"For me, it's about never really giving up hope. I didn't really play music at all the first few years I began living in Tucson, because I really just couldn't," says singer-songwriter Joyce Luna. Her vibe is similar to the type of acoustic tunes we've come to know from performers like Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell—something warm and pristine and smart that aims straight for the heart, which isn't afraid to raise a fist in protest—with more of a trademark humor. She's just recently sunken her feet into the Old Pueblo's music scene, all while working as a jail psychotherapist, giving comedy hour a shot, and otherwise overcoming sickness.
It took winning that arduous battle with an out-of-the-ordinary medical ailment—one that dealt her a heaping dose of harsh reality for a solid decade—to get here. She reflects on the rib malformation that moved her out of songwriting and performing for years, and speaks with a sense knowing that only someone who's been through their personal hell and back could.
"It was serendipity, it was luck, or I don't know what ... He happened to specialize in robotic surgery that corrected the exact thing that was wrong with me," Joyce says of her UAMC surgeon. "When I had my arm in certain positions, my first rib would press on my pulmonary artery and vein. It wasn't even a nerve thing like most would think it would be."
Battling a persistent numbness in her hand and a real risk for blood clots that kept her from playing guitar, Luna shied away from her music career. Before that, she was one half of the east coast folk duo Justina & Joyce and moved 10,000 copies of their self-produced LPs during her 1990's college years. It was during this time of uncertainty that Joyce decided to try something new and go for her master's, garnering a degree that would lead to her being a part-timer psychotherapist at the Pima County Jail.
"I do a lot of crisis and suicide prevention work, and those moments of connection can often mean the difference between life and death," Joyce elaborates. "When someone is in such despair that the only solution they see is to take their own life, one of the few things that can keep someone from making an impulsive decision that they can't take back is a moment of genuine connection with another human being."
On why she invests herself in her work as a psychotherapist, it's about having a one-one-one connection with people as opposed to a one-on-however many people are watching her play.
"As much as I love to perform, it's a weird dynamic where I'm revealing a lot of myself and I'm being very genuine on stage, so people feel like they know me. Of course they do—they know everything about me and I know nothing about them."
"Still, I love when people come up to me after a show and say my music helped them," she continues. "I like to think that I do a lot of the same things I do as a performer, but just in a different way as a psychotherapist, in helping people that way. I've gotten letters from people who tell me a song I wrote helps them have the courage or motivation to change their lives. There's no greater honor, and the therapeutic relationship can provide the same support."
For Joyce to get back to this place where she's doing music again alongside her therapist role, it wasn't just a case of physical recovery, but spiritual, too. Hot off of obtaining her degree, she first sought work in the arts again not through music, but in a comedy stint. Following a year of doing that, she found herself doing music through the help of a local choir.
"I felt like my soul was dying when I wasn't performing—I'm not even exaggerating! I had to get my creative self going again, so I did the most terrifying thing I could think of, which was improv, and I took classes at Unscrewed Theater before performing with the Tucson Improv Movement," she chuckles.
Later, she found Desert Voices, a local community chorus, and began singing with them. With time restraints in mind, she found doing it and improv simultaneously was a no-go and opted for the gig closest to what she was previously known for.
"I got to perform an original song there at our spring and holiday shows, which led me back into songwriting thanks to our really supportive director. It was about four years ago that I got into improv and Desert Voices two-and-a-half years ago. It's been a progression."
What writing and performing music comes down to for Joyce is a sense of community, of healing, and the human condition.
"We feel so alone in the world so much of the time, lonely within our own experiences. Music allows us to realize, 'Oh, this person's going through this, too, and look around at everyone else enjoying this song—they must get it, too,' and we get along with that sense of community. We realize that we're not alone. Whatever we're feeling in this moment, there's millions of people feeling the same thing right now. Not even just in their lifetime, but right now."
Despite her Bronx roots largely squaring-off her early performances into New England territory, she says Tucson has something different going for it.
"I've never felt the kind of camaraderie between other musicians here anywhere else, going to each other's shows and playing together. I've felt that, somewhat, in New England, but not like there is here. This city has become a gathering place for it."
This can be seen with Joyce's frequent collaborations in town with local artists like Jamie Anderson and Wally Lawder, or in the talent she's acquired in her new band, the Constellations, by shopping Tucson's list of premiere musicians at neighborhood venues like Monterey Court or Delectables.
She doesn't have a new album in the works yet, but she is searching for studios while touring Tucson with the band—with percussionist Tom Potter, Matt Bruner on bass and electric, keyboardist Mike Markowitz, and herself—alongside Desert Voices.
Before wrapping things up, Luna talks of her personal journey, and where she is now compared to her down-and-out days is nothing short of miraculous.
"What I had was a hard surgery with a long recovery. They have to deflate your lung to get to your rib. ... It's a very involved process. It was really a year and a half after that that I finally started having some real progress. It wasn't until this past winter to where I could start notably playing to the point that I can do the three hour shows at local venues."
With a stringent physical therapy regiment, there's still a road to a full recovery for Luna. "But, it still feels like a miracle that I get to play music again. I don't take it for granted ever."
For more information about Joyce Luna and her music, joycelunamusic.com.