Chris Joyner's Journey From Sideman To Spotlight Long a studio musician, the pianist is now moving center stage with a new album. "I'd always been writing songs, keeping them to myself," he says. "I just let go. I figured, what have I got to lose?"
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Chris Joyner's Journey From Sideman To Spotlight

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Chris Joyner's Journey From Sideman To Spotlight

Chris Joyner's Journey From Sideman To Spotlight

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KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:

Next time you go see a concert with a big famous singer hogging the spotlight, consider all the other musicians playing behind that person. They're probably incredibly talented with creative ideas of their own, and for the most part, we'll never know. Well, one of those piano players is stepping into his own spotlight. His name is Chris Joyner.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")

CHRIS JOYNER: (Singing) Laying down my arms low, my heart is growing tired. I dance around and 'round in the rain.

BATES: Chris Joyner's from right here in L.A., and this is a track from his new album 'Domino." In his life as a side man, Joyner played with from everyone from Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs to Tom Morello of Rage Against The Machine.

JOYNER: Rickie Lee Jones, Ray Lamontagne, Jason Mraz, Soul Asylum, Citizen Cope, Wallflowers - I'm playing with Heart now, which is pretty exciting.

BATES: Wow. So you spend a lot of time backing people up. What made you decide to change up and have somebody back you up this time?

JOYNER: Well, I mean, I'd always been writing songs, keeping them to myself. And I had a pretty pivotal moment in 2002. My sister's son passed away. And all of the things that I was taking too seriously and the fears that I had, I just let go and figured what have I got to lose - so why not get out there and start trying and singing and doing my own thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HALLELUJAH")

JOYNER: (Singing) Hallelujah - I think I see the light is shining and the love that's slowly dying. I see right through you. You've got me down on my knees.

BATES: This new record "Domino"...

JOYNER: "Domino."

BATES: ...Has a very New Orleans-y vibe to much of it. I'm wondering if the title is a hat tip to Fats.

JOYNER: Oh, you know, I'd like to say yes, but no, I actually have always been a bit obsessed with like Dr. John. When I went to college, I went to Cal Berkeley. And I used to - I was a dishwasher and al I listened to was like Dr. John and another piano player named James Booker. And "Domino's" actually named after a song on the record loosely inspired by my sister.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOMINO")

JOYNER: (Singing) Your (unintelligible) one thing. But you never been so blind. Keep on reaching (unintelligible) by your side.

BATES: So there's a couple of songs on the album that your sister is apparently inspired you - "Hold & Keep"...

JOYNER: "Hold & Keep" - right.

BATES: ...Which is just, just beautiful.

JOYNER: Thank you.

BATES: Is this a song you wrote for her after her son died?

JOYNER: Exactly. Yeah, that was - that was a hard time. Yeah, that was written for her. She had some rough relationships and she had just been dealt a pretty rough hand obviously. Her son was 11 when he passed on. He had an asthma attack on New Year's Day. It was horrible - horrible. And she stayed steeped in her faith. And it definitely kept her, I think, sane.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD AND KEEP")

JOYNER: (Singing) You lost the boy, lost your mind. You lost what never was yours to keep. The boy is gone but your heart still beats on.

Love had always sort of eluded her it seemed like. I never felt as though she ever had a break, so this song was just, you know, when you're going through hell, keep going.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD AND KEEP")

JOYNER: (Singing) Free yourself from this cold maze. You've been caged in for so long. You believe that love has never had your side. Can't you see?

BATES: Did she hear it? Has she heard it?

JOYNER: She's heard it. You know, I wonder if she's actually heard it, heard it, you know? I'm her baby brother, so she's still so like yeah, yay, bro. But I'm not sure -

BATES: That's nice you're doing this.

JOYNER: Yeah, exactly, good for you. But I'm not sure if she's actually, you know - I played it for her and she was in tears, I think, just from the sentiment, but I'm not sure if she actually has taken the time to grasp the sentiment behind it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD AND KEEP")

JOYNER: (Singing) Hey, darkness, never come again your way.

BATES: You're on the road now with Heart.

JOYNER: With Heart - yes.

BATES: But now you've been your own person on an album. And I'm wondering how hard it is to do, you know, to be front and center on your own recording and then going back to backing somebody else up - even people you really like, even music you really like.

JOYNER: Ann and Nancy - Heart is just such an amazing band, so I'm in awe every time I'm on stage. So I'm grateful to be on stage with them. Fortunately, the way that they work, I have time. We do two week short runs, so the other two weeks are mine to - for my own agenda. I'm looking actually to try and play outside of L.A. - San Francisco, Bay Area, Portland, New Orleans - speaking of which.

BATES: So people may see you on the road...

JOYNER: Yeah. I hope so.

BATES: ...In person this summer.

JOYNER: Exactly.

BATES: And they'll figure out what you look like and then you'll have to refigure your life.

JOYNER: Then I'll have to hide.

BATES: Chris Joyner's new album is "Domino." He joined us here at NPR West. Chris, thanks so much for coming in.

JOYNER: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE FINE")

JOYNER: (Singing) Dreaming of the future, girl, it suits me just fine. I'll be your lover 'til the end of time.

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