Deep in the heart of the band Joseph's music is an eerie and beautiful spirituality, reminiscent of the haunting backwoods harmonies of the Carter Family and resonate with the echoes of ancient English and Irish folk song. Joseph is a band of three sisters from eastern Oregon celebrating kinship through music and song. The name Joseph is derived from three sources: their Grandpa Jo honoring family, the small town in Oregon representing home and the Biblical patriarch, whose ability to interpret dreams guided his life. There is bewitching mountain mystery in the music the three sisters, Natalie, Allison and Meegan Closner. Joseph sings the listener back into the essential elements of music, the lyrics as spells, the melodies as enchantment, the rhythms as the primal beatings of the heart that unites kith and kin in the shared experience of what it is to be human.
I asked Natalie about the world she and her sisters grew up in. She tells me, "we grew up in this Christian culture where is this very strange thing happens where you are not supposed to ask any questions or wonder or be curious. And that is so lifeless. Recently, after playing so many shows, we have been trying to make it as an occasion for people to pause and reflect upon what it is to be spiritual, to engage that part of themselves through the music."
On their new album, Native Dreamer Kin, the title representing the fundamental axes that define the band, Joseph has gathered in a solid collection of songs that showcase their poetic and musical sensibilities. What is most striking about the music is the harmonizing between the sisters. There is a natural tendency to associate them with other sisterly musical pairings such as the Dixie Chicks or Heart - and they do share some of the best qualities with them - but they are much closer the otherworldly Sirens trio (Alison Krauss, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch) from O Brother Where Art Thou? In standout songs such as "Cloudline", "Come In Close" and "Eyes to the Sky" the three sisters perform a harmonic alchemical transmutation of word and music into shimmering epiphanies of transcendent meaning.
There is an atmospheric and evocative video online of the first song of the album, "Cloudline", which places the sisters in the deeps of the Edenic Northwest woods. Chiming piano and tribal drum, incense and fog drifting through the evergreen and fern, the sisters as archetypal angelic figures stepped out of the major arcana of a Pacific Northwest tarot, chanting soul choir repetition of: "Take me to your water and lay me on your shore, I want to come in deeper but the water is so cold". As in the presence of all great music, there is a simultaneous sense of wonder and hair-standing-on-end spookiness.
Natalie tells me that "something happened in the room as we were making Cloudline that was gripping and powerful. Through the process of recording and listening, we realized that Cloudline was the story of us taking a risk in the music. That is is our journey. And we want to reach up into the clouds to achieve the success this risk is going to take me to."
One of the more refreshing aspects about the construction of many of the songs is the lack of obvious refrain. Instead, the poetic narrative flows without break, finding resolution in single repeated, increasingly gnomic phrases. The plaintive death meditation "Come in Close" circles around the line, "What do we have but this?". The Cohen-esque gospel affirmation of "Lifted Away" returns again and again to simple statement: "It's here". "Not Mine" seductively repeats the question: "Who will stay?" answering with "You're not mine" over and over, turning the word's semantic meaning into a pure musical sound. And the sublime prayer-like musical mantra of "Eyes To The Sky" explores the repeated dynamic between the light of "I will lift up my eyes to the sky, to the sky" and the dark of "Burn up the despair that's been sinking me". At the heart of every song is the tightly woven fabric of the sister's incantatory harmonies whose ever shifting patterns shade richer meanings with each new listening.
The three sisters in Joseph perform music that is achingly beautiful and yet wonderfully strange, rooted in kith and kin, a poetic dream language and an abiding sense of home and place. Their music has that unusual quality of sounding new and also as if it has been sung for a thousand years, hearkening back to a rich tradition of home spun spirituality. The hope is that they always remain true to the strangeness and idiosyncratic beauty of the family: the private jokes, inside stories, the rich red blood stronger than any water, the sweet birthing songs and the hymns sung over the graves and dying beds. But there is no real doubt here: the music of Joseph is a beautiful musical celebration of these luminous elements of lives centered in the goodness of the family, harmony of place and beauty of dreams.
The band Joseph will perform on Saturday, January 10 at the Green Frog.
This article originally appeared in What's Up.