It was a quiet February day in Boulder when Sarah Brunner, Tyler McGinnis and two friends sat down for a meal at the Elkhorn Bistro.
Brunner and McGinnis, Seattle musicians who recently formed The Hipocrats, rented out a cabin at the Free Enterprise Radon Health Mine and were enjoying being off the grid. There was no music involved. They were just enjoying time away, toasting Brunner’s birthday and celebrating recent accomplishments. The duo started writing songs together in the fall of 2021 and had recently narrowed down six for an album, which they planned to release in summer 2022 before embarking on a U.S. tour.
“We felt the magic,” McGinnis said. “It felt super right to go this direction after having our own solo careers.”
What they didn’t have was a name for the album.
Inspiration, however, can strike in the most unlikely of places, and for The Hipocrats, their muse happened to be Bistro waitress Joy Fleming, a woman who lived up to her name.
“She was so uplifting, cheerful, honest and transparent,” McGinnis said.
“The way she opened up and shared so much about herself brought tears to her eyes. It hit us so hard. Her expression was such a cool, unexpected surprise,” Brunner added. “We went to The Bistro two days in a row, just to see her again.”
A few weeks after this visit, while brainstorming album names, McGinnis and Brunner kept coming back to Joy.
“At first we thought ‘Ode to Joy,’ as a play on the classic, but we decided to go with ‘Road to Joy’ instead. There’s a lot of depth and meaning there that ties into our songs,” McGinnis said.
On June 10, 2022, The Hipocrats released “Road to Joy” and immediately took off on a 90-date, 26-state tour, which they said had many highlights, including playing the legendary Hotel Cafe in Los Angeles, the Saxon Pub in Austin, Texas and a songwriters-in-the-round show in Nashville.
Taking this “Road to Joy” was a big risk for McGinnis and Brunner. They left what they knew and took off on an ambitious project, dedicating themselves full-time to the music they created. It’s not an easy road, McGinnis said, but it’s a tremendously rewarding one.
“I quit my job of 10 years to do this,” he said. “Every single little thing that comes along to remind me I made the right choice is super meaningful for me. I couldn’t be happier with how it’s turned out.”
Overcoming hardships and making difficult choices to improve one’s life is what “Road to Joy” is all about. It’s a journey, one that McGinnis said never truly ends.
“There’s no finish line,” he said. “It’s not like we’re going to stop growing. The ‘Road to Joy’ is setting an intention. We are setting our course for a direction moving forward in our lives.”
Such reflections are heard in “The Cuffing Season” and “So Long Together” on “Road to Joy,” and the other four songs also deal with similar themes. The album as a whole is about personal growth and self-exploration, and is crafted with delicate harmonies and melodic fiddle-playing by Ruth Navarre, who joined the duo for several dates on the tour.
The tour, also named “Road to Joy,” intentionally led McGinnis and Brunner back to the waitress whose name became synonymous with this major chapter in their lives.
But their literal road to Joy – just like the road on the album – was anything but easy.
“We drove through Boulder and stopped at the Elkhorn Bistro, only to find out she wasn’t working there anymore,” Brunner said. “Then we stopped by the Sweet Spot. Through Kayla [Holman] we were able to get contact information for Joy’s husband. We left him a message and then went on to Missoula, where we had a show.”
“We were feeling a little defeated because we weren’t able to see her, but at the show we met [former Boulder Monitor editor] Josh Murdock,” McGinnis added. “He was familiar with Joy and we had a really cool interaction. The next day we heard from Joy’s husband and got her work number.”
When they finally reached her and told her about how she had inspired them, Joy was practically speechless.
“She said ‘you don’t know how much this means to me,’” Brunner said. “She was crying and we were holding back tears, It was so cool. She told us she’d been on her own road to Joy, a road to find herself.”
When reached by The Monitor, Joy said that initial conversation back in February had an impact on her, too, considering them “the highlight of my employment at the Bistro.”
“I felt a deep connection to the same spiritual path,” Joy said, “and I felt they were both very driven to stay on that path.”
Naming the album “Road to Joy” is more about that path than it is about her, Joy said, but “it’s all connected.”
“Finding me, being me…it’s a continual passage,” she said.
McGinnis said he was particularly touched to know the feeling was mutual, that the exchange meant something to Joy, as well. It feels meant to be, he said, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The fact that the moment we were naming the album we met Joy was really the cherry on top of an amazing experience,” McGinnis said. “We are constantly in search of inspiration and meaning, and Joy was kind of our ‘ah ha’ moment. We were blown away by her transparency and warmth. She didn’t have to interact with us the way she did. She’s such a deep person, a well of philosophy. She has such a great outlook on life that most people don’t care to dive into or dwell on.”
McGinnis and Brunner sent an album after their conversation last week. They look forward to hearing from her and staying in touch. Perhaps their paths will cross again.
“She said there’s a stage where she works,” McGinnis said.
(as published in the Nov. 2 issue of The Boulder Monitor)
You can also check out a full review of the album I did for Americana Highways.