Name: Jess Gillam
Current Release: Jess Gillam's new album Time is available from a variety of stores.
Recommendations: Book – Remember Me, Melvyn Bragg
Music - The Final Frame, Michael Kiwanuka
If you enjoyed this interview with Jess Gillam, visit her personal website for everything you ever wanted to know about her.
When did you start playing your instrument, and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
In the constant state of exploration and excitement we experience in our youth, it’s not often that something entirely captures the imagination to the extent that you don’t want to do or try anything else! I was lucky enough to have this experience at the age of just 7; one of my most vivid memories is picking up a saxophone for the first time at the Barracudas Carnival Arts Centre in Barrow-in-Furness (where my dad taught drums). I was utterly enthralled and in love with the instrument! The intensity and directness of sound was absolutely magnetic and the instrument became associated with fun and joy.
On reflection, the vigour, excitement and liveliness of a carnival was the perfect place to start. We met twice a week to rehearse – once with the band and once with the dancers, stilt walkers and backpackers. I instantly felt like I was part of a community – a team of people who had a shared vision, together creating a huge sound and splash of colour! The band toured all over the country playing at some of the UKs biggest carnivals. It was a hub for creativity and joy, and a celebration of what the arts could achieve. The Barracudas provided so many people – from a huge range of backgrounds, ages and abilities – with a sense of belonging and purpose.
For most artists, originality is first 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? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I think this is a very interesting topic and one I continue to question. In a world where it’s possible to create and present any version of oneself (via the internet and social media), I am constantly striving to find and develop an authentic voice. The world is in need of truth, beauty and love!
I have been, and continue to be, inspired by such a wide range of musicians and saxophonists and I have learned a great deal about the instrument through attempting (and failing!) to emulate their sounds but I think ‘copying’ with awareness and purpose is quite important. For me, understanding the process and reasoning behind a decision - musical or not - is in some ways more essential than the final product itself. Developing a concept of the impetus and reasoning behind a project can then be a huge source of inspiration for my own creativity and interpretation of music!
What were some of your main artistic challenges when starting out as an artist and in which way have they changed over the years?
Having the confidence to be authentic and confronting imposter syndrome. I think this will be a life-long challenge!
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
As a travelling musician, adaptability is essential; I have to be able to practice just about anywhere, in any mood, depending on the space available! When I’m at home, I try to be as focussed and concentrated as possible with my practice and have my phone in another room and screens turned off. My practice room is covered in posters of inspirational musicians and natural light is very important to me. Music is born from the heart and soul and the rapid, sometimes incessant world of technology can be a distraction!
Tell me about your instrument, please. What was your first instrument like and how did you progress to your current one? How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results, including your own performance?
I saved up for my first ever saxophone when I was around 9 years old and bought it from the well-known music shop in Manchester, Johnny Roadhouse. The legendary saxophonist Johnny Roadhouse himself sold it to me – it was a beginner Elkhart model and I still have it today! I now play instruments made by Yanagisawa, a Japanese company based in Tokyo. My soprano and alto are both made from unlaquered bronze, which, for me, creates a mellow and rounded tone and encourages a very vocal approach.
I had the honour of visiting the factory last year (which is actually 3 houses knocked together!) and it was absolutely fascinating. The level of craftsmanship and dedication with which the instruments are made is incredible; they are all made entirely by hand with the utmost precision and love.
The saxophone acts as a mirror to the player and is a vehicle for expression so it is extremely important to me for the instrument to be resonant and responsive.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? 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?
A strict routine doesn’t really exist for me – every day is different, especially when I’m touring. I love the mornings; I love to be up before the world awakens and watch the foxes play in the back garden!!
I always used to practice quite early in the so that I was fresh and alert - I started about 6.30am most days. Now, I have moved house and I don’t think my neighbours would appreciate that early morning wake up!! I used to plan my days down to the minute but now I try to be a little more relaxed!
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
My second and most recent album, TIME, is particularly dear to me. The album mirrors the arc of energy in a passing day and the constant orbit of our existence. With a huge range of styles, moods and influences, the music offers the listener a space to immerse themselves in an oasis of sound and reflection.
Last year I moved to London and quickly became acutely aware of the speed and intensity of life. Everything is in constant orbit: I am orbiting around the world as a musician, there’s the orbit of a day, of thoughts around the mind and I noticed how many people are looking for a place to stop and reflect.
I began thinking about this and wanted to create an album that gives the listener space in which to immerse themselves and perhaps give them a moment away from the world as it is right now. I listen to and love such a huge array of music so the album’s influences range from classical to techno and minimalism to alternative pop. I heard Bjork speaking about the notion of music being a universe the listener can explore and look around rather than being directed by narrative and I was very inspired by that idea.
I spent a week in a cabin in the Lake District focusing before 4 days of intense recording. Making this album was one of the best experiences of my life. I was fortunate enough to record with an incredible group of musicians and close friends. The pieces grew and changed and were moulded over a few days and the feeling of collectivity, collaboration and concentration paired with a lot of laughter and smiling made for one of the most inspiring musical environments I’ve experienced.
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?
My mission is to spread hope and joy through music so for me, having an open heart, an open heart and open ears are essential. As a wind player, I am very aware and focussed on my breathing, physical body and posture and I think an awareness of the breath and the marvels of the human body definitely help me to become more concentrated and focussed when entering a practice session.
I think creativity requires a fascinating balance of discipline and of freedom and working to combine those two forces is often a challenge. The Nelson Mandela quote of “With freedom comes responsibilities’ comes to mind - some are fortunate enough to be in a position of artistic free reign, but with that comes the need for discipline, purpose, dedication and self-awareness.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I think that as humans, we are instinctively drawn to other humans. So, in the recent pandemic, our use of technology has been increased by not only practical and economic factors, but also by a deep desire to be a part of a larger collective and to engage with loved ones. In this respect, technology, when used with care and love, can be incredible.
I recently set up a Virtual Scratch Orchestra using the internet and it was one of the most fulfilling and heart-warming projects I have undertaken. The far-reaching power of technology is remarkable and enables us to connect people who might not otherwise have met. However, I think there are limits. For me, music is all about people! People uniting, people sharing and people listening and nothing can replicate the electric experience of live music.
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 playing together or just talking about ideas?
Collaboration is a key element of my work – I don’t think I would want to be a musician without it! Collaboration can take on so many different forms and guises whether it is with audience and performer, between the musicians themselves, with the musician and composer or simply music and the world! Playing and creating music with others is one of the best experiences on earth.
How is preparing music, playing it live and recording it for an album connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
I try to emulate some of the danger and spontaneity in live performance when I am in the studio, as well as trying to use the studio itself as an instrument. I sometimes invite people to recording sessions to create a live atmosphere! For me, the preparation and learning of a piece is a never-ending process, like a continually rotating sphere that morphs into new shapes through life experience, changes in surroundings and different collaborators.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' and 'performance' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre?
I am always working to hone my tone and sound towards the ideal ‘golden’ sound I hear inside my head. The instrument becomes a vehicle for expression and is an extension of my voice so the actual sound I make is the most important aspect of my playing.
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?
The societal role of music, its capacity for change and just how profoundly it can affect the human brain and existence is absolutely extraordinary. I hold a strong belief that if every child had access to a quality education based around music, it would be possible to instil empathy into a generation of children, to deepen our understanding of what it is to be alive and to create a world of generous, irenic musical citizens who are equipped with the skills needed to adapt in an ever changing world.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music and performance still intact. Do you have a vision of music and performance, an idea of what they could be beyond their current form?
My vision for music is that every child is given the opportunity to experience music and to learn from its magic. We can use its power to bring positivity, hope and light to a world that needs it in abundance.