Armed With an N64 and Loincloth-Clad Pals, Wolkoff Is Out for Your Imagination

Wolkoff climbs to new heights at CMJ this week.EXPAND
Wolkoff climbs to new heights at CMJ this week.
Photo by David Gillespie

In the midst of last year’s brutal winter, Joanie Wolkoff developed a weekly habit: She would bundle up and take the PATH train to Jersey City, where she’d meet with her friend Nathan Milla. Over frozen pizza, they worked tirelessly on what would become her debut EP, Talismans. Though the project officially bears her last name alone, her creative partnership with Milla — otherwise known as Icarus Moth — has come to define Wolkoff’s sound, perfectly framing her clever lyrics, quirky spirit, and warm, playful vocals. When Wolkoff sings of staying "lost together” on Talismans’ opening track, “Curve Appeal,” it feels more like an invitation than a demand — and it is indeed very easy to get lost with her. She’s playing a CMJ show at the Delancey on October 16, and although she doesn’t have to travel far from her home base in Brooklyn to get there, she’s already come a long way.

Wolkoff arrived in New York from Toronto when she was still a teenager. “I moved to New York right before September 11,” she remembers. “I was at NYU, which I totally couldn’t afford; I took jobs working in a millinery, repairing and selling vintage hats for a very talented and eccentric woman whose name shall go unmentioned, and assembling and cleaning chandeliers in a lighting store in Chinatown.” These days, she teaches English as a second language and tutors youngsters in French, which she says helps her pare lyrics down to their most meaningful distillation. She ended up paying much of her tuition through modeling gigs. But she was also interested in music from an early age, captivated by Toronto’s DIY scene. “We had this incredible spectrum of different music genres when I was growing up in Toronto,” she says. “You could go to a reggae night and dance to Seventies dancehall stuff, and then go to a goth night in the same night, wearing the same clothes, and nobody would sneer at you. If there was, like, a mom-and-pop Ethiopian restaurant and they were ready to rent it out, someone would throw a soul music night there. You learned about everything because there were posters wheat-pasted onto mailboxes all over town, or someone would hand you a flyer.”

Her curiosity and pan-cultural influences are sown deep within her work on Talismans. “I compose music with the intention of getting people to dance and to stimulate people’s imaginations. Talismans is basically a collection of electronic dance songs inspired by an assortment of unlikely sources,” she says. “We culled a bunch of resources together at the outset. We were really interested in N64 soundtracks, horror movie scores, medieval folk from the early Seventies, deep house, Central Asian dance music. Lots of former Soviet countries created really interesting electropop fifteen years ago that we really took a shining to. I guess it’s kind of like a rarified assortment of sources of inspiration.” The synths on Talismans, sparkling all throughout the EP, sound as though they’re dreaming of past lives as harpsichords. The pep of “Too Quiet,” meanwhile, suggests hip lounges and runway shows, not quite bombastic enough for the club but evocative of a similar flash-lit glamour. 

It’s a mood that lends itself well to the equally eccentric live show Wolkoff has put together with a host of dancers. The inspiration for the visual direction of her sets comes from Nicholas Roerich’s vibrant, unsettling landscape paintings. She and a choreographer friend who helmed the creative direction of her shows asked themselves what types of creatures might populate those spaces.

“From there, we started to develop a dance narrative where [the dancers] would basically be like feral imps in a constant tug-of-war between good and evil. And in the midst of all that we decided that I would spend the duration of the show performing the songs and being sort of pushed and pulled back and forth between these two forces in this mystical choreographic landscape of light and darkness,” Wolkoff says, laughing as though she realizes how off-the-wall it sounds. “I’m lucky to belong to a community of creative people who were ready to work collectively to flesh out a narrative around the show so that we could bring the audience along with us on a journey.” Sadly, Wolkoff's usual crew won't join her at the Delancey, because, as she explains, "You cant put a six-foot-five, fabulous, queer, bronzed man from New Jersey in a loincloth in a tiny room and expect him not to kick someone by accident." Icarus Moth will contribute to the musical backdrop, but other than that, it’s Joanie Wolkoff’s show: a singer-songwriter at heart, sharing her eclectic songs.

She's excited to meet other artists she hopes to one day collaborate with; she's reached out to a few but knows the value of face-to-face interaction. "It can feel at moments like it's just a numbers game. I’ve been asked by I can’t tell you how many industry folks what my ‘numbers’ are — what’s my draw, how many people are following me — and you know, the answer is modest," she says. "I haven’t been operating under this moniker for all that long, [but] I've got a handful of great people who like the music.”

Using her family name for the project, she says, has given her a lot of agency to explore and take ownership of her work. “It’s sort of like when you know the only way you’re gonna clean up your apartment is to invite friends over for dinner,” she says, laughing again. It’s also a name steeped in history; her Polish-Jewish grandfather changed it after arriving in Canada from the labor camps of World War II. “I chose that name because it has a little story about my family, but attaching your name to something strips away any anonymity that you might be able to hide behind or use to excuse yourself from blundering or laziness. I was ready to hold myself to my highest standard.”

Wolkoff plays the Delancey on October 16. For performance information, click here.

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