It can seem like Memphis, with its often rigidly defined music scenes, doesn't quite know what to make of Michael Joyner.
An African-American singer-songwriter, his music often draws as much from folk and indie rock as it does from R&B and soul. And though he regularly graces the stages of a wide variety of venues — from coffeehouse to rock clubs, from downtown's Center For Southern Folklore to East Memphis' Sekisui Pacific Rim — he's never really found a place he completely fits in.
"As far as getting gigs, there's certain places around town you ask for a gig and they say, 'We only do singer-songwriter stuff.' They automatically assume you're going to have a hip-hop party," says Joyner. "But depending on the venue, people have been very open to my music once they hear it. It just comes down to putting it out there on the table and saying, 'This is who I am.'"
For Friday's release party for his sophomore album The Pickin's Are Slim, Joyner decided to render moot the expectations of any particular venue by holding it in a neutral space, the Memphis Rehearsal Complex. Joyner says having it at the downtown band practice space puts the focus squarely where it should be — on the music.
It also allows Joyner to create a unique experience. In addition to sets from his band — bassist Khari Wynn, drummer Donnon Johnson, percussionist Melvin Turner, saxophonist Hope Clayburn, as well as to-be-determined horns and backup singers — and opener Jeremiah Jones, the event will feature deejay Siphne Aaye, live body painting by Jazmine Bailey, and a lineup of Memphis visual artists displaying and selling their works.
"I've been working on the album off and on for past 2 1/2 years," says Joyner. "So, I wanted this to really be a big event."
Joyner was born in Jackson, Miss., and raised on a farm in Finger, Tenn., in McNairy County. He started playing piano as a child, picking out songs by Bill Withers and Chicago by ear. Later the family moved to Jackson, Tenn., where Joyner found an old one-string guitar and started to teach himself to play, looking up chords in the encyclopedia.
College brought Joyner to Memphis, where he planned to study electrical engineering.
"I did not finish," he says. "I remember junior year going to Music Town over on Summer Avenue and buying a Les Paul that I wanted there. I spent a lot of time in my room just playing that guitar. It was definitely a waste of money as far as tuition, but that was the path I wanted."
Most Memphis music listeners first discovered Joyner as one half of the acoustic duo Bella Sun with his then-wife Valerie June. That group disintegrated along with the pair's marriage in 2005, and Joyner embarked on his solo career. He collaborated with soul singer Valencia Robinson on the EP Soul Searching and in 2008 released Sit and Wait, a raw collection of home recordings.
The long-gestating The Pickin's Are Slim is a huge leap forward over those early efforts. Joyner, who taught himself how to produce and mix using Beatles records as a guide, recorded the 11 tracks himself and has given the album a full, live band sound.
"The first record was very demo sounding," says Joyner, who since started a sideline business recording other artists, including Clayburn, Wynn, and The Pickin's Are Slim guest artist Michaela Caitlin in his home studio. "I feel like I've come a long way in the studio."
Musically, the record is true to Joyner's eclectic tastes. Album opener "Keepin' Company" personifies the laid back folk vibe that dominates much of the record, but throughout there are unexpected detours into R&B (the horn driven title cut) and hard-churning rock ("Drown").
"My music has definitely progressed in a direction I'm really enjoying," says Joyner, who has already started tracking the follow-up. "I always market myself as a mixture of rock and soul with a little bit of a jam band sound. My next album that I'll be putting out will be more of a soul thing. But this record's all over the place."