How Joy Askew Found Her Tiny Sliver of Daylight
Askew shares the intertwining of her music career and vegan activism.
Posted May 29, 2018
As a child growing up in Newcastle, England in the 60’s, musician Joy Askew knew something special was happening. Not only were “British Invasion” bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones becoming popular in England and conquering America, but artists like Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis were also coming to England and influencing British artists.
“I was extremely influenced by the arrival of the Beatles and the Stones. I’m always fascinated by what happened–it was a very special time–just a huge explosion of music and art. Especially in England where it just flourished–art, theatre, poetry– t all intermingled. That’s why the Beatles made films–it was the new thing,” she explained.
“I lived in the North of England which was a great place for concerts– everybody liked to go there. And by the time I was 14 or 15 I’d seen Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd, Traffic–just a massive amount of bands. So, it was a really artistic hub drawing people like a magnet."
“Newcastle was happening.”
Perhaps no artist was more influential to Askew than Miles Davis. “And then I heard ‘Jack Johnson’ by Miles Davis. And I did manage to see Miles live when I was 20 before I went off to college. And that was just phenomenal,” Askew said. Still, to this day, if anybody asks me what my favorite record is I say that’s it.”
Soon, Askew started her own musical career. And after being influenced by American artists, she was keen on getting to the United States.
“I joined an all-female band and went to London by the time I was 19–did a lot of touring. But I ended up ditching all of that and going to jazz college by the time I was 21. Because I just felt like I wanted to know more music. I was really onto something that I loved,” Askew recalled. “After I left college, I joined a band in London and then I started forming my own band and started getting into that. But I was not satisfied in London. I was there for six years and felt like I was just not doing what I wanted to do. All I wanted to do was get to the States.”
Eventually, she joined the Joe Jackson band, which allowed Askew to permanently move to New York City–where she still resides to this day. “I got a chance to do a world tour with Joe Jackson which was his biggest world tour–it was his Night and Day album,” Askew explained. “He had a big hit and we went right around the world and played a lot of shows and Saturday Night Live type stuff. I worked with him for 12 years on and off.”
While Askew continued to play with Jackson, she also worked with other artists including Peter Gabriel and Laurie Anderson. But it was her experience with King Crimson guitarist Adrian Belew that was particularly influential in terms of her approach to writing music. Belew encouraged Askew to write about political issues, but to do so in a subtle way.
“Adrian Belew is one of the founding members of King Crimson. But he also worked with David Bowie in some incredibly powerful years… And I remember us sitting in the diner having a great talk–there was something going on in the world in 1985 that was terrible–it had to do with Ronald Reagan I guess. And we were talking about writing songs about political stuff,” Askew described. “And he’s the one that said, ‘You can’t be preachy. You can’t be corny. You can’t be literal.’"
“And I understood what he said – I got it.”
Little did Askew know that Belew’s advice would extend beyond music. One day, while walking around New York City, Askew came across a table where people were giving out information about the organization, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). This was the beginning of Askew’s path to veganism.
“I picked up a pamphlet. But the minute I looked at that thing, I went, ‘Oh God. What have I been doing?’” She recalled: “Somebody had set up a table for a farm sanctuary–the setting for Peaceable Kingdom. And they had leaflets and information and recipes and the whole thing. I picked up a flyer for Peaceable Kingdom. I think this was 2004 and I went to the premiere of that. This was a breakthrough film. They had their premiere at Lincoln Center and it was booked.”
This experience brought Askew into contact with vegan musician Moby, who had contributed music to the film. “Moby had done the music. They had a panel and he was on the panel afterwards. I saw the movie and it was stunning,” Askew said. “I realized that if you matched the right image with the right sound, you got meaning. And I loved that. Here’s this musician and he’s putting his music right where his heart is. He’s singing from that pain and he’s singing from what he sees and what he believes.”
This motivated Askew to become more involved in animal rights. “So after that premiere, I picked up a lot of leaflets. I saw a lot of people there who seemed to know each other. And I was literally out on the street the next day.”
Eventually, Askew began volunteering for the non-profit organization Farm Sanctuary. “Farm Sanctuary–Gene Baur he began that in 1986. He is now the great godfather of this whole movement. They have one on each coast. It’s huge–they have one in Ithaca, NY,” Askew described. “A lot of educational materials, which are all these leaflets and recipe books, come from them. And then a lot of other groups and sanctuaries have started since. A lot of other groups–like Mercy for Animals or Compassion Over Killing. Zoe Weil in Maine has been running for many years a Master’s program for Teachers of Humane Education.”
It was through this experience that Askew met a woman who would be a mentor to her in her activism, Carol Moon. “And Carol Moon, this woman that I met tabling, who taught me so much, had a masters in Humane Education. She was going around to all of the public schools for Farm Sanctuary,” Askew described. “And I went up to her and I said ‘How can I help? I want to volunteer.’ And she said, ‘Well, there’s a form you could fill out.’ And I said, ‘No! I want to do it now!’ And she seemed shocked because I wouldn’t take no for an answer. And I said, ‘Let me stand with you. Let me do this.’”
Watching Moon gave Askew an appreciation for the importance of that type of outreach. “You ask a lot of these people and they say, ‘I picked up a leaflet. Somebody handed me a leaflet,’ Askew explained. “It’s so important still, this one-on-one kind of thing. And she taught me everything. I watched her. I watched her deal with difficult people and I just thought, ‘Wow, this is incredible.’”
“She took me with her–I was her assistant. And we would teach Humane Ed with emphasis on animals sometimes six, seven lessons a day, several times a week. And that was one of the greatest learning experiences and beautiful experiences of reaching kids,” Askew said. “She didn’t teach younger kids because the information was just too horrific. But we started in middle school and did a lot of high school. And we even taught some young offenders from Rikers Island and people like that. And this was hard work but just very rewarding to go and do humane education. And it came from the animal rights point of view. Even though humane education covered human rights, animal rights and environment. So, I did that for four and a half years–volunteering with Carol. And that was absolutely fantastic.”
Eventually, as a result of these experiences, Askew became a vegan. “I realized that I wasn’t vegan. I was still drinking milk and eating cheese. And so, over the course of the next few months I managed to drop all of that.”
Askew soon also began to incorporate animal rights issues into her music. “Inspired by the movie Peaceable Kingdom, I wrote a song called 'Poor Man’s Greed,'" Askew said. “It was inspired by one scene in that movie and the filmmakers of that movie loved the song so much, they used that in their next film. So, if anybody knows my music, it’s usually that song.”
And remembering the lessons of her work with Adrian Belew, Askew feels that she was able to be subtle in the delivery of her message. “I think I managed to do that with ‘Poor Man’s Greed.’ Because I think it could also be applied, for instance, to a child caught in the middle of someplace like Syria–where there is a civil war. So, it’s not necessarily about a Askew said.
Askew continued to write other songs with vegan themes, including the treatment of rabbits when they are used in lab experiments. “I wrote a song called, ‘I Broke the Law,’ which is on my CD Drunk On You. And that’s actually inspired by a bunny rabbit who I had looked after,” she explained. “I was in London taking care of this rabbit in the garden and living in this house with a piano. I suddenly remembered some of the pictures we used to show when I was teaching the humane education of rabbits who were encased up to their neck so they couldn’t move; that horrible, horrible picture.”
Askew is inspired that many fellow artists also write vegan themed music. “I meet a lot of other musicians who are vegan and writing for the movement….I’m a Radiohead freak. And they have a fairly recent song called, ‘Give Up the Ghost.’ The song was used in this amazing film The Ghosts in Our Machine about the book We Animals. They use that track and it’s incredible.”
Askew’s experiences with farm sanctuaries showed her how to connect with other animals as well. “I was scared of farm animals because a lot of them were big. I loved knowing their names and realizing that if you know their names, you can go every time and go, ‘Oh, look there’s Dylan,’” Askew said. “And I can remember when Dylan was only 11 weeks old. And now he’s such a huge cow it’s terrifying! But it’s still Dylan! And it has changed. My relationship has changed enormously… I just went to the big Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary opening day, and there were thousands of people there. And you pet the pigs, you cuddle them.
“That’s the idea.”
Despite the fact that becoming vegan was an enriching and integral part of Askew’s life, she often received negative feedback from others. For example, she described how friends would attribute her allergic reaction to certain foods as a consequence of her veganism. “People are downright rude to me. Just yesterday, even with my good friends–they’re always attacking my diet if I eat something I’m allergic to. I have a very sensitive stomach and, yesterday, I was rolling in agony. I am allergic to nightshades– peppers, eggplant, potatoes. If I touch a raw pepper or an eggplant and eat it my body reacts. It just explodes. It’s horrible and very painful,” she explained. “I think I ate some foods that had some peppers in it. And I was in agony. And immediately–even my friends–they go, ‘You’re eating the wrong diet. You need to fill your diet out.’ They just love to attack it.”
But in spite of the scorn and derision she experiences from others because of her veganism, taking a cue from her experience with Belew, she is very clear that she wants to be open-minded and inclusive when helping people learn about animal rights and veganism. She explained the influence of Farm Sanctuary co-founder Gene Baur on her approach.
So, people with Gene Baur’s approach is absolutely excellent. And they even teach courses on this–on how to talk to non-vegans so you don’t put them off and you pull them in. I saw Gene talk about a year ago and he did a beautiful description of when you are with a person and they are the complete opposite of you,” Askew said. “And he said what you’re looking for is just a tiny sliver of daylight. You find somewhere where you can connect. And you have to do that searching. You search for the connection point. And then you take them by the hand and you walk with them on that connection point. And it means having an absolute amount of patience and an absolute amount of dedication. But you know what? Everyone I’ve met in the vegan world has that. We are passionate because we have seen the truth and we know what the truth is.”
Askew has continued her musical career as a solo artist, and continues to record and perform live shows. And she is happy to know that she has inspired people to become vegan–often just by being herself. “I know that I’ve influenced people. And I don’t tell them anything - just people who’ve played with me. And then they say, ‘After I played with you, my wife and I decided to be vegan. And we’re still vegan.’ And I’m like, ‘Well that’s great!’”
And she sees progress in the animal rights movement and notices change in the world. “It’s happening more and more. Because once you know just how terrible the agri business is, unless you are in the process of doing something about it, you are going to be very tortured yourself. Ingrid Newkirk from PETA always said, ‘Do something for the animals every day.’ And that’s doable. Because even if I just happen to go out and walk into a coffee place and say, ‘Do you have soy milk? Do you have alternative milk?’ You’ll find that just being yourself and being in the process of making it work, it’ll spread to other people.
“And it is spreading.”