Joe Billy: Exclusive Interview with the Angsty Bob Dylan on His Fourth Studio Album 'Fissure'
Joe Billy started his solo career in 2016 and has been gigging all over NJ and the east coast playing his angsty acoustic punk tunes ever since. He just released his fourth full-length album Fissure and sat down with The MIC's Stef to discuss his writing process, The Joe Billy Collective, and the making of his latest album Fissure. Here's one of our favorite interviews yet!
SJ: Hey Joe! It is so exciting to finally sit down with you and chat about your music.
JB: Oh, likewise, thanks so much for having me!
SJ: Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your musical background?
JB: Sure, so as you can imagine, I've had a love for music ever since I could remember. Apparently, as a child, I was singing, performing in the living room, and banging on pots and pans all the time!
I started playing music in 2010, playing the drums, though I've always wanted to be a singer and a frontman at heart. After a number of years of playing drums in bands (which I still do), I decided to take a crack at writing my own music. I formed a punk band in 2012, which I fronted, but it only lasted about a year, given the members' creative differences and such. I kept trying to reform the band, but it just never really worked out for one reason or another. So in 2016, I said, "ynow what? f*ck it; I'll just do it myself." So I grabbed the old acoustic guitar my family had lying around, not being used, learned a few chords, and started writing songs. Not great songs, mind you, but it was a start, haha. In all honesty, I never anticipated my solo music going anywhere. I was just expecting to write some songs to get my energy and lyrics out and maybe play the occasional show or open mic. But now here we are about seven years later, haha.
Photo Credit: Shaler B Photography
SJ: I love that idea of just taking matters into your own hands and starting something yourself. That's exactly how The MIC started! We first met back at Launch Music Fest back in April. You mentioned categorizing your music as "acoustic punk," which immediately caught my attention. Can you explain more about your sound and what "acoustic punk" means to you?
JB: So I've always been a lover of punk music; it was the type of music that really resonated with me and felt like it was actually portraying the types of feelings and thoughts I had/have. As I said, I tried so hard to keep a punk band going, to no avail, so I started playing solo. And to me, "acoustic-punk" was just the best way to describe it; acoustic-based punk music, basically. I hadn't even known about the "folk punk" and adjacent subgenres scene until shortly after. I have been described as folk punk, riot folk, anarchistic, etc., and it all tracks, but I still describe "Joe Billy" as "acoustic-punk." Not only is it descriptive enough, but it also allows me the freedom to write however I want. I always felt that "folk punk" music had to sound a certain way, and so having the baseline of writing punk music just with an acoustic guitar, allows me to be very versatile and have a wide range of writing approaches. Some songs sound more folky, some sound more punk, some sound more ballad-y, etc.
SJ: It is a great way to describe your sound, and in a way, you coined that term. You've been doing music for quite a while. Your first official release was back in 2012. How has your style changed or evolved from that first release?
JB: Haha, right, so I was trying to figure out the best way to go about that to avoid confusion, so apologies if this is a long-winded answer!
As stated, I had that punk band back in 2012. The band's name was "Point of Anxiety." We never released anything, but we wrote some songs here and there. At some point, when I was already doing Joe Billy, I came across those two files from years ago that we cheaply recorded and never put out. Those tracks were actually just recorded by myself (drums and vocals) and my brother (guitars and bass.) So I decided to remix and master them and just put them out for a little throwback fun. I've honestly been trying to think of a more accurate way to release them since my distro wouldn't let me put any dates or years in the actual artwork to signify that, but oh well haha.
Technically, my first official release was in 2016 with "Censor This."
Like I said, I started out learning a few open chords and power chords while screaming my words over some simple progressions, so that album is most certainly indicative of that; raw, unpolished, angsty energy, haha. Since then, I like to think my music has matured quite a bit over the years. Each proceeding album or release got more and more musical, more thought out, and my performances and musical abilities kept improving.
SJ: You have certainly grown a great deal musically from those recordings! This year has been big for you already, releasing your full-length album, Fissure. Can you tell us a little background on what this record is about and how you came up with the title?
JB: So Fissure is a collection of songs related to the various ways we can perceive conflict, division, separation, and the like. From society to politics, communities, personal connections, to inner struggle, this album is hard-hitting, loud, emotional, thought-provoking, and intense. It most definitely reflects on many thoughts and emotions I've experienced over the past few years, as I'm sure many can relate to.
As for the name, for a long time, I was intrigued by the word "Fissure," meaning some sort of divide or split, which is a word that really isn't used much nowadays, I find. And so, as I started finishing and gathering these songs, that word resonated a lot, and in various ways, with the songs on this album.
Album Art: Bret Salvatore
SJ: Your album cover for Fissure, designed by Bret Salvatore, reminds me a bit of Pink Floyd's "Pulse." What does the album art say to you, and how does it reflect the record?
JB: Oh wow! You know, I never thought of that; you're totally right!
First off, Bret is amazing. Such an amazing artist, musician, and human being. I reached out to Bret because I've always loved their painting and artwork; I actually have a few of their paintings on my wall! And so I mentioned some ideas I was thinking of, and we went back and forth with it, but Bret was really the one that pulled it all together, and I love it. I was imagining this person on a tightrope, over a large chasm, or a fissure if you will. And on each side of the chasm are two different but equally as chaotic, confusing, and abstract landscapes of conflict and emotion. I really wanted it to feel that, if the person balancing was able to jump to either side, how would they decide which is the better one? If there even is a "better" one. Especially when, while each side looks different, they both feel just odd and unsafe.
SJ: I think that idea is really felt with the album art. Before this release, your previous album was released five years ago, back in 2018, with an array of singles in between. Was this record a long time coming for you? How long did it take collectively to write and record?
JB: Absolutely. I was releasing stand-alone singles, all while working on the songs for Fissure. Then once the album was done, I decided to take the approach of releasing each song from the album as a single until the full album was released.
Writing is an ongoing process, so it's hard to say how long the writing took, as I often take ideas I've had in my pocket from even a year or two ago to see how they can be fleshed out. However, once I decided what songs were going to be on the record, that turned out to be a long process. I hired my good friend, James Stivaly, to help me produce the record, and I enlisted some members of the Joe Billy Collective to add some instruments as well, including upright bass, violin, and trumpet.
We started this whole process in late 2019. Once we had everything laid out and planned, we tracked all of the acoustic guitars first, and then NJ went into lockdown in March of 2020. So that brought everything to a screeching halt pretty much, because everything was already written. Everything was planned out, but we couldn't get together to track anything. So it really sucked! But, after some time, we felt comfortable enough to start getting together again and keep tracking. Most everyone else also felt comfortable to track, with the exception of Billy Smolen, who played bass on most of the album. That became pretty interesting because Billy, being the professional that he is, was able to record from home and sent us like four different takes for each song so we could pick and choose the parts he played depending on what we felt fit best. So, all in all, everything worked out well, even though it was way longer than we hoped.
So we started the process like right before 2020, and the first single wasn't dropped until August of 2022.
SJ: What was the songwriting process like for Fissure? Do you like to write collaboratively or alone?
JB: I do love writing collaboratively, and hope to do more in the future. However, the songs for Fissure, much like most of my other releases, were mainly written by me. Once the songs were written, I asked Era Lockett (trumpet and harmonies), Jason Biggs (fiddle), and Billy Smolen (electric and upright bass) to add their glorious touches to the songs.
As for the writing process, it depends on the song. Many of my songs are inspired by my feelings and thoughts on outside events or my own personal struggles. Some of these songs I've had in my pocket for a long while and since then have evolved into the songs they are now. To pinpoint a few, I wanted to write a song like "2am" as a reminder to everyone in my life that I will always try to be there for them in whatever way I can. "Here I Am, Vulnerability" was a huge deep dive into my own psyche and my personal journey over the years of learning more about myself, my trauma, and how it affects my everyday life, with the eventual optimistic hope that it's possible to get better. "No Sympathy," on the other hand, is to draw awareness to the fact that the system we currently live under in America is, and always has been, only made to benefit those in power and to preserve white supremacy, and keep as many people as possible in poverty, systematically. You can find similar themes like these throughout the rest of the album as well.
Album Art: Bret Salvatore
SJ: The tracks are wide-ranging. You have tracks like "No Sympathy," a song you can easily hear crowds singing along to, and deeper cuts like "Bad Habits," which start simple and somber with a hard-hitting ending. What is your favorite song off this album and why?
JB: Oh, thank you for asking. "Here I Am, Vulnerability" is hands down my favorite song I have ever put out thus far. Not only is it very personal, but I'm super proud of its lyricism, my vocal performance, the music, the energy, everything. It's one of those songs that just punches you in the face right away, after the sick, building bass solo intro, of course, and just doesn't stop until the end. All while saying some really deep stuff. It is one of the harder songs to play live, but still my favorite!
SJ: Which track was the hardest one to write?
JB: Hm, that's a great question. I think I would also have to say, "Here I Am, Vulnerability." All of these songs did kind of naturally come together, but I remember working on "Here I Am" for a LONG time. There are A LOT of chord changes and various sections in that song that just had to be so specific because of the certain vibe I was going for at any given time, so I was constantly reworking the chord structure until it felt right. For instance, the solo sections in the song are very similar to other progressions in the song, but they aren't exactly the same, haha, stuff like that. This was also one that I had in my pocket for quite a while, maybe even a year or two. I had the main progression but didn't know what to do with it until it eventually just happened.
SJ: Are you typically writing the lyrics first, or does the music come quicker for you?
JB: My writing style has been kind of weird, I find, haha. So most of the time, I actually write the lyrics and music at the same time. It's always been tricky for me to try and only do one at a time because, more often than not, the lyrics or melody will influence the music, and vice versa. I've been told it's a very "folky" type of approach, especially with how focused I am on lyricism because then the song becomes primarily about the message and the story as opposed to just being a catchy song. Some members of the Collective have pointed out how annoying some of my song structures are because of this, haha! I am, however, continuously trying to branch out with writing styles, so we'll see what the future holds!
SJ: You're like an angstier, Bob Dylan. Reading your lyrics, they feel as though they could stand alone at a Slam Poetry night. Do you find lyrics to be at the forefront of your work?
JB: First off, thank you, haha! And yes, absolutely. While I very much care about how the music feels, I am always very intentional with my lyricism; it's something I'm very picky about, both in writing and just listening to music. I try to look for the most creative way to portray something or find more interesting and moving ways to get my messages across.
SJ: There is also varied instrumentation adding trumpet, violin, and fiddle in your tracks. What inspired these additions?
JB: It just felt right. From the beginning, I wanted to do as much as I could for this album, musically, production-wise, everything. And so, once the songs started coming together, James and I started brainstorming what kinds of additional instruments we could add. Of course, there were going to be drums and electric guitars, but some songs felt the need to have upright bass instead of electric bass. Some songs that were more folk-y or ballad-y were a perfect fit for a violin. There were other songs where the trumpet was perfect for them. So it was all experimenting until it felt right, really. We almost had a lap steel guitar, but it didn't quite work out haha.
SJ: Who are your biggest influences musically, and for Fissure specifically? Are they the same, or were there new inspirations?
JB: I would say they're the same. Since I started writing my own music, I've been very influenced by the likes of Mischief Brew, Days N Daze, Anti Flag, Flogging Molly, Frank Turner, Against Me, Streetlight Manifesto, Rise Against, Larry and His Flask, and so on.
You can probably hear some of those influences clearly in certain songs.
SJ: Absolutely. What was the recording process like for this record? Do you dabble in any part of the process yourself?
JB: I had gone into the process for this record a bit already, but to give you more depth, once things started up again, I tracked the drums next since we already had the acoustic guitars and some scratch vocals, I believe. Then, since we had drums, we sent the songs to Billy for him to start working on them while we tracked the electric guitars. I did all of the rhythm guitars and two songs on bass, and James laid down the solo in "Here I Am" and a couple of other small leads throughout the album. I think then we tracked the actual vocals since a lot of music was there. Then we asked Jason to come in, which we had fun with because he had gotten familiar with the songs, but we weren't sure what exactly we wanted him to do, so we got to be creative as a team and throw in suggestions and try different things. And then Era came in to do trumpet and vocal layers/harmonies.
Oh! And then I ended up having to record the two solo songs on my own in my bedroom, haha!
And to answer the latter, yes! I actually have a background in audio engineering and still do some mixing and mastering from time to time. Many of my releases have either been fully produced by me or mostly by me. For Fissure, James handled the tracking and pre-mixing while I did the bulk of the mixing, and then I sent it to Ray Ketchem over at Magic Door for mastering.
SJ: For Fissure specifically, you mentioned you worked with James Stivaly of OD. Productions. Do you typically work with the same producer, or does it depend on the sound you're looking for, for each project?
JB: I honestly don't think I've found the "Joe Billy" sound yet, though Fissure has come very close to it. James and I have worked together on a few Joe Billy projects; for instance, he was the tracking engineer behind "Censor This" and fully produced my single "We All Die Eventually" and, of course, did the tracking and pre-mixing for Fissure. Whereas my second album, "Let 'Em Fall," and various other singles were fully produced by me, and my third album, "Don't Mind Me," was tracked by my brother, Matt Billy, but then mixed and mastered by me. I think I'm still in a stage of experimenting and trying out different spaces, different producers, and engineers; just to find something that really hits right. I absolutely love how Fissure came out, but there are still things I could nit-pick about it, haha.
SJ: You've also been playing a lot live! I personally had the chance to catch you play at Jimmy Geez a few weeks back. I really enjoyed your song choice, as your setlist was basically my karaoke set, haha. But you also recently got back from a small tour. Where did you go, and what was that tour like?
JB: That's right! What a nice surprise. Places like bars and restaurants are better for cover sets, so that explains that, but I'm glad you enjoyed it haha.
Ya, I recently did a three-day tour with my friend Tyler from Condition Oakland. It was just great to get back on the road; it had been about four years since I toured. It was a lot of driving because we ended up going to Buffalo, NY, and then New Haven, CT, and then Gettysburg, PA. So not the most ideal route, especially when I'm coming from NJ, but we took what we could get just to get out there and do some shows. That weekend was supposed to be Tedd Hazard and me, actually, but some stuff came up for him, so Tyler stepped in. It all turned out well, though; we met some really cool people and played some cool spots. Connecticut especially was nice for me because I got to catch up with some friends who were also playing the show. It also rained the whole weekend, so that was a bit annoying, but you have to go with the flow! Overall, very glad we did it.
SJ: Aside from your solo work, you have also created the Joe Billy Collective. When and why did you start this project?
JB: Technically, the first "Collective" show was my birthday show in 2019, though I didn't call it "Collective" yet. I wanted to do something special and start experimenting with more instrumentation and such, and so some friends of mine agreed to play with me. It went super well, and people loved it, so it just gave me this constant itch to keep doing it! I think the only other time we planned on doing it after that was the next year for my birthday show, but of course, 2020 happened, haha. So, once shows got back up and running, and I got back into playing solo shows, I started reaching out to the same friends and more friends and kept growing the Collective. Through this process, we got to experience a bunch of different variations of lineups and instrumentation, which has been loads of fun. I kept wondering what to call ourselves when we have full band shows, just for more accuracy promotion-wise, and I couldn't think of anything that wasn't cheesy, haha. And so I landed on "The Joe Billy Collective" because as opposed to being a band with set members consistently, it's a collective, a large roster of awesome musicians that play shows with me depending on who's available. And it's a lot of fun; sure, it takes more logistical effort at times, but I don't have to turn down shows as often; I get to collaborate with a bunch of my friends, and every show is slightly different! I think only recently did we have the same exact roster repeat!
SJ: What does this setlist look like? Does the Collective play originals, covers, Joe Billy tracks, or an amalgamation of it all?
JB: We definitely lean more on originals, especially with the new album being out; we play a lot of those songs. We also have a handful of covers I like to throw in, though, just because covers are fun! So it depends on the show and how long our set is, but mostly originals with some covers sprinkled in, I'd say.
SJ: What is one song you wish Joe Billy wrote?
JB: Oh wow, I don't even know if I can answer that question! Haha. "Drunken Lullabies" by Flogging Molly comes to mind; that's one we cover sometimes.
Off the top of my head, there are so many Alkaline Trio songs that I just love so much; Matt Skiba is an amazing songwriter. I think "Blue In The Face" is an absolutely beautiful song. As well as Frank Turner, Connor Oberst, Erik Petersen, and Laura Jane Grace, I adore them as songwriters. There are a few Against Me! songs I wish I wrote, as well as a few Bright Eyes ones like "Let's Not Sh*t Ourselves." I recently got into this band called We The Heathens, and I am obsessed with two of their songs, "Neurotic Decay" and "F*cked Drunk Life." Totally wish I had written those.
That's a tough question, though; the simple answer is "A LOT of songs!" haha.
SJ: What do you hope for the future of Joe Billy and the Joe Billy Collective? What's next, and what can we look forward to?
JB: Well, I/we are always getting booked on shows, so definitely that. I also have a bunch of songs in the bank that are waiting to be finished. Some feel like solo songs, but there are plenty that feel like full-band songs. So, one thing that's going to be a new experiment is I'd like to start writing Joe Billy songs with members of the Collective. I love and appreciate everything they've brought and done to my music, and to have them actually be in the songwriting process with me would be awesome. I also plan on touring a lot more this coming year, so if any of you out there want me/us to visit your town feel free to hit us up! I personally hope to keep getting on bigger shows, opening for some bigger acts, and getting put on some more festivals; that would all be awesome. I very much hope to take the Collective on the road as well. We've done a few one-offs in nearby states but not an actual tour; that would be awesome. All the things! All the good stuff!
SJ: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your creative process and Fissure. I can't wait to catch you at another live show!
JB: Oh, thank YOU, very much appreciate you chatting with me!
LONG STORY SHORT: Joe Billy's Fissure tackles deep, introspective thoughts along with political and societal issues. A record you can listen to all the way through, enjoying varying intensity, instrumentation, and lyricism.
Stream Fissure below!
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Vocals, Guitar, Drums: Joe Billy Harmonies / Trumpet: Era Lockett Lead Guitar: James Stivaly Upright / Electric Bass (excluding tracks 3 and 7): Billy Smolen Violin / Fiddle: Jason Biggs
Tracking/Production/Mixing: James Stivaly (O.D. Productions) Drum Tech: Mark Dollar Assistant Engineer: Nate Topham Mixing/Production - Joe Billy Mastering - Ray Ketchem (Magic Door Recordings)
Album Art - Bret Salvatore