A Buddhist R&B singer seems almost as antithetical as a Scientologist psychiatrist or a Mormon beer baron. One tradition is rooted in emotional volatility and the other is a serene religion seeking enlightenment. Bodhisattvas posses wisdom, but Bobby Brown made “Don’t Be Cruel.” It’s a toss-up.
If her stellar debut EP, Stay Around, is any harbinger, Joyce Wrice may be the first to bridge the gap between satori and soul since Tina Turner converted in 1974. After all, the initial precept of Buddhism is that all life is suffering, and few circumstances cause greater pain than heartache.
“It reminds me to take responsibility,” Wrice says in the house she shares in Culver City with friends she met through the Soka Gakkai International organization. Soka Gakkai is based on the teachings of Nichiren Buddhism, a sect emphasizing the Lotus Sutra and the belief that all beings possess an innate Buddha nature. To her right is an altar, to which she prays twice daily.
“The practice reminds you that you have the power to do anything that you want and you’re in control of your environment,” Wrice says, sitting cross-legged on the coach, in a loose-fitting white, navy and pink shirt, thick wavy black hair, gold hoop earrings and chartreuse slippers. The 24-year-old could pass for Jhené Aiko’s more blissful and meditative cousin. “You shouldn’t be swayed by outside circumstances.”
It’s been three years since Wrice moved to L.A. after obtaining a degree at Soka University in Orange County. She came to Buddhism through her Japanese mother, who met Wrice’s African-American father when he served overseas in the U.S. military. Dad inadvertently incubated his daughter’s love of music through a Tamia CD he played constantly in the car.
“I stole the album and just listened to her, trying to sing as good or better,” Wrice says of her first influence. “I loved the tonality, the emotions, the passion behind her voice.”
That turned out to be the only vocal coach she’d need (with assists from Brandy, Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, Aaliyah and Monica maxi-singles). By high school graduation, Wrice and a ukulele collaborator earned YouTube fame by covering everything from SWV to Nate Dogg. Yet her career didn’t begin in earnest until she met L.A. producers Polyester and D.K. the Punisher and rapper Dom Kennedy, who enlisted her for hook duties.
The music circulated to two rising, underground heroes: Stones Throw producer Mndsgn and Inglewood singer-songwriter SiR. Both helped Wrice cultivate the combination of 1,000-thread-count smoothness and syncopated effervescence found on May’s Stay Around. SiR executive produced the project and co-wrote lyrics, which riff on Wrice’s recent heartbreak.
“It was my first real love and the first time experiencing emotions that I’d never been through — which turned out to be great content for the music,” Wrice says. “One of the best things about working with SiR is that he likes to twist things around to make them more interesting.”
If Aaliyah is the chief influence of contemporary R&B, Wrice sounds closer to a Velvet Rope–era Janet Jackson or Mariah Carey, without the garage door–opening vocal register. The words hew to the same lovelorn themes commonly found in the genre but with a sense of restraint and balance that bodes well for repeat listens and a long career. They catalog heartbreak but sound closer to beautiful songs of the dharma than the sufferings of a diva.
“I’m a positive, happy person and I just want these songs to make people feel something, anything,” Wrice says. “Growing up I was so fearful of everything and never wanted to take a risk, but now I realize it’s the only way to grow. Or else you might as well be dead.”
An L.A. native, Jeff Weiss edits Passion of the Weiss and hosts the Shots Fired podcast. Find him online at passionweiss.com.