review and artist reflections
interview © Russ Elliot and Jo Gabriel 2005
review © Hannah Fury 2005
all photos © Jo Gabriel 2005
artwork © Kalinkaland Records 2005
all imagery used with permission
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last updated: 13 August 2005
Our editorial staff have corresponded with singer songwriter Jo Gabriel extensively. The first Musical Discoveries feature about her work included an indepth interview as well as a review of her albums Tnderbox (2003) and The Unreachable Sky (2003). A review of her debut album In The Evidence of Love (1995) was added to the article after initial publication. Jo's biography includes an episode with the majors and a down-to-the-wire competition for the most promising female singer songwriter at Lava Records during the period that Tori Amos was signed.
It should therefore come as no surprise that Jo's recordings have have drawn comparisons to the now legendary artist Tori Amos (review, feature) and Kate Bush in the music press. Her earliest work is also favourably compared to Rachael Sage (most recent review).
Jo's new album Island on Kalinkaland Records (Germany) and available in the United States on the Projekt label is the result of a collaboration Jo speaks of in our all-new interview. In summary, Jo's introduction to the music of Chandeen (feature) following our 2003 interview here, led her to Harald Lowy. The rest, as they say, is history. Further details about how this relationship developed and Island emerged are available below. Our review was contributed by special guest Hannah Fury. [album reviews]
Musical Discoveries: Your songs seem less like storytelling and more like allegory and are revelatory poetic. Do you consider yourself a confessional artist?
Jo Gabriel: My music and lyrics at times are absolutely an authentic examination of myself. I think I am more a revelatory artist though because It's not as much that I am divulging rather. I am a dreamer. I am awakening.
I have written songs that are stories, like daydreams. Or rather tellings of how a certain event or situation has effected my emotional calibration. Sometimes it winds up being a composite of several different experiences. Some lyrics are tributes or fragments of something familiar to me. It might bare the essence of some idea or mythology that resonates with me. We are all walking archetypes, individual versions of a larger epic historic tale drawn from literature, myth and fable.
All of us can find some character in history that we can liken ourselves and our relationships to, at various times in our lives, so I think my work is more thematic and less a literal linear story telling. Plato said, "ou remember a single deluge only, but there were many previous ones." So I think that I am usually telling several stories in one song, and it usually reveals itself to me as I go.
Your music is being embraced by the Romantic Dark Wave, Gothic audiences; do you consider your work to be somber, dark and moody?
I think my work can have a surreal and intense urgency to it, so I am not surprised that Gothic and Dark Wave enthusiasts are gravitating toward my music. I just really create an emotional landscape I sometimes expose inner and outward demons of the romantic malevolence that has often plagued me. But I would like to think that my music evokes the light just as much as the darkness I believe in the fundamental balance in all things. I have known the exquisite peace of joy and belonging as well. And that's what creates the perfect equilibrium in life. One depends on the other to co-exist
So I am not exclusively a somber, brooding nihilistic artist at all. On the contrary, often I try to illustrate the underlying irony of darkness and light. I really don't feel that there is a preoccupation with sadness in my work. Just the observance that it exists, it expands and contracts just as organically as comfort and joy can. And the story of our lives consists of contradictions and polarizations and vast ironies of this duality. And I write from all sides of the spectrum.
How did you come to Kalinkaland Records in Germany?
We actually found each other. I stumbled onto the incredible band Chandeen while doing the last interview with Musical Discoveries. I had decided to reach out to Harald Lowy just to let him know how moved I was by their beautifully haunting music. We started corresponding with each other and he asked me to send him some of my work to listen to. I was merely sharing my music with a fellow artist, with no thought or idea that it would lead to a record deal. The next thing I know, he is telling me that they loved my music and asked if I would like to be a part of his label Kalinkaland Records. Well of course I didn't have to think about it twice. This was such an incredible honor to be considered as an artist amongst all the other incredible artists on this label. I am in such extraordinary company.
I am really proud to be considered the kind of artist that the international label Kalinkaland would want to embrace. They possess integrity of individually unique voices and visions. And so while I still might be on the fringe of the mainstream in the US, I love that an alternative and independent house of artistry recognized the validity of my work.
Projekt Records is affiliated with Kalinkaland and share some of their artists. They are responsible for distributing my album here in the US. And Sam Rosenthal really has an ethic that he follows and his house of recording artists are so masterful, unique and extraordinarily talented. Being able to say that I am a part of that now, really makes me feel grateful that I trusted my instincts and stayed true to my vision, which led me to the right place. There is a lot of integrity with both these labels and an individuality and authenticity to the music.
And how is the album being received over in Europe since its release?
So far Island is getting incredible press in Europe and is being embraced by major radio stations there. I have been doing a ton of interviews and am just trying to get it together so Lin and I can go over and do some touring Hoerspiegel Magazine said that the magic of my music is enchanting the people of Europe. That is just so incredibly flattering to me.
Did you work with the same team of engineers and musicians for this album?
Well of course Linda Mackley played drums on this album. She brought her characteristic primal energy that drives my melodies. She is so dynamic and poised; a powerful drummer and very romantic in her approach as well. Although I do intend to work with my great friend and colleague Mike Fazio on future projects, for this album I elicited the engineering talent of Wendy Bugatti.
Wendy had worked for years at Smart Studios until she founded her own independent studio Coney Island. She still works on various projects in concert with the Smart crew, but she has established herself as a very well respected powerful entity here in the Madison music community. She also makes a guest appearance on "The Simple Truth" playing her incredibly edgy electric guitar. She is a very pragmatic and powerfully sensitive and perceptive engineer. So it was easy trusting Wendy with my sound. She had an inherent understanding of what I was looking for with the basic track elements, the warmth and the depth that I was looking to attain. She also connected me with Matt Turner who is one of the foremost avant-garde improvisational cellists in the world.
After we had the raw track elements down, I sent off the entire Coney Island recordings to Germany where Harald Lowy put his magical engineering and finishing touches on it with his dreamy electronica and Florian Walthers added some beautiful guitar work especially in "Tinderbox." Harald really created such a dreamy soundscape and tied it all together, bringing his brilliant ethereal sensibilities that were so prevalent with Chandeen's music.
The cello added a unique warmth to the album. What was it like working with cellist Matt Turner?
I had the unbelievable privilege to work with Matt on this album. The contribution of his marvelously haunting cello was extraordinary. His performance created the voice of lament, desire, possession, and transcendence on the album. And recently when I spoke to him, he said that he would love to tour with me if he could see his way clear to. I would be in heaven if I could take him on stage with me for a limited tour. I am really hoping that it works out for us to perform live together.
To what extent does living in the Midwest landscape effect your work?
I moved from New York to Madison Wisconsin just a few years ago, so this is the first time that I have lived amongst a rural midwestern sensibility. Although Madison is a pretty progressive place, there is still a surrounding atmosphere of the puritanical and rustic way of life, outside of the city. I am living in the Heartland of America. James Marsh's film Wisconsin Death Trip flawlessly sums up the undercurrent of the alienation and quiet restraint that stirs beneath the surface here.
I am and always will be a New Yorker, and now I am living in an environment where I feel sort of isolated from what is familiar to me. This sometimes propels me into the sense of living in a vacuum. I mean there is a tremendous music scene here. Madison is home to Butch Vig's Smart studios where Garbage records as well as other amazing bands who have recorded here like Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins just to name a few. There is a lot of room for independent artists to flex their creativity. Yet, I feel like the isolation I sometimes feel here causes an inversion of my reality and that forges an even more self-reflective and inner inspection of my life as well as holding sway over my creative process.
There is a lot of beauty where I live too. Amidst the dragonflies and cottonwood and wildlife that stir on my beloved Starkweather Creek. And that really serves to inspire the esoteric thoughts and ideas that I have imbued my music with since I've been here. Sometimes it's so dreamy that it definitely lends to a mood of otherworldliness. Sometimes I feel like I am in exile.
Is Island a concept album?
I like to leave the interpretation open. I think that the album's overall concept will evolve as it presents itself to people. It might mean something different to everyone. And that's how I prefer it to be. I would never want to impose my expectations on anyone.
Is the pervasive theme about isolation and alienation?
The idea of isolation is not necessarily a thread that runs through the album. Sometimes I isolate in order to embrace the whole of things. And it might seem like the idea of isolation is one continuous thought there, but I think several other themes offer themselves up as well.
For me some of the songs are entirely concerned with connectedness and in fact the irony and the desperation to reach out and make that connection. For me It's just as much about restoration.
This goes back to what I was saying about living amongst an atmosphere of alienation. There are times when the Anima Sola emerges and I do become "the lonely soul" I possess the longing inner "soul on fire" consumed in my own private purgatory. But more often I feel connected, especially to the natural world around me.
I think the collection of songs on Island happened very serendipitously. There wasn't a preconceived notion of the album at all. I see my music not as an island but rather as an active realm. Of course there are elements of my isolationism inherent in parts of the album and all my work for that matter.
I believe that there are several different elements that exist within the album's heart. And so along side of the aloneness in the music, there is also a strain of reaching out and asking of the world to touch back. Ultimately I would hope that people would recognize my music on their own terms. And however sympathetic they are with my work, what matters is that it penetrates somehow.
Why do you primarily work with piano grounded compositions? What is so special about it for you?
I think the piano is so completely pure and primal. For me it is a very alchemic experience. It's not that I am so much tethered to the piano; it's just that we are very attached to each other since my early childhood experience as an artist. I am pretty sentimental about it. And really, it's like Stendhal said, "Man is not free to refuse to do the thing which gives him more pleasure than any other conceivable action."
What was the recording process like at Coney Island Studios? Did you and Linda record separately or did you perform live to tape as in prior recordings to capture the dynamic energy that both of you conjure so well together?
We decided to record ourselves live again like we had with Tinderbox. We just prefer to capture that raw energy that emerges when we are connecting with each other's performance. Working with Linda is one of the most organic things in the world for me. We read each other and play so synchronistic ally that I wouldn't want to lose that conduit that we create by recording isolated from each other. I think of us as thunder and rain.
Wendy Bugatti created an environment at her studio that allowed us to just do what ever the hell we wanted. No constraints at all. That was one of the things that impressed me when I first met her. She made it clear that there was nothing that she either couldn't do or couldn't figure out how to get done in order to bring to life my vision. And although we didn't record with using an analogue format, I so respectthat she is still from the old school that embraces and does not fear analogue recording, and I love that sensibility.
So all during the recording process, I felt like I was in the presence of a very genuine master engineer. And so I didn't feel like I was being strangled by worry, it allowed me to focus on the creative process fully.
How was the recording of Island for you, Linda?
Linda Mackley: The recording process was very interesting. I was set up in a separate room and Jo was set up in another room, with a large window that we could see each other through. I had the drums and her piano coming through the headphones but I could not have her scratch vocal through my phones because it would have bled onto the piano tracks. So that was a challenge for me, as I like to use her vocals as somewhat of a road map through the song. I kind of watched her body language her head movements to get a sense of what she was singing. Although it was still every bit a live performance, it was very difficult without hearing the vocal as a guideline, but just goes to show how connected we are to each other's vibe.
I used a set of Yamaha Maple Customs to record with, which belong to Clyde Stubblefield who records regularly at Wendy's studio. He is a local Madison legend and has recorded with the likes of James Brown. So it was a bit nostalgic for me to use his drum kit.
Give us a little insight into some of the lyrics on Island.
As with the lyrics on other of my albums, Island's are pretty visceral. I have imbued them with a simple clarity and sometimes-tragic tones like that of Nathaniel Hawthorne. These lyrics are naked truths, theatrical. transformative, referential, failures and triumphs, heartaches and the joy of meeting yourself in the mirror, love and savage betrayals. All things I am closely familiar with.
"Objects In The Mirror" is actually an excerpt from a full-length song. Eventually I would like to release it in its entirety. The full piece has some wonderfully lyrical imagery. For me it is about surrendering to the relationship we have with ourselves. How we often never seem to catch up fast enough to meet ourselves head on in that proverbial mirror. How clearly do we really see our true self when we do look there?
"I've been sneaking up behind myself, haunting my life like a good little ghost. I've been faithful to the myth, belonging to the words when I never moved my lips."
"Mother May I" is very much a self expose in that it reveals some harsh criticisms of how a person can have their identity devoured by someone else's expectations. "Wash Away" speaks of the wanting to belong and the prayer not to be left behind. In asking to be cleansed of the sadness that isolation breeds and the longing for recognition and sanity.
"Little Birds" and "The Simple Truth" are songs of irony and contradiction. "Tinderbox" says that desire is flammable. And "Broken" speaks of communication. It is also about the "reaching out."
There's a line from "Little Birds" that goes "I don't believe in solitude I don't believe in silence, I don't believe in poetry, all the demons of awareness." If "Little Birds" is about irony, then what are you aware of in your music, and what do you find in the silences?
I find everything in the silences. You have to get really quiet when you want to hear the truth. Of course "Little Birds" uses irony to expose that fact that we do want the poetry and the solitude at times. And that awareness can be painful but it also sets us free. The silences send me out to find the answers.
In "Mother May I" there is a line "May I burn these ribbons, soft yellow me and your hammer gray dissonance." What does this imagery mean to you?
That is one of Hannah Fury's favorite lyric lines of mine. I imagine that when I am really immersed in the feeling of that sort of friction with a character in a particular song I become a kind of refugee, not a victim, but the one who has to carry on with the remnants of the experience. I become a witness. The dissonance exacts its mark on me and then I go on to tell its story. I never feel like a victim at any time in my life. I do have some battle wounds though.
Linda, as a drummer/percussionist how do you approach working with Jo's fluid piano and how do you experience working with Jo in general? And what inspires you, what drives your motivation to play the drums?
Linda: I love working with Jo because we have a synchronicity about us, kind of a magic that goes on between us whenever we play music together. I approach the music from a standpoint of sensitivity. Jo is an extremely gifted pianist and vocalist, and I try to support her in a very dynamic way, as to not step over her vocals, melodies, and piano passages. When she wants the intensity to rise I change my dynamics to suit that particular passage of the song. I approach creating parts for the songs with the mindset of a songwriter as opposed to a drummer, just coming up with a part. I am not just making a bunch of noise, banging around. I think about what is happening in the song. I am thinking about what emotion is being evoked in the music and how I can embrace it. She also really gives me a chance to be really creative as an artist.
Jo is my buddy and we have a blast together because we have a basis of a strong friendship. There is no hidden agenda or stress. We just create when we are together, our personalities mesh and when we play it's all about the music. It's not a chore. With some musicians it becomes a chore because of personality conflicts and egos. But with Jo and I it's always very refreshing. We're on a different level with each other. There is a simpatico with us and that must translate through our musical interaction. I am a very primal and passionate person so drumming is a very integral part of my life. It is sort of the fire that burns inside of me and is very cathartic when I play.
I am inspired my many things. One of which is nature. How incredible the moon and stars are if you only take the time to look up every night. I always look up into the sky. Everyone is always either looking down or laterally, so as not to trip or to keep their eyes focused on what is around them. But if you look up there is so much incredible energy to witness. This is something that inspires me to play. The intensity of the ocean and the way the waves pound against the shore. It creates many different rhythms that can change at any time, and this is sort of like what it's like playing the drums.
Jo, how would you like your music to evolve from this point?
I would really like to take the next year and either develop some existing songs or conjure some new ones with more of an eye towards stretching the envelope with the arrangements. Perhaps allow my piano to be more of a voyeur this time. Where I will experiment with more sparseness and embrace different instruments as the primary driving force more like my instrumental projects The Amber Sessions and The Last Drive-In. However, continuing the intense primal empathic interaction with Linda's drums. Perhaps utilizing her percussive versatility adding tambour and bodhrum.
I loved the profoundly raw warmth that Wendy Bugatti achieved at Coney Island. I love Mike Fazio's eyes and ears for the pristine quality of sound that he conjures when constructing an album. So I could totally see working with both of them again.
And perhaps by the next album I will have my own studio ready for mixing and mastering exclusively. I do like having other minds involved in the process, because it allows for expansion of creative ideas. I do know that I would like to change the face of my next album quite a bit. But that is down the road from now, so we'll see how that is going to evolve.
One thing that has always been daunting for me is finding another stationary artist like Linda, who plays either Violin or viola or upright bass or bass guitar to be my collaborative partner to record with and do show together. I really wish I had that added element and texture to have constant access to. You can't imagine how hard it is to find just the right person with the same sensibilities. That's why I appreciate Linda so much. Perhaps someone will emerge who will want to work with me in sympathy of the music.
We noticed on your web site Ephemera that you used some whimsical and theatrical collages. Did you design them yourself? How does it relate to your music?
Yes, I created the collages on Ephemera with an eclectic sensibility using a lot of the cast of characters in my head. I couldn't believe the way it started to unfold the way it did. There is a lot of iconic and symbolic atmosphere to Ephemera.
I draw much of my inspiration from theatre, as you know already I come from a very theatrical background. And I immerse myself in film and literature, more so than listening to other music. My brain has this catalogue of images and impressions from various characters and so it causes these mini epiphanies to stir my creative consciousness. It's like one great stage in my head. And again it summons forth those archetypes. I also took a little inspiration from Hitchcock's cameos in his films and placed myself--and in fact a few of my cats--in the collages. I really giggle every time I look at them.
Do you feel that you have attained your dreams?
I have for a very long time now felt fortunate to have been given something from the beginning of my earliest life's experience that drives me with purpose and passion. I think that being able to say that I have created and still yet create music whether a few people listen or the whole wide world, is an accomplishment of great proportions.
So many people are afraid to take risks, and I feel like I always followed my soul's desire. Like Robert Louis Stevenson sai, "To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying 'Amen' to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive."
I feel like my soul is very much alive with tribute and observance and I never ceased being an artist, even during my most obscure days.
So what are your next plans? What do you see yourself doing from this point?
Well, Linda and I have been invited to perform for Radio Bremen in Germany, which is the equivalent to MTV Unplugged here in the US. We would love to go over to Europe and tour a bit. People have been so lovely about the album and I can't wait to perform for them. It's been a while since I went out and performed live, and I do miss that ephemeral rush of the collective energy from a live audience.
I would also like to release The Amber Sessions, The Last Drive-In and Silence-A Fable. That will take some time mixing and mastering, but I am so hungry to get these out there in the ether.
I am working on putting together my own studio, beyond my little 4-track analogue set up that I call The Traveling Mothlight Theatre. Mike Fazio and I have been discussing doing something between his Luna County Observatory and the studio that I will set up. So I can send him tracks and he can send me some of his incredible pedal steel or ebow guitar tracks. I really want to work with him again soon.
I really want to score some films. Perhaps with the wider exposure from this album it will bring me the opportunity to do that. AndI have been talking with Hannah Fury and we would both love to collaborate on a single and do some shows together down the road. I would love to have the chance to work with her; she is one of the most extraordinary artists around.
I would love to do a guest appearance on an album or live show with another artist who I admire. And have them make a guest appearance on something of mine. I love the idea of collaborating with other artists. It's a beautiful thing.
I want to become really fluid and masterful on my accordion. Although it troubles the cats when I play. They are not sure about the wheezing sound it makes at times!
So I have a lot of ambitions right now. Just primarily continuing reaching outward is my wish.
There are some really gorgeous things happening on Jo Gabriel's CD Island (Kalinkaland (Germany) 02045, 2005). Her piano playing is absolutely stunning, rich and passionate. And it is of interest to note that she is entirely self-taught. The piano is often accompanied by lavish, sinewy cello that weaves in and out of the rest of the music--sometimes soft and bending, and at other times creating a taut wire of tension through the piece.
Gabriel's long-time drummer, Linday Mackley, is a commanding and purposeful presence without ever becoming intrusive--just listen near the end of "Wash Away." Electric guitar, bass and electronic sounds embellish and support many of the songs even further.
Beautiful, fluid melodies conspire with clean production, and the result is music that sneaks into the recesses of the mind--ethereal, yet catchy as hell. But at its core this is mournful music, full of questions and muted unease. And the delicate quality of Ms. Gabriel's supple, multi-octave voice glimmers with fragility and emotion throughout.
In contrast to the prettiness of the music, the lyrics on Island hold a glowing candle up to the stark faces of loneliness, disillusionment and fear. But in the end it is hope and compassion that are reflected back in the fractured light. The closing song, "Broken," is alone worth the price of the CD and is a classic by any standards--striking, sorrowful, yearning, pretty. As its title suggests, it is the sound of heartbreak. "Broken" appears in another (equally successful) incarnation on an earlier album, and it will stand the test of time--just watch.
Despite the undeniable quality of Gabriel's music and her clear expressive talent, it is the camouflaged parts of her songs that show the most courage and complexity. The more these slumbering little details emerge, the more they reveal a very elegant and finely spun work as a whole. Especially intriguing are the strange harmonic backgrounds that curl in smokey tendrils up from underneath the primary music. For example, the shimmery, pulsing, almost dissonant sounds on "Broken," and the high, warbling strings on "Hold My Breath," and the other-worldly cricket that joins in at the end of "Wash Away."
These hidden sounds bleed through the otherwise solid structure of the songs, and it is within these bold, inspired moments that the listener will realize that, though the album is extremely lovely and heartfelt, it scratches only the surface of this artist's potential.--Hannah Fury in Austin, Texas
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