Joni Laurence

This is not a scene in which one would expect to find a touring musician: a cozy room with a little twin bed, a kittycat poster on the wall, stuffed animals everywhere. But at 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning in Elkhart, Ind., this is where Joni Laurence finds herself.

“There was a family that decided to host me, which means they give me a free place to stay,” Laurence explained. “And I ended up staying in their 7-year-old daughter’s
room. It’s kind of nice actually. Normally I just get a couch.”

And such is the life of Joni Laurence. Laurence, a folk singer/songwriter with close ties to Champaign and the University of Illinois, has had a decidedly unconventional career.

Laurence’s career as a musician took a long time to develop; she didn’t learn how to play guitar until her senior year of college and didn’t fully commit to a career in music until her late thirties. Laurence still remembers the conversation that ended up being the turning point of her career.

“I was talking to a friend about how busy I was,” she said. “And how I wish I had one year of my life to just focus on music. And my friend said, ‘Wait, you’re 33 years old and your life is set?'”

It was then that Laurence realized how many doors still remained open to her, that being middle-aged didn’t necessarily mean that her life path was set in stone. She began saving up money so that her “one year of nothing but music” would be feasible.

“That one year turned into two and a half years,” she said. And the momentum has yet to cease.

Laurence released her fourth album, With No Apology, in mid-July and is touring the country rigorously. And while many of the dates are in or near her new home in Portland, she is making sure to stop by Champaign as much as possible.

Laurence played at Aroma CafÇ on September 28th with Angie Heaton and is returning to Champaign to play at Verde Gallery tonight.

Laurence’s return to Champaign is a significant one; she spent over a decade working with the University of Illinois in labor relations and she recorded her latest album in Urbana. Perhaps more importantly, Champaign was the city in which her music started to take direction and her fan base started to grow.

“My fans take care of me,” Laurence said. It is her favorite topic to talk about, and an idea that has shaped the way that she has pursued her career. “I’m not that interested in getting signed by a major record label. I’m more into creating an organic, grassroots following.”

This following will likely be out in full force upon Laurence’s return to her old home tonight. It was not easy for Laurence to walk away from the music scene and her fans in Champaign, but she felt it was time for a change. So she moved her life and her career to Portland.

It is fitting that Laurence named her new album With No Apology. The name is a summation of her life philosophy. It’s about changing scenery and starting a new life in a new place. It’s about a middle-aged woman dropping a 15-year career and pursuing a far less stable profession.

The name reflects the album’s sound as well. With No Apology is a live album and thus, like any live album, will have its share of imperfections.

“I remember there is one line in a song where I said the wrong lyrics,” Laurence recalled. “But I kept it on the album. I think a live album and a studio album are two very different forms of art.”

Laurence is cautious about categorizing her music, but loosely describes it as modern folk that incorporates elements of rock, country and blues. She also describes her music as very lyrically driven.

She has also had plenty to write about: a life that went from stable to unpredictable; a life where she wakes up in a 7-year-old’s bedroom one day and returns to her home in Champaign the next.

With no apology, indeed.

Don’t miss your last chance this year to see Joni Laurence tonight at the Verde Gallery (17 E. Taylor St. in downtown Champaign) at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5.

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