In this abundant music world, it's pretty hard to stand out. But there are cases when you hear something and you know his creator. To me, Joe Nora is definitely one of them.
I've been following him since his work with Karavelo, the Favorite Color, Rain album, and we were proud & happy to be able to release two exciting projects together via Stereofox Records - the 5-piece Rainfall EP last summer and his fresh-from-the-oven Field Trip Day EP.
Aside from music, Joey carries big love for film photography and mixed media when it comes to his visual identity. He stopped by for a chat to discuss his background, inspirations, to dive in deeper into his "underwater" sound, and to shed more light on the 4 tracks that compose the Field Trip Day project.
Hey Joey, how do we find you today?
I’m doing well, living good and feeling very blessed. Just got a new kitten, Sasha, who has been keeping me busy lately and has been waking me up nice and early haha.
So, gotta ask about the name. What's the story behind it?
When I was trying to come up with my name I went through different ideas of things and concepts trying to come up with something cool and then I decided I just wanted something that was simple and true to who I was without being like a gimmick or something trying too hard to sound cool. A lot of artists I looked up to at the time were using basically variations on their names, for example, Mr. Carmack, Harris Cole, etc. Before I was born my parents decided they didn’t want to know if I was going to be a boy or a girl till I was born and would refer to me as Joey Nora before my birth. If I was to be born a girl I would be Nora and a boy Joey. I remembered this and thought it was kinda cool and so I ran with that. I put out one project as Joey Nora, which you can still find on Bandcamp somewhere, before changing it to Joe Nora which felt a little more natural, and that one stuck.
Looking through your socials, can't help but notice your love for film photography and the vintage aesthetics. Where does that come from?
Yeah, so my mom is a photographer and has been an immense influence on my life, bringing me along on photoshoots and having me assist her on them, and teaching me photography skills along the way. However, I never really developed my own passion for it until I was in Chicago for College. I picked up a kinda wacky film fisheye camera that I thought was cool and began to find I loved the feeling of shooting and then not being able to see the results until you took it in to get developed. Soon after my mom gave me one of her old film cameras that she was no longer using and I started shooting normal-looking film photos and I was hooked from then on. Something about having to really calculate and be in the moment of shooting film is really addicting. You can’t just click away a million times and choose the right one later, you have to wait for your moment, time it right and hope you got it right while you wait to find out. Also, I was never a fan of editing my photos too much, I like getting the settings right in the moment and then if you did it right the picture should be perfect once it's developed. The texture of film is so much more satisfying that way to me rather than taking a digital photo which seems blander to me and has to be edited in most cases.
And what about those oil paint brushes over your artworks?
Yeah, so the paint is kinda something I’ve just dabbled in for a while. I used to make kinda weird collages out of cutting up photos and then like painting over and around them. I like the idea of mixed media things, like two types of art in one. I used to kinda think about it as a metaphor for my music as well, using both analog and digital sounds felt kinda like using paint (the analog part) and a photo (the digital, although it is still kinda analog because I’m using film) but that was how I saw it. I also just love the texture of paint as well and with my kinda underwater or aquatic aesthetic I go for in my music the liquid texture of the paint feels kinda right.
Is there any connection between the grainy photos and the dusty sounds you're using in your production? How do photography & music intertwine?
Yeah, like I said before the grain and texture of the artwork are very much supposed to mirror the music. I love the crunchy and textured sounds just how I love grainy and dusty photography and artwork. It's just kinda eye candy to me and has a satisfying feeling to me and this is how I judge what I want to create, by how it makes me feel. I create stuff mostly for my own enjoyment and I don’t end up finishing or using anything that doesn’t bring me some sort of happiness or satisfaction.
What's the most interesting sound you've ever used in a song? And how did your special "Joe Nora" sound shape throughout the years?
Hmm, the most interesting sound more recently maybe would be the sound of me cutting open a watermelon. Some others might be whale sounds, chicken bones cracking, refried beans bubbling, and other goofy stuff like that. Sometimes it’s just everyday objects that give you interesting sounds like your house keys or something. On my project with Shrimpnose we made one of our favorite melodic sounds somehow by just recording the room tone of the garage we were working in and then Riley working his magic on it and all of a sudden it sounded like some soaring melody. You never know where cool stuff might be hiding.
My sound has definitely evolved through the years, when I started I was listening to just a lot of 90s hip hop and was obsessed with Mobb Deep and other classic gritty hip hop and that has always been a main influence for me and kept me rooted in beats and drums. But the texture side of it definitely took over as well and I tried to find a balance of the two, using textures to create my own kinda variation of gritty hip hop beats and whatnot. Melodies came later as I started to really try to find my own melodic style as well which took some time and experimentation. Just have to find certain sounds you can rely on and then tweak them to be different in each song and use them slightly differently ideally. I am not a classically trained musician by any means and so I had to kinda just use my ear to find melodic directions I liked which I think was a blessing and a curse in a way but it allowed me to kinda just be myself and trust my instincts and just focus on what made me excited when I played something and then hone in on that.
The first time I saw someone use "underwatery" for music was about your songs. How do you achieve this? (feel free to throw some music-geek specifics)
So the underwater vibe is something I definitely have gone for specifically and I’m stoked people are recognizing that on their own as well. Some of it is just the type of melody I go for or a bunch of reverb on a lead synth. There are certain types of instruments that kinda naturally remind us of underwater like maybe a vibraphone, Rhodes piano, or a sine wave synth which can just be kinda messed with until that vibe appears. One of my favorite things is like a sine wave with a slow attack so it fades in slightly and then a bunch of reverb, like the dry wet setting set all the way to wet and then doing like some arpeggios or kinda repetitive style melodies give you kinda a wash of melody and ambience.
Beatmakers rarely do live shows but you've played on SXSW and Sofar Sounds Chicago. What were those like? Do you enjoy performing in public?
I definitely love playing shows. When I was first starting producing I was seeing a lot of electronic acts play live and loved the energy from those shows and definitely wanted to be able to do something like that someday. When I play live I try to match the energy of that type of setting and bring a full kinda experience to the listener if at all possible while also just kinda keeping it raw and beat centric. I still get quite nervous before shows but mostly as soon as I hit play it just becomes fun and pretty easy usually.
We often see you collaborate with other producers (G Mills, Karavelo, Heather Gray) - can you walk us through the process? How important are chemistry and shared vision in collabs?
Yeah, collaborating is pretty important these days and it's also just a way to be able to make something you wouldn’t be able to on your own which for me is its main appeal. I love doing stuff with producers like those you mentioned who have different styles than mine and can do things that I can’t. You kinda let them do what they are good at and then try your best to do what you are good at on top of what they have done. Or at least that’s how I like to think about it. I am very comfortable passing stuff back and forth without being in the same room whereas some people really want to be in the same room coming up with ideas. Sometimes I find it easier to focus when I’m by myself although it can be super fun to see something materialize when you are in the room with your collaborator. I also feel usually when working in person that hanging out a bit before actually starting work helps a lot instead of jumping right in. It helps to talk about things first and get a feel for what you want to make or what they might have been really enjoying making lately.
Can you share the story of your latest release, the Field Trip Day EP we're doing together via Stereofox Records?
Field Trip Day is a cute little EP in my opinion that kinda just feels like reminiscing about school and childhood to me. It has been a number of years since I have been in school now and thinking back there are certain things that I really do miss about it which I know I definitely didn’t appreciate in the moment.
I thought of it kinda like the course of a day at school where you go to a museum on a field trip. Waking up in the morning and being kinda sleepy but having to basically jump right in the car or on the bus to get to school and waking up slowly but seeing the city (in my case I grew up in a city) around you getting started is kinda how I see the first track “Low Ride” which is both a tribute to lowrider cars and also just a calm and mellow drive in the car in the morning. Then on to “Dreamgirl” which is a more hazy and dreamy sound and feels like the feeling of seeing your crush when you get to school and, in terms of the field trip day narrative, maybe hoping you get to sit next to them on the school bus that takes you to the museum or whatever the thing might be that is the reason or the class trip. The title track is pretty straightforward and just kinda frames the dreamy nostalgic vibe for the project. It was actually a track I made a couple of years ago that I didn’t think would ever come out but I realized I still really liked it and wanted it to be heard. Fun fact, I made it around the time I made the Favorite Color, Rain album with Karavelo and has some similar sounds to that record. “Mostly cloudy”, the final track on the EP, is kinda a little nice outro to the EP and is just a nod to my love for overcast weather and rainy days. When I think back to field trips in the Bay Area where I’m from most of them probably tended to be cloudy or overcast days and this just felt right.
Overall these songs all have that dreamy nostalgic feeling of thinking back to the childhood memories that you might have not appreciated in the moment. I am really grateful for my education and for the opportunities I’ve had and wish I had been able to see how special and lucky I was in the moment when they happened.
Any specific sound direction you went for? There are a lot of vocal samples in this project, for instance.
I think the direction is my usual kinda style with the wet and rainy production on most of the tracks. The first track “Low Ride” also has a clip of an interview with Prodigy of Mobb Deep who as I said before has been a huge influence and inspiration to me for many reasons. I have sampled his voice countless times and have so much respect and admiration for Prodigy and Havoc of Mobb Deep and was quite sad when Prodigy passed away. I was actually set to see them live for the first time the year Prodigy passed and it was a bit of an emotional experience seeing them play without him on stage but I like to pay homage to him whenever I can.
If you had to give advice to producers that are just starting out, what would it be?
I would say primarily, try to be yourself and do your best not to follow trends. Focus more on what you hear in music that excites you and try your best to recreate that. Listeners will be happier to hear something that they can tell you are excited about rather than something that you think the industry wants to hear. Take some time to experiment with new sounds and then find the ones you know you like and begin to make a little collection of your go-to sounds that will begin to shape your sound and style. That’s how I kinda went about it, everyone is different though so just follow your instincts and do what feels right and authentic to you!