Name: Josienne Clarke
Occupation: Singer, songwriter
Current release: Josienne Clarke's new album A Small Unknowable Thing is out via Josienne's own label, Corduroy Punk Records.
Recommendations: Kind of hard to pick just two out of a world of beautiful art but …
I’m going to recommend John Fowles’ novel ‘The Collector’ because it is a book I wrote a song about for my latest album ‘A Small Unknowable Thing’
‘You Shadow’ from ‘Remind Me Tomorrow’ by Sharon Van Etten
SVE is a great songwriter who uses electric guitars and synths to enhance her superb lyrics, I always identify hugely with the content of her songwriting and particularly this song. Though I’m sure many of your readers know about her work but just in case, cos her career is a constant inspiration.
If you enjoyed this Josienne Clarke interview, visit her official website which offers plenty of information and links to all her socials. You can also go directly to Instagram, Facebook, or her bandcamp account for recent updates and music.
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 started writing when I was about 16/17.
As kids we usually get our first exposure to music from our parents record collection. Mine was 70’s songwriters like Don Maclean, James Taylor, Paul Simon & The Beach Boys. My Dad played a bit of guitar for fun and had a song book from which I learnt ‘Seventeen’ by Janis Ian as my first song. So I guess it’s no surprise that sensitive, lyrical songwriting is my focus first and foremost.
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 think early on as an artist I emulated styles and writers I liked. When listening back to my earliest EPs now I hear how I was listening to a lot of folk music and so my subject matter contained more of an ancient landscape.
I was setting my emotional narratives among unspoilt woodland rather than the city where I was living and experiencing my actual life. It seems kind of sweet and naïve to hear it back now
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
For me, as a mainly autobiographical writer I think the two are intrinsically linked, my work now comes through the filter of what I would say and how I would say it. My writing is predominantly about female experience - not because I intend to write that but because that is the angle from which I experience the world around me.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
There was a point in my career where my lack of detailed theoretical musical understanding bothered me a lot.
I studied classical music for a bit (I wasn’t very good at it) and there’s a lot of complex theory involved in that and I was uncomfortable with the idea that I didn’t use any of that knowledge in my songwriting. I had two separate parts of my brain one for understanding Sonata Form and another for making up songs on the guitar where I didn’t even know what chord I was playing.
I’ve learned to be more comfortable with having a more instinctive approach to songwriting and producing my own music. Theory is great but only if it’s helping you. If it’s not, let it go, let your ears do the work instead. The creative challenges I face now are more about keeping things fresh and interesting. I’ve released over 15 albums/EPs and the risk of repeating oneself is huge!
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?
I suppose when I started out I only had an acoustic guitar and was still grappling with it as an instrument, so my early work is primarily voice and guitar. I was still learning to write songs so records were simply to capture the realisation of that finished song.
As I progressed I guess I got tighter at writing and so found the limitations of that and began to incorporate more instrumentation on my records.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
As I’ve started to play more electric guitar, I’ve begun to explore pedals recently, once again I found the limitations of timbre and texture on an acoustic guitar.
For this record - A Small Unknowable Thing - I really wanted a dense and distorted sound in places and whilst not being an expert at guitar gear I set about finding just the right overdrive I was looking for by trial and error.
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’ve been lucky enough to work with fabulous pianists, drummers etc, some really great instrumentalists. Having the musical possibilities of what a session player can be directed to play enables me to take a demo idea I’ve roughly sketched with the instruments I have and sort of blow them up into the fully fledged musical vision.
I generally share basic demos of my songs with them ahead of recording. Sometimes I’ve got a really clear idea of what I need them to play and sometimes I don’t. So in the studio we do some takes and go from there. I know what’s right when I hear it.
As the songwriter and producer you have to trust your choice of players they very often come up with something great you’d never have thought of. So it pays not to be to prescriptive all of the time.
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?
I definitely don’t have a fixed schedule, I’m a bit inclined to go with my whims! There are days when I don’t touch the guitar or sing a note and others where I’m buried away for hours. I let it be that way because it’s always worked for me, I’ve always been pretty productive and I don’t believe you can force creativity out of yourself.
I often go for a long walk with headphones and come back with ideas, getting out in the world with a great soundtrack is the most inspiring thing I find.
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?
I worked on the music for a play at The National Theatre in 2015 and it remains the most exciting project I’ve been involved in. It was a reworking of ‘Our Country’s Good’ Directed by Nadia Fall. The music was curated by Cerys Matthews and she chose two of my original songs to use within the play. I got to perform onstage alongside the actors each night on The Oliver Stage. I was there from the first readthrough of the script with the cast so I got to see from the inside how such theatre is created.
I found it so inspiring and I was lucky enough to be asked, a few years later to compose the songs for The National Theatre’s education department adaptation of ‘The Snow Queen’ for key stage 2. Composing songs specifically for various moments in the play was a new challenge and one I enjoyed every moment of.
Writing songs for children to sing was also a brand new thing to try and I loved it. They have to be pitched a little higher and they have to be simpler lyrically. It enabled me to distil the emotional content of the songs down, leave out anything unnecessarily complex and just leave the important bits. It’s a great discipline for songwriting in general.
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?
It’s funny because at the start of the pandemic I found the combination of constant low level anxiety and day to day boredom to be the least ideal state I’ve ever experienced and I didn’t write anything for the first 4 months of it. I guess I’ve always felt a certain level of light boredom was required, if there’s too much going on its impossible to process and reflect upon it. So it’s usually after a thing has calmed down that I begin to write about it, after the fact.
But the constant anxiety of a global pandemic, I found, isn’t conducive or at least it took me a while to adjust to that. I think of the creative state as the calm after the storm: You need things to happen to have things to write about but you also need them to recede far enough that you can have an objective perspective upon them.
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?
I think music is a tool for catharsis and I have always used it that way. I feel fortunate to have somewhere I can put all the shit stuff that happens and make it into (hopefully!) something more positive.
The ideal for a songwriter is to write something that gives a complete stranger a way to describe their own situation/emotional state. There are some songs you can only listen to in a certain frame of mind, outside of that they are jarring or too involved and I think that is as it should be - different songs for all the different way you can feel.
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?
I think as an artist you have to know what your references are and you have to balance carefully the influences you choose and how you use them. If no one was influenced by or ever referenced another artist’s work it would be a shame but it comes back to being strictly authentic with your work. We have to know who we are & the boundary between a reference and a copy.
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?
I’ve always taken cover art and visuals seriously in reference to my music, I feel that to create a cohesive whole album the visuals must represent and enhance the sounds within. I think it’s the reason the music video is such a compelling medium and similarly film soundtrack.
Sound and sight are quite linked and can massively enhance the experience of each sense.
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?
I feel like most artists would find it hard to detach their art from themselves as people, so our work takes on the roles and beliefs we ourselves occupy in day to day life.
Honesty is an important thing to me as a person, authenticity and emotional truth. This is an element of my work, I try to describe feelings not in the way I would like people to view me but as I actually experience them. I have written about fear, anger, loss, jealousy, inadequacy … these songs leave me vulnerable but they have also liberated me.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I always refer to the beauty of songwriting not being simply putting together some words and a tune but the specific alchemy involved in combining the two. How they enhance one another and grow into something of greater emotional strength than the sum of their parts.