Joni Elsenpeter is a UI labor relations specialist, which means she works with campus departments and employees to resolve or improve work-related issues. Previously she worked in university administration, hearing labor grievances. She has a UI master’s degree in organizational communication and is working on a second master’s through the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations. She is also known by the name Joni Laurence, which she uses when singing and performing. She has two CDs to her credit. Her latest, "Daphne Speaks," was released last week.
How did you get interested in a career concerning labor and work issues?
I was a speech communications major as an undergraduate at Northeast Missouri State University, now called Truman State. I always knew I wanted to do something that would make the workplace a better place to be. I didn’t know exactly how, but that’s the degree I chose, knowing this is the kind of work I wanted to do.
What inspired you as a teen-ager to be concerned with making workplaces better?
I think it had a lot to do with my mom. She was a clerk in a trucking company and always had terrible managers, a terrible work environment and came home very tired and disillusioned. I thought if there was a way, I’d try to make the workplace a better place for people to be.
Is your mom still there?
She’s retired and is a weaver now. A fiber artist, she calls herself.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Quincy.
I understand you started playing guitar when you were a young teen, but then gave it up.
Yes, I started when I was 12. I learned to play one song – ‘Mrs. Robinson’ by Simon and Garfunkel. I didn’t play after that until I was about 21. I met someone who played and I said ‘Oh, I think I know how to play "Mrs. Robinson." ’ That’s when I really started playing again.
Did you always sing and think you had a good voice?
No, I was very, very shy as a child and didn’t sing for hardly anyone. My mom played guitar when I was a kid and we’d written a song together that she wanted me to sing for my grandma. She played the introduction on the guitar and I was going to sing but I just couldn’t get it out. I couldn’t do it. It took me a long time to find my voice and the more I sing the more adventurous I get in finding out what my voice can do.
You previously played in Dear Connie, a local group. What’s happened since you’ve been performing solo?
The very first song on my first CD, ‘Short Time’ is called ‘Courtyard Café’ and it’s about the very first time I performed solo, which was at the Illini Union on an open stage. It was very nerve-racking. But you get over it. The more you do it, the better you get at it. Now I have two CDs and performing is something I want to do.
My short-term goal right now is building a following locally and regionally -- in Peoria, Bloomington, Springfield and Chicago.
Are you married and how do you spend your free time?
No, I’m not married. I have a partner. We have a house and we have four cats and a dog and lots of really great friends. I also volunteer at A Woman’s Fund and I’m on the board of directors. Between all of that, music and work, my life is very full.
Your last name is Elsenpeter. Why did you choose the stage name Laurence?
Elsenpeter is not an easy name to remember or say, so I chose not to use it. But Laurence is my brother’s middle name and my mom, as a fiber artist, has taken the name Laurence as a last name. So I thought I’d follow suit.
Does your job as a labor relations specialist and you performing have anything to do with each other? Do they complement each other?
They’re very different. When I’m doing music I don’t think a thing about work. And when I’m doing my job I don’t think much about music. They seem to be pretty separate.
Are you hoping to be rich and famous?
Oh, I’d love to be rich and famous, but I don’t think it will be because of music. And I don’t know that I would want that anyway. I’d rather stay independent and work with other independent artists and have a lot more artistic control over what I’m doing and how I’m doing it.
How do you describe yourself? Labor relations specialist/singer-songwriter?
I hardly ever put those two titles together. Part of it is the name. Joni Elsenpeter is the labor relations specialist. Joni Laurence is the singer-songwriter. It’s only been in the last month that I’ve decided that I need to start meshing those two lives. This [interview] is an example. I’d like people to know I am a labor relations specialist on campus and hey, I also sing and play guitar. So I’m really trying hard to get over that hump of keeping those two lives separate.
I am really all the same person. I can do labor relations and I can sing and write songs.