If her upcoming album The Life was based on her life, Misty Boyce would have a box set's worth of true stories to share.
Even though it includes only 10 songs (all penned by Boyce), The Life, to be released in January, is an impressive body of work for good reason. Coming from a Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter whose journeys have spanned both America coasts and beyond, her dramatic life experiences at the ripe age of 30 should provide a wealth of material for many years to come.
Fueled by the title cut The Life is the powerful, exhilarating follow-up to Boyce's self-titled full-length debut from 2010.
A lot has happened to her since -- including a life-changing tour with Sara Bareilles. If this enticing chapter sounds a bit cliched, don't let it detract from the fact that her entire story is true.
"I would say that there were and are still a lot of really kind of dramatic things in my life that happened over the last year and a half, both great and kind of tragic," Boyce offered during a phone call from her apartment last week. "But I sort of feel like this song in particular and kind of the album as a whole are dealing with not what happens to you in life but kind of how you deal with it."
As a writer, Boyce aims for the dark and mysterious, but executes many of her songs in such an uplifting manner that you can't help but embrace them. The title cut is a perfect example.
"It's one of the more upbeat songs on the album, but also the one that captured the theme of all of the songs the best," Boyce said of "The Life," which she wrote in a couple of days in the bedroom of her first L.A. apartment that she shared with "two dudes" who could hear every sound she made. "Like making this choice to open your eyes and see what's cool around you instead of focusing on what's sad around you."
Written in May 2013, "The Life" touches on troubling themes. In this interview, Boyce candidly follows those up with more thoughts on:
• The environment: "Not to be too doomsday, but the Earth is kind of fucked."
• Living in New York when Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012: "I was smack in the center of Brooklyn ... and we didn't even lose power. We just kind of watched Netflix through the whole experience while other people around us were devastated."
• And trying to survive in La La Land: "The third verse is sort of about a woman (not her) in Hollywood trying to make friends in all the wrong ways."
"It's like an observation of some of the people I've seen around here and the things that people do to look good and sound cool ...," she added about that last verse. "Just the way we turn ourselves into something else in order to feel like we can fit in. That's not the life I want."
Soon after paraphrasing the final line of "The Life," Boyce proceeded to provide some extraordinary details about her own three decades filled with ups and downs.
Joking that she comes from "a super-classic American family," Boyce said her parents divorced when she was 4, upping the total to two stepbrothers and two half-sisters, along with a stepmom and stepdad.
"Yeah, so Christmastime is really a shit show, especially now that everybody's grown up with their own families," she said, making it sound like cheerful holiday reunions with everyone celebrating are as likely as Santa walking through the front door.
Boyce admittedly has struggled through some tumultuous times since her childhood in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she started playing the piano at the age of 5 and began writing songs four years later.
Eventually developing into a jazz pianist who began playing gigs as a 14-year-old, the budding artist was 10 when she first considered a life outside music.
"I really entertained the idea of being a marine biologist," Boyce said. "But once I realized the kind of math and science you have to do to do that, I was like, 'No, no thanks.' And really since then it's just been like, 'No, I want to play music.' That's been my plan and if I've ever had a Plan B, it's only like, I guess, I'll teach music. But to the chagrin of my dad, who was always like, 'But you're so smart, you could be a doctor, a lawyer.' I'm like, 'I would rather die.' "
With a recommendation from her classical piano teacher in Las Cruces, Boyce was 18 when she earned a scholarship to attend the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, where she graduated four years later with a bachelor's degree in jazz studies.
She had dreams of eventually enrolling at Julliard, but instead settled for trying "to make a go of it" musically in New York. Her career began as keyboardist of the Naked Brothers Band that included national TV appearances on The View and Today in 2008, when she released her first EP, For the Grace of Odd.
Two years later, Boyce's self-titled full-length debut came out on Modern Vintage Recordings followed by her first major bump along the career path she had chosen.
A disillusioned subject of "one of those classic stories" on a record label that "made a lot of promises they couldn't keep," Boyce said, "I found myself just really disappointed by the whole experience and then went through a period where actually music wasn't fun anymore, which totally knocked me on my ass because it had been the thing that gave me all my comfort and all my solace. But it stopped being fun and I thought maybe I should look at something else or try to find something else."
Hungry for a change
Boyce turned to training to become a yoga instructor and, inspired by reading Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, working in some of New York City's finest restaurants with her then-boyfriend, who was in the business.
With the intention of moving up, she took hosting jobs at Boqueria and Blue Hill, the latter operated by executive chef Dan Barber with celebrity clientele that included Barack Obama and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Laughing about feeling "more miserable than (at) any of the shitty gigs I was doing playing music," Boyce reasoned, " 'I should just go back to the thing that actually feeds me, not just by giving me money but also feeds my soul. I need to go back to writing and playing.' And then when I did, it was with much more resolve and I feel like I haven't looked back since. Even in tough times, I'm like, 'There's no way I can do anything else. This is it.' "
Before coming to that realization, though, Boyce went through one of the darkest periods of her life.
"I think my disappointment with the music industry and feeling like I lost my life purpose in that disappointment informed a lot of the songs and my life," she said. "Just like trying to figure out, 'OK, how do I navigate ...' I mean, not to be dramatic, but I was literally like suicidal during this time. I really felt like, 'If I can't do this, I don't know what to do.' "
For someone so dedicated and passionate about their craft to have that hopeless feeling might be natural, but Boyce already knew, "Killing myself wasn't the option I wanted to take. So it was like a journey to find ... like how do I flip the vibe? Like how do I turn my mind, get my mind to start working for me instead of against me in this really hard time?
"Just like literally making the decision whether it ... I still struggle with this. Am I lying to myself by giving myself positive thinking or is it actually helping? And at the end of the day I think it's actually helping. I feel better when I dig in and do some yoga and meditate and literally flip all the negative thoughts into the absolute opposite."
Since then, Boyce has relied on her inner strength to deal with other terrible circumstances.
In August 2012, she called off her wedding planned for that October. Ending that long-term relationship, she decided, "Now that I've chosen this life of isolation again, it's sort of in my hands to make the best of it and what kind of stories am I gonna tell myself to kind of make that true. And that's when I moved out to L.A. and was like, 'Fuck it. I'm starting over.' "
She felt that decision was validated by getting hired to play on Bareilles' The Blessed Unrest world tour followed by the "Little Black Dress" tour this summer. Boyce's friend (and Bareilles' musical director) Chris Morrissey helped bring the performers together, who "really hit it off on a personal level" when Bareilles performed "Brave" on the Today show on April 25, 2013.
"I honestly think I was one of the only keyboard players that Chris knew who was a girl that could also sing," Boyce said modestly, calling the touring gig "the journey of my life" that involved playing a computer programming keyboard for the first time.
"Doing that on a gig of such a high profile was like really terrifying," Boyce added. "But, you know, I managed to make it work and they helped me along the way, too. And, man, I grew so much from playing with her and watching her gracefully walk the line between being just like a normal girl, because she is so cool and down-to-earth, and being a pop star, 'cause she's also a pop star. ... I'm so glad that I didn't give up because I would have missed out on this experience."
Now that Bareilles is taking a break from full-time touring, the impending release of The Life means Boyce is preparing to hit the road in 2015.
Her desire is to start out slowly, supporting an established act on her wish list, providing one of them is available. She mentions Dawes, waits for Kathleen Edwards to end her musical respite (the Canadian recently opened a coffee shop called Quitters in suburban Ottawa) and yearns for the day that Metric's Emily Haines goes solo.
Through Hannah Georgas, who supported Bareilles this summer, Boyce met members of Edwards' management team.
"Whenever she gets her head back in the game musically, I hope I can open for her because I love her so much," Boyce said of Edwards, apparently knowing they have a lot more in common than well-written songs. "She's so open and so well-spoken. But the whole trick about being honest and open is that you also want to make complete sentences, which is something I have trouble with. (laughs) But she's so eloquent with the way she shares her experience and it's so beautiful."
Whatever the bill turns out to be, expect more positive vibes in 2015 for Boyce, who sometimes sounds like she needs to pinch herself as a reminder.
"Now I have to learn how to accept that it's happening and that I'm good enough to be there and I deserve it," she said.
Boyce is certainly focused on her profession, but also revealed a sharp sense of humor and an ability not to take herself too seriously.
At the risk of getting fined by the politically correct police, the multi-instrumentalist who also played acoustic and electric guitars on the album expanded on the "paper or plastic?" issue that "The Life" addresses.
"In California, it's illegal to have plastic bags at grocery stores now," Boyce said. "Which I think is a great thing, but I've also heard about how it takes almost as much energy to make paper bags. That's just so funny and ironic to me that we get caught up in these little, tiny details. Maybe in order to make ourselves feel better about the bigger picture? It's like, does it really matter which one we pick?"
Taking it to the 'Limits'
After shooting the video for "The Life" recently in L.A., Boyce headed to New York last week to make her next one for "Limits," the album's first cut with the emotional opening lines:
Limit one: you're born
Limit two: you're gone
The limits in between are real or make-believe
Minutes, weeks, and years
Some imagined fears
Inestimable lot: we're here and then we're not
Boyce said she wrote a shorter version of that song four years ago while doing yoga teacher training. In 2014, she sang those words at the funeral of one of the stepbrothers she had grown up with since the age of 5. Like her, he turned 30 this year.
Looking back on that song, with a second half that includes what she refers to as "a letter to God," Boyce struggled to get through some of the lyrics.
"It was bigger than I could have known," she said. "... Going back to some of these songs now and I'm like, 'Now that means something totally different to me, in a way I couldn't have expected.' ... Yeah, I didn't expect for it to mean as much as it does now."
She politely declined to offer more information about her stepbrother's death, "out of respect for my parents," but said it was tragic and singing at his funeral "was tough and really cathartic."
Months later, the heartache remains, but Boyce tries to deal with the pain with a dose of optimism.
Told her catchy delivery on "The Life" is reminiscent of Paula Cole, Boyce takes it as a compliment, then shyly confesses she was a fan of Dawson's Creek. (Cole's "I Don't Want to Wait" was the show's theme song.)
Boyce also revealed that the song's melody actually was inspired by listening to a lot of Elliott Smith, then "playing a writing game with myself" by reworking some of his chord progressions.
Initially asked to provide details about the song -- that offers the demanding option to "Give us the life we want" -- and how it relates to her life, Boyce was flustered that she didn't give a proper response. But her early explanation couldn't be more concise -- or life-affirming:
"Yeah, maybe some things that are happening in my life are really sad," she said, "but I have the choice to either let it totally fuck me up or I can spin it, literally spin the story in my brain to something more positive."
Give a listen to "The Life." And feel free to offer your comments below.