Joselyn & Don photo by Gina Valona
Joselyn & Don Find Our Past and Our Future In Seeds & Bones
Joselyn Wilkinson and Don Barrozo, known as the duo Joselyn & Don, recently released their second collection of songs with the EP Seeds & Bones via their imprint Paintbrush Records. Following on from their debut album, Soar, Seeds & Bones takes an all-embracing look at the ties that bind us to our past and that promise us our future. Finding the beauty and pitfalls in both, the duo reframe the way that we tend to think about the past, as something no longer affecting us, and the way that we tend to think about the future, as something that fit our intentions without giving way to flux or change. Both the seeds of the future and bones of the past become precious objects that we can learn from whose lessons we can make our own when we examine them in this new way.
Joselyn & Don recorded the new EP from their home studio and used their “sculptural” approach to build up the soundscapes of the songs bringing in their many household musical instruments to suggest the mood and the tone they were looking for. Releasing a physical CD for their EP also became an intentional process of working with their art director, Gina Valona, to find an appropriate visual story for the way in which the songs move from foundational aspects in “Deep Down” to a more hopeful position with “Light a Spark.” I spoke with Joselyn & Don about the ways we interact with and perceive the past and how they brought those key ideas to foreground through the lyrics and the sound of their new EP.
Americana Highways: What sort of process do you usually use to create songs and record them at home?
Joselyn: One reason that we were drawn to the name Paintbrush Records for our record company is because the way that we were recording our music was almost sculpturally. It’s a bit more minimalistic, and isn’t a full band sound, but it’s more built up with my compositions and Don’s creative arrangements. It’s almost like using different found objects that together create a beautiful sculptural piece in the final arrangements.
Don: Our acoustic arrangements form the skeleton of each piece, but then, to use that analogy, we take a paint brush and put in other elements to fill things in. That’s different from what you’ll typically hear from a band where people all find their places and it’s more stratified. This is more like modern Pop construction in a lot of ways.
AH: Does that free you up to work on certain layers of the tracks when you can and you find that spreading things out is more helpful?
Joselyn: I would say so. Don’s way of working lends itself well to the style of what we’re expressing.
Don: You also get to put in some elements and see if you still like it the next day. You’re not going to hurt anyone’s feelings!
Joselyn: For our title song, “Seeds & Bones,” we were creating something very evocative and we were trying to find different instruments that would express the feelings that we were getting at. Don ended up with a handmade cigar box guitar that created a lovely slide. It’s something I bought at a folk festival years ago, and we thought, “Why don’t we try this?”
Don: We’ve both been involved in music over the years and we have a fair amount of instruments lying around, some that we’ve never really mastered. [Laughs] But it’s great because you can walk around and think, “What can I use? I need something drone-like.” You figure out parts and learn to play them well enough to do it.
Joselyn: I’m a percussionist as well, and we have a wealth of small percussion instruments. For this EP, I said, “I really want a ‘box of rocks’ sound!” We wanted that for “Deep Down” and “Seeds & Bones” because we wanted some gritty, natural sounds. We used seed-pod percussion and African percussion.
Don: I did do it. I literally filled a box with rocks and recorded it. It was in there for a few days, but it just wasn’t doing it.
Joselyn: Some ideas that I have might not end up on the final track, but we might as well try them out.
AH: It might be the step that leads you to the next thing, which is the solution.
Don: It absolutely is. It gives you something. There are no wasted steps. They are all stepping stones.
Joselyn: Another song where we tried many different iterations to find the right palette was “Give Up The Ghost.” At one point, it had a programmed drum track, then we ended up with live drums. Then, while Don was doing the instrumentation, he actually got out his father’s steel guitar from the 1950s.
Don: I actually used that a lot. My Dad was a band leader and musician in my hometown. He passed away in 2003, but he had bands all the way through the 40s, like Hawaiian bands when they were popular. He was Filipino. Then through the 50s and 60s, he did Western music, and then he did Pop until he retired in the 80s. We had all these instruments at home. We had an old drum set, an antique kit. We also had his Fender Hawaiian steel guitar. I inherited all those things and use them. A lot of the stuff on this EP is from those instruments, and I like bringing those sounds out. It adds to things.
Joselyn: The way that he played the guitar had a really ghostly and otherworldly quality that really complemented the feeling of the song and what the song was trying to express, this talking to the past. But then, he also used some really modern samples, so I think the EP is a nice juxtaposition of elements of the past as well as some modern sounds. It was fun to put all that together.
AH: I felt like I could hear the steel guitar. As Don was describing those older instruments, I was thinking, “How perfect to use these older instruments when you’re engaging with these subjects dealing with the past.” It’s a big subject, but in the song, “Give Up The Ghost” and also some other songs, you address this idea that a superficial take on fixing the problems in our society does not work. It seems like you have to engage with the past to get anywhere with a solution.
Joselyn: That’s exactly the point of the song. People in the present either don’t want to take responsibility for what happened in the past because they don’t feel that it should affect them.
Don: Or that they don’t have any culpability. That’s true, in a way, but those are also the roots we are planted in.
Joselyn: We really have to be able to look at the past and understand our place in history in order to heal and move forward. If you don’t address the root causes of wounds, and create space for us to grow through it, we will still be affected. We have to collectively, as a society, get rid of our fear, anger, and shame if we can and try to heal together. What disturbs me today is to see so much pushback. Some folks don’t even want history to be taught because it makes some people uncomfortable. How do you grow if you don’t feel uncomfortable sometimes?
AH: Something that I was brought up with which has been unhelpful in my life was this idea that we have made so much progress as human beings that the way that we live now, with all our technology, means that we are fundamentally different from people who lived a hundred years ago. We’re too enlightened for that and have a clean slate. That’s a comfortable mindset. Breaking through that causes discomfort, I think.
Joselyn: People know that within their own families, that trauma can get passed down through generations, so of course remnants of our history get passed down. You don’t get to say, “I’m a clean slate.” Every day is a new beginning but we need to do the work and give everyone the space to move forward together.
AH: I think this topic is actually relevant to the whole EP as the Seeds & Bones idea. How did you come to realize what your themes were going to be for this EP?
Joselyn: The song “Seeds & Bones” is about what we choose to carry with us and what we choose to leave behind. I like the idea of seeds and bones because they are not simple. It’s not just a past that we need to get rid of, the seeds are the future. That’s good. That’s one way of looking at it. But bones are also our precious memories, the bones of our ancestors, that we are receiving, along with the burdens of history.
The bones can be a burden and a gift. It’s the same with the seeds, which are the future, because we have to ask, “What do we want to plant? Where do we want to plant it?” As a gardener, I know that I plant tons of things that don’t take off. A seed blown in by the wind ends up growing. There are so many surprises in life. Our intentions for our future is not always what we receive. The song dances around so many topics, but the main question is, “What are we choosing to carry with us?”
Don: The song “Stay” is similar because it balances this question, not just of whether to stay in one place, but of whether we can even stay because things always move on. There are choices to be made within that. I like the big question mark behind that song. It’s not definitive about anything. The song sounds like something simple, whether you choose to stay in a relationship, or whether to leave, but everything in the call and response parts are things that don’t last and are always changing.
Joselyn: It’s that’s juxtaposition. We think that the choices that we make are so important, but the universe always has different plans for us. Everything is always in flux. How do we embrace that?
Don: We need to learn from it and go forward from there, and that’s the positive side of things. There’s something powerful about pushing forward towards hope, which is what I see in “Give Up The Ghost.” We don’t need to wallow, it’s our point of reference for what we don’t want.
AH: I’m really glad you brought up “Stay” because I felt it could be taken in different ways. Firstly, there’s the theme of relationships, but secondly, there’s the bigger question of making decisions. I also love the different vocal styles in that song which suggests multiplicity and leaves things open for the audience to think about. That avoids preachiness.
Joselyn: I think what saves us from that is just excavating the personal voice. I say “excavating” because it takes a few iterations to get to the core of what we’re trying to say. The first version of my lyrics might be a little preachy. Then it takes a little bit of digging down a little deeper to find the truth in it. For “Stay,” we hadn’t added that call and response at first, but Don said, “We need something else.” So I went back to my journal and found that I had spoken word material that I had written.
Don: Which I had never seen! When we looked at it, I said, “Let’s use this!”
Joselyn: It was a list of things in life that don’t stay. It’s wonderful when you do have a partner in life who grounds you. But you do have to work at it sometimes. Sometimes it would be easier just to walk away, but you make the choice to stay, even while knowing that everything constantly changes.
Don: So you have to constantly reaffirm those choices as things change around you.
Joselyn: That’s a great point, that a relationship is a choice that you have to make every day.
AH: Is there a particular idea behind the ordering of the tracks on the EP? I thought that “Deep Down” is an amazing place to start things, because it suggests that you’re moving upward from a place of bedrock, hopefully upwards. Then “Light a Spark” appears towards the end of the EP as a hopeful song, though it’s certainly not a naïve song.
Joselyn: That wasn’t always the order that we had, but when we worked with our art director, Gina Valona, on the photography and the concepts for the artwork, she helped us find the order. She helped us envision the movement of darkness to light in the artwork, since we printed a physical CD for this EP. We really wanted to have this beautiful artwork to accompany the music, and it takes a journey, including the artwork for the singles and the EP. All of this came from this really cool house in the Santa Monica mountains that an artist had built out of the solid rock. It was full of all these found objects from nature.
Thanks for talking with us, Joselyn & Don!
Find more information about Joselyn & Don including tour dates and more, here: https://joselynwilkinson.com/home
Check out our previous coverage here: Video Premiere: Joselyn and Don “Wayfarer’s Son”