Denver-based songwriter Joel Ansett writes with an irrepressible wonder. Wonder at trees and mountains, wonder at love and relationships, wonder at strength in suffering. He’s a sort of musical explorer—and a skilled one at that.
Joel gained exposure performing covers on YouTube, but when given the chance to showcase his talent at songwriting, he did not lack for originality. Joel’s songs are fresh, they’re honest, and they’re his. He writes for himself, and he’s not afraid to change—a somewhat rare trait among today’s mainstream artists.
The result of this independence is a rainbow of musical adventures. From the acoustic honesty of “Known and Loved” to the finger-snapping joy of R&B hit “Already in Love” to the pure cinematic glory of “Turn to Gold,” Joel’s music spans a wide spectrum of genres. He enthusiastically follows whatever musical path presents itself, and he leaves a trail of ear candy as he goes.
Hope you enjoy Joel’s music—and our delightful conversation!
Ethan Weitz: Joel, how did you get started with writing and performing music?
Joel Ansett: I got a guitar for my 13th birthday and I just started taking lessons. The first teacher I had wasn’t too intense on the technical side—he just wanted me to have fun. He would play songs I’d been listening to and I wanted to learn, and we would just jam.
When I was in high school, I figured out that I could dream up melodies for the poems my older sister sent me. So we would write songs together with me writing the music and her coming up with poems. Even some of my songs today are from poems my sister wrote.
Music wasn’t something that I thought I would pursue at all. I went to college near Pittsburgh (at Grove City College) and studied history, because I love to read. My dream was to play college basketball and then go on to be a teacher and a coach. But I got cut from the team my freshman year, and that’s really when I started playing music and performing more regularly. I got enough momentum just playing on campus that when I graduated it seemed like the right thing to do. I didn’t really want to look for teaching job or an office job. I thought I should probably take a shot at trying to make a living writing and performing, just because of the response I’d gotten on campus.
Ethan: When along that timeline did you start recording and putting out music?
Joel: The thing that got it all started was a YouTube video of an original song that I made with my buddy in a dorm room. It spread across campus really quickly, and the next day everybody around campus wanted to talk about it. I mean, it’s a super small campus, but it seemed like everybody on campus had seen the video.
That was in 2011, and it was the first thing that I released, though it wasn’t professionally recorded. The summer after I graduated college, in 2012, I recorded a six-song EP. It was super bare-bones: acoustic guitar, cello, and some keys and voices. That was the first step I took into officially releasing music. It was honestly just kind of like a probe put out there to see, “Do people want to hear this?” And it was well received.
Emily Cardé: Who or what have been some of your biggest musical inspirations?
Joel: I did not listen to a ton of music growing up. We weren’t really a musical family. My mom made me take lessons and stuff, but more of the focus was on sports. I remember my mom would listen to Fleetwood Mac, we would listen to The Temptations whenever we cleaned the house. Something about Motown and cleaning—it makes you want to get stuff done, I guess.
A turning point was when I heard “Soul Meets Body” by Death Cab for Cutie on the radio. I was just highly captivated by the melodies. It was Top 40 radio, but the lyrics had a ton of depth. He was talking about where the spiritual realm and the physical realm cross paths. That’s a super deep topic of conversation for a song that’s on the radio. So I was drawn to that in a way I had never been drawn to music ever before. And then a year after I’d gotten my guitar, my sister bought me the album “Plans” by Death Cab for Cutie. And that album is still my favorite album of all time. There’s not a bad song on the record.
So that’s what kind of gave me this fascination with and addiction to songwriting and melody-writing especially. My top three influences are Death Cab for Cutie, Coldplay, and U2.
Ethan: What does your creative process look like?
Joel: I’m always writing. It feels like I’m always adding to two banks: I have a bank of riffs, melodies, just musical ideas, and then I have a bank of lyrics and song titles. Both of those banks are just always growing. At random times I’ll hear a melody or something and I’ll just make a voice memo, or I’ll hear a phrase that someone says and think it might be a good lyric, so I’ll write it down. Those two things are just kind of always happening naturally, because life is happening. When I sit down to write, it’s kind of like speed dating. I take a lyric and a melody idea I had, and see if they mesh, sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But I just kind of try to mix and match these two banks of ideas that are always growing.
More recently, I’ve been trying to come up with a song title for every day. I just look at the day and write exactly what is happening that day. Every day is filled with stories that might seem mundane, but if you try to write about them, they’re not. When I write about that, it feels a little more honest, as opposed to conjuring it up myself.
Emily: What is the most challenging part of creating music?
Joel: It’s all pretty challenging, I’d say, but maybe the hardest part is being content with bad songs and ideas. You want everything you try or do to be gold, but the reality is that I think 99 percent of it is bad. Well, I don’t think bad is actually the right word—it’s just not the standard we set for ourselves. You have to embrace your weaknesses. Because the more you write, the more critical you can get of yourself—and discouraged about how it’s received or not received. So I think the hardest part is trying to remove myself from my work and just let it be what it’s going to be.
Ethan: “Turn to Gold” is one of my favorite songs of yours, and on your website you mention that it is at least partially based on the natural landscape around where you live in Colorado. Could you expound a little on that song?
Joel: “Turn to Gold” is also my wife’s favorite song on the record. We moved here to Colorado almost two years ago in August. A few months later, all the leaves started changing. And the mountains literally turned gold. Not yellow—it was gold. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. An entire mountainside. It felt like something from heaven, honestly. I was very moved and inspired, so I figured I had to write something about this (and I’m sure I’ll write more).
It’s only like two weeks that it’s at its peak, when the mountains are really vibrantly gold. So people are just flocking to the mountains for these two weekends in the fall. I was sad at how quick it was and I wanted it to last longer. And then I just started thinking: If these trees somehow have free will, I respect and admire that although they are given these gold leaves that make them so majestic, they’re so content and willing to let them go. If I ever get a good thing, my tendency is to hold on to it just a little too tightly. And I end up hurting myself, hurting that thing, and hurting others, just because I’m clenching it.
So the song became more personal as I related to these aspen trees and wanted to be more like them. If I’m given a good thing, I want to hold it with an open hand and be willing to let it go, as the song says.
And then there’s just the beautiful paradox in there: that the high road is really the low road. We think there is this route to greatness that is achieved by just thinking only of ourselves. But really, it’s about laying your own life down. A king-like person is really someone who’s a servant. So I love that paradox; it is poetically one of the most profound things I’ve ever heard. And I saw it in the aspen trees.
Emily: Can you tell us a little more about the inspiration and the story behind “She Walks in Beauty”?
Joel: My mom has had breast cancer twice—once when I was 11 or 12, and then she got it again when I was a freshman in college. The second time she got it, it was hard because I felt very removed being away at college. But my sister wrote a poem and sent it to me and asked if I we could try and turn it into a song. Because I felt so far removed from home, I wanted to do something, so that gave me a little motivation.
The lyrics are inspired by a poem by Lord Byron. The poem is a love letter to a woman, but my sister loved that phrase “she walks in beauty,” so she wrote it more as just dealing with disease. The song is about Beauty with a capital B, as opposed to our cultural definition of beauty today, which is almost exclusively physical. It’s not physically beautiful to watch someone go through breast cancer—the body’s under full attack. We wanted to write something to say that watching my mom walk through breast cancer with such grace and kindness and patience and trust was one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever seen. So the song was to honor her as she walked through it, and to kind of challenge a cultural definition of beauty. Physical beauty is very fleeting, and even if that’s taken away there’s a deeper beauty that can remain intact. And that’s what we should be striving for. Thanks for asking about that one; I love that song.
Ethan: One more song that really jumped out at us is “Known and Loved.” What was the inspiration for that song?
Joel: That was fun! I wrote that with two friends from Boston—they’re in a band called Blue Light Bandits. Right after I graduated college, I knew I was going to pursue music individually, but my first move was to go to Boston for a summer to play in their band and play music there for a little bit. And while I was there we wrote that song together, Dan DeCristofaro and Ethan Bates and I. We would unofficially call it the “friendship” song; and the core message of the song was really poignant for all of us.
Everybody wants to be fully loved, but we have this mental block that if we were fully known we wouldn’t be loved anymore. So we are craving this unconditional love but there’s something in our hearts that’s keeping us from fully revealing ourselves, because we think there’s no way in hell that we will be fully loved if we’re totally ourselves. So the title really says it all: known and loved. We want to be loved, but what we crave is that somebody could know me fully and then respond to that with love. That’s the sweet spot, I think, of any relationship. That’s when you feel ultimately comfortable. Because I know in the back of our minds, even when we feel loved, we’re kind of thinking, “But what if they knew this?” You’re kind of walking on eggshells hoping you don’t do something wrong to compromise the way someone thinks about you. No, we’re talking about complete comfort in knowing that you’re loved no matter what. And that’s consistently a song people have reached out to us and expressed thanks for.
“[My sister and I] wanted to write something to say that watching my mom walk through breast cancer with such grace and kindness and patience and trust was one of the most beautiful things we’ve ever seen.”
—Joel Ansett on “She Walks in Beauty”
Ethan: Do you usually play solo when you play live? And do you tour a lot?
Joel: Yes, I play solo. I don’t tour a lot right now. Actually, my wife and I had a baby four months ago. That happened right on the tail of releasing my full length album, so I haven’t planned an official tour. We just do little sprints out to a place for a gig and then come back home. We are kind of experimenting to see how much we can do as a family.
Ethan: Does your wife sing or play with you?
Joel: No, she actually keeps us afloat as far as the business side goes. She reminds me that we’re trying to raise a family with this music. She studied entrepreneurship at school and loves the business side of things.
When I play here in Denver, I do have a three-piece band that I’ll play with. But when I’m taking trips or play a gig at a college or want to go play a couple of house shows with a couple of friends, then I’ll just go solo and have a nice stripped-down acoustic evening of songs.
Emily: There seems to be a pretty big style shift between “The Living Room EP” and “The Nature of Us.” Can you tell us a little bit about how and why your sound has morphed?
Joel: Great question. This is almost what I was talking about with the difficulty of creating. Artists are constantly in a self-discovery mode. Sometimes I think that my sweet spot as an artist is stripped-down acoustic folk. And the EP was almost that way out of necessity. Because I didn’t have a band or a producer, it was, “I have my songs and we are going to record them.” And then after the EP I released five singles that were just sonic self-discovery.
With the album, I had a group of songs that maybe had a little more groove to them, as well as some stripped-down acoustic songs. I truly just handed over the reins to two producers that I hired to craft the sonic landscape, because I don’t feel like I have the skill set or the knowledge yet to know what I want to sound like. I know I can write songs, but I’m attracted to building a team where everybody has an area of expertise and I just do my job as the songwriter. It’s not that I didn’t have opinions or thoughts about what the sound should be, but I am content to find someone I trust and say, “You can build the sonic landscape and I’ll give input when I have it.” A lot of the change you hear sonically from the EP to the album is really I think me just coming to terms with the fact that I know I want more of a full band sound, because even the favorite artistic influences that I listed—they are all bands.
I’ve always liked the idea of mixing folk and R&B, so that’s the guiding light I gave the producers, the kind of vision I was leaning towards. And I still want to tinker with that. With the next releases, I think there will be more exploration of acoustic R&B. It’s a cool thought to me. The short answer is: I am in a self-discovery phase, and I don’t think I will exit that anytime soon. I can truly say that I don’t know what the next project will sound like.
To find out more about Joel Ansett, visit his website.
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All photos by Zack Wilson Photography, courtesy of Joel Ansett.