Peter Joly comes to Friendly Tap every 3rd Sunday, and I remember the first time I had the opportunity to hear him play. I planned on recording a song or two for the FMC YouTube channel and then taking off, but I got so wrapped up in the beauty of his music, I never pressed the record button on my camera. As it turned out, I returned the following month for a video clip, and I've had great admiration for this singer/songwriter ever since. Needless to say, I'm overjoyed to profile Peter Joly for this month's musician spotlight. Enjoy!
How did you get started in music? I’ve always felt a special connection to music; like it was in my DNA. When I was 9 or 10 years old, I was fascinated by this young folk musician, I don’t even recall his name, who played old folk tunes and children’s songs on TV each morning. He had this local PBS show in Buffalo, NY where I grew up. He’d walk around this TV farm playing guitar and singing songs. I’d fake being sick just to stay home from school and watch this guy. Then one Sunday morning, out of the blue, a guitar teacher showed up on our front porch. My mother had hired him to give me private lessons at home. She hadn’t even told me about him. Mr. Abrams. He was a very big man, old, with a big cowboy hat, Levis jacket, cowboy boots and bolo tie. During our lessons he’d keep time by pounding his booted foot so hard on our dining room floor that the whole room shook. He became affectionately known by my family as “The Foot”. He became my teacher for at least 6 years. All formative ones, he gave me the perfect foundation to build upon.
The only guitar we had in the house was so inadequate that all that was holding it together was white masking tape wrapped around its body. I played that piece of junk for over a year until one Sunday, Mr. Abrams showed up to our lesson with an old Harmony arch top with a couple crack repairs that he had found at a garage sale. He said, “You need a real guitar. Here you go, you owe me $65 bucks”. I still have and play that guitar. I wrote my first song on that guitar. I was in 8th grade I think, and the song was horrible!
Who were your influences? Songwriters. My first concert experience was Neil Young, solo at Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. I was a freshman in high school. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. I learned the whole Walking Man record by James Taylor. I had gotten good at listening to a song on a record over and over; lifting the needle and setting it back down in the same spot a hundred times until I could match what the guitar on the record was doing. That’s how I learned to finger pick.
Then in high school I discovered a whole array of amazing songwriters: Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Dr. John, Gordon Lightfoot, Elvis Costello, Joan Armatrading- I was knocked out by her stuff for over a year or so. My high school pals were walking around with Van Halen under their arms while I was toting “Show Some Emotion”. There was this excellent, indie, second hand record store, The Record Exchange, close to home. I could walk there and buy anything I wanted, cheap. Randy Newman was also huge for me. Sail Away, wow. I recall seeing Paul Simon live as the musical guest on a very early Saturday Night Live- he was a young man at the time. I was transfixed by this guy. Just a guitar, a pretty voice, heartbreaking lyrics and the coolest chord changes I could ever have imagined. He was also huge for me.
Beyond those early influences, I discovered other music that just exploded for me. For about two years I listened to practically nothing but The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway double album – I knew every word. I eventually discovered more old traditional stuff too like the Preservation Hall stuff, Willy, Johnny. Of course there’s Dylan and lots of rock stuff too. I absolutely love Wilco. There are so many.
How do you describe your style? Oh gosh, this is always an awkward question for me. It’s kind of like being asked “what do you look like?” My most recent standard go-to on this is “Americana, roots, original, acoustic, singer/songwriter”- how’s that?
What brought you to the Friendly Music Community? More like who brought me. That would be Jon Williams. Jon is such a tremendous musician and just as tremendous of a human being. He is an asset, so valuable to the Chicago music scene. I met Jon shortly after relocating to Chicago in ’93 and we’ve worked on so much music together over the past 20 years. He’s a mentor. The Friendly asked Jon to fill 3rd Sundays of each month, and he thought I might be a good fit, so he asked me to see how it goes. That was two years ago October. I always look forward to our monthly Friendly Tap gig- thanks for that Friendly’s!
What's your favorite part of performing? It’s interesting; I’ve always had terrible stage fright. It’s gotten manageable over the years, but in the beginning it could be debilitating at times. As a very young performer I fell into the trap of creating these unrealistic self comparisons. That voice inside my head would say, “hey man, what are you doing? You’ll never be Bob Dylan- you have so far to go, give it up, you have zero shot’”. In a lot of ways I’ve often acted counter productively to creating avenues for my music to reach as broad of an audience as possible. The brain is so weird man. I mean, can’t we just be on the same team! Work with me here! Funny that. I’ve gotten much better with that over the years. Despite that anxiety, my inner drive to write songs and perform music has always come out on top. I’ve reached a level of confidence in my abilities, both musically and performance wise now that I feel I belong where I’ve always wanted to be. I’m a big believer that things happen when they are supposed to. Or don’t happen for that matter. There’s a sense of calm in that belief- it helps prevent anxiety over judging your progress against others out there, just doing their thing and making their own deserved progress. It’s a slog that’s for sure. So I guess the short answer is my favorite part of performing is finding that place of peace during a live set when I know that I’m just playing my best and singing my best and everything else has melted away.
What's something surprising about you? That I love to spend time alone. Maybe it’s because that’s when I write and read. I mean I love all the people who have blessed my life, but I cherish my completely alone time. I need it to cope. I love it.
With the new release, is there a story you'd like to share about a particular song on the CD? Hmm, well I’m not a fan of explaining my song lyrics, I feel that kind of closes the book on that song for the listener, takes the listener out of the process a bit and puts a song to bed in a sense. I will give this one up only because it’s so singular to this particular song. Off my new record, I wrote “God in Love in June” on the day that I’d heard the news that June Carter Cash had died. That’s all you’ll get.
A FAN'S TWO CENTS: When was the last time you listened to a song that honestly made you teary-eyed? When each word and sound tugged at your heart? When the ending came too soon? For me, it was probably Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." That is, until I heard "God in Love in June" by Peter Joly. If you don't remember the last time you had such an experience, at least the next time just might happen after you press the PLAY button below. Sigh.