that I was gay. And I started to discover that I could be in bands and I didn't have to audition anymore for theater.
Oladokun: My family is very, very, very Christian. I grew up going to church pretty regularly, multiple days a week. When I was in fifth or sixth grade, we switched to a non-denominational, more charismatic church. My parents are from Nigeria, so charismatic Christianity is a little bit closer to what they grew up experiencing. I was playing guitar and sort of privately developing my taste for music and figuring out where I stood, religion-wise. Then I got appointed way too young to lead worship for the congregation. I had to sort of grow up [quickly] and learn how to lead people and how to make sure the music I was singing was representative of the messages I wanted to send about God and spirituality, which is a huge undertaking for a 15-, 16-year-old. It totally influences who I am as an artist now.
I love pop. I love a good pop song. I think the world needs them. But it made me realize as an artist that you can make things that can feed and heal and nourish people and move them towards better versions of themselves. And I wanted to do that, but I didn't necessarily want to do that in a church setting. So it was a weird detour. I worked in churches until I was 23, 24. But I don't regret it, because I feel like that context was so influential to what I do now and how I do it and why I do it.
Did you write songs for church?
Oladokun: Not really. One of the reasons I realized I wanted to leave was [that] it was such a suck for me creatively. I just felt like so much of my attention was going towards taking care of people and singing the right songs and not saying the wrong thing on Sunday. I just didn't write music during that almost nine-year period. Eventually I got tired of singing someone else's words about life, especially in those Christian worlds. It's honestly a lot of well-to-do white people who don't understand maybe some of the things or issues of justice that I face as a black woman in America. And I wanted to say more of that. I wanted to lend the world more of that voice instead of more of someone else's.
Joy, your recent songs have bigger hooks and more rhythmic production than your earlier work. And Mercy, your new album has more developed arrangements and a more polished sound than the one you released almost a decade ago. How did taking on a more professional attitude toward music change your artistic aims?
Bell: I got really serious about music this time around. When I made the last album, I did not know anything. I didn't even know how to have a band ... I didn't know what was happening. I was actually having a nervous breakdown because I was coming out of the closet. I grew up really devout Catholic, but Filipino Catholic, so it's a little bit different ... I was thinking I was going to hell for being gay.
This time, I've been so present. It was the only thing I ate, slept, drank for three years, making this album. So it was very different for me. I think it was just having a goal: How can I make this song the best, for the amount of money that I have? And these are songs that I've played out along a lot, and they're the ones that the audiences responded to, the ones that people are like, "I had that stuck in my head for three days." I paid attention to that. I've learned that from Nashville.
Oladokun: Co-writing is very new to me. I think when you spend so much time writing alone, you're kind of developing your own universe, essentially. It's good to have other voices come in and say, "What if you tried it like this?"
Production-wise, I had a moment of clarity being signed to a predominantly pop publishing company: I don't have to change my message or change my approach to evolve my sound. I had to come to a moment of humility and be like, "This is as far as I can take a thing on my own." ... I'm not the artist you go to if you want to hear something groundbreaking. I just think packaging it in a way that people don't write off as a tribute act is really, really important. Especially as someone who believes in what they're saying and how they're saying it.
It sounds to me like you've each started focusing more on your vocals too.
Bell: My mom died three years ago. I used to think about how everything came across. I was very aware of myself as a former good girl, former Christian. And then she died, and death has a way of doing this thing to you where you're like, "Well, I don't care anymore." I literally stopped caring about a lot of things about how I was perceived. I leaned into art. I started using my vocal training. I stop being afraid of belting. I started writing real lyrics about what was actually happening, instead of vague things. I've been holding back for a long time and I just decided not to anymore.
Oladokun: It took me a very long time to realize that I don't have a bad singing voice. I know that seems silly, as someone who is a professional artist. It took being in rooms with people who kept complimenting my voice. Because as a kid growing up in my church, my three sisters would do harmonies for special music, and they would always tell me to sing a certain harmony because I had the worst voice. It was really just because I had the least conventional voice. It took realizing that unconventional doesn't necessarily mean bad and just leaning into that — leaning into the parts of my voice that break and crack and are raspy and hard around the edges and the softer parts.
What's place does personal revelation have in your songwriting?
Bell: Most of my songs — I'd say the vast majority of them — are very literal. I'll change things a little bit here and there to fit. I try not to judge myself for the things that I do in my songs ... I will channel something that's actually happening in my life and then try to artistically package it.
Oladokun: All my songs are very deeply personal. "Sunday" was an interesting moment for me ... In the span of the past six years, I left my job that I thought I was going to work forever, and came out of the closet, and found a new job and a new career path, and signed on to deals that I didn't think I was ever going to do. Listening to "Sunday," it was like, "Oh, this song about feeling like there are two very different parts of yourself alive and breathing and trying to thrive at once is about growing up gay in a really conservative Christian town and house. And if I don't package it as such and share it as the truth of what it is, I'll be doing a disservice to myself and to others." And so that's kind of where I had the idea of wanting to tell the stories of LGBTQ people of faith and of some sort of spirituality and how they redefine community and love and safety for themselves after coming out of the closet ... I needed to write this song and present it in a way that I probably needed when I was 12 or 13 ... Weaving my story or my beliefs or my thoughts or my fears into the music often comes from the motivation of, "What did I need when I was a kid that I didn't have? And how can I embolden the next generation to live more honest, kinder lives?"
You've each played events like Pride festivals and queer roots showcases, and talked about being aware that you're in music scenes where a lot of people don't look like you. What sort of relationship between identity and artistry feels right for you?
Bell: When I first started making music, I didn't want anybody to know that I was gay. I tried to hide it. I used vague references to love ... It was horrible to stay in the closet that way as a musician. There came a point where I was fine with my sexuality after many years, and at that point, I didn't try to hide it, period — not as a "rah-rah pride" thing, but, "I don't have energy anymore and I know what it did to my mental health." I became almost blasé about it: Yeah, I'm a musician and I'm gay. People do lead with it, and I don't care because to me, it's the same as being part Filipino or learning from folk music. To me, it all makes up who I am. I've code switched throughout my whole life. I've never not code switched. I'll lead with it if it helps fit into a certain niche or whatever. But to me, it's like I've grown up with so many identities.
Oladokun: I had a moment where I was like, "I'm going to be the most spiritual gay you've ever met in your entire life." And I realized people are just always going to have an objection to whatever I call myself. I'm like, "I'm tired of trying to make people comfortable by making it look like I live like this cutesy, holy life."
I want identity to be a point of common ground. I was on a tour where the crowd was pretty mixed between these super young evangelical Christians and these pot-smoking hippies. Every night, there were many things that I was saying about wanting to find love or wanting to be stable and feel financially secure. Everyone could relate to all of those things. So I started waiting until later and later in my set to mention that I was gay. It's interesting how the conversations changed from the beginning of the tour to the end of the tour. I took people on a journey with me. The more important messages, to me, are that people feel loved and that people feel strong and that people feel empowered without disempowering anybody else.
I have no qualms about being labeled as a gay artist. I just would never want it to limit how people saw me or how people listen to the music. In the same way, if I was a Christian artist, I wouldn't want that, or if I was a soul artist, I wouldn't want people to pigeonhole me. I want them to be like, "This is Joy and this is the music she makes. And she just happens to be gay and happens to love soul music and happens to love folk, and it kind of all works in one package."