Name: Jo Quail
Occupation: Cellist, composer
Current Release: Exsolve, available on bandcamp
Recommendations: TS Eliot Four Quartets - music ever present within language, and the Bach cello suites - absolute eloquence and precision encompassed in a solo voice.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Jo Quail, check out her persobak website for tour dates, a shop and current news.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I was very fortunate to study from an early age with the Centre for Young Musicians, and an integral part of our tuition was ‘General Musicianship’ which involved improvisation and composition, so in a sense I’ve been writing music since I was 9! In recent terms, I released my first solo record ‘From The Sea’ in 2010 and prior to that released several albums as a member of various bands and ensembles. I was influenced in the early days by music I heard and played, so really anything from what was in the charts at the time to Bach, Beethoven, Schein, Debussy, the list goes on!
What draws me, us, to music is a very big question. Right now, I’m sitting at my computer and I’m wandering a labyrinth of thoughts and ideas, but to distil this would be to say that for me, music reaches parts of our selves, of our minds and our conscious and subconscious beings that is less or even inaccessible by words and visuals alone.
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 the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
This used to be inelegantly termed ‘Pastiche’ when I was at university! It’s a very important part of composing, of learning your trade and eventually finding your own voice. Bearing in mind that we are all passing the creative baton back and forth emulating others in that sense is very important in early musical development, a kind of ‘earning your spurs’ if you like, but also having the freedom and confidence to then move forwards from this. It’s like learning to draw, you have to start with the basics, then off you go. Like Picasso. I think it was Georgia O’Keefe who said something along the lines of ‘I went as far as I could in black and white (charcoal) and then I introduced Blue’. Finding my own voice was a slow process in some ways, and I am still finding my voice after 4 albums. And may that ever continue, may we never stagnate as creators!
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Me. I was and still am my main compositional challenge, whether it’s through procrastination (which I am very skilled at...), self doubt, or actual production. It takes me a long time to write because I know the process now, I begin with an idea I love, and invariably this idea gets binned after a few months, but what has resulted from that early moment is ‘the piece’. I know this process and it makes me almost reluctant to start, because the journey is long. There are times when pieces appear very swiftly, like ‘Gold’ (Five Incantations) and ‘South West Night’ (Caldera) but these are in the minority. I am really not very good at computers, I have a great mac apparently but all I’m capable of is live demos which I send to my producers as pre-production. I need to be with a skilled producer and engineer when I record, and luckily I’ve had the privilege of working with Ben Matthews, James Griffiths and Chris Fielding on my records, and these experts can handle my compositional structures and work with me in fulfilling the recorded version.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My studio at home here is the same it’s always been, I’ve upgraded computers, sound cards and monitors from time to time but it’s the same set up. I could not do what I do without Boss however. I use the RC300 loop station and the GT100 fx board. The RC300 is a triple loop station with almost everything I could want from a board like this. Independent or sync’d loops, the capability of altering and moulding most aspects, some simultaneously, and the GT100 admirably handles all my extended techniques I use, and percussive sound patches I write, as well as delivering huge heft when needed.
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?
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I use technology to perform my concerts! When I write, I’m creating with the ‘live’ aspect at the forefront; I must be able to recreate my pieces entirely live, solo, with nothing else on stage other than my pedals and my cello. Humans can imagine and dream, and technology can assist us in realising that. I loop, and I hope I do this in an inventive and non-linear fashion. I view my loop station as 3 extra performers on stage with me, and I compose with that in mind, looping and removing motifs as and when necessary, bringing two or three together, leaving some out, the possibilities are almost endless but the machine can’t do that on its own. Sometimes I have one foot switch controlling up to 6 different aspects within one piece, and I would say I make the machines work pretty much to their limits, or at least to the limits of my knowledge and capability at that present moment.
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 have a two-fold approach to collaborations. Sometimes, like today, I am asked to contribute something on a track that somebody has written and will release, and most of the bones, in fact most of the piece is there, and I will add a few touches here and there. Sometimes they send dots on a page as they say, at other times they say ‘play what you like’ and so I do. At other times, as with Exsolve, the boot is on the other foot, whereby I create my pieces of music and then send them to my guests, and ask for their input. Occasionally, as with ‘Rosebud’ (written and recorded with Eraldo Bernocchi and FM Einheit) we will go in to a studio and just play, press record, and improvise an entire record. I’ve worked with Matt Howden in this way too, writing and recording an album in front of a live audience in just 2 days. It’s incredibly exciting working this way, and probably one of my preferred ways to collaborate in the truest sense with a colleague.
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?
My mornings are routine, every day I get up, my daughter gets up, we have breakfast and then do the school run. I get home around 9am and I usually go immediately to my music room and play, one or other cello, either Bach to begin the day or whatever else I’m working on, my own pieces or set runs, or sessions. I have to go there first; if I turn on a computer then nothing will get done that day! I’ve learned this now...
I can usually work til 3, then I will pick up my daughter and we will hang out til her bedtime. I’ll start work again at around 8pm, but the evenings are more for listening through, or standard rep practice, though at times, if I’m writing I do find these later hours are very rich in creativity. I made a point of playing my cello obviously while I was pregnant but almost immediately that Eila was born too, because I had to be sure she would sleep through the sound of me practising! She is great, she even slept in her basket in my music room at times and I’m so thankful I set that up from the very outset. Whilst music is an integral part of all our lives here at home I do keep things separate as when I tour I’m not here at all so I want to be fully present when I am at home.