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The Hidden Forest; an Interview with Jo Quail

Jo Quail

Jo Quail


An Interview with Jo Quail

by Custom


Jo Quail is a London-born cellist and composer with a unique dedication to her instrument and the people to whom she brings her music. Her fierce performances are tempered by a gentle sensibility, allowing her pieces to flow like a beautiful film score. Quail has released two albums to date that range everywhere emotionally from introspective to aggressive. In each of her albums, a theme of natural connection is explored. Quail’s travels and personal experiences have turned her work into a memoir that speaks to listeners of all backgrounds.

Our writer Custom had the opportunity to talk to Quail early in 2015 as she embarked on a tour of Australia.


Heathen Harvest: Hello Jo, and thank you for accepting this interview!  Firstly, may I ask from where are you composing your interview responses? You seem to be traveling quite a bit in support of “Caldera.”

Jo Quail: I’m currently sitting in my motel room in Adelaide, Australia. I’m just back from my first concert on this tour and it was great fun! A really nice crowd. I’m touring to support Caldera in Australia, so next up is Melbourne, Sydney, Tasmania, Perth, and Dunsborough, and I will be performing ‘This Path with Grace’ during this tour, but it’s only just been released so my performance will be for the crowd in Dunsborough, where Michael Fletcher (the filmmaker with whom I collaborated) lives.

HH: This being your fourth tour in Australia, how have you seen your performances change, and what are you looking forward to in the next few weeks?

JQ: On a silly note, the sun was what I was looking forward to, the UK being ghastly at present, and I got what I asked for! It’s still thirty degrees and it’s the middle of the night! I love Australia, it feels like my second home. I love the country and the people, and their attitude. As a travelling musician it’s a great privilege to perform overseas, and especially notable in Australia is the open-mindedness and willingness to ‘give it a go’ of audiences to new music.

Some of my music has been inspired by this beautiful landscape too, so it’s wonderful to perform it in its original setting. When I get to Tassie, one of my concerts is as a guest of the Tasmanian Composers Society, which is a huge honour. Their interest is in the music I’ve written in this vast and sometimes alien landscape. It’s an incredibly inspirational place for me.

My performances have changed for sure, mainly reflecting how I have changed as a musician. I am neither better nor worse, just more confident in what I do, and with a bit more of an idea about the technology I’m working with! I know I play and write in a way now that I could not have envisaged four years ago, and I do feel I am constantly reaching and breaking my limits (such as I perceive them) and discovering personal new ground in the way I write and perform. I feel very comfortable with my audiences these days too—it’s a lovely feeling. Tonight we had elderly ladies, contemporary music fans, and alternative / goth music fans all sitting side by side and all enjoying a drink together. It was wonderful, and as much as I grow and change as a cellist and composer, so my audiences—it seems—grow to encompass a larger demographic … or non-demographic even!

Jo Quail; 'Adder Stone' Video

Jo Quail; ‘Adder Stone’ Video

HH: That’s a wonderful power you have, bringing together people from any number of backgrounds simply through your musicianship. On February 7th, you performed at St. John On Bethnal Green and received quite a bit of acclaim. Could you tell us a little bit about your “Nocturnes” performance in London?

JQ: I had always wanted to put on a concert with a cello quartet, and this comprised the first half of Nocturnes. We performed music I had arranged for cello quartet, including Nine Inch Nails’ ‘The Great Below’ and Van Halen‘s ‘316’, along with some Schein and Bartok amongst others. These pieces I chose had all been of pivotal importance at some stage in my life, and it was wonderful to be able to recreate them with four cellos. Some of this is on my Bandcamp page, and there will be some videos on YouTube shortly too.

The second half of the concert was more standard fare by my terms: electric cello, but with the wonderful Al Richardson on percussion, so it was elevated immensely! Of course, then there was ‘This Path With Grace’. I named the concert Nocturnes as, first of all, it included music that for me was nostalgic—so almost of a dream state—and also reflects the fact that for me music is written and developed during this kind of meditative state—almost a dream world that is being described or illustrated in sound. On a practical level, these days it’s night when I do most of my work! My three-year-old daughter keeps me busy during the day!

HH: Could you tell us more about “This Path with Grace,” which is also now available on your Bandcamp? It features a full string section and the Green Army Choir. What was it like to work with this mix of individuals? Furthermore, while you generally perform with others on stage, do you see yourself working with these larger accompaniments and choir sections in the future?

JQ: The Green Army Choir recorded the vocal section of ‘This Path with Grace’, and came along to perform at the premiere. They are utterly superb. Such brilliant singers, and so warm and enthusiastic too—a real joy to work with. My cellists are the same: all brilliant with very individual styles and sounds, but with such musical generosity and patience (with me). It’s nothing short of a privilege to work with these people, and I look forward to the next time! I usually perform solo, as I am on this tour, so working with ensembles is very exciting for me, it enables me to take my music in a new direction and work with these musicians to create something far more ambitious than I could either envisage or create on my own.

Last March I went to Poland at the invitation of orchestra Cappella Gedanensis who are very well-known as a Baroque ensemble, and they played several of my pieces with me, for orchestra, choir, and electric cello (‘Rex Infractus’, ‘Hunter from the East’, and a few others). It was exhilarating to perform with these brilliant musicians. Much of what I experienced in this concert went on to help sculpt ‘This Path with Grace’ in terms of sound world and arrangement.

HH: On the topic of recent work, your most recent full-length, “Caldera,” feels more visceral and induced with a strong spirit than the rather sparse and ethereal “From the Sea.” How do you feel your approach to composition and performances have changed since your debut was released?

JQ: This could be a long answer! From the Sea was a sort of rite of passage for me in many ways. Lots of life-changing events were going on, and it’s fair to say it was quite an introspective time before and during the creation of that album. It only came about as I was returning a keyboard amp to a friend of mine—Ben Matthews (of UK band Thunder)—and had a chat with him about many things including what on earth I was doing musically, and he said, ‘make your album, I’ll produce it!’, and so I did. So I owe an awful lot to him.

Caldera was produced by James Griffiths, a fantastic film composer, and with whom I work now on pretty much everything. He was awesome during ‘This Path with Grace’, and really brought the whole thing alive for me. James is a brilliant producer; he works tirelessly, but he knows when the best take is there, and it’s a really enjoyable session for me. Caldera was written in the majority when I was pregnant, and so for me it is infused with a very earthy, raw, and spiritual connectedness somehow. I think music reflects your life at the time that you write. It’s almost like a snapshot of how things are, and whilst both albums are personal in various degrees, Caldera contains the energy and the fire that I shall forever associate with birth, earth, blood, sensuality, open unbridled emotion, and great strength. That doesn’t really answer your question practically, but on a personal level that is how things are now.

Jo Quail

Jo Quail

HH: How have you been able to balance motherhood and commitments related to touring? I assume that this has an influence on your compositions as well.

JQ: I have solid and unconditional support from my husband and my family, and without this I would be completely lost. I owe everything to them, and to the fact that my daughter is a happy, healthy, and easy-natured child, who giggles at me on Skype and welcomes me home with teddy tea parties and big warm cuddles. I am very lucky indeed and I give thanks for this every day. When Eila’s a bit bigger I’ll bring her with me, and I can’t wait, but for now the long hauls are too much, and there’s not enough time in one place to make it a happy trip for a little one.

HH: I’m sure she will absolutely love to join you one day. As someone who has not seen your live performances I must ask: how do you maintain the flow of compositions while fitting into more modern concert settings? Do you improvise and shift around the ordering of tracks or even the composition itself?

JQ: I’m very lucky because I perform lots of varied concerts to all sorts of audiences. If my audience is a goth or rock / alternative crowd in a club setting I’ll go for more rhythmically driven pieces perhaps, and indeed often improvise new tracks on the fly if it feels right to do so. I have an entire armoury of unusual, almost industrial effects that I can play on my cello using a combination of cellistic techniques and my trusted effects board, so depending on the event I can write something that feels right at the time!

I also play a lot of contemporary music concerts, I suppose the differentiation is that they are seated and it’s just me rather than a few bands or artists on. In these settings I can perform my quieter pieces, or more lengthy ones (‘This Path with Grace’ clocks in at twenty minutes), and explore the more intricate side of what I do. Given the nature of live looping, I quite often find myself improvising in a track during a performance because something has gone wrong, or should I say unexpected, and then the choice is either to stop or to ‘style it out’ as my sister would say and make something happen through the unexpected!

HH: Do you believe that looping opened your work to more improvisation?

JQ: Looping is a critical component indeed, but the piece of music must work. It must have what I term integrity irrespective of loops. It’s played out when I perform with ensembles and the music works within a larger setting. It sort of borders on serialism in some ways, with repetition and gradual morphing.

HH: Again, on the subject of your musical arsenal, your Starfish electric cello has become emblematic of your act. How do you feel the electric cello differs in sound from an acoustic cello? How does this affect your compositions? Do you compose and practice your works with the Starfish?

JQ: My primary aim with my electric cello is to make the ‘straight sound’ be as close to an acoustic cello as possible. Once that is sorted, then the fun starts! They are two very different instruments in fact, and in many ways I treat them as such. Recently I have been asked to perform works written for acoustic cello and I have had to do them on my electric, and it’s a whole different ballgame.

I did enjoy performing Tavener‘s ‘Svyati’ with the Cappella choir in Poland, and I think actually it worked very well on my electric! Next week I will be performing Sulthorpe‘s ‘Threnody’ for solo cello in Tasmania at quite a few concerts, and I hope that it will work as a performance on my electric cello, just from the audience point of view. I have a much larger palette in terms of effects (overdrive, delay, etc.) with my electric cello, so some pieces like ‘Jhanoem the Witch’, built on a delay riff, would not work in any other way, other than orchestrated with a huge number of cellists! However, ‘Jhanoem the Witch’ was actually written at the piano in the initial stages, in a series of chords. I do an equal amount of practice on each cello, but in addition I have to practice the foot element with my electric, operating the loops and bringing them in and out in the right places. That can be the biggest challenge in writing actually, because basically pretty much anything is possible now!

My mum always says that you understand a book or piece of prose if you can ask a good essay question about it, and it’s the same with music: you understand the music you’re creating if you can identify what it is you actually want to convey, not just what flashy stuff can you do with your effects board!

HH: You have several music videos now. Which of these was most enjoyable to create? Do you feel that any of these videos in particular captures the sense of the music particularly well? The video for “Adder Stone” is stunning.

JQ: Thank you! I loved making ‘The Falconer’, as that was the first big video I did, and we were very lucky to be able to use Margarita Hamilton‘s castle for the shoot. Awfully, there was a BBQ going on, and nobody would let me have any food until the shoot was finished! Cruel, cruel crew! However I think my favourite would be ‘Adder Stone’. I worked with a superb crew: Karolina Urbaniak and Simon Kallas on photography, Alan Pride on general location, loads of other great people around and about adding their brilliance to the day. Richard Wakefield who shot the video is an absolute legend. I met him via British photographer Kirsty Mitchell‘s work (check her out if you don’t know her—her work is stunning), and he was enthusiastic and happy to work with my vague brief!

My film briefs consist of feeling, sensations, and emotions rather than storyboards, and Richard got that immediately. I was also very lucky to work with designer Tara Byakko who made my beautiful dress, and the combination of that and the dear Pett Level coastline made for a great day out (albeit one that was also incredibly cold) and a good video that captured the elemental feminine energy I wanted to depict with the music.

Jo Quail with the Green Army Choir

Jo Quail with the Green Army Choir

HH: While you’ve been playing cello since you were young, you have only stepped out of your hiatus from the cello relatively recently. Do you see this new connection to the cello and musicianship as permanent?

JQ: Yes absolutely.

HH: Then do you feel your music is growing in any particular direction as it continues to mature? Do you see yourself leaning toward new themes that you may not have explored even five years ago?

JQ: Funny you should ask that! I got obsessed recently with dance/hip-hop music as it’s what Eila likes to listen to, and then just by chance got a few sessions with a hip-hop producer, and it’s awesome! So you never know what kind of direction you’ll go in I suppose. I won’t be releasing any rap records in the near future, but I can say for certain that there will be things I learn from Corin LD (the producer) that feed their way into what I write. It’s exactly the same whatever I do work-wise. If I am learning a Piatti caprice on my ‘normal’ cello for example, that will eventually finds its way into what I write. Listening to Michael Jackson helped me write the middle section of ‘Adder Stone’!

That’s the beauty of music, and the receiving and giving of inspiration. It goes in as one thing and comes out another, apparently entirely unrelated! I enjoy collaborating with Mike Fletcher on his films, but I could never be a film composer; that’s a very specialised skill-set and one I don’t possess. But I do enjoy writing longer pieces, or suites even. ‘The Pilbara’ was my first in 2011, and I hope to release another to go alongside ‘This Path with Grace’. That’s a marked change for me, feeling confident enough to write and present longer works.

HH: Back in 2009 (and beyond), there seemed to be a lot of particular interest surrounding the Ship of Fools venue where artists such as Sol Invictus and Naevus were gigging in London quite often.  During that time, you were performing alongside of Naevus frontman Lloyd James as part of Rose McDowall‘s backing band.  Do you still play or speak with her at all?  Can you recollect and describe how different things were for you as an artist in those days?

JQ: Funnily enough, we have a concert with Rose on the 28th of May here in London, in a most beautiful church, St Pancras Old Church. It’s always a pleasure to play for Rose, and I am surrounded by dear friends in her backing band: Eilish McCracken, Lloyd James, and Clay Young. Rose tends to perform less regularly these days, so her concerts are highly anticipated by both audience and band alike I think! Actually, Rose was the person who indirectly started my career off following my cello hiatus (dealt with succinctly here) as she required a cellist for Whitby Goth Weekend and providence allowed that it was me she came to. I’m so thankful for that moment. Following that concert, and a few other incidents around that time, I began to play again in earnest, and, well, here we are now.  From a personal point of view, things were indeed very different for me as an artist. I was insanely nervous as a cellist, even surrounded by an experienced band, and I wasn’t composing then either, just writing string parts here and there. I never would have dreamed in a million years that I would be a soloist. It was circumstance that led to my first solo concert, and I feel so energised writing and performing as a soloist these days, though of course it’s great to have a band with me now and then (like the February 7th ‘This Path with Grace’ launch, complete with cello quartet, violin, percussion, choir, and conductor).

HH: Can you tell us a bit about your Rasp collaborative project with fellow UK looper and violinist Matt Howden / Sieben?  Additionally, have you ever considered doing a collaboration with any of the scene’s other prominent cellists?  A favorite of many of our readers in cellist Julia Kent would be a standout choice.

JQ: In July 2013, Matt and I had a crazy idea, and we made it happen in November 2013! We wanted to write, perform, and record an album in two days, and that’s what we did! Our album Radiate Power Words was released in November 2014, and we’re planning some concerts this year and next. The wonderful thing about Rasp, the whole point, is that it’s ‘on the spot’ music, it’s largely improvised, and it’s two soloists working together as one unit. Matt and I share a deep connection on stage, and off too; he’s a great friend, and it’s a privilege to step into the unknown with him now and then!

Julia Kent is wonderful, eh. She’s just released a new album with / by Roger O’Donnell, and she is such a beautiful and soulful player. I’d be very proud to have any form of association with her, even just to put rosin on her bow! Who knows, maybe one day our paths will cross.

HH: Finally, is there anything else you’d like to discuss as you set out on another swath of tours?

JQ: Nothing especially! Just to say thank you for chatting with me. I hope to play a concert for you sometime in the near future.

Jo Quail @ Bandcamp  |  Jo Quail @ Facebook