Getting to Know Jean Rohe — Falcon Ridge Emerging Artist
Jean Rohe is a very wise woman. Not only does she make astoundingly beautiful music but she is thoughtful, reflective, and courageous. She trusts her musical instinct and believes in the beauty of friendship. She learned early on that making music is a bridge – a bridge that unites people no matter who they are.
Jean Rohe is one of 24 Emerging Artists chosen for this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. The Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes). The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year.
First of all, we need to know about your background. How many languages do you speak and how did you come to learn them?
I speak English because my parents do. I learned Spanish in high school and I live in New York City where I can speak it every day if I want to. I also studied in Cuba briefly and have returned there several times over the years. I learned conversational Portuguese mostly on my own, by listening to Brazilian music I liked and talking to Brazilian musicians. Eventually, I spent a month in Brazil, where I discovered I could talk about heartbreak for hours on end but hadn’t learned simple words for furniture and colors. I started trying to learn Georgian, too, for a couple trips there a few years ago. It’s a very challenging language, unrelated to any other. But I can read the alphabet slowly and talk about simple things.
Can you explain why your band name is The End of the World Show?
The end of the word needs a party. “The End of the World Show” is about making music, continuing to create beauty and express joy or sorrow even when the world around us looks like it’s falling apart. I always think about the string quartet that kept playing while the Titanic sunk. We need music most in those terrifying moments. There are so many examples throughout history of how people relied on music, on art to shine light in the darkness. Right now we are hastening our own demise as a species, burning anything that we can burn, with few meaningful signs that we’ll change course. It’s depressing, it’s frustrating. It’s a complicated business to fight for the life of our planet, to know that in the best case scenario we’ll lose a lot, and to keep singing the songs. But we have to keep singing them.
You’ve coined the phrase “phonojournalism.” What do you mean by that phrase?
“Phonojournalism”–I made it up. It’s about combining my amateur journalist hobby with songwriting. Whether it’s telling a small life story or something from the headlines, the idea is to capture the emotion of a story that’s newsworthy, to me, to do what most journalism can’t do well, to help people connect to a story emotionally rather than strictly intellectually.
Your biography says that you grew up in a ‘participatory folk music scene.” Who and what were your earliest remembrances related to music?
For my sixth birthday I got a cassette tape recorder. Best gift ever. The recordings I made on that recorder say a lot about music in our house. My dad and mom played guitar and sang harmonies, I shouted/sang, my brother, who was 3 years old at the time, got to sing along or make sound-effects. We did songs I learned in Kindergarten, old folk songs, 60s soul hits, the theme toSesame Street, ditties I made up. Anything that we could sing.
My family is musical, their friends are musical, their way of gathering often involves music-making, but they’re not professional musicians. When I was about seven my parents joined the Folk Project in New Jersey where I met regular people who got a lot of joy out of getting together and making music. This was my extended family. In our house, music and singing were woven into the fabric of the day. It wasn’t something special, separate from other activities one might do. Music was part of how we gathered, bedtimes, car rides, in an informal way.
The video of your song “National Anthem: Arise, Arise” was very ambitious! It was recorded in the gorgeous Judson Memorial Church in Washington Square in New York. How did that come about? Did you write the arrangement for all those musicians and chorus? Tell us all about it.
I wrote “National Anthem: Arise! Arise!” in 2011. It’s an aspirational anthem for the United States. When I started working on my latest record, Jean Rohe & The End of the World Show, I asked my bandmate Liam Robinson to help produce it. He’s a talented composer and orchestrator in his own right, a skilled organizer of people, and the only person I’d trust to do the job. Ultimately, we decided that “National Anthem” didn’t belong with the rest of the record, but that we should record it anyway, and do it in a special way. It was one of those things that starts as a small idea and then gets huge because you keep saying yes. I had wanted to write a brass quartet and percussion arrangement, plus chorus, and record it in layers, in a studio. Liam really wanted to take on the arranging, but to orchestrate it for brass sextet, bass, guitar, and orchestral percussion. He suggested that it would be more fun to record it live in a beautiful-sounding, big room. And if we were going to do that, surely we’d have to film it for posterity. In the end, it was a huge effort of friends and favors: Judson Memorial donated its space, my filmmaker friends Shachar Langlev and Nitzan Mager donated their time and gathered a film crew, my neighbors and students came together as the Citizen Choir, the friend chain yielded an amazing brass sextet and some intrepid on-site recording engineers, some of my bandmates played and sang, and my housemate, Niki-lu, made tacos and snacks for everyone. It was a really long day. In the words of the percussionist, “This was the biggest friend-organized gig I’ve ever done.”
Your songs have many underlying messages about our relationships with each other and how we relate to each other in these trying times. Do you find that writing and performing music is a therapeutic way to process how you interpret what’s going on in the world?
I definitely wouldn’t characterize it as therapeutic. Writing about the really hard shit often makes me feel worse than I did before. Writing a good song requires a writer to go deep, and there’s a decent chance that “deep” is a scary or frustrating or downright sad place. A poet friend of mine describes it like being kidnapped by an idea, gagged and dragged off. You don’t really know where you’re going, but it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. Don’t get the wrong idea. I get a lot of joy from my work. The way I like to think about it is that writing songs, performing songs doesn’t necessarily make me feel better. A good song makes me feel more. That’s what I want in my life. That’s what I want my listeners/participants to experience. Feeling more than they did before.
The physical version of the CD comes packaged with a deck of small cards, each printed with the lyric of a song on one side and a small essay on the other. They’re all folded together in an origami box, along with the CD. There are beautiful illustrations throughout by Melanie Ida Chopko, and it was custom designed by Ilusha Tsinadze. This is another case of asking friends to help with a part of the project and then saying yes again and again. My only idea about the packaging was that it should elevate the CD to the level of a magical object. As the CD goes out of style, in favor of the digital download, something needs to be compelling about the physical object. I wanted Melanie’s artwork to be central. And I had this vague idea about a box of magical objects with my prose somewhere inside. They came up with the rest and worked like crazy to make it happen. We assembled each CD package by hand in my living room with the help of some friends and fans. It was quite the undertaking.
You made a most courageous commencement speech at the New School in 2006…an event in which John McCain was giving the keynote address much to the displeasure of a great many of your classmates and faculty members. Looking back, what’s your take on that experience? Would you do it the same way all over again?
I watch the video of my speech on YouTube probably once a year. It makes me feel nervous every single time I hear it––that experience was so stressful and scary, knowing that I was changing the script, knowing I could mess it up, knowing that I was on national TV. Up until the moment I finished singing Jay Mankita’s “Living Planet” at the beginning, I wasn’t sure I could go through with it. I watch the speech each year so I can remember what I’m capable of, so I remember the brave part of myself that I don’t get to see every day. That was eight years ago. No matter how much I learn as I age, no matter how much that knowledge helps me steer my course, I want to be able to let my younger self get a turn at the wheel. It gets easier to compromise on some things as I get older. Sometimes that’s for the best. But sometimes it means losing the fire. I need that younger woman to help me keep it alive.
Checking out Jean’s website will enrich your life.
Here’s a video of Jean and her band playing “Nobody Told Me to Dance.”