"Genre-Fucking": Joseph Lamar Pushes the Limits of Pop and Jazz

Joseph Lamar delivers the unexpected at Dazzle.
Joseph Lamar delivers the unexpected at Dazzle.
Anthony Camera

The typical silk-shirted, fedora-topped crowd at Dazzle probably isn’t expecting it. It’s late on a recent Thursday, and on a stage usually occupied by Denver’s best jazz ensembles is a 26-year-old from Colorado Springs named Joseph Lamar. Megaphone in hand, he’s screaming the lyrics to the Violent Femmes’ “Gone Daddy Gone,” which he and Mikey Smith, the other half of his duo, have punkified.

Fresh Noise, the aptly named set, is definitely a departure from Dazzle’s usual lineup. But that’s the point.
Learn more about Lamar — who performs with visual artist Orchid Z3ro from 12:55 to 1:45 p.m. at Dazzle during the Westword Music Showcase — as he discusses his purpose at the famed jazz club, his thoughts on Prince’s passing, and the best pizza he’s ever had.

Westword: It’s safe to say that you’re not strictly a jazz performer, so tell us about your Dazzle gig.

Joseph Lamar: Every Thursday, Mikey Smith and I perform as part of a project called Fresh Noise. Mikey is a trained jazz pianist, but he’s a very versatile musician. We like to take a song and imagine what it would sound like in a different genre, or if it were jazzier, had a harder edge, a different groove or different instrumentation. Sometimes it’ll just be Mikey and I, and sometimes we’ll bring a guest on stage. Usually, Mikey will play a guitar or a keyboard or a synthesizer, and I’ll sing or play synth. The goal originally was to bring in a different audience, and we definitely did that.

Explain your sound in your own words.
I have a propensity for taking things that shouldn’t belong together and putting them together — genre-fucking, if you will. I tend not to see things as this or that; I veer toward the middle in a lot of different ways. Artistically, that comes through in my music. Lyrically, I focus a lot on my autobiographical stuff.

There’s a lyric in a song of yours that goes something like, “There’s nothing wrong with me/That’s what I’m still trying to believe.” What does that lyric mean to you?
At that point in my life, I was having a lot of self-image and body-image issues. I just wasn’t really liking myself. That lyric is really about how I try to unlearn what I’ve been taught about things that are “wrong” with me. Because we’re all taught at some point that you’d be better if you were like this, or you’d have more value if you were like this or if you dressed a certain way or had a certain body type. For me, the lyric was accepting that I don’t fit in a box, and that’s okay. I was in a transitional phase, but I think I always am.

Your family has had a huge influence on your music, specifically your mother. Tell me about her.
My mother is the first artist I ever met. She is one of the most naturally creative people that I know. The way she raised me definitely served as a catalyst for how I create, in the sense that, like her, I’m resourceful. I can see something for what it can be as opposed to what it is, and I use my limitations as a catalyst for my creativity. My mom used to do things like make meals out of nothing.

Do any in particular come to mind?
I remember one time we had fairly empty cupboards and a fairly empty refrigerator. We didn’t know what we were going to eat because all the obvious things to make a meal weren’t there. So she took some canned tomato sauce, English muffins and cheese and made these pizzas. They were so good and made us feel like it didn’t matter that we weren’t wealthy. Everything she does is beautifully, meticulously done. It’s always inspired.

The only thing that was ever missing was — is — opportunity. My mom is someone who can go to different stores and over time create a beautiful outfit. That’s what [celebrity stylist] Rachel Zoe does. There are these doors in front of, and walls around, people.

You wrote a blog post about the moment you realized you were black. How has that moment shaped you as a person and an artist?
I was in kindergarten, and there were roughly a dozen kids in class. I was the only black student in the class. I remember wanting to be friends with this particular kid, Eric. Eric was white, and he had an identical twin brother. There was an instance where we started to play. When kids interact, there are a lot fewer steps to go through; they can just be best friends after playing with each other once. So we started hanging out, and his brother was really mean to me. He said, “You’re not allowed to talk to my brother.” It really startled me and hurt my feelings. I started to notice that he never said that to anyone else; he only said it to me. Looking back, that kind of helped illustrate to me what the world is like. You didn’t know it can be so cold and tough until something like that happens. Those are moments when reality violates your expectations, when things turn out differently than you thought they would. And there’s always a first time.

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I’ve learned a lot about race since then. I’m learning about it all the time; it’s a very complex subject. But in regard to my music, being black has definitely had an effect on my sound and on my lyrical content, in the sense that I’m very focused on breaking down barriers — my own and those that are outside of me. But I start with my own. In art, when you break down your own barriers, you inevitably break down other barriers. If I made my art and only I heard it, and it was the sound of my barriers breaking down, I build a new world. All art challenges the past, is a statement of the present, and is a projection of the future.

Prince has had a big impact on your life and your sound. What has his death meant to you?
I’m still taking it all in. I’m a big fan of Michael Jackson’s, as well, so I wonder why he, why Prince, why so soon. Why?

When Prince died, I called a mentor of mine, and we talked for over an hour about it. All I could think about was the song “Let’s Go Crazy” and the line, “Are we gonna let the elevator bring us down?” They found Prince in an elevator. There’s another lyric that made me go “Hmm...”: “We’re all excited/But we don’t know why/Maybe it’s ’cause/We’re all gonna die.” I think he had a profound spiritual connection with another world. I’m not spiritual, by any means, but I think there could be some truth to there being another world or other dimensions.

Your Showcase performance is titled “Dimensions” and incorporates a visual artist who works a lot with projections. Tell me about the set and how art factors into your music.
I like my performances to be interdisciplinary, because that’s just the way I function. I’d get bored if I just sang songs or if I just danced. For my Showcase set, I’m working with a visual artist named Orchid z3ro. I saw him at Skylark Lounge over Christmas, and he blew my mind. He had done this short film where he took different scenes from traditional Christmas movies and mashed them together. But they were always glitching. You’d see this familiar scene, but then it’d tear apart and another would come through. For our Showcase set, we’re focusing on different dimensions and transcending planes and the limitations within them. Orchid will be projecting images, and I’ll do the music.

How do you collaborate with another artist?
You have to trust them and let them do them. If you don’t think their vision is complementary to yours, don’t work with them.

But it’s certainly been a learning process. For a while I didn’t have the skills to collaborate with others; group things wouldn’t work. But I’ve learned to give people space, and [learned] that if I challenge someone, I have to be willing to let them do the same for me. Working with Orchid is easy, because he thinks in such a profound way, but his mind is very pliable. He can digitally map out a room that isn’t necessarily a traditional performance space or gallery and project anywhere, for anybody, for any purpose.

Joseph Lamar performs with Orchid z3ro at Dazzle on Saturday, June 25, at 12:55 p.m., as part of the 2016 Westword Music Showcase.

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Dazzle Restaurant & Lounge

930 Lincoln St.
Denver, CO 80203

303-839-5100

www.dazzlejazz.com

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