By Brian M. Howle
The late, South Carolina-born Godfather of Soul, James Brown, cemented his legendary career on the wings of a couple of seminal tunes. Most are likely to think of the hit, “I Feel Good” – as well they should for its get-me-out-this-funk groove and happy happy, joy joy vibe. But for pure emotion, raw inner-exposure, confession and just a damn fine song, there is no finer example of lyrics that evoke and expose the soul than “It’s a Man’s World.”
Because after all, when some see a female solo performer, you hear a lot of this: “That little gal singin’ up on that stage, why, she’s right cute, now, ain’t she? Pretty little ol’ thing … sings nice enough, but now, she can’t play that ol’ geetar, or rock out, like a man.”
However, if you bring the discussion of women who actually succeed in music into the equation, then New Jersey’s Joan Burton would quietly yet effectively challenge that concept. Actually, “challenge” is the incorrect word … it’s more like, eviscerate that concept.
She’s the male singer/musician counterpart who dispels the chauvinist myths, the vulgar assumptions and the almost always, universally incorrect labels that inevitably accompany the lot.
Burton is stand-alone capable on guitar; commanding and smooth on keyboards, and second to no one as a vocalist. In short, a gal that same male singer/musician knows is not just his equivalent, but just as easily his superior.
Not that it would matter one stupid little bit to Burton, as she would simply laugh it off as unimportant.
Because this talented performer – and, oh-by-the-way, drop-dead gorgeous beauty with long, tasseled hair and deep blue -green eyes – possesses a vocal immersion that brings a progressively larger number of folks back to her venues each week, with measured, pragmatic certainty.
From the classic, timeless Etta James’ standard “At Last,” to Jefferson Airplane’s trip-launching “White Rabbit,” to Cream’s introspective “Sunshine of Your Love,” to Heart’s autobiographical “Crazy On You,” there’s no trying to pigeonhole Joan into one genre or style of music. She wants it all, and the best part is, she has it all.
As for her material, I love everything I’ve heard her play and sing. But for a pure personal favorite, her Cheap Trick offering of the imploring, wailing “The Flame” finds those little cracks in that “boys don’t cry” wall every time.
I wanted to know how this all got stated. Here’s what she had to say:
Howle: What was it like growing up/living there as a child, and did it have any particular impact on your later musical career?
Burton: It was a great place to grow up – very sheltered and a safe haven. The downside of that is, it didn’t quite prepare me for the real world. If I had grown up in a big city I think it would have given me the guts to go to a place like L.A. to pursue music, but because of my upbringing that would have been too intimidating to me. Was music part of your family, or your own special outlet?
My dad played sax in a jazz band and my mom would sing with them occasionally. My sisters played piano and my brother taught himself guitar, and today he is one of the best guitarists I’ve ever heard. Too bad he lives in Calif. because we would no doubt be playing together …
Howle: When did you first become involved in music, and how did it come about? What instrument(s)? Did you play in school bands or just privately as you were growing up?
Burton: I started out as a closet player and singer, just terrified to get in front of people…. I was asked to sing a solo in my high school chorus but I declined. Looking back it seems so ridiculous but I guess I was going through the typical teenage insecurities! By the end of high school I was playing in a couple of bands– you know, safety in numbers.
Howle: Who were your earliest influences, as far as family, friends, teachers, etc.? Did you take lessons or were you self-taught; and as a result do you read music or play by ear?
Burton: I took piano lessons for six years because of my sisters’ influence and later I taught myself guitar. I can read, but I prefer to play by ear and improvise around the chords. My piano teacher looked at me like I was from another planet when I told her that I wanted to play by ear. She had no concept of that! So I didn’t stick with the lessons very long after that.
Howle: When did you realize that music was more than just a passing fad or hobby for you?
Burton: I always knew that music was my life and that somehow I would make a career out of it.
Howle: Do you remember your first public performance? Where, when, with whom, purpose, etc.?
Burton: Besides piano recitals when I was a kid, it was playing in a band at one of our wild high school back yard parties!
Howle: As you became a teen and developed more self-awareness of the world around you, did that prompt you to express your views through writing lyrics, melodies?
Burton: Yes, definitely. I’ve always been very sensitive and feel things very deeply so music has always been a great outlet whether I’m playing or writing. I think the song I am most proud of is “Weary Eyes” which I wrote about animal abuse. I posted the lyrics on my Facebook Like page.
Howle: Was it easier for you to write original compositions or to learn covers? And were you in groups or a soloist while learning your craft?
Burton: Learning covers is a lot easier because the hard part is over, it’s already written. Writing can be a grueling process, but sometimes it just flows if the moment is right and the inspiration is there. I’ve always been in bands until I moved here, where I’ve mostly played solo.
Howle: Any tales from the battlefield, on being a female artist competing in a male-dominated field? Lessons learned, mentors discovered, things that made your resolve even more determined?
Burton: Being female has never been an issue for me in this business.
I’ve always felt like “one of the guys” in the bands I’ve been in, and have never had anything but respect from others, so I’m thankful for that …
The thing that has always bothered me is that the music/entertainment business can be very superficial and too much emphasis is on looks and image rather than the music itself. What lessons have I learned? I listened too much to others about how to go about my career rather than follow my heart. It’s that small town thing– I was naive and trusting and thought everyone else knew better than me.
Howle: When did you hit the recording studio for the first time? Remember what that felt like, to hear yourself on playback on a REAL console, on that master tape that will always sound better than any dupe, vinyl or CD? Did you have someone produce you, or were you more hands-on?
Burton: My first CD was recorded back in the 90s and I fell in love with the whole experience, like a kid in a candy store. I loved the whole layering process where I could play guitar and piano on the same song and then harmonize with the vocal track. My manager produced the CD officially but I had alot of input since I wrote or co-wrote the songs. One of the coolest things I experienced was having Lou Gramm from Foreigner produce a few tracks on my second CD. He also co-wrote a song with me.
Howle: What’s your writing process like? Free flow or structured; written or in your head; alone or with collaboration?
Burton: It’s always been more free flow. Usually I’ll play around on either guitar or piano, put some chords together, I’ll hear a melody and then I’ll fit the words in from there. Both of my CDs were written mostly in collaboration with my manager at the time who is also a musician. I liked bouncing ideas back and forth with someone else.
Howle: When did you first arrive on the Grand Strand? What brought you here? More importantly, what has compelled you to stay and carry on in the midst of an economic disaster that has resulted in fewer folks attending live music, as well as venues in which to play? Or have you managed to avoid that?
Burton: I moved here in 2002 because I needed a new start, and coming from Rochester where winters are endless, well you know where I’m going with that! I had become somewhat disillusioned with the whole “trying to make it” thing. The music business is unbelievably competetive and it really is more about luck, timing and who you know than about talent. And you gotta be real aggressive too, and that ain’t me babe! 🙂 Yes, the economy has definitely affected how much work is out there for musicians, but I have managed to stay busy in the summer, and pretty much just get by in the winter, but most of us go through that since we’re in a tourist town.
Howle: What are you current plans, as well as your long-range goals?
Burton: My current plans are to incorporate the piano into my gigs. So far I’ve just been using a guitar so I feel that it would add a whole new dimension. Eventually I’d like to play in bigger venues, possibly play some shows as an opening act. And what would you like to share with your fan base and would-be fan base? I would like to thank everyone who supports and appreciates live music. I’m very fortunate to be able to do what I love for a living and I don’t take it for granted. I’m very blessed 🙂
So if you’ve read all this, guys, and you still can’t quite wrap that testosterone-drenched thinker around the gist of all this, then grab your higher-functioning better half or ask an equally-equipped friend to go with you to check this very talented young woman out as she performs live at that venue near you.
Dang … now, how can I effectively convey this to my fellow y-chromosome carriers?
Come for the beauty, but stay for the truth.
Either way, you will not be disappointed. Because after all – “It’s a Musician’s World.”
In the meantime, you can check out her website at http://www.joanburton.com for updates on all of her upcoming gigs, where to get her music and how to make sure you know how and where this incredible artist is making her presence known!
This article was also published in Alternatives NewsMagazine.Vol. XXV Number 23, Auguust 11 – August 25, 2011; or online at http://www.myrtlebeachalternatives.com . All rights reserved.