As much as we’d like it to be (and Hollywood often portrays), life isn’t chock-full of one happy moment after another. It’s the highs, lows and in-betweens that make life unique and often allow us to have shared experiences with those going through a similar time. It’s that not-so-alone feeling that brings comfort.
Whether she’s presenting songs about drugs in a small town, a marriage falling apart or or extramarital flings with neighbors, Stefanie Joyce offers a glimpse into the day-to-day lives of so many lifestyles on the not so up-and-up. As she puts it, she delivers “country music for lost souls,” and on her debut EP, Marlboro Reds & Motel Rooms, she did exactly that. With flares of alt-country, folk matched with high lonesome vocals, Joyce’s EP has a flavor for everyone.
We chatted with Joyce all about Marlboro Reds & Motel Rooms, storytelling, new music on the horizon and more!
Pro Country: Your bio lists singer/songwriters like Gillian Welch, John Prine and Brandy Clark as major musical influences. What was it about their way of telling stories that connected with you?
Stefanie Joyce: I think when most people get into music, especially music that’s more folk-driven, Americana and alt-country, it’s the way it sounds, vibes, and the instrumentation. For Gillian, that was definitely was drew me into her early on. I loved the way that she combined old-time music with country and folk influences. Once I moved to Nashville, I started to really care about lyricism. Before I was doing music, I was focusing on fiction, so once I started to see music as literature, those are the artists that really spoke to me because not only were they being earnest and talking about things from the heart, they also had a style of writing that was really precise, structured and tight. For me, that’s what separates really cool vibey music from really great stuff: you need it to sound good and have that earnestness, but when you have lyrics that are really specific, descriptive and clever, that’s what stands out to me.
Those artists also tell stories about parts of life that aren’t always comfortable, and I think that’s something that country music used to be really good at doing and is doing less and less on the radio these days. For me, that’s the sweet spot.
PC: At different points in your life, you’ve been involved in dance, film, literature, and now, music. What was it about the arts that has connected with you throughout your life?
SJ: I’ve always been creative. I’ve always cared so much more about reading a book or watching a movie or playing pretend than I have about playing games or sports. As a kid, I could care less about most activities that weren’t making something, and that stuck with me. I think it’s the way I relate to the world in general.
PC: You made your move from British Columbia to Nashville in 2017. What emotions come with taking that leap and moving so far away from home?
SJ: I was pretty excited. I was ready to get out of Vancouver. I really miss the Pacific Northwest. I grew up in a remote area, and I kind of miss living in the middle of nowhere and having oceans, trees and mountains around. I love my family a lot, but aside from that, I really don’t like Vancouver as a city and as a cultural center. There’s not a lot of freedom of expression or exploration. It’s like most west coast cities, it’s so expensive that you can’t do art and live [laughs]. I felt really excited moving here and a little relieved. There’s definitely times where I wish I was closer to home because I miss day to day life with my family, but it’s been a few years here now and the shine still hasn’t worn off. I feel so at home here in the creative community.
PC: You released your debut single, “On the Ohio,” in 2020, which has since earned 60,000 streams on Spotify alone. As an artist releasing music for the first time, what did it mean to you to tangibly see the success and support the song received?
SJ: I look back on that song and I don’t love it. I released it because I was writing full-time for other people, and I was starting to think that it may be time to start releasing some of my own music. For me, that song was more of an exercise in learning how to take a song I’d written by myself and going through the recording process. I don’t think the recording quality, vocals or general feel of that song feel as professional as my EP, but it was a real lesson for me in learning how to market a single on social media and how to navigate distribution and playlisting. I wanted to make sure that I had a trial run of the business aspects of putting out music before I invested money in an EP. It got on one pretty big playlist, and that was super helpful with the numbers. I’m definitely grateful. It’s funny, working in the mix of a major music industry in Nashville or LA, it’s really easy to lose sight of small accomplishments. For me, 60,000 streams feels like absolutely nothing. I’m grateful for it and I’m grateful for the people that support my music, but compared to songs I’ve written for other artists that have millions of streams and because I work on Music Row, I’m used to working with big numbers. Being in an industry town can skew your perspective of what success is.
PC: In 2021, a song you co-wrote with and was recorded by Mary Heather Hickman, “Treasure,” charted on Billboard and was featured on major country radio shows. How much did you enjoy seeing each of the milestones the song reached and the ride it took you on?
SJ: That was really fun! Mary Heather is one of my best friends, and she’s supported my journey so much. It was a really fun song that we spent quite a bit of time on. It was during the pandemic, so it gave us both a good boost when music in general was feeling a little uncertain. That was two years ago now, and I always have to remind myself that those accomplishments are things a lot of people don’t get to have. Not everyone can say they’ve had a song on a Billboard chart, so I’m really grateful. It’s really easy to think “I got to have it on The Bobby Bones Show and it got to chart, but 25 of my friends have also had that happen to them.” It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you’re making music that’s in the mix and that in and of itself is something that I’m very lucky to have. Looking back on it, it helps me remind myself how incredibly blessed I am to be doing this.
PC: What went into the decision to release “Idle Hands” as the lead single from your new EP, Marlboro Reds & Motel Rooms?
SJ: I wasn’t even going to record that song; I didn’t love it. I think that goes to show that you can get really subjective about your own music, so it’s important to have outside perspectives. I remember thinking “eh, it’s fine,” but my producer and publisher at the time really liked it. I wrote it as an exercise of needing something in that chord progression that was faster. It was based off of a Sturgill Simpson chord progression [laughs]. It goes to show that you can start something from a very technical place and it can still feel super authentic. We decided to release it as the first single when it blew up on TikTok!
PC: Along with going viral on TikTok, “Idle Hands” has also earned well over 150,000 streams on Spotify alone. What do you make of the success of the song so far and how it’s connected with people?
SJ: I’m not sure! So often, I feel like I have one foot in the country world and one foot in the Americana world. You’re told so often when you’re writing mainstream country music that you can’t write anything too controversial or too polarizing, so I was really pleasantly surprised that a song that’s basically about doing drugs in a small town broke through that idea and reached people. It’s been nice to share that story and to know that bad shit happens in the world and you’re allowed to talk about it. A lot of people have grown up in places where there’s nothing to do but get high, and I think it resonates a lot with people, whether it’s family members, exes or kids. I think the song isn’t sad, and I think there’s a lot of songs that address that issue in an earnest, on the nose way, I think sometimes it’s easier to stomach those stories and truths if there’s a little bit of dark, tongue-in-cheek humor like there is on “Idle Hands.” I’m really proud of what it’s turned into, and it was really nice to see it resonate because that gave me a green light to keep writing the stuff I like and the stuff I think is honest, even if I think it may be too much for people at first. I think that’s actually when you connect with people in a deeper way.
PC: The EP title Marlboro Reds & Motel Rooms comes from a line in the song “Tulsa.” What was it about that line that drew you to have it serve as the title to the EP?
SJ: The alliteration sounded like a title. “Marlboro Reds & Motel Rooms” was the original title of the song before we realized that was too long [laughs]. I wanted to keep it front and center. It just sounds really cool!
PC: “Love Thy Neighbor” is the only co-write on Marlboro Reds & Motel Rooms. As someone who has largely released music you’ve written by yourself, why was it important to have the perspectives of Mary Heather Hickman and SJ McDonald on to this song as well?
SJ: It was a really good song with a really good melody. SJ, Mary Heather and Brittany Moore are three people I actively write with. I feel like I can be myself as an artist in the room instead of just a writer. SJ, Mary Heather and I got a really good song out of the session. SJ was thinking about recording it, but it wasn’t going to be for a while, and I was really excited about the melody and song, so I wanted to do something with it. Between those three other girls, we have so many songs that all of us are rotating through. I thought this one fit with the project, and writing songs with your best friends is always nice!
PC: “Ticket to Atlanta” is our favorite song on Marlboro Reds & Motel Rooms. As the lone writer on the song, can you talk about the inspiration behind the song and how it came together?
SJ: It’s my favorite too, and it’s funny, that one has the least streams [laughs]. I wrote that one sitting at my kitchen table at my old, crappy apartment. I was thinking about what it would be like to be a woman stuck in a relationship that wasn’t good for anyone involved, but not having the strength to leave. I’m really lucky that I have a great husband and that we can communicate, but for so long, even in “happy marriages,” it’s been hard for people to find their voices and articulate their needs. You see in so many marriages where over the years, there’s a quiet film of resentment that builds up, and you have two people who care about each other but don’t know how to talk or be around each other. It started with that image of a woman at her kitchen table wanting to be anywhere but where she was. I love “Angel From Montgomery” by John Prine, and I think that also inspired it to some degree.
PC: What do you hope listeners take away from Marlboro Reds & Motel Rooms after listening all the way through?
SJ: Across most of my songs, I want to paint pictures, whether it’s my personal experiences of someone else’s experiences, of the fact that life is hard and not perfect. There’s not a whole lot of redemption on the record, so I wouldn’t give it to someone as a pep talk, but I know that when I have been in really dark places, sad songs are the ones that save me. When I was 21 or 22, I was in a really bad place. I think I wore through all of my Townes Van Zandt vinyl [laughs]. In the moment, I would think “I’m crying more right now, this isn’t helping,” but it made me feel less alone and that there were other people like me. It gave me an impetus to leave the situation I was in. I don’t think good art should be concerned with being moralistic, I think it should be concerned with being honest, and that’s what I tried to do.
I am working on a full-length record right now, and I definitely want there to be more moments of light, partially because I’ve changed over the last three or four years since I did most of the writing for the EP. That said, you can’t know light without a healthy dose of suffering [laughs]. I love Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour as a pop record, but I don’t think I could ever write an album that was that consistently happy song after song.
PC: You recently shared on social media that Marlboro Reds & Motel Rooms has earned over 300,000 combined streams. What has the response to the EP over the last five months meant to you both personally and professionally?
SJ: It makes me want to keep working harder. It makes me super hungry for the next step. I’m the kind of person who sometimes has a tendency to measure my success in numbers and streams, probably because I live in Nashville and work with a lot of people in the industry. Part of me wishes I focused wholly on the way things sound, or making art that’s well done, but I can’t help but be motivated by metrics and writing and producing a record that sounds even more interesting and unique. I want to keep growing.
PC: You’ve mentioned that you have new music in the works. What information, if any, can you give about any forthcoming releases? What can listeners expect to hear?
SJ: I’m in the process of talking to people around town to maybe get some support for recording and figuring out the production side of things. I’ve been playing a lot more live shows with a band, who are all really great bluegrass and country players. I’ve already been leaning into a sound that’s going to carry forward what was on the EP. I think at times, that record felt a little alt-rock and modern country, and this time, I want to push even harder into folk, bluegrass and western swing. I want to commit to making that kind of record. It’s amazing how much live shows can change your writing style. Hopefully I’ll be recording this summer and releasing this fall. There’s a thread of religion and murder that runs through it, and that’s about all I can say [laughs].
PC: On top of the music you’ve released yourself, you’ve had several songs you’ve written cut by other artists. How important is that aspect of your career and how much do you enjoy hearing different artists’ takes on songs you’ve had a hand in writing?
SJ: It’s so cool! I love the collaboration, and I never want to stop that being a part of what I do. I’ve had less time to co-write now that I’ve been getting ready for this record and booking dates. That doesn’t allow me to co-write six or seven times a week like I did when I first moved to town. But when you’re in a room with people who are really unique and have something interesting to say, it can be really fun.
PC: It’s been a handful of years since you made your move to Nashville. What has been your biggest area of growth since moving to and being present in Music City?
SJ: I’m four years in to what is now a 12 year town [laughs]. I literally don’t know anyone that has had something happen before year eight or nine, which is crazy, because there’s so much talent. The country music business moves so slow. I think my voice has been my biggest area of growth. I really didn’t play guitar or sing until I moved here. Going from being really just a lyricist to someone that likes my voice and guitar playing is so fun. I love being able to put on a live show and feel really good about it. And on a more personal level, the journey of music isn’t for the faint of heart, but I think it’s a real journey of authenticity, and every year you’re shaving away the layers of who you aren’t and becoming more comfortable with who you are. That’s been a huge gift.
PC: Along with working on your new record, what do you have planned for 2023?
SJ: I’m really focused on the record. I try not to think more than eight months into the future, because if life’s taught me anything, it’s that you can’t really control anything further out than that [laughs]. I will be doing a pacific northwest tour this summer with my brother, who’s a bluegrass player, and we might make it down to Washington state as well. I have a lot of Nashville shows that I’ll be posting on Instagram and my website, and I’m hoping to plan a small midwest or southeast run either in the summer or fall with some friends.
Right now, I’m actively trying to find some more management and label support. I’d like to have some of that going into making a record, so right now, I’m talking to people and sending up a Hail Mary [laughs]. I’m ready to go in the studio and make some badass country music.
*Marlboro Reds & Motel Rooms is featured on The Best of Pro Country playlist!*