Joan of Arc
Photo: Andy Mueller / Pitch Perfect PR

Joan of Arc Are Resurrected at Last (Just Ask Tim Kinsella)

By putting Joan of Arc’s collected works in a dynamic box set, Tim Kinsella gauges how fans and critics are reconciling with the band’s work with modern ears.

A Window & A Mirror
Joan of Arc
Joyful Noise
12 July 2024

“I often think I couldn’t do that, just sit down and write a song the way other bands do. I specialize in building systems, and songs get pushed out of those out of curiosity. I get ideas like, ‘I would like to play the drum machine through the pedal board to see what that sounds like,'” said Tim Kinsella, musician/author/filmmaker, whose unique and consistently fascinating body of work has compelled fans and drawn vitriol from critics over the past two and a half decades. His resume includes emo pioneers Cap’n Jazz and its quasi-reunion project Owls, Make Believe, Ghosts and Vodka, Friend/Enemy, Everyoned, and his current project with his wife, Jenny Pulse.

Kinsella’s longest-running project, Joan of Arc, is getting the box set treatment, collecting their first five albums and a treasure trove of extra content. Their new archive collection, A Window & A Mirror, contains colored vinyl of the band’s releases on Jade Tree records: A Portable Model Of, How Memory Works, Live in Chicago 1999, The Gap, and So Much Staying Alive and Lovelessness. Joan of Arc briefly disbanded after the release of The Gap but then went on to regroup and record for other labels, releasing several more records before breaking up for good in 2020.

Aside from music, Kinsella also wrote and directed the film Orchard Vale and wrote the novels The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense, Let Go and Go On and On, and Sunshine on an Open Tomb. In addition, Joan of Arc have also played the score live at screenings of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc multiple times.

Kinsella formed Joan of Arc after the dissolution of emo band Cap’n Jazz, whose compilation An Alphabetapolothology is considered a canonical release of the genre. That group has reformed occasionally for festivals and will appear at the Best Friends Forever in Las Vegas this October. Other members of Cap’n Jazz went on to form emo institutions such as the Promise Ring and American Football.

Where Cap’n Jazz are relatively straightforward indie pop, Joan of Arc immediately established themselves as an adventurous and restless project. The distinction between the two bands is apparent from the debut release, A Portable Model Of. From there, Joan of Arc continued to evolve their core elements of electronics and acoustic guitars, along with the fascinating wordplay that has become Kinsella’s trademark. There was also a revolving door of collaborators. Members played or stepped away as life made space or prevented them from being involved.

“By the third or fourth Joan of Arc album, it was clear that what we want to do isn’t going to make enough money for us to only do this, so we adopted the agreement that the band is here when you want it. People come and go at different times. Want to be distracted? Come be part of things. Got a new job and can’t get the time off? It’s okay to skip this tour,” Kinsella said. “That went a long way in refining and warping the trajectory of the sounds. Some bands with high turnover are because the singer is a tyrant, but that is not the case here.” Consequently, no two Joan of Arc releases sound alike, yet they all hang together.

While Kinsella is proud of the work under the Joan of Arc name, he has mixed feelings about the box set. “I signed a contract with Jade Tree Records at 20. I thought they were a big deal at the time, and I didn’t have any money for a lawyer. Cut ahead 25 years to me hearing from Joyful Noise, who said, ‘We already licensed them [the albums]’. The contract I signed as a 20-year-old allowed them to license the box set content over two decades later. That said, the band has always been important to me, so obviously it is flattering,” he said. “It’s also a weird time warp because my life isn’t that different. I’m still living in the same neighborhood, playing shows to similarly-sized audiences.”

However, he wanted to make sure A Window & A Mirror was special. One of the bonuses is an exclusive seven-inch from Red Blue Yellow, the first name and iteration of Joan of Arc. There is also a 132-page hardbound book of Kinsella’s notes, as well as access to the “Joan of Archive”, a digital collection of over 100 alternate versions of songs and unreleased material. The whole thing comes in a custom-built wooden box featuring laser-etched artwork, all signed by Kinsella.

“I am a manic maker of charts. They help me communicate my song ideas to the band members. The book came from boxes of my old notebooks. Every record has its own story of how it was made,” Kinsella said. For the faithful, unraveling Kinsella’s arrangements and lyrics is a large part of being a Joan of Arc fan. “These are old records, so there have been evolutions in how I approach songwriting. You can see all the drafts of all kinds of songs in the book and how things overlap. There are notes that informed The Gap in the How Memory Works section,” Kinsella said.

“I listen to a lot of music with lyrics in other languages. I don’t want to be distracted by lyrics. I find that corny lyrics can ruin a song for me, and I wouldn’t presume that I will always be able to outrun clichés. Part of the craftsmanship is when to use it and how to do that differently,” he said.

A box set often acknowledges that a group’s legacy is meaningful, which is undoubtedly true with Joan of Arc. Their influence can be heard across a range of bands and genres, even if it is hard to pin down. There isn’t an act that “sounds just like Joan of Arc”, but it is easy to hear how their experimentation inspired many.

Despite this clear influence, Joan of Arc’s relationship with critics was tenuous, particularly the records that make up A Window & a Mirror. Many reviews were outright hostile, and much of the derision took the form of personal attacks on Kinsella rather than the music. It is often clear that their frustration with Kinsella comes from their own projections of the band’s work, not the actual songs. For his part, Kinsella has taken it in stride. “There are different ways of influencing things, and a lot of what we were doing might have seemed out there at the time but is more common now. [The critical response] taught me not to get hung up on what other people think. It trained me to have a thicker skin,” he said.

For Kinsella, the joy is in the creating, but that doesn’t mean releasing everything. “The habit of creating and the freedom in that is the most important thing to me,” he said. “I have never thought that being prolific in itself is interesting. Most of what I write doesn’t get released. At some point, there is enough material for a new record. I ask myself how the songs fit together and how I feel about that. If anything, I work against being prolific. It doesn’t do anyone favors.”

He continued, “I make piles of ideas and pull things out musically and lyrically. I always have piles and piles of ideas. For the record, we are working on now [the next Tim Kinsella and Jenny Pulse project]; I have about 60 pages of ideas for lyrics and music. I go over and over those ideas to see which phrases attach to which music and which phrases attach to each other,” he said. “Across disciplines, collage is something that I always appreciate. T. S. Elliott spoke about the objective correlative. Not symbolism, but sticking things together and an overtone emerges. Things become more than the sum of their parts.”

Currently, Kinsella is focused on making music under his name with his wife, Jenny Pulse. Giddy Skelter came out in 2023, and they are working on a new release for next year. Another project, the noise group Who Is the Witness, is getting started, and there is the aforementioned upcoming Cap’n Jazz set at Best Friends Forever. He is grateful, if a bit bemused, by that project’s elevation to the emo canon. “I am excited that it’s as profitable as it is. It is fun to do, laughing with your best friends from high school. When I’m more self-serious, it’s amusing to me that the most basic thing I’ve made is the one that people have responded to, but people can identify with it more easily,” he said.

“With me and Jenny, it’s just us. The one commonality is that I am still reluctant to impose my tastes on the trajectory. In Joan of Arc, it was always a group decision about how it will turn out. I always have an expansive appreciation for how it’ll turn out. It’s always exploratory for me,” Kinsella said.

“I have a profound bias for wonder. I am a big fan of feeling surprised and surprising myself,” he said. “There are so many clichés about things that become more real over time. The depth in simple truisms emerges with experience. I don’t know how many times I had to hear or read the idea of enjoying the process and not being attached to the outcomes before it stuck. The worst diss is that something is less than the sum of its parts. Anything artistic, you want it to be irreducible. You don’t want it to be just the mechanics.”