The Canadian duo, singer Cormac Culkeen and musician Dave Grendon are shaking up experimental sound art with spiritual drones and abstract sonic textures. Joyful Joyful release their self-titled album on 29th April that does what it says on the tin: brings joy. Despite the chilling echoes and waves that crash through it, there is a warmth and hope to the folk-meets-experimental LP. Cormac Culkeen discusses the natural landscapes associated with tracks, how sexuality and queer climax need not be removed from Christianity and their fascination with the liminality of pregnancy so well displayed in Oh Jublilation’s recent video.
You took your first step to make the Joyful Joyful EP by, unconventionally, firming up plans to make a music video together which then led to the need for some jamming, which wrote the final fireworks of the EP Sebaldus. Can you explain why starting a visual identity for the project is important to you?
The choice to make a live performance video as our first act was a reckless one. But so much that is interesting and good in our lives has come from making these kinds of impulsive commitments.
The two of us are like a pair of wind-up toys, skittering and careening into all that surrounds us, receiving bruises and duly changing course. Self-imposed obligation is a tool we use to manage our focus and our energy. Stakes and deadlines have often forced us to push ourselves and our art forward.
As for the idea of establishing a visual identity: as a band our visual identity is haphazardly assembled, evolving, possibly outright incoherent. This seems fitting – we came together in a provincial town, through a mutual willingness to disappear into sound, not through any shared love of fashion or visual aesthetics. Not to say that we have no aspirations in this direction, but that the time for that has just begun.
When you write, intuition and live improvisation take a front seat. What is it that you enjoy about this process?
In improvisation there is the chance to make a joyous mistake, to discover a truth previously unspoken or unknown. In some senses we’re trying to explore what is possible, rather than what is familiar. Or maybe we’re trying to discover what is familiar but illuminated by a new light.
Cormac’s singing puts them in a position of spiritual conduit. This relates to their fundamentalist religious past, and potentially their position in the church as a youth minister held 2019 to create a positive environment for queer Christian youth. What kind of message do you feel the spirit who flows through your music intends to convey?
Cormac: I carry all the past iterations of myself within myself - as we all do. I was a teenage fundamentalist, a convert, and a truly devout disciple. I am, to this day, a Christian - in spite of myself. I am also a faggot, a wanderer, and a recovering addict. We contain multitudes.
I still work in the church. I love it the way you love someone who has broken your heart. The church is dying, as it rightly should - but I don't mind working on a sinking ship.
The church is my favourite of all sinful institutions - if only because it insists on redemption beyond all reasonable plausibility. Look at the foundational myth of the church: Our hero dies badly, desolate, without ceremony - covered in his own piss and blood under a dark sky. But wait - says the church - it ain't over till it's over.
I know very little, but I know that we are loved beyond measure. That love cannot be taken from us. It is our birthright and our peace. We are beloved despite our frailties, and fully cherished even when we are fully known. In the end, I don't know if I sing about anything else. I believe in redemption beyond all reasonable plausibility. It is still a beautiful world. I don't know why I have this hope.
Despite the abstract and slightly disorientating nature of the EP you both manage to create a sense of deep calm. The drone is potentially a key element to achieve this. I’d love to hear more about your interest in drone-like chants or hums that you conduct live audiences to create. What kind of sensations does a drone create in you and audiences?
Immersed in sound (immersed in anything) we leave the dull, petty parts of life behind. In a drone, perhaps we find space to experience human feelings without the need to explain or apologise to ourselves. Or maybe if we’re lucky we disappear altogether.
In singing or humming a single note in unison, everyone must relinquish control. There is no room for solipsism. The only reference is the length of your breath and the sound of your neighbours, strangers though they may be. In doing this, we are drawn closer to each other without the complications of navigating social norms.
Drones also challenge us to stay put – to not insist upon endless variation even when it is available to us. We have both loved drones since we were very little – they are everywhere, in the sound of vacuum cleaners, microwaves, cars, computer fans and construction sites. Drones are such an old part of music, but you can sing folk music to the drone of a chest freezer.
In our music, drones can instigate communion, self-erasure, immanence, and time travel; the drone is a hard worker.
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There is a folk-like quality, that reveal Cormac’s interest in traditional sean-nós Irish music. The Valley evokes a happy but also sometimes desolate landscape, does it relate to where the musicians are based or trips into the countryside?
Cormac: We were rural Canadian kids. Dave grew up in a small town, Cormac in a little hamlet. We both grew up swimming in lakes and being alone in the woods. When we were teenagers, we snuck out to have bonfires in farmers’ fields, careful to not step in cows’ shit. The winters in Ontario are long. A rural Canadian childhood is a lonely, gorgeous thing. You end up singing about snow eventually. When I sing The Valley I feel grass under my feet.
On Tuesday you released Oh Jubilation that locates Madeleine Shen in the countryside near her village in Argentina, days before the birth of her child. Your sound echoes like the expansive nature Madeleine is rooted in. Was the concept always to shoot in such a landscape?
We did not expect to shoot the video high in the Andes, but our friend and choreographer Katie Ewald led us to Madeleine, and time led Madeleine back to her home in Argentina. When we were conceiving the video, we were torn between the desire to stay close to the body of the dancer and to soar like the music soars. In the end, we were able to do both in great measure. Madeleine was such a generous collaborator, dancing while nine months pregnant and sending us rehearsal videos from her phone over the slow internet in her village. When we saw how big the Patagonian sky was outside her window, we knew we were lucky.
As we said before, we’re most whole when we are immersed in something greater than ourselves. The land, the wind, a lake, a sound – even the pregnant body being both itself and more-than-itself. In one take, we managed to capture so much intimacy and so much great expanse. Madeleine gave us a gift.
The lyrics call out, “let us renounce our art - it’s blasphemous. For what is art compared to your skin and nights like this?” where did that idea come from? Does it relate to how a family’s life changes after the arrival of a child?
Cormac: Those words are a reminder to artists to humble ourselves. It is a reminder to me to humble myself.
I wrote it after walking to my lovers’ house late one night, after a rehearsal. I had been so proud of myself and all I had made. When I laid down in her bed in the lamplight, I traced a finger over her hip, and I suddenly remembered my place. I didn’t want to forget it again. 
Marrow also references “swollen wombs” as well as The Valley that discusses the arrival of a child– are you able to share where did your fascination with pregnancy come from?
Cormac: I have always wanted to be a parent. I am a trans-masculine person, but I have a womb. When I was a little girl (even in the midst of a private boyhood) I wanted to have a child. Pregnancy is a good metaphor – a liminal space, a becoming, a transformation, a bringing forth. It is also very much itself – physical, painful, surprising, nauseating, foreign. I have never been pregnant. But like so many, I have waited hopefully for a second faint line to appear. I have been prayerful on the bathroom floor, with my hips upturned. At other times I have been relieved to find blood in my boxers at the expected time, an old friend instead of a strange newness. All things in their time.
Saint Cecelia the virgin patron of musicians sits unexpectedly amongst the very sexual song Marrow in Joyful Joyful, is opening up boundaries between communities and erasing contradictions part of the musical intention of the project?
Cormac: I do not think it is contradictory to sing about sex and sainthood in the same breath. According to her hagiography, Cecilia is a virgin saint – so many women saints are. But rather than seeing her virginity as a contradiction of sexuality, could we see Cecelia’s virginity as an embodied expression of her personhood? Of the strength of her desire for communion with the divine? Cecelia’s madness (Singing! To unseen beings! At her own wedding?) individuates her. The lives of saints confront me and convict me in my own dull acceptance of the expectations of others. But there’s Cecelia, singing.
It is true that many religious people are uncomfortable with outward expressions of sexual desire – we can pretend that it’s beneath their dignity. Many queer people are uncomfortable with discussing the soul. But the boundary is fictional at best. These things are inextricable. Have you ever seen a picture of St. Teresa of Avila? Do you think her holy ecstasy didn’t incorporate her bodily hunger for communion with the divine? And is queer love not spiritual? Have you ever held someone while they came in your arms? What do you see beneath your eyelids when you’re in ecstasy?
The boundary isn’t there. It is a fiction. The best way to begin to tell the truth about that is to begin to tell the truth about the body. Cecelia’s mouth is open. She is singing. She is full to overflowing. Can you hear her?