Artist Highlight: Joshua Hyslop

I’ve been to a fair amount of concerts in my life; certainly I’m aware that plenty of people go to far more concerts than I do, but I’d consider myself to be in about the middle ground between someone who’s hardly been to concerts and someone who attends every concert they can.  Naturally, this has resulted in exposure to a plethora of musical artists who wind up opening for the artists that I’m out to see, but it’s extremely rare that I attend a concert and come away from it saying to myself that I need to check out an artist that I haven’t heard before.

I preface this entry with that story to emphasize exactly how much of a big deal I consider it to be when this does happen.  Back in December, I had the fortune of seeing Vanessa Carlton in concert; it was an amazing experience to be sure, but at the moment I’m out to discuss the artist who opened for her, singer-songwriter Joshua Hyslop.  I came away from his set not only thoroughly impressed, but having so enjoyed his music that I stopped by his table after the show and picked up a copy of both of his currently released LPs.  (I also later purchased a copy of the two EPs he’s released digitally.)  Since then, Joshua Hyslop has gone from someone I hadn’t even heard of to becoming one of my favorite artists in a few months’ time.  Through primarily piano and acoustic guitar, accompanied by cellos, banjos, and other instruments, not to mention Hyslop’s soft, soothing vocals, he creates natural-sounding folk music that’s raw without sounding rough or unfinished.

What sets him apart is that his sound is backed by songwriting that feels fresh, honest, and emotional.  For me, I think that has been partially aided by having heard the stories behind a few of the songs that he played live, like how “Hallelujah” was written after the death of a friend, or how his cover of “Shelter from the Storm” by Bob Dylan was born on a cold night when he was living in his van.  There’s even the amusing story behind the emotional “Time Alone,” which he wrote while on vacation with two friends who had been dating, and he composed the first two verses of words they exchanged in the process of breaking up with him in the room.  (He apparently began singing it, repeating lines exchanged in the breakup, while one of them was still there; naturally, the friend was not pleased.)

It doesn’t take those stories to add a poignant edge to his music, though, some of which comes through for me in his willingness to bend the traditional song format.  Songs like “The Flood” and “Come Away” make use of a more traditional format, but while each chorus shares instrumentals and the lines start off similarly, the lyrics shift from chorus to chorus, allowing the songs to really develop and bring more emotion into play.  “Time Alone” is possibly the best example of a nontraditional format, because although it’s as simple as two verses, a solo, a third verse, and finally an extended instrumental outro, the lack of choruses makes the parallels between verses more evident and powerful, particularly in each opening line; the song goes from “Time alone can’t save you,” to “Time alone can waste you,” finally coming to say “Time, they say, can heal you.”

The emotion in Hyslop’s music is further aided by his lyrics, which avoid being overly specific to the degree that a wider audience can’t relate to them without lacking the poetry that allows for a strong connection with them.  For example, “Hallelujah” doesn’t have any lyrics that make it clear that it was written about the death of his friend, but it’s evident that it arose from some sort of grief, particularly as he sings, “You were not there on my loneliest day / and I don’t understand now why it happens that way.”  Though his songs frequently touch on struggling and loss, their tone is by no means limited to a bleak outlook, such as in the title track of In Deepest Blue, his second LP, wherein he speaks to someone in an encouraging manner, with lines like “Doesn’t matter what you’ve hoped for / as long as hope’s alive.”  Good mood or bad, his music has something to offer, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t note how indescribably cathartic his music has been for me with its open, honest grieving in some cases and optimistic outlook in others.

To give an overview of an entire artist in a single piece like this is certainly difficult, and I may come back to Joshua Hyslop at some point to speak more specifically to a song or album and shine a light on a particular piece of his work.  But certainly, while his music (like pretty much any artist’s) won’t necessarily appeal to everyone, it has a lot to offer to those who appreciate a stripped-down, honest, and emotional style of music.  It’s truly a shame that somebody as inspired as him isn’t better known, but I certainly think (and hope) that his talent will carry him to further renown.

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