Global appeal: Fiona Joy says her music can sell in any market.
Don’t get Fiona Joy started on names. Not her own, though until recently the pianist, composer and, often these days, singer was known personally and professionally as Fiona Joy Hawkins. (Now, post-divorce, she’s sticking with Fiona Joy and all the attendant word plays of the “finding the joy” variety.)
In fact, the name that really annoys her – and has annoyed her for more than a decade – is the musical genre “new age”.
Classic: Irish singer Enya hit the big time with her ethereal music. Photo: Simon Fowler
It's what Joy’s recordings were tagged almost from the start in 2004 as her instrumental music on piano – and occasionally with others, such as her current tour companions, The Blue Dream Ensemble - took her from northern NSW to the US and beyond. It’s the genre under which she has won numerous awards, including being named best new age artist of 2013 in the All Stars Radio awards in the US. It’s where you’ll find her in stores and online.
But Joy couldn’t wait to drop the tag, to step away from a genre more derided than admired – usually by people who hadn’t heard her music and assumed it was elevator music, fancy whale noises or notes to be massaged by.
"It just has a negative perception, particularly in Australia,” she says. “There is an existing market for it overseas but in Australia, though I was really determined to do the best I could, it was like wading through mud. And it doesn't matter how good the music is, some of the mud is going to stick."
She is not alone in thinking this of, course. Will Ackerman, who founded the Windham Hill label, which forged the way for non-classical instrumental music 30 years ago and has released albums by Joy over the years, fought for decades to make “Windham Hill” its own genre. He once told a newspaper that “if I catch the guy who coined that [new age] term, I'm going to nail his forehead to the wall”. The sentiment is not exactly hippy drippy new age, is it?
But Joy gets where Ackerman, who has been one of her biggest supporters, is coming from. To that end, having her album 600 Years In A Moment named best instrumental piano album earlier this year at an awards ceremony in New Orleans is another step into a new public consciousness.
"I stuck with [new age] so long because it was a default on just about everything: online sites, iTunes, awards. It was my only option,” she says. “But it's only a few weeks ago that the Grammys opened up a category called contemporary instrumental. And it was at that time that I thought: 'that's it, I'm not using it anymore'.”
She pauses a long beat and then adds: “It’s the same music, though.” Music that you have to admit isn’t limited in its appeal or potential. It can translate in any language, can sell in any market, can be used in any context.
"It's perfectly accessible because, if you want to get back to genres, it crosses classical to a little bit of jazz, to world. But it's not background music: you can sit down, take the time to listen to it, because there is a lot of detail and nuance. That's the difference with what people think of as new age.”
She laughs as she remembers a T-shirt she produced once that said, ‘You don’t need to be stoned to listen to new age music ... any more”. But maybe now, or soon, she won’t need to argue that case or even utter the N word.
Fiona Joy and the Blue Dream Ensemble play at Foundry616, Ultimo, on August 9, $30.50, foundry616.com.au.
Old age of the New Age
Enya: The default setting for most people when new age is mentioned; with ethereal vocals, dreamscape music and a loose connection to an ancient age.
Yanni: Possibly the quintessential new age musician, with grand philosophies behind mellow piano that touches on the Middle East, Africa, Europe, South America and East Asia.
Windham Hill: A label but also a movement, with art, sound and music incorporated into the one philosophy.
Paul Horn: A flautist who began in 1950s cool jazz, moved through transcendental meditation and Indian influences to be both intensified and more serene musically, laying the groundwork for the coming new age movement.