Now fronting her own band, she debuted Joanne Perry and the Unstoppables before a caffeine-stoked full house on Jan. 9 in Skaneateles at Creekside Books and Coffee, playing an eclectic mix of acoustic songs. The attentive audience, sprinkled with friends and fellow musicians, tuned in as Perry got jazzy on a cover of The Police’s “Every Little Thing, ” scatted on Peggy Lee’s “Close Your Eyes,” harmonized with bandmate Kevin Roe on Tom Waits’ “Ol’ 55” and improvised a soulful interpretation of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.”
Although the evening had more than its share of highlights, when Perry performed the song that last August had become her first CD release, “One Moon Away,” the audience listened intently to that haunting, but inspirational, tribute to families of far-away military men and women, before erupting into appreciative applause. It’s the best reward a songwriter can get, surpassed only by the emotional reception she received at Fort Drum when she sang it there on Veteran’s Day
“Songwriting has opened up a whole new world,” Perry marvels. ”It’s one thing to pick songs to sing that I think people are going to like, but trying to create songs, I’m really enjoying that. And I’m getting positive feedback about it, so I’m fortunate that way.”
Military families will benefit financially from the song, as the USO is receiving half of the profits from digital downloads from her Web site, www.myspace.com/joannetroyperry. CD singles are also available at Sound Garden, 310 W. Franklin St.
Composing her own material has added a dimension for the Massachusetts native, who began singing as a teen, covering everything from pop and standards to big bands, and starring in high school and community musical productions. Along the way, she dreamed of a Broadway career as she worked with voice coaches and practiced her craft.
“I had four years of voice lessons with teachers who really encouraged me to try different styles even if I wasn’t comfortable with them,” Perry recalls. “I had one who would push me to do art songs and classical pieces. And when I was in high school I studied with a lady who taught me a lot about standards and Broadway tunes. And then I had a gentleman who insisted that I find songs that I really liked because he wanted to help me with performance. So, from different teachers I learned different things.”
What voice lessons and stage work couldn’t provide were the varied experiences that affected the mother of five, providing inspiration and depth drawn on a life that has taken her down many roads. After working for the U.S. Senate Ways and Means Committee for three years in the early 1980s, she spent four years as a volunteer for the Catholic service agency Covenant House, living in New York, Texas, Italy and Central America. Her 1989 homecoming to the Massachusetts island of Nantucket also marked her return to her singing career.
Song bird: Joanne Perry lives in Marcellus with her husband Joe and five children. A statue of the Virgin Mary (left) is an homage to Perry’s brief stint as a nun-in-training. Fittingly, the order wore denim.
Song Sung New
While her first band, the Islanders, enjoyed strong demand playing weddings, parties and dances, Perry’s musical education took another turn. “In the Islanders, the rock songs were for the guys,” she recalls. “I was the girl. I had to do the country songs and the ballads. It was an oldies band, so there was a formula.”
As Perry learned about performance skills and professionalism, she expanded her repertoire to include material by a classic singer who has become a favorite. “That first band encouraged me to learn Patsy Cline,” she says. “I got some tapes and learned songs. It was all new to me. It was so exciting.”
Cline’s famed heartbreak songs may have influenced Perry in a way she hadn’t anticipated. “What’s really hilarious is that I get comments from people who know me from the songwriting group that a lot of my songs are about heartache and trying to get over lost love and that kind of thing,” she says. “People say, ‘Is everything OK in your life?’ And actually I’m pretty happy.”
That happy life has been shared with husband Joseph Perry since their 1991 Cape Cod wedding. After spending a couple of years in Oregon, the couple settled in Marcellus with the first child of their quintet. “Joe has been very encouraging and supportive,” Perry says. “He takes care of everything at home when I’m playing. All the kids are musical, too. They play instruments and they all have good singing voices “
Fulfillment as an artist started to balance with Perry’s personal contentment in 2000, when a friend arranged for veteran musician Paul Fey to audition her for his band. “Paul Fey has been a wonderful mentor to me,” Perry says. “He was the one who gave me my first break here. After my friend Catherine Grace bugged him for two years to give me a chance, he finally let me audition. Then I was a part of his band for two years.”
Fey quickly found a role for Perry in his popular act. “I knew she could sing, right away, Fey remembers. “I didn’t know if she could harmonize, but she can and she’s gotten really good at it. So I got her up right away and she sang with us. Vocal harmonies have always been a big part of our acts in my groups. She fit into that, adding a nice third part. Also, we’d back her up on her stuff from Patsy Cline to Stevie Nicks and Bonnie Raitt.”
More important than finding a paying gig was the development that came with the job. “She needed some polishing,” recalls Fey, whose long Syracuse career was preceded by work in Florida, Massachusetts and a tour of the nation. “She’s gotten a lot smoother. She’s gotten a lot more outgoing with her music. And I helped her to get out and meet people. She’s met all the major artists. They come out to support her and she supports them. She’s built herself a nice little posse, so to speak.”
From the beginning, Perry enthusiastically nurtured the new relationships that grew out of connections made after signing on with Fey, leading to her joining numerous local music-focused organizations. “With this whole networking business in the last couple of years,” she acknowledges, “I’ve fallen into the Guitar League, the Songwriters’ Woodshed and the women’s group. Now my name’s gotten out as someone who can contact other people or emcee and that’s opened some doors. I was one of the emcees for the Bill Knowlton Bluegrass Ramble fund-raiser in January at Kellish Farms.”
One of the artists who headlined that event, singer-songwriter Cadley, produced Perry’s CD single. “She’s very easy to work with,” Cadley notes. “She’s got a great voice. Most singers are kind of in their own little world and they don’t really think too much about the musicians they’re playing with. Joanne really does. She makes sure everybody’s got what they need. Little things like that make her very easy to work with. Plus she’s got a great voice and it’s really fun to back her up.”
Perry’s talented friends have also supported her development as a guitarist, a skill that got an unexpected boost when she was forced to stay home and rest. “I had thyroid surgery at the end of 2006 and I couldn’t sing,” she says. “I was going crazy. I needed to do something so I finally got serious about playing guitar. I taught myself with some old books my husband had lying around. I have a long way to go with the guitar playing. I practice and try to improve and the guys are encouraging me.”
With her health issues behind her, Perry has kept plenty busy playing not only with her band, but as part of various duos, songwriter nights, solo shows, open mikes and singing background vocals on locally produced CDs. She stays in demand due to her talent and versatility.
“Her real strength is the bluesier, jazzier stuff,” Cadley points out. “But she’ll try anything. For instance, she loves to do this tune in Spanish called ‘Tiempo y Silencio.’ I’ve never done any songs in a foreign language. But it’s a great tune and she brought it to me and it really opened my eyes to the possibility of doing stuff outside of what I’m used to playing.”
True to form, Perry’s bandmates are accomplished and talented. Singer Wendy Ramsay recently joined the combo, giving them an added layer of harmony. “We’re hoping to get gigs for private parties and cabaret settings,” Perry says. “We’ve got a wonderful stand-up bass player in John Dancks, solid, yet refined percussion by Tom Finn, and Kevin Roe is a wonderful guitar player. We do a mixture of standards, jazz and country. We do some unusual covers and we’re doing more of my originals and some of Kevin’s originals.” Ramsay has also teamed with Perry to host a popular weekly open-mike Monday evenings at the Tipp Hill Café, corner of Milton Avenue and Ulster Street.
Although she concedes her current life, blending mom, wife, singer and songwriter, is tough at times, Perry has no complaints. “Really I’ve been very blessed,” she concedes. “I consider what I have a gift. I think the whole songwriting thing has been a gift. I feel very blessed with five children. It’s a crazy life, but I’ve gotten to do a lot of fun things.”
Upcoming gigs for Joanne Perry include Saturday, May 8, 10 a.m. at Kellish Farm, 3192 Pompey Center Road, Manlius; Friday, May 14, 8 p.m., at the Brae Loch Inn, 5 Albany St., Cazenovia; and Sunday, May 23, 5 p.m., at Moondance Restaurant, 2512 Cherry Valley Turnpike, Marcellus.