Have you ever heard of the concept “mental furniture”? I first read about it more than a decade ago on the beloved blog Cup of Jo, when the site’s founder Joanna Goddard mentioned it within a 2012 post about memorizing poems. She wrote about a reader who’d commented, saying that her former professor called this sort of memorization “investing in your own ‘mental furniture’’’ with the idea that “he’d always have those words as furniture in his head for his thoughts to sit on, even in old age.”
The image immediately settled in my brain, and as evidenced, I’ve been thinking about it ever since. But in my experience, there are pieces of mental furniture you need to work for—like memorizing a poem—and there are pieces that come to you.
A few years after reading that post, I was in college, and because this was still a thing that college students did, I was in a Facebook group made up of current and former students from my same journalism program. The conceit was simple: Whenever we felt compelled, we could write something—a short essay, poem, rambling paragraph—and post it in the group for the others to read and comment on. It was a low-stakes exercise with no real requirements or expectations—just a place where, unlike our jobs or schoolwork, we could write about whatever we wanted, however we wanted. One day, one of the women, who had already graduated and moved away, wrote about falling in love with a new partner. He was the kind of person, she wrote, who made you wish that maybe you could have just a bit more time on Earth. The essay was beautiful, and the line, aching and honest, stuck—a new piece of furniture forming.
I couldn’t tell you exactly when the next piece of this puzzle entered my life, but I know it happened like this: My partner’s friend had just told him about a band she’d discovered called Joseph. The group was made up of three sisters from Oregon—Natalie, Meegan, and Allison Closner. He sent me their 2016 NPR Tiny Desk performance, where the three played a short set of indie-pop songs off their album I’m Alone, No You’re Not, with their family harmonies, accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, on full display. Immediately, I was hooked. In the years that followed, Joseph became the natural soundtrack to our relationship. When the band released their album Good Luck, Kid in 2019, I sent my partner a link to the record’s 10th track: “Side Effects.” Against a calm guitar and swelling strings, the band sings a sweet, simple chorus: “You make me feel like heaven needs to take its time / I don’t wanna move.” It was my furniture—that Facebook essay I loved so much—just in another form. The song had other clues that made it stand out—artifacts from our relationship that had somehow found its way into the lyrics—and though my boyfriend and I never quite said it aloud, it was understood: If we were ever going to have A Song, this was it.
While we were finding our way to “Side Effects,” mentally marking it as our own, across the country, other couples were doing the same. Sitting down for a recent interview, the band told ELLE.com that once while playing a show, they looked out in the crowd to see a guy holding a sign that read: “Help us practice our first dance.” As Joseph began to play “Side Effects,” the couple started dancing, and around them, the crowd cleared to watch.
“It’s mind-blowing,” said Natalie, the band’s oldest sister, as she reflected on what it’s like to have their songs become touchstones in their fans’ lives. It’s also proof of a bet that’s ultimately paid off. Four years older than twins Meegan and Allie, Natalie first began a solo music career but eventually wondered if she should bring her sisters—who could always sing and harmonize together—onboard. “When we first sang together, I remember being like, oh my gosh, they don’t understand what this is,” Natalie explained. “I had this feeling of: oh okay, here we go.”
The three officially became a band in October 2012, first calling themselves Dearborn. “We were working with this guy named Andrew Stonestreet, and he was like, ‘I think what you’re doing is more powerful than the name. You should have something that matches it,’” Meegan said. “Allie was sitting there and said, ‘Actually, I’ve been thinking about a name.’ We had just gone to Joseph, Oregon, where our grandpa’s from, and she’d made a playlist after the trip called ‘Joseph’ and had thought, what if we named the band Joseph? It was this almost spiritual moment where you feel like, that’s it.” Allison added, “It didn’t feel like a name of a person. It felt like it held a lot more power and feeling and non-humanness to it.”
Two years later, the band released their first album, Native Dreamer Kin, an appropriately dreamy nine-track record, the kind you’d put on if you found yourself lying outside looking at the stars on a summer night. After signing to ATO Records in 2015, the band released I’m Alone, No You’re Not in August 2016. The album’s first single, the anthemic “White Flag,” reached No. 1 on Billboard’s adult alternative chart. (As of now, it’s been streamed more than 34 million times on Spotify.) The band found themselves playing on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and The Today Show, slipping in their NPR Tiny Desk Concert—a bucket-list gig—in between. In 2017, they swept the festival circuit, playing at Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Glastonbury, and more. They weren’t a household name by any means, but they were finding success and finding it quickly. But in the propulsion, they hadn’t stopped to ask each other: Is this the direction we want to be heading?
“We didn’t really know what could happen,” Natalie said. “You kind of imagine it, and you’re like, okay, whatever comes, we want it…but once we had that engine behind us, we just got even busier. It was three years where we’d be gone 265 days one year, 280 days the other...I’m glad we did that, because that’s [our] foundation, and I’m glad we had all the opportunities we did, but I didn’t really give anyone a choice in it.”
She continued, “Because we hadn’t been close growing up and different family dynamics, we didn’t have established ways to stay connected...We started having those difficult, confrontational conversations where it was ultimately about: You’re my sister, I want you to thrive. If [the band] doesn’t fit into that, then you need to feel freedom to find what that is. That’s terrifying, but it freed everybody to make that choice, because they wanted it for their own life, not because it’s just happening to you.” Instead of adhering to some familial obligation to stay in the band, they recognized the obligation they had to, potentially, let each other go.
Spoiler: No one left.
Naturally, the sisters channeled the revelation into their next album, 2019’s Good Luck, Kid. The lead single “Fighter” finds the women reaching for each other as they implore: “Don’t keep yourself from me,” “Don’t keep me in the dark.” And nowadays, the sisters are having more fun with the whole process. “We are also trying to choose where we spend our energy a little bit better—not only saying ‘yes,’” Natalie added.
When it came time to write their latest album, The Sun, released this April, the sisters were faced with a new, pandemic-era obstacle: writing songs together over Zoom when they were all living in different places. “We wrote a lot of bad songs first,” Meegan recalled. “It was a big learning curve, because you can’t all sing at the same time, and you can’t sing with the guitar. Then we had this moment where a friend of ours, Trent Dabbs, sent us this melody, [which became] the melody to our song ‘The Sun.’ It felt like it broke open the valve a little bit.”
The three wrote the lyrics together over Zoom and what emerged wasn’t just the album’s title track—“I thought I was a light switch you turned on / but I am the sun”—but the thesis for the record. “Believing in yourself, feeling empowered in yourself, and not diminishing yourself for the sake of anybody else,” Meegan said. “Without really trying, a lot of the songs ended up coming under that same umbrella of finding yourself and the idea of, what if I’m more than I think I am? Being pushed down by relationships or systems or your own thinking [and then] coming out of those and being like, what if I’m more than all of those things say I am? That was a big moment for me in my own healing process, writing that...It was a lead rope out of my own trauma.”
The album is full of those ropes, life rafts the sisters wrote at first for themselves, and then once the record was out in the world, for their fans. In the album’s opener, “Waves Crash,” Natalie enters over minimal instrumentation, crooning, “I am not what I provide / I’m not how hard I try to be true.” In the closer, the sisters offer a chorus that’s more of a meditation: “Love is flowing / love is flowing / love is flowing / love is flowing, and I wanna get in it.”
But getting to the finished product was an act of the very kind of self-love and bravery that weaves its way throughout the record. “We had to use all of the things we were talking about, that we were learning, in the process of making [the album], which was really intense,” Meegan said. “Multiple moments of having to confront somebody else’s idea or having to go to ATO and be like, please, give us more money, because we don’t like what we did,” Natalie added.
In one instance, their team was particularly excited about a potential song (with a “really catchy hook,” Natalie said), but Meegan came forward to ask if it could be removed from the project. The song was about being wronged, about the important moment in one’s processing when you’re declaring that someone else was at fault—but Meegan didn’t want to go back to that place every time she sang it. With one song shelved, another appeared in its wake. “In the process of her saying that hard thing, I don’t want that song on the album, she started talking about the experience of that relationship,” Natalie said. “As she was talking, I was like, what else? What else? Writing it all down.” They sent it all to Dabbs. “Before we even got on Zoom, he had put those words to this piece of music he already had. We played the voice memo of it and all cried.” The result is the album’s midway point, “Slow Dance,” a magnanimous ballad sung to an ex: “The joy, pains made us more human / and we just needed room / to see both sides of the truth.”
This sort of centeredness comes from one of the sisters’ biggest inspirations for the album: therapy. Before Meegan played “Slow Dance” at Irving Plaza in New York City during their headlining tour this June, she told the crowd that the song represents the perspective she has now—how she knows that, at the time, she was doing the best she could with the tools she had. (The admission prompted someone in the audience to yell out, “Yes ma’am!” in response.) The album’s first single, “Nervous System,” an ode to self-preservation and self-regulation, was inspired by Allison discovering Panic Free TV, a set of online videos that provide free, science-based help for those suffering from panic attacks.
“I think this album is the most open-handed we’ve been,” Meegan said. “The other albums, there was a lot of pressure. I think that happened with the last album, like, this has to be great. And it didn’t do what we thought it would. That was good though, because coming into this one, we were just like, you never know. That brought a lot of freedom to the whole process and the album itself, because we weren’t tight-fisting it. Even to the point where now we have the most people coming to our shows ever. They’re the best crowds we’ve ever had...It’s not surprising, because we’ve worked so hard for this, but it is surprising in the way that you’re like, this is so fun. I’m not like, wait, but why isn’t it even more? I don’t feel greedy at all. Everything just feels like pure joy.”
By actively choosing to be in the band, the three have been able to come to work with a new sense of pride. “We have to rely on each other so much to perform and sound good and look good and say all the right things,” Meegan said. “That’s something [where we’ve] grown a lot. There’s been a lot of letting each other be who each of us is.” During one moment in the band’s set from this summer’s tour, the three cover The Rascall Flatts’ “Here Comes Goodbye,” the first song Natalie ever heard Meegan and Allie “really belt” on. It’s a piece of their origin story come to life and a moment to remind the audience, and maybe themselves, why they started this in the first place.
Hours before that June Irving Plaza show, Joseph helped me with my own origin story. Thanks to a plan months in the making, I told my partner we’d been invited to watch the band’s sound check ahead of the show, a concert we’d bought tickets for the moment they went on sale. We stood in the back of the venue as Joseph sang through a few tracks, stopping occasionally to talk to their team about sound levels and other technicalities. Then the backing band left the stage, the lights darkened, and the sisters announced they’d be doing one more song on their own. As they started to play “Side Effects,” the song my partner and I had officially decided would be our first dance song at our wedding, he leaned toward me and whispered, “Are you going to tell them?” By the second verse, I grabbed his hand and walked him closer, toward the center of the floor, before turning around and asking if he’d marry me—the most open-handed I’ve ever been in front of the person I’m most proud to stand next to. He was shocked, said yes, and stood with me as we listened to the rest of the song, wishing, just for a moment, that we could have a bit more time.