'I guess I’m a bit difficult to categorize!'
10/04/2019, Dimi BRANDS
photos: © Photo © Simon Kallas
We still remember the second edition of the Black Easter Festival in 2016, due to Jo Quail's concert. With only her cello (and an ingenious loop system) she succeeded to win quite a few new souls. Organizer Ward De Prins had a good relationship with this British artist and did not mind traveling to see this fantastic performer play. Therefore, it's quite logical Jo will be back at Black Easter, in memory of Ward. A conversation about her music, but also about processing the passing of a mutual friend.
When we heard there would be a new Black Easter Festival, in honour of Ward De Prins who passed away last year, it was just unthinkable you were not on the bill.
I know Ward was a huge fan of your music and he travelled often to England to see you perform. He had a special bond with you, so how do you remember Ward?
JQ: Ward. I always think of his warm smile, his joy and passion for music that seemed to run through his veins, and this passion he shared with everyone, he was an inspiration to me. And I can immediately recall his giggling laugh! And his knack for turning up unexpectedly to some of my concerts, not just in England, and me telling him off for not letting me put him on the guest list! That was Ward to me, a treasured friend, a loyal friend, a friend I miss very much, and a friend I celebrate on a daily basis.
Ward’s death came totally unexpected. How did you hear the news, and what was your reaction?
JQ: I had a call from Eddy, our mutual friend, when I was in Glasgow on tour with Amenra. I remember hearing this heartbreaking news and looking at huge grey skies outside. I felt I couldn’t understand what was being told to me, it just didn’t make any sense. Strangely, it was only when I began to play that night that the overwhelming fact sank in, I think because I was playing music, and music was Ward’s passion, and that was the point at which we met. When I played that night, I played for Ward.
At this year’s Black Easter a lot of artists who played one of the two previous editions will perform again. Honestly I must say your show is the one I’ll look forward to the most. I still remember the show you gave in 2016, it was the first time I saw you live and I was really impressed. How did other people react to that show?
JQ: Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the show. People seemed very enthused by the performance, and it was a privilege to play for you all. I performed ‘Five Incantations’ that night in its entirety as I’d just released the record, so it was an unusual concert for me. Normally I explain a little about the pieces before I play them but that one ran straight through from the first note of White Salt Stag to the last note of Gold. I’ll have a different set for you this time!
Sieben will perform before you at Black Easter this year, you and Matt are both involved in Rasp, can you tell a little bit more about this? And is there a possibility there will be a collaboration on stage, as Matt does the whole looping thing also with his violin?
JQ: There’s always the possibility of a collaboration, though it might not be this night! We’ll see how it pans out. Matt and I very much enjoy working together but we both have very full schedules so opportunity does not often present itself. With Rasp, we wanted to make a record together, but had no time to write in a conventional way, so we decided to write and record a largely improvised album, in front of a live audience, and the result is this record! We are both huge fans of improvised music, and also collaborations so it was a real pleasure to make this record together. And a huge amount of fun too!
What do you have in mind for your show at Black Easter this year?
JQ: I’ll be playing a brand new track for you, Reya, which is due for release in the summer, and at least one or two from Exsolve, my new record (thank you for your review!!). It depends on how the time goes but also tracks of course from Five Incantations and Caldera... we shall see. Whatever I do, I cannot wait to play for you!
When people see you on stage, there’s just you and your cello. But with your unique looping technique you’re able to set up a very special and intense atmosphere on your own. Can you tell us a bit more about your way of composing and playing, and how did the idea came to mind to work with the loops?
JQ: I usually have a broad aspect that I’m exploring musically, whether it’s sculpture, art, poetry, sensation, experience, landscape, it all serves as a springboard from which to start. Practically speaking, my pieces are usually borne of a single theme which can be very small, three note motif, or a particular sound. Five Incantations, the entire album, is interlinked by one theme of three notes, the whole thing was built musically around this, whilst exploring the cardinal elements of earth, air, fire, water and spirit. In Exsolve I’m exploring both the more physical aspects of playing cello and creating, and the ‘known unknown’ processes involved in creating, as such it’s a dive into the depths of where my particular creativity stems from, what runs within me. It’s also an aural representation of the turbulence that engulfs the writing process I’d say 80% of the time, and now and then the mists clear and you see the vast distances with clarity and certainty.
I began looping when I began my career as a soloist, in 2010. I started with a single loop of 14 seconds in length... and even that was enough to let me hear the possibilities afforded by this technology. I now use the Boss RC300 triple loop station, and I spend a huge amount of time modelling my sounds and effects in order to get that breadth of sound you’re mentioning in your question. I usually begin my writing with a ‘clean’ sound, unless the piece has stemmed from a particular sound effect of course. Once it’s harmonically in place I’ll then start the fun process of ‘colouring in’ and seeing what form the piece morphs to as I begin to work with the effects chain too.
All of your albums are self-released. Is this because you want to keep complete control, because I really can’t imagine there’s no label interested??
JQ: I’m very happy to self release, as you point out it gives me complete autonomy and I like to make my packaging as special as possible too, which might not be something a label would allow for budgeting reasons. I’m not adverse to working with a label but there honestly has not been any interest, I guess I’m a bit difficult to categorize so perhaps that puts them off! It doesn’t matter to me, I’ve managed thus far as a self released artist and I would recommend it. You do have to be very well organised though, and you do need some form of income as it’s not cheap, but on the other hand 100% of album sales come back to you, and in my case go in to the pot to make the next release.
Alongside music, you’re also inspired by visual arts as I read the biography on your website. Also an example of stunning visuals and one of the most beautiful band sites I’ve ever seen! You cite Barabra Hepworth and Georgia O’Keefe as key influences. Did you already link songs to a specific piece of visual art?
JQ: Funnily enough, the brand new one I’m going to play for you, Reya, is the fourth or extra track on the vinyl release of Exsolve which will be released in the summer. Reya is actually the closest I’ve got to ‘realising’ the concept if you like behind Exsolve, which was the work of Barbara Hepworth, and in particular ‘Single Form’ sculpture. The funny bit about this is that this concept and image was behind all the rest of the album tracks, yet I only feel now, on this ‘extra’ track that I’ve actually got close to the depth, the raw power of her work, coupled with the overarching majesty, the placement, the scene, everything combined. I can’t really describe it. I hope you’ll like it when I play it!
Georgia O’Keefe’s great quote along the lines of ‘I went as far as I could in charcoal, then I added blue’ is a great reminder of what can be achieved with a comparatively simple set up, i.e., don’t over complicate! In my case, don’t loop because you can, loop because you need to, add sonic colour because you need to underscore a musical point, and you cannot do this any other way, don’t do it because it’s ‘there’ and waiting to be used.
JQ: I love all my collaborations! It was a joy to work with Eraldo Bernocchi and FM Einheit, that was a great experience and we made a fantastic record, Rosebud (Rarenoise). I’ve worked recently with Poppy Ackroyd on her latest release ‘Revolve’ (One Little Indian) and that was a huge amount of fun. Rié fu is an artist I recorded with and her album is being released today (15th March), which is stunning. Check out Mirror.
There are several ways I collaborate, I’ve got one on the go at the moment with a fantastic Canadian singer and we’ve literally started from scratch, sending each other tiny snapshots of sound that we will build into a track over the next few months. At other times I’ve gone into a situation where there is a skeleton, or even largely developed track (such as the one I did recently for Don Anderson Aggaloch) and I’m asked to ‘do my thing’ on it, and so I do!
One of your strengths is also that musical borders are crossed to create a complete new soundworld. This is (neo)classical music, but not as we know it. It has electronic elements, and even references to post rock, ritual and metal music. A purist nightmare! I hope those purists didn’t cross your path often, or did you already convince some people to stop their narrow minded thinking?
JQ: I’ve never met any of these purists you speak of! Very glad about that. In my experience my audiences are very broad minded and whether I’m playing to a metal, prog, classical or contemporary crowd, with the same repertoire (just at varying volumes usually!) it's met with enthusiasm and encouragement. I feel very, very lucky indeed to meet such fascinating people from all tastes and backgrounds at concerts.
You’re also a parent, in a previous interview for Peek-A-Boo, Ward asked you how to combine that with being on tour. I also have a 9 year old daughter who started drumming recently, so I was wondering if your daughter is also interested in making music?
JQ: Drumming, that’s awesome! Tell her to check out Niki Skistimas, (Krash Karma) , she is incredible. My daughter seems to really enjoy playing piano and recorder too. When I am practicing and writing at home she will often pop in, put my headphones on and start and stop the loops, she knows her way round the RC300 now! The other day she said ‘Mummy, this piece needs more water’ and I knew exactly what she meant! I am blessed with this little one. She also loves dancing and science and lego. And tree climbing!
A question I hear a lot is that people want to get into (neo)classical music but don’t know where to start. With your knowledge I think you’ll be able to point some “must-listens”...
JQ: I actually just stopped this interview to take a call from a friend of mine, Damian Iorio, who is a conductor, and we discussed your question! In its ‘classical’ interpretation we’re talking about a period of time beginning around 1920 ish. For Damian the piece that sums up the neoclassical movement is Stravinsky’s opera ‘The Rake’s Progress’.
I tend to direct people to the Rite of Spring (also Stravinsky) but this is a bit earlier than the neoclassical period, however it is a very important work for several reasons. On the other hand, the term can also be loosely applied to anything that is modern i.e. of today, but with ‘classical’ influence, so therefore sometimes what I do is termed neoclassical, though obviously it’s not part of the traditional meaning of the genre of neoclassical that was defined by a particular time line! I think neoclassicism as a subgenre if you like is pretty prevalent in all ‘main genres’ of music, and as such it could imply longform composing, aspects of serialism in music (looping being one example), bringing strings or ‘orchestral instruments’ in to the performance stage, and crossing perceived boundaries in terms of texture and timbre and style.
These are not ‘neoclassical’ but they are pieces I enjoy from the repertoire that is not metal or rock etc, see what you think:
John Cage ‘In a Landscape’ for solo piano is beautiful, that’s from 1948 I think. This uses a very simple technique on the piano that comes to the fore right at the end of the piece, just allowing the harmonic overtones to reverberate out, no actual ‘front end note’ but you need to play or hear the whole piece in order to get this effect. It’s really cool.
There’s a lot going on in the piano world at present. Have a listen to Joep Beving, beautiful playing and composing.
George Crumb’s ‘Black Angels’ is a pretty pivotal piece too, using strings and extended technique with amplification. It’s also structurally quite involved too, multi layered really and I find this very inspirational.
Gregory Rose’s Danse Macabre, premiered in Tallinn in 2011 is an incredible piece of music, please listen to this if you can!
The beautiful thing about music today is the ‘permission’ to be artistically free in expression, and the natural coalescence of previously distinct styles or genres. These new, bright colours and sound themselves inspire creativity, and it’s a constantly turning wheel. I love it.
And we love Jo Quail! See you at Black Easter!
Photo credits: Simon Kallas
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