Joanie Wolkoff (her current incarnation is known best as Wolkoff) is a Canadian synthpop artist whose travels have brought her to Brooklyn after making a few pit stops around the world, this Friday she’ll play the New York CMJ festival and it won’t be surprising to see her following grow even more afterwards. I sat down with Wolkoff on a fairly bland Tuesday in September when our lines connected from across the country after struggling with Gchat for five minutes. Immediately, between her delightful Canadian accent and wide-eyed enthusiasm in spite of being tuckered out after a long day of teaching, it was clear to see we had an artist on our hands. Her presence and energy matches her quirky, bright music, which she herself describes in three words as “dance-friendly, eclectic, and ethereal.
“They say less is more so I’ll try to control the onslaught of words and feelings,” she warns before the first of many trains of thought we would get on. I tell her to absolutely say as much as she’d like, she obliges. “The music that I make is a composite of many influences that have found their way into my ear. When I started making music in high school it was super lo-fi and DIY, I would use a 4-track recorder or like, proto versions of GarageBand and the like. At that time I really loved bands like Stereolab, Jim O’Rourke, Tortoise, and The Smiths, and also I grew up in Toronto which is a very pancultural, pangenerational place, so I was exposed to not only these goth, post-rock-y weird sounds I also attended raves, British invasion nights, soca, dancehall, dub, and reggae nights and goth nights…” She likens her musical output as a sample of sedimentary rock: a unique composite of something that could only be the result of years and years of different experiences and aesthetics layered over each other.
“Basic” is the last word you’d ever use with Wolkoff’s music really, there are strong melodies and lyrics all throughout as she embraces a childlike brightness in tone not unlike Hannah Diamonds or LIZ just as easily as she brings out dry, half-speaking vocals, there’s not a hint of trying too hard when she assuredly drawls “could really go for a cool one now” at the beginning of the standout “Hand It To the Bandit.” Overall, her new EP Talismans is something that you’d expect for somebody to describe as “pop” or “electronic” with a question mark at the end. “Talismans basically plays on the idea that people have around luck and explores the phenomenon of lucky encounters and lucky partings of way. The last couple of years somehow things in my life have accelerated and metamorphosed at a higher rate that they have for a long time, and when life shifts, your perspective shifts. I’m sure there’s nobody out there that hasn’t wondered at some point ‘is all this stuff happening for a reason?’ Is it just law of series or is this some kind of harbinger of good luck and bad luck? Why did I meet these people? Why did I cross paths with so-and-so? Why is it that this person has vanished from my life but these people have entered?”
“I was looking for a producer to work with on the EP because I was cranking out these songs during this cold, thankless period of winter and I just had tons of time on my hands so I was writing up a storm, and I really wanted somebody who was able to rise to the occasion and work quickly and very creatively and very autonomously with me and was going to be responsive and reliable,” says Wolkoff. Talismans is entirely produced by fellow New York-based producer Icarus Moth, whom she met in production school, wrapped in glitchy keyboards and N64-like bits and moments of “medieval” sounds. “He took these songs and gave them wings, had these songs been born into existence without his touch, there’s no way you’d have the same product. He breathes life into music and I think that’s what a really adept and agile producer does. Without his production, the EP would be legless.”
Wolkoff handles most of the talking with a whimsical charisma, not much prompt is needed on my end before the next in-depth monologue begins. The bulk of the interview is led by Wolkoff’s passion for her craft, from the reason why she chose Wolkoff (it was time to settle down with one definitive stage name, and what better one to choose than her own history-enriched family name) to trying to keep on top of her songwriting, “I used to just write songs nilly willy and go two or three months not doing anything and I would do a bunch in a weekend, but it’s kind of like with physical exercise if you don’t go to the gym for a long time and you spend two days in a row at the gym and you think you’ve broken the seal but you feel kind of shitty too because you don’t remember how to pace yourself, the same is true with any practice and discipline.”
Detailing her writing process, Wolkoff states, “I run about 25 miles per week. I open my SoundCloud, and I hit the street. During those runs I go from an area called MIdwood Brooklyn down to the ocean. I’ll do my little lap along the boardwalk and spy on elderly Russian people doing calisthenics. Sometimes I’ll run up to the ocean and freak myself out because there’s no one around and it’s scary… the point is I go on these runs and the whole time I just listen to music, I totally just ambush myself with as many songs as I can cram into my head. I try to listen to a lot of contemporary stuff so I can see what a lot of my peers are doing in music. I also delve into other genre, I think it’s super important to listen to world music, and I’m a huge soca fan – I listen to tons of soca remixes.” After coming home she sits at her desk, which she describes as a bomb site (“creative,” we determined), starts playing very simple chords and begins writing about whatever comes to mind, be it ongoing personal narratives or mementos of the past.
The result of these sessions are songs that well represent Wolkoff’s own demeanor: a multifarious sound that reflects her incredibly varied tastes — her influences include Freddie Mercury, Enya, Taj Mahal, psych-folk band Renaissance, Russian pop singer Alla Pugacheva, visual artists Nicholas Roerich, to keep the list short. Oh, and Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest and Nicolson Baker’s The Fermata are also important. Then of course we can’t forget about her experiences living in China, Japan, Paris, Brooklyn as events that have shaped who she is today. — with shimmering, vibrant soundscapes mirroring an approachable personality that was incredibly easy to talk to and get insightful answers out of. Despite the bubbly exterior however, there’s still a businesswoman underneath who requires those who are accountable, punctual, and responsive, which is part of the reason the artist values collaborators Icarus Moth and The Hood Internet. What else makes a good collaborator? “I’m open to working with other creative people from every walk of life as long as there’s a shared vision and we’re both transforming as a result of combining forces,” she answers. Oliver Nelson, Tesla Boy, Tycho, Thundercat may have come up in a selection of artists she’d like to work with (check your emails, guys).
We talk for nearly two hours and a New York sunset, or rather I listen as she tells stories of apprenticing under a bone carver in China, cutting hair on the streets of New York for $5, and cleaning chandeliers. She tells me that if she could take any song in the world and claim it as a Wolkoff song, it would be the Canadian anthem. She tells me that in five years she sees herself doing music, and in 55 years if a piano hasn’t fallen from the sky onto her head, she sees herself doing music be it for her goldfish or for a million people. She’s currently working with Icarus Moth on a full-length album, and her work with The Hood Internet will certainly continue. She aspires to be a thousandaire and not a millionaire because she wants to stay hungry. She sees herself going whole hog.
At the very end of our conversation, I ask Joanie Wolkoff if there was one thing she could say to the world. Her answer is “pull the ripcord.” We’ll let you figure out what that means.