Following an extensive summer touring schedule, genre defying UK based singer/songwriter Jo Harman will be performing at the Great British Rhythm and Blues Festival in Colne over August Bank Holiday weekend alongside Kaz Hawkins and Grammy nominated vocalist Janiva Magness.
Jo’s latest album People We Become was recorded in Nashville alongside producer Fred Mollin. The album is a contemporary record which is rooted in the classic, timeless music of past generations. People We Become also features a collaboration with legendary American singer/songwriter Michael McDonald.
National Rock Review recently caught up with Jo Harman at the SummerTyne Americana Festival to talk about her forthcoming Colne appearance, her latest album, her recent performance in New York as well as her plans for the rest of this year.
NRR: Thanks for taking the time to speak to us here at National Rock Review today, we really appreciate it. So you’ve just come off stage at the SummerTyne Americana Festival at the Sage Gateshead. How was it for you?
Jo: It was wonderful, I really enjoyed it. Yeah, it was very intimate today, a beautiful space. I loved having a lovely Steinway concert grand piano, which was a treat. The audience were really warm and friendly and I felt really relaxed and it was really nice, yeah.
NRR: So this time around you were accompanied both on piano and guitar like you just mentioned there the Steinway, rather than your full band this time. I was just wondering have you used that particular format before with just the three of you, I know you mentioned that sometimes you play with just the piano or the other way around. How did you find that and did you have to approach your songs differently from an arrangement point of view?
Jo: Yes, you do have to definitely approach them from a different point of view. However, I think the most important thing is that the song stands up and I think a lot of those songs, well this is what a lot of people say anyway, is that a lot of those songs – even when you do it with just piano or just piano and guitar they stand up, they are proper songs and that’s what I aim to do is to write proper songs. So my music – the People We Become album, there’s a lot of stuff that’s arranged on there, however, it’s all come from a very, very organic place. So it’s all about the song being strong and having great musicians, which I do and being able to express themselves in the way that they want to express themselves and it just being an organic experience and today was very much an organic experience because we’ve just come off the back of doing two band shows. So yeah, we were just letting it come (laughing).
NRR: I know that you don’t like to be pigeon holed into any one particular genre, but you do cross a wide variety of different types of music. You’ve got Blues, Jazz, Soul there’s Gospel, obviously a lot of very Americana themes in there. Do you feel particularly at home at this type of festival?
Jo: 100% yeah, this feels like a really comfortable home for me for sure, because I guess the term Americana is exactly that, it’s a crossover between all kinds of different genres that have come out of the USA. Yeah, for me it’s great because I’m not a Blues singer, I’m not a Blues artist, I’m not Rock, I’m not out and out Soul, I’m not out and out Gospel. You know my voice is a Soul voice I guess, but I’m heavily influenced by all of those kinds of things, all of those different genres. So for me, it is definitely important to not be pigeon holed as I kind of was – I’m a Blues singer and people think I’m a Blues singer, but I’m not at all really (laughing), so yeah this was great.
NRR: Your new album People You Become, you recorded that in Nashville with Fred Mollin. I just wondered what was the Nashville experience like for you?
Jo: Really intense, because we didn’t have a whole lot of time to do it. I made three trips over there and the first one was to go and meet Fred and meet some of the producers. Then I decided that I wanted to work with Fred because he just really seemed to get it. The first thing he said to me was that we should be making a Jo Harman album 100%, I didn’t need a producer that kind of came in and said right we are going to do this, we are going to do that, I have my very, very strong vision about what I wanted to do and what I set out to do and Fred kind of facilitated that, so that was really important.
Then I did a couple of tracks with him on the next trip over and then the final trip we had just under three weeks and we recorded the rest of the album. So it was very, very intense, we lost a couple of days to the snow, which was mental because it’s pretty much like here, everything shuts down. Obviously, Nashville isn’t very used to having snow. Yeah, but it was a real rollercoaster of emotions from complete and utter joy to frustration to elation to just freaking out all of the time and just being absolutely exhausted and just working our nuts off basically to make the record. But it was an amazing life experience, and Nashville is an incredible place – it’s a weird place, but it’s an incredible place (laughing).
NRR: I read a quote from you which said that you are “just trying to write classic songs, and present them with classic production. When you try to chase what’s going on at the moment, then it’s going to sound old very quickly.” I’ve spoken to a lot of artists about this particular subject and they all say a similar thing naturally. I was just wondering do you find that by adopting that approach it gives you more freedom as well as making you feel happier with the end result?
Jo: I guess, yeah. I mean I just kind of do what I do, you know I make music that I want to make. I make music that feels right to me and it wouldn’t feel right to me to try and create some kind of pop track, kind of crow bar something into something, that’s not what my music is about. I write from the heart and it’s sincere and honest and so for me, it’s a no brainer, I just want to make timeless, classic music. I’m influenced by all of those kinds of artists like Carole King and Joni Mitchell, Aretha Franklin – all of that kind of Soul and Stax, Motown. For me, it’s very much an organic process, with all kinds of organic real sounds.
NRR: You mentioned there tonight that on the record you’ve got an appearance from Michael McDonald. I was just wondering how did that collaboration come about?
Jo: So Fred is a good friend with Michael and I’m a fan of Michael’s and I had covered one of his songs before I had even met Fred. So I think I kind of got chatting to Fred when I was making the record and he was like you know maybe Michael would be up for it. So we sent Michael the record of “I Can Let Go Now” – the cover version, as I was a huge fan of that song. So it felt really natural, even though Fred was the middle guy, it felt like a real natural thing to do, because I was such a big of his and because I’m such a big fan of that song.
Fred sent it to him and he absolutely loved it and he wrote a really amazing email to me saying really wonderful things and Michael was just being incredibly supportive and he’s a fan I think. So hopefully maybe in the future, we will do some more stuff together.
NRR: You mentioned earlier there, you’ve definitely got a closeness with the blues crowd, and I think they adopted you in the beginning. You are going to be performing at the Great British Rhythm and Blues Festival in Colne. Do you tailor your set according to the crowd playing to particularly?
Jo: Yeah, sometimes – you have to really, because if I’m doing one of my own shows in a venue or whatever then I will do my thing – I will go through all of the facets of who I am and what I’m about as an artist. Whereas maybe at a festival, I was at a festival in Switzerland last night, we had to just tailor it a little bit. You know I still did my classic ballads and all of that kind of stuff, but there were fewer of them. At a festival, it was an outdoor festival, people are standing up. So yeah, you have to make it a bit more up tempo and a bit more feel good, as opposed to doing the heart wrenching, wrist slashing ballads all of the time, which I really quite like to do (laughing).
NRR: What’s your favourite track to perform live and why?
Jo: You know what, at the moment I’m really enjoying “This Is My Amnesty”, which was on my first album. I’m really enjoying that because I haven’t had it in the set for a really long time, so I’m kind of rediscovering it a bit. It’s such a lovely song to sing, I really enjoy singing it and it really means a lot to me that song. I would say from the second album, “Silhouettes Of You” I’m really enjoying singing that. There’s a couple of ballads for you (laughing).
NRR: Where do you find the inspiration for your songwriting?
Jo: Just everywhere in life, life and my weird head (laughing). My weird head – you know we’ve all got issues, haven’t we? We’ve all got issues, but I think artists issues are especially at the forefront, so I just write about what I know, which is me really.
NRR: Do you find songwriting to be therapeutic at all?
Jo: I do find it therapeutic in some ways, but I always find it really stressful, because I’m getting better as I get older, but there have been certain things in my life that I don’t particularly …I’m not very good at addressing things. So for me writing from the heart and from the soul is really quite full on and quite exhausting emotionally. So I work really hard at it and it doesn’t always come that easy, it’s really a kind of perspiration thing, it doesn’t come easy. So I don’t write a massive amount like a lot of other people do, I write with a couple of co-writers, just one on one, or just myself. So I’m not churning out a whole load of stuff, but the stuff I do come out with is really important.
NRR: You performed in New York earlier this year. I was just wondering how did that trip go and do you have any plans to go back to the US anytime soon?
Jo: Well, maybe – I hope so, but it’s unbelievably expensive to do that. It was a very, very expensive trip. However, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, I went to go and perform in a really prestigious venue and worked with some unbelievable musicians who just made my music sound amazing. We had two days of rehearsals, kind of that same lineup, guitar and piano but I had two backing vocalists as well, two unbelievable soul/gospel singers – the kind of backing vocalists I had always dreamed of having. For me, I do all of my backing vocals and to have those strong, powerful, beautiful women ….they were just incredible. So yeah, it was an amazing experience, but a very expensive one (laughing).
NRR: In terms of your own tastes and your own record collection at home. What’s the one album that you couldn’t live without?
Jo: Well it changes a lot, but it would probably have to be something like Aretha Franklin Live at the Filmore West. It is just an amazing album, I would think probably that.
NRR: What else do you have in store for the rest of this year?
Jo: Just playing more festivals, touring – I’ve got a short tour over in Holland at the end of the year. So yeah, just continuing to play and I’m probably going to do some writing in August with my good friend Mike who co-writes a lot with me. Yeah, just keeping on keeping on (laughing).
NRR: Well that’s great, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us, we really appreciate it and good luck with everything you’ve got going on.
Jo: It’s a pleasure Adam, thank you.
Jo Harman will be performing at the Great British Rhythm and Blues Festival in Colne at The Muni on Saturday 26th August alongside Kaz Hawkins and the seven times Blues Music Award winning headliner Janiva Magness.
Over the course of three days, in excess of 100 acts will perform across the twelve official venues at this year’s Great British Rhythm and Blues Festival in Colne. Tickets are proving HUGELY popular, so make sure you don’t miss out and get your tickets in advance via the official Blues Festival website.
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