Interview with rising British blues singer Jo Harman
The UK’s Classic Rock Blues Magazine said simply of Jo Harman: “Her music mainlines the human soul.” Over the last year in particular, she has travelled tirelessly throughout Europe, bringing her outstanding blues, soul and roots-fuelled music to appreciative audiences, which included over 40 festivals and an appearance at the Blues Fest at the Royal Albert Hall with the likes of Robert Plant, Jeff Beck and the Royal Southern Brotherhood in October.
Her star is in the ascendant, built on determined hard work, impressive song-writing skills, a terrific backing band and – most of all, that voice. Sweet, sultry, powerful, bluesy, soulful – Jo Harman’s got it all. If you haven’t heard of her yet – you will! Go check out her album, Dirt on My Tongue, which Down at the Crossroads rated one of its best blues albums of the year.
DATC: First of all Jo, congratulations on Dirt on My Tongue – it’s a fantastic album. You’re obviously pleased at the reception it’s had – did it surprise you at all?
Jo: Wow, that’s a interesting question, because when you immerse yourself in something like your own debut studio album you really aren’t in much of a position to think about anything else other than the mechanics of making it, and making it exactly how you want it. I made the album for me and didn’t allow any space in my head to worry about anybody else’s reaction to it.
Commercial or critical considerations were never part of the equation in making it…beyond me knowing I wanted to somehow make a “timeless” record which, I hoped, would sound as good in ten years time as today. (I think I’m on record on my own website of saying that long before I’d even started the process!). It’s a very personal record, a very sincere record, and perhaps that’s what people relate to.
Am I surprised by the reaction? I’m really delighted that people seem to like it and some people think it’s something of an important record, but I try not to let critique, good or bad (not that I’ve had any bad with this record), divert me from my own aims. I suppose part of me thought my main “audience” at that time – the blues/rock crowd – would hate it as it was so ballad heavy and so different from my live show and (unofficial) live album. Shame on me for thinking that, because the response in reality has been quite the opposite, and the blues community have really championed me and helped push me more into mainstream attention.
DATC: So when will the album be released in the US? And have you any plans to tour there?
Jo: Oh man, I’d love to come to USA. I’d like to think that’s a major audience for my work and very, very many of my influences are grounded in black American music, from gospel to early soul to blues and more. Trouble is I’ve been ridiculously busy this last year just forging a career in the UK and Europe – and I’ve still got huge parts of Europe still to address – from a standing start that I’ve not really even had time to think about how to work America. I’ve had some offers of dates and various invitations to do bits and pieces but it’s a huge country separated by a huge area of water, so it’s not like we can dip in and out and slowly build up our profile in a cost effective way like we can in Europe. Which is why we haven’t released the record formally in the States (albeit I ship many orders to North America direct from my website). Ideally, we need a partner; a label, an agent or management company to help us get into North America and do it properly. I’m open to offers!
DATC: Jo, your style of singing incorporates blues, jazz, soul, little bit of gospel – this is very American music, and actually very black music – how does a girl from Devon in England end up with this kind of music?
Jo: My influences were formed by my father’s record collection – Beatles, Rolling Stones, Average White Band, singer songwriters, even Prog – as a kid. Then later I got into “black” music …everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Jill Scott, through Etta James and of courseAretha, and most points in between. Black American music is a big part of the UK culture, so most “serious” singers and musicians still turn to that as a template for development. I wear my influences on my sleeve, but hopefully I tell my own story and bring my own personal experiences, musical and otherwise, to the table. I would hate to be just some kind of copyist. People tell me I sing in an English accent at times and so I should!
DATC: I gather you started out in music college? Does the formal music training you’ve had help you with song-writing, arranging, performing?
Jo: Yes, I was a classically trained musician – a bassoonist of all things – and played in many youth orchestras before I ever really developed as a vocalist. I think I enjoyed a very good musical education, and play piano and (self taught) guitar just about well enough to translate the chords I hear in my head into the songs I write today. As a vocalist, I went to music school for a year (quite late, aged 24) but that was more to put myself into a musical environment rather than learn to sing per se, albeit I had some great teachers at times. I do think, though, whilst all that technique and education is useful, it’s what you feel and natural expression is what’s really important.
I learnt some useful skills at music school but without a doubt, it was my experience of the real music world (especially in those first few years) which has progressed me the most. There is only so much one can learn in a classroom before you outgrow it. Having said that, no one has more soul as a singer than Donny Hathaway, and he was also a very schooled musician. Does no real harm to have a broad outlook and grounding. As Ray Charles said, there are only two types of music – really good and not so good.
DATC: Who are the artists, past or present, who have influenced you? How is that influence expressed – through the direction of your music, your singing style…?
Jo: Well again, my phrasing is pretty much influenced by old school soul/gospel blues – pretty much vocally all the chops across those genres are one and the same. I just have naturalbluesy tones – luck of the draw. My trademark (unconscious) vibrato probably comes from listening to gospel singers and my days playing wind instruments – I also played a bit of saxophone. People say I have a ‘signature’ voice i.e. it’s pretty instantly recognisable, which I guess I’m OK with. I’m lucky in that I can sing in half voice and belt to equally natural measure which gives me a few tones and textures to play with.
DATC: For me the stand out track on the album is “Sweet Man Moses,” which I gather is a tribute to your father. There’s more than a little gospel feel to this, which gives the song a very emotional quality. That gospel-blues sound seems like something you can closely relate to?
Jo: Very much so, I’m a huge fan of Kim Burrell, the Clarke Sisters, as well as those old school Memphis singers, like Candi Staton and Ann Peebles, and, when it comes to vocal arrangements, I’m always layering my voice up like it’s a gospel choir. I just love that sound. “Sweet Man Moses” is a very emotional and personal song. If it comes across as heartfelt, I’m glad.
DATC: The blues world is very male oriented – most of the artists are male, sometimes the music is quite muscular and the lyrics not exactly enlightened. Clearly there are wonderful prominent women in the genre (and always have been). What’s your experience been as a women in this industry?
Jo: My experience as a woman in this industry has generally been very positive. I live in a generally quite enlightened and forward thinking environment in Britain and it is a bit odd to hear people in some parts of the blues talk in a language which seems from a former age. All this talk about “hot chicks” and even my agent seems to sometimes find my legs at least as interesting as my voice. But for every questionable aspect, there is another positive aspect to being a women singer. A lot of my male contemporaries would say it’s a distinct advantage, to be a female! It’s important for me not to get too precious about things without compromising my own integrity. Ultimately I want to be judged by my music and, by and large, I think that is what happens.
DATC: You’ve been very busy touring in Europe this past year. What does this year hold for you? And hopefully you have plans for another album
Jo: Yes, I do think there is a lot of mileage in this album yet – the “Dirt On My Tongue” album – so we’ll continue to tour it and break into new territories. But I am writing new material though and I’m looking forward to start thinking about the second album as well as playing some of that new material out live. It’s an exciting time…I’m very busy and it can be quite tiring, but this year I’m determined to try and take it all in and enjoy it more. Last year was just a blur. But it’s all good and I’m truly grateful for all the interest and support. Thank you everyone concerned.
(first published at Down at the Crossroads)