The great Bob Marley once famously said, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” Maybe to most meaningfully understand its healing powers, our souls have to reach depth from which melodies of pain, loss, sorrow and ultimately hope emerge and offer us our only salvation. True to the haunting title of her extraordinary new solo piano album Story of Ghosts, Fiona Joy had a harrowing year in 2017 – and makes no attempts to sugarcoat the emotional upheaval. She bares it all over the course of these mostly grey-toned melancholy and vulnerable pieces, expressed in raw bursts of dark beauty that draw on her classical background and impressionistic modern yet melodic composition.
Fiona has long believed that if artists didn’t have life’s highs and lows to draw on, they wouldn’t have interesting or passionate enough stories to tell. She’s never been one to write “happy music,” but she’s got even more despairing places to draw from as she channels into art the adversity of the past year, which included many friends and family members getting seriously sick, dying or going insane. As if to set her intention to choose to reflect the magical memories that precede loss, she opens the album with the uplifting and just whimsical enough “Song for Dunnie,” which she wrote for the funeral of Annette (Dunnie) Crossley, one of her best friends and business partner in her company Little Hartley Music. The lushly flowing piece represents a life that must have been full of vibrant brightness, good humor and joy – the ultimate tribute to a friend whose love and life surely endures in realms beyond what we can see and hear.
The rest of the collection finds Fiona less forgiving of the capricious Universe, digging deep and soulfully to find melodic grace while working through her inability to cope with what life threw at her in any other meaningful way. Somehow, sitting at the piano, finding solace in the purpose the cosmos have always had for her, she was able to traverse the dark night of the soul and keep moving forward – crying at times, contemplating quietly at others, but surviving the best way she could, with single take recordings that draw us into her intimate journey.
At the core of the set, she uses the piano to weave interconnected tales with similar motifs - the slow, then fast, the uncertain yet determined to transcend “Story of Angels,” and the moody hypnosis that leads to attempts to dance and then sudden dream-dashing stops in “Story of Ghosts.” The deepest tale is told by the third story song, the contemplative “Story of Insanity” which alternates shards of light with the ever-encroaching night in a romp of anger tempered by gentle understanding.
Other highlights (though Fiona herself might term them “lowlights” considering her inspiration) are the meditational “Contemplating (Solo), which find her deep in thought, seeking answers in the high notes as tension builds; an escape into a deep “Blue Dream,” whose high and low dynamics indicate mood swings that shift on a dime during crises; and a rhythmic thrust towards “The White Light,” perhaps a place between worlds where high and low notes battle it out for our mortal hearts.
Fans of FLOW, the recently launched hit new age supergroup featuring Fiona, Will Ackerman, Lawrence Blatt and Jeff Oster, will recognize the closing track “Before the Light” as the beautifully rendered foundation of “Arrival,” the opening track on FLOW’s self-titled debut. In the FLOW version, the darker edges of the piece get subsumed into a lighter hearted grooving vibe. Here it’s allowed to flourish in the shadows, exploring the heavy mysteries of life’s pain that occur before the healing – and wondering along the way if it will ever come.
Fiona recalls asking Ackerman once what would happen to her if she ever got happy – since she’s built her artistry and fan base on her incredible musical embrace of sadness. Would the creativity dry up? He said, “No, Fiona, you will just start writing happy music.” Maybe down the road, she will increase her catalog from four happy songs to more. But for now, especially on Story of Ghosts we can enjoy the musical beauty and grace that she shares while working through the obstacles to make peace with the sorrow life has thrown her. When you know the deeper story, you will feel empathy as you listen. If you don’t, Fiona’s piano will sooth your soul – even if hers is still a work in progress.