There isn’t one breakout moment that made Joy T. Barnum a star. Her success has come slowly but steadily, as she’s developed a reputation as a versatile performer, winning over both Bermudian creative types and visitors alike.
“I’m an operatically trained singer with a rock band who does jazz nights—I just love music in all its forms,” says Barnum. “I embrace different genres.”
Passion, she says, drives each of her projects, and that includes a deep love for her home. When we spoke, she was preparing to represent Bermuda at CariFesta in Barbados by performing songs from her new album “Roots Rock Reggae.” Here, she opens up about her creative journey and the local places that inspire her.
How does living in Bermuda influence your music?
I write everything from the heart; I love Bermuda, and I’m always inspired when I’m here. One song that stands out is “Island Home,” which was inspired by a night at the Spanish Point Boat Club when I was listening to live bluegrass. The riffs immediately came to me:
I wish I could have my baby here, where we could walk barefoot and there’d be talk of kids, oh, my island home… Maybe Johnny Barnes will still wave at us, and kids will say good morning when they get on the bus, oh, my island home.
Johnny Barnes is a big figure in Bermuda. For decades, he stood on a busy corner each morning and would wave and tell people, I love you. It was his commitment to put a little joy into everyday life. I worked with Alia Hamza to create my first-ever music video for this song and was so pleased that Johnny Barnes made an appearance in it. Just before he passed away, a bronze statue of him was placed near where he’d stand.
As a kid, I always used to sing along with the radio and I was in a church choir with my older sister. Our church didn’t have instruments, so I developed a love for harmony. If there was no drum, I became the drum; if there was no bass, I became the bass.
I sang at my sister’s high school graduation, and a college recruiter who was there offered me a music scholarship to Oakwood University in Alabama. When I arrived, I discovered that the college only considered opera to be music—I went from having this low voice to mastering the techniques to be a first soprano.
After college, I came back to Bermuda and became a substitute teacher. I needed a break from singing, though I found I couldn’t stay away for too long. I met Thaao Dill, a producer, and started performing at local poetry nights, singing arias over hip-hop beats. I won the inaugural poetry competition at Flow Sundays and began writing my own songs.
The next milestone came a few years later, in 2006, when I entered the first Bermuda Idol competition. I received first runner-up, but the winner forfeited, so that opened up a lot singing opportunities for me. That’s when I quit my full-time job to concentrate on singing. I also joined the Bermuda School of Music, where I still teach three days a week.
What is the arts community like in Bermuda?
I’ve found most people are happy to collaborate. For instance, each year, the National Gallery asks local artists to reinterpret a piece of art and then they ask a singer to interpret it. Alan Smith did a digital artistic rendering, and I got to perform live a special piece that I wrote about it.
When I first quit to focus on singing, I made extra cash by working at Rock Island Coffee Shop, where creative types hang out. I was sweeping up while playing my music one day, and Michael McPhee heard me singing along, and asked if I wanted to be in his rock band, the Channel. We ended up recording a vinyl album together. I also got a big break from Bermudian Heather Nova, who kindly asked me to join her European tour in 2010. I got standing ovations as the opening act!
What are some of your favorite places in Bermuda?
My absolute favorite place is Hog Bay Level, a series of gardens with a wide scenic path that eventually leads you down to the water. Bermuda’s the shape of a hook, so from one point of the island you can usually see another point of the island. But here, you see nothing but water and it’s really shallow, and you can swim with turtles. No one’s ever there because it takes a while to walk and hike to reach it. I love the reward at the end, where it’s just you and nature.
My second favorite is Spittal Pond, a nature reserve where you can see angelfish, parrotfish, and cranes. It’s on the south shore, where the waves come crashing. It’s a majestic place that inspires contemplation and a lot of my songs.
What do you love about your neighborhood?
I love my quiet corner of Somerset. It’s on the west end near Hog Bay. On the island’s other end, in the northeast, all the historic houses of St. George’s are very close together. I love that Somerset is sprawling and comfortable. There’s an outdoor bar in my neighborhood where everyone really does know your name. While I do travel to perform, Bermuda’s a place I’ll always come back to because this is what inspires me. I have to be here; this is home.