Name: Jacqueline Kerrod
Occupations: Harpist, composer
Nationality: South African
Current Release: Jacqueline Kerrod's 17 Days in December is out via Orenda.
Recommendations: Two books I have read recently that have been interesting and thought provoking: “Loving Music Til It Hurts” William Cheng; “Soweto Blues - Jazz, Popular Music & Politics in South Africa” Gwen Ansell
Recently discovered this gem: The Indigenous Afro-Jazz Sounds of Philip Tabane and his Malombo Jazzmen
Record that got me through much of the pandemic: Fetch The Bolt Cutters - Fiona Apple
If you enjoyed this interview with Jacqueline Kerrod , visit her official website. Stay up to date with her on Instagram, and Facebook.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I was 9 when I fell in love with the harp. There was something so comforting about hugging this resonant body, and how there was nothing between my fingers and the strings - no bow, no ivories.
I have vivid memories of a hot summer’s night sitting in my pink PJs listening to the second movement of Mozart’s flute and harp concerto on repeat and feeling as though my heart would explode. We had two LPs: one with Nicanor Zabaleta and the other with Marisa Robles as soloist. In my teens I fed my creative side through drama and art classes while listening to a lot of Pink Floyd, Joni Mitchell, and Rodríguez (who was famous in South Africa!). I was drawn to an expansive, symphonic sound, and the sheer beauty and rawness of a single voice.
As a youngster, composing music seemed to be something other people did, not me. My value was playing someone else’s music perfectly. I committed fully and went on to study with Nancy Allen at the Yale School of Music.
It was several years later, while freelancing in NYC during a tumultuous time in my life, that I began to question my relationship to the harp and to music making. It took me several years to reorient my mind/body connection to the harp. While it was one of the most difficult and painful experiences of my life, it set me on a new musical path. During this time I took comfort in the music of female artists like Bjork, Kaki King, and Feist, and was also the first time I was introduced to the music of Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté. The rawness of the strings really captured my imagination. That beautiful jangle.
I began to prioritize making my own music by playing in a vocal/harp duo, Addi & Jacq for 6 years where we wrote our own songs. It wasn’t until I met and played with Anthony Braxton that my true creative light switched on. This time, my life opened up to the world of jazz, free jazz, and improvisation. I started to realize that I could pull all my own experiences and influences together, exploiting the technique I’d worked so hard to develop to serve my own creative voice.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I’ve come to it through a side door so to speak in a non-linear process. I’ve played other people’s music for most of my playing life, but I haven’t played the standard jazz tunes or analyzed the great improvised solos. This is still part of my journey. I’ve played an enormous amount of music over the last 15 years in NYC.
But I have to point to Anthony Braxton, again. Through working with him I felt the freedom to explore with the tools I had, embracing Cage’s philosophy of “Begin, Anywhere.”
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
Musically and personally I don’t feel like I fit anywhere in particular, but I really love the fact that I do a lot of different things! There’s a freedom in it!
I have so much to draw on. I am a transplant, born of transplant parents who moved to South Africa from England. I am first generation South African, now an alien living in the US. My identity as a woman is so tied to my instrument, for better or worse. The harp has all this baggage of being pretty, serene, elegant, perfect, in the background, similar to the baggage placed on women.
As I grow and follow the things that truly interest me, they are reflected in my music. It is so interesting to me how gnarly sounds, dark sounds, ominous sounds are so surprising or labeled as ‘difficult’ - has me wondering why since there is no shortage of these sounds in other instruments. What if I were a man? Part of me enjoys pushing back against the stereotype.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
In the beginning there was a ton of internal resistance mostly because I didn’t know what my process looked like. Braxton’s Language Music and the concept of limitations, especially with time and technique, really helped me get started. I found that using the timer and starting with something very simple mostly led to something interesting. As I keep doing this and preparing for shows I am discovering my own musical language.
Doing shows is essential - very uncomfortable and stressful - but I am someone who responds to deadlines. A good dose of fear is sometimes the key. (laughs)
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
You know, there are around 2,000 moving parts in a concert grand pedal harp and we are taught to make these mechanics and the noises associated with them totally unheard and unseen! There are seven pedals that make it possible to play in all keys and each one has 3 settings: flat-natural-sharp. Think of a swan, the grace and elegance you see above the water, and the foot action going on below the surface.
I began exploring all those ‘unwanted’ sounds: the buzz of pedals not fully engaged and the buzz of the strings. It was essential for me to do this not in a special effects or prepared harp approach. I wanted those sounds to be part of the musical fabric to create a rawness but keep the ability to change without having to remove or replace anything physical from the instrument.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I’d say using a looper changed the possibilities. I used one extensively in my duo Addi & Jacq. It was exciting at first because I could be an entire band or string orchestra, and extremely convenient scheduling-wise and financially since it was only the two of us! It was also a very helpful compositional tool.
But inversely, committing to not using a looper for my debut solo album really taught me something about the nature of creativity. I have genuinely found a place of curiosity and invention precisely because I have to find other ways of layering. We live in an age where there is always more gear to buy. It’s completely overwhelming to me.
Right now I’m on the path of limiting my tools and finding interesting solutions with what I already have.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I am excited by the idea of spontaneous collaboration and cannot wait for life to resume so we can get together and play!
A big part of my journey right now is using all this aloneness to learn and discover more of my music, more of my process, and solidify some compositions. A good natter with artist friends also goes a long way!
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
It’s always in flux and I absolutely have to stay flexible because things come up. I am happiest when I’m up before the sun comes up. It feels like a secret and special time. I’m the most grounded when I get to read, practice and listen to new music in a day, even if only for a short time. Social media leaves me feeling frazzled so I have to limit my exposure.
Oh, and lots of cuddle time with my kitties.They are essential to my well-being! I feel more connected to life precisely because I am more connected to my creative work and vice versa.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
The creative process behind 17 Days in December was an enormous personal breakthrough.
In the month of December of 2020 I recorded an improvisation every day in my basement studio. Initially I had no intention of formally releasing any of the work. I just wanted to explore, have fun, and feel like I was doing something with all the time that was suddenly available. At the time I was in great playing shape, having recovered from a trauma, and felt completely physically and mentally free with my instrument.
It is significant because it’s a body of work that I feel proud of and represents a new beginning for me. It’s significant because of the growing pains of standing up and saying, “Here I am. This is me.” It felt vulnerable and at times extremely uncomfortable. I grew enormously from the act of doing it but also from backing myself to put it out into the world.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I have to be feeding my brain with books, music, nature, and keep my patience! I use a timer and document everything in a notebook. The goal is to spend the time. This way I feel like I’ve accomplished something without having to accomplish anything specific.
It’s amazing how everything in the house suddenly needs to be cleaned! I wrote a silly song once called “Stop Washing The Fucking Dishes”. (Laughs)
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
This is a huge question and not an easy one to answer in a paragraph. A book I recently read unpacks a lot relating to these questions - ‘Loving Music Til It Hurts’ by William Cheng.
The biggest take away for me is that we as humans need to work on staying open and check our assumptions and judgements constantly.
Recently, I performed for a local adult community the other day and honestly I was a little nervous to share my improvisations thinking that it would be too out there. Never underestimate the curiosity of people no matter how young or old! But more than that, especially after these last two years, we ache for connection: to see faces (even if masked) and to hear voices. It was a joyful occasion with lots of questions and excitement.
Perhaps live music can serve as an antidote to some of the disconnection and fakeness in our world.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
There is a fine a line, especially now in our hyper-connected world, and things are shifting all the time. If it feels like it steps over the line then it probably does. If I copy something and use it for inspiration it has to go through a process of transformation. If not, it should be credited.
I think it’s about respect and consideration to question before one uses, shares, or releases.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
This is such an interesting question! I think it’s fascinating how we listen with our eyes and feel and remember with our sense of smell. I experience sensory overload and while I think immersive experiences are interesting and fun, I’m looking to scale back on that overload.
So I’m looking for ways to strengthen each sense, especially listening because I find it challenging to listen deeply without distraction. Like meditating, it’s something I try to practice now.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Adventure, abandon, fun, and sometimes just saying “fuck it, I like this!” It has to make me feel something. I’m not bound to what that feeling has to be and I like throwing a lot of paint at the wall. Maybe my journey will inspire others to go for that thing that makes them excited.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music is all vibration. It goes right to the heart: direct and visceral. It shows our immense capacity as humans, and that we are more alike than unlike.