Joseph: The Best of What's Next

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Joseph: The Best of What's Next

It might not have matched the surreal sawmill surroundings of the fictional town of Lumberton in the film Blue Velvet, but Natalie Closner’s unusual upbringing in the tiny Oregon hamlet Estacada in Clackamas County was certainly David Lynchian, to say the least. She didn’t stumble across a human ear in an adjacent field, or run afoul of any hot-rodding, gun-wielding psychos like Dennis Hopper’s diabolical Frank character. “But if you ask anyone who’s from the area, they’ll probably call it ‘Incestacada,’ because it’s, uhh, a bit rural, if you will,” she puts it, delicately. “But it’s actually the Christmas tree capitol of the world, and we ended up on this old country road, on seven acres, and they sold Christmas trees on that back stretch, too.”

And it all helped make Joseph—the oddly-dubbed, but intricately harmonizing trio the singer/guitarist formed with her kid sisters, Allison (on vocals and keyboards) and Meegan Closner (vocals, drums)—one of the most interesting new folk-pop outfits of the year, courtesy of its new sophomore set I’m Alone, No You’re Not and the galloping, irresistible flagship single “White Flag.” Lynch could easily employ this family band’s wonderfully eccentric sounds in one of his films one day; it’s that visually sumptuous and ethereally evocative.

Don’t get her wrong, clarifies Closner, now 29. She loved her mostly home-schooled childhood, and believes that her theater-teacher mother and tech-industry father loved her and her siblings very much, and wanted only the best for them. But early on, she was denied processed sugar in her diet. “As a kid, I was wonderful, up until this one moment when I started to throw these ridiculous tantrums,” she sighs, “And my mom was watching Dr. Phil or Oprah one day, and they were showing this child doing the exact same thing that I was doing, because of an intolerance to sugar. So she took me off sugar, and I was an angel henceforth. But I recall a sugarless birthday cake with a Cinderella topper that was absolutely wretched-tasting, and all of my cousins felt gypped out of a nice birthday cake.”

So the sisters regularly snuck over to drink their next-door neighbor’s sweet, satisfying Kool-Aid. “And I’m not speaking metaphorically—we did not have to join the local cult,” Closner points out, dryly. They also were not permitted to watch Nickelodeon’s relatively innocuous cartoon Rugrats. Why? “Because they were disrespectful to their parents,” she says. “So we learned to be kind to one another instead. With the omission of Rugrats—that was what did it! My mom really cared a lot about us—a real garbage-in, garbage-out kind of thing. So she wanted to make sure we were getting a high-quality content intake.”

But it was the girls’ dad who made the most indelible impression. When he was in college, he participated in a jazz vocal ensemble, and—in addition to playing jazz compilation tapes for his children on long sales-trip drives to Seattle—he would regale them with stories from his amateur-performer past. “And the way that he would talk about that experience was really compelling to me, just the precision and the excellence of it,” Closner recalls. “And his friends who were in that with him? We would have family get-togethers, and they would sing these jazz standards, and they were really cool arrangements of them. I was really inspired by that.”

From all her visits, Closner had also grown fond of Seattle. So that’s where she headed for college as soon as she was able. Her household had been Christian, and she had attended a Christian school for a few years. And home-schooling had been equally sheltered, even though mom would have her daughters mummify chickens as part of her Egyptian history course. So when she arrived in the dorms, she was admittedly quite naïve about the outside world. “So there was this hilarious joke with my friends, when innuendoes would be flying around and they would just assume that I didn’t know what they were talking about, because I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, hopeful little sprite,” she chuckles. “So they would just say to me, ‘Natalie. It means sex, okay?’ And it just became this running joke around me, like, ‘Oh, Natalie doesn’t know anything. We have to educate her!’ So I really didn’t get my education until college.”

Studying classical music, Closner focused on operatic voice. Her professors believed in a trial by fire method, and frequently pushed her into difficult solos in locally-staged productions. “And I would think to myself, ‘I don’t know if I can do this,’ but I would do it,” she says. “But that was the way that they taught, and it was really empowering.” She was also gently prodded toward an operatic career, but by senior year, she was no longer interested. Several of her classmates had started composing songs, and she followed suit, then followed her muse to Nashville, where she interned at a recording studio. “I basically hung out with a bunch of jaded session players, until I was like, ‘Uhh…maybe this isn’t the route that I want to go,” she says. “Then I lived in LA for a little while, and tried my hand at demo singing, and that also didn’t feel good. So I came home, worked at Starbucks, and wasn’t doing anything with my music.”

That’s when dad stepped in. Rather than relishing her kid’s return, he urged her to hit the road with her nascent material, which she’d turned into an indie EP. He phoned every showbiz friend across the country that he knew until he’d helped book her first national tour. When she returned, she nannied and worked at other coffee shops to pay the bills until her next tour took shape. How did her sisters join the mix? Closner sighs. Through some seriously tough love. “I was on my second tour, singing my geeky little songs, and it was a very grown human moment when a friend stopped me and said, ‘You’re singing these songs, but it doesn’t really seem like you believe in them—it seems like you’re just waiting for everyone else to tell you if they’re any good, while you don’t actually think they are yourself,’” she says. She was stunned—her chum was right. She was determined to make seriously compelling music from that day forward. But how?

The vocalist suddenly remembered the precision of her father’s old combo, coupled with the meticulous training she’d received in college. There was a great deal of mathematics involved, she realized. “When you sing classical voice, you have to think about 20 different things at the same time,” she explains. “You have to think about breath support, you have to think about your pronunciation of a foreign language, and you have to think about the phrase, and the meaning of the phrase, whatever it is. And I think that splitting your brain into all these different parts and being present with all of that definitely plays a part in the precision of it, like, ‘Think of all these details at once. And mean it.’

“So I had the idea to invite Meegan and Allie in at that point, and then when we actually started singing together, it was like, ‘Wow! This important! This needs to happen!’” Her sisters had no formal training, she continues—they simply harmonized instinctively, and to this day, Closner can only refer to it as “that thing that they do that buzzes, and it’s so mind-blowing and intoxicating to me.” New material began to coalesce, with the gals trading off on lead vocals, depending on who initiated the composition, which grew into Native Dreamer Kin, Joseph’s self-issued 2014 debut, which led to a contract with ATO Records last year (the moniker is an homage to their grandfather Jo, who hailed from Joseph, Oregon).

Which led to the new Mike Mogis-helmed I’m Alone, No You’re Not, which opens on the fingerpopping ditty “Blood & Tears,” then segues into an echoey strummer called “Canyon,” the skeletal chimer “Honest,” the reverb-soaked processional “I Don’t Mind,” a lullaby-gentle singalong, “Planets,” and the Meegan-anchored “SOS (Overboard),” her treatise on overcoming relationship intimacy fears. It all builds up to the “White Flag” crescendo, which kicks off with sugar-coated humming, then starts purring with “Your yelling’s getting loud/ Keep it down now,” and picks up downhill speed on a chugging rejoinder “Noises closing from all sides, warning all the ways to die/ They say you better give up,” and then marches into its seven-league stomper of a hook of “I’d rather be dead than live a lie/ Burn the white flag!” With the girls’ voices wreathing through each other’s like ivied tendrils, it’s one of the best, most celebratory pop singles of the year, a song that should delight just about any serious—or even passing—music enthusiast. You simply can’t deny its overwhelming, universal allure.

Closner swears there’s a deceptively innocent premise behind “White Flag,” recently licensed by the Turner Classic Movies channel, which brilliantly synched it to vintage film footage in a month-long programming advertisement. “It’s just a response to this fear culture that we live in, in the US,” she elaborates. “There are just so many voices screaming at us, saying we’re not going to be okay that it’s like we’re getting marketed to.” Although she admits that she and her siblings are sensitive, emotional people, she was particularly unnerved by a certain magazine article she read predicting a huge west coast earthquake in the near future. “And I live in Portland now, so what are you supposed to do with that information? Pick up and leave? There are things coming at us from all sides, and it makes you want to slink back into your own home. But at some point, you have to be like, ‘Well, absolutely not! The only way I can defy this oppressive fear is by getting out and living my life and enjoying all the people in it. So I’m going to go ahead and enjoy this IPA and laugh with my friends, and not think about whatever doom is impending.’”

There was one acquaintance that influenced the Alone material more than most, Closner says—her software-engineer fiancé, whom she was preparing to marry a few days after this interview. “He proposed in February, and I’m like, ‘Oh, nice—the year’s already booked out!” she says; Joseph will be touring through December, after which the couple plans on finally taking a long-awaited honeymoon. But the wedding itself is a total return to Blue Velvet territory. “This is hilarious, but it’s actually at a Christmas tree farm in Estacada,” concludes the bride-to-be. “And it’s called Bobz U-Cut, and Bobz of course is spelled with a ‘Z,’ in case you were wondering. And there’s actually a huge iron statue of a snowman there that there is just no hiding from. So he’s going to be presiding over it all!”