Zillo Magazine Interview with Jo Gabriel October 2005



With which kind of music did you grow up? What did inspire you to make music on your own? Did you have classical training on the piano?

Although it is often assumed that I am classically trained, I resisted any formal instruction as a child and really just allowed a naturalness to my journey so that I could feel unconstrained and impulsive. I allowed my intuitions to breathe. 

I grew up in a very theatrical atmosphere. My mother had been a ballet dancer as a child. She is also an amazing painter. When I was very little, she had begun to immerse herself in the Theatre. I was fascinated by the ambience of the stage. My mother always encouraged my imagination to flourish and so it did run rampant throughout those early years.

I was allowed to stay up late and devour the wonderfully eerie horror flicks of my childhood, which instilled my awe and wonder of the mysterious and the unknown. And the smell of Turpentine often permeated the air in the house when my mom would decide to paint late at night. Usually, I felt really isolated by the outside world growing up, but the environment in my house was ripe for developing an artistic sensibility. And so I started playing the piano. It was like a revelation and a rescue from anything ordinary that threatened to get in.

I fell in love with my piano or I love this phrase “dear machine”. It was my personal awakening into the artistic realm and my passage from the alienation I felt from people who just didn’t get me. Other kids were playing outside, and there I was inside, watching classic horror films, concerned with why the villagers were waving flaming torches and storming the castle of Frankenstein’s monster. I mean, he never meant to hurt the little girl he had tossed into the lake. He just wanted to see her float like the flower. I identified with the “other” the “monster” quite often. These kinds of images definitely inspired me to create.”It’s Alive, It’s Alive”! I think film inspired me as much as the wealth of music that surrounded me growing up.

There were a lot of varied musical styles surrounding me as a child and so I was exposed to a diverse range of sounds. And I loved it all. From the dramatic and majestic show tunes and operas that breathed life into the house, to the variety of contemporary music that my older brothers listened to. Music like:

Joni Mitchell, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, The Beatles and Cat Stevens -his voice and melodies moved me profoundly. I myself was listening to Carol King, The Carpenters, Earth Wind and Fire, The Stylistics,  Otis Redding, Angela Bofil, Minnie Ripperton and Roberta Flack. The house was rich with inspiration.

What were your first steps making music about? Did you always make music just on your own or also within a band conception as well?

I didn’t start working with a band until my first album “Lying In the Evidence of Love” was released in 1995. I recorded with certain studio musicians. Like , I had Rich Pagano from Marry Me Jane play drums for my recording sessions. But when it came time to go out and gig to support the CD, that’s when I found Linda Mackley who has been playing drums with me ever since. I had an incredible bass guitarist who indulged me a lot by playing fretless. But he wound up bailing on me in the end. There were also several rotating guitarists, who came and went.

My work has always been very self contained, in the sense that it can stand on its own without much elaboration. And when I do connect with another element, like cello or violin or guitar it is a wonderful chance to add another voice to the mix. But I think inherently I will always remain a solitary artist. 

To what extent does your home in Wisconsin have an effect on your music? Do you think you would make still the same kind of music living in a big city?

I moved here from New York several years ago, so this is the first time that I have lived amidst a rural Midwestern sensibility. Of course Madison is a city, but what surrounds it is definitely the pulsing of the Heartland of America. James Marsh’s film Wisconsin Death Trip, flawlessly sums up the undercurrent of the alienation and quiet restraint that stirs under the surface here.

It’s almost like I have revisited that sense of alienation from my childhood. Living in an environment where you are isolated from what is familiar to you I think can sometimes create a vacuum. And that inversion of reality can forge an even more self reflective and visionary consciousness. In addition to recording my new album“Island” since I have been here, I have channeled two other albums as well. 

The Amber Sessions and The Last Drive-In. (Which I hope to release next year in 2006) I created within a brief period of time that was almost as if I had projected myself out of body and brought back with me this sacred and ethereal collection of work. I am grateful to the time I have spent in Wisconsin for shifting my reality and allowing me to imagine the music that I have. There is a lot of beauty where I live. On my mystical little Starkweather Creek. It is populated with dragonflies, turtles, otters, bats and hawks and its so dreamy from all the cottonwood that floats like little clouds all over everything. I think this lends to the mood of the otherworldliness that I feel quite often here. Sometimes I feel like I am in exile.

Would I have created these particular pieces if I were still in the New York? Perhaps, or maybe it would be another phase of isolation and anonymity that would put a different face on my music. The fact is that I can write anywhere. A lot of times my landscape lies within anyway.

Why are you primarily working on piano-based compositions? What’s so special about it for you?

I think that the piano is so completely pure and primal. I would love to eventually have my own studio where I can create soundscapes and grooves and experiment with tones like Dr. Pretorious in his lab.
I am not tethered to my piano, It is just that we are very attached to each other since early childhood.
I am pretty sentimental about it. And really, “Man is not free to refuse to do the thing which gives him more pleasure than any other conceivable action” I didn’t say that Stendahl did! But it applies…

With which ideas and ambitions did you start working on your first album?

I had been writing pop ballads for years. At some point I started to feel very empty as an artist. Actually it is probably more accurate to say that I was too full. Full of a longing to write something more earnest and significant. And it did happen one day that I had a break through, a type of revelatory break down. I literally, fell to my knees and wept and wailed at the ceiling, (because that was where god was at the time ). And I think that was the catalyst for what ensued. This new vision of my music, it came flooding out like a dam had burst. I started to amass a huge collection of these songs and now I felt compelled to go into the studio and record them. I chose the songs that while I felt were still unique and dramatic, could cross over into the mainstream and be accessible to people. That while some of these songs had intense themes, they did not present themselves in too dark a shroud. They felt lyrical and dreamy. They just felt right. 

That’s what led to my debut album “Lying in the evidence of Love”. After I had the revelation that I wanted to write these songs of substance, I was engulfed with the desire to reach out. I had been introduced to an interesting guy named John Leitch whom I had met at a studio while recording a demo for one of my pop ballads. We just connected he and I. John had a small studio in his house. He  wanted to undertake the project and so he agreed to engineer and play guitar for me. He was the most unbelievable guitarist. We have lost touch over the years, but how I wish I could find him today. He was actually the first person to tell me that I reminded them of Kate Bush. We worked for over 6 months day and night. Developing the sound and getting the album mastered. And when it was finished it was obvious that something had been started that was very powerful and there was no going back to the old way of writing. I had met myself for the first time in my life…

The album is entitled with “Island”. Do you feel yourself like living on an island? Do you see your music as an island itself? What’s the concept of the album about?

There are times when the Anima Sola in me emerges and I do become “the lonely soul” the longing inner “soul on fire” consumed in my own private Purgatory. More often though, I feel very connected, especially to the natural world around me.

I think the collection of songs on “island” happened very serendipitously. There wasn’t necessarily a preconceived notion of the album. Kalinkaland gave me the opportunity to offer my music to a wider audience, and so I wanted to take some of the pieces that I had recorded earlier and re-release them as one collection. We chose them with continuity in mind and I also introduced a few new songs into the mix. 

I see my music not as an island but rather as an active realm. I suppose there are elements of my isolationism inherent in parts of the album and all my work for that matter. But we are all walking contradictions and polarizations and ironies of ourselves in some way. As Plato once said, “ You remember a single deluge only, but there were many previous ones.”

I believe that there are several different elements that exist within the albums heart. And so along side of the sense of aloneness in the music, there is also a strain of reaching out and imploring the world to touch back. Ultimately, I would hope that people will recognize my music on their own terms. And however sympathetic they are with my work, what matters is that it penetrates somehow.  

Your music reminds a little bit of acts like Kate Bush, Tori Amos or 4AD ones like Cocteau Twins and This Mortal Coil. Do these kinds of acts have an influence on you? What kind of music do you hear nowadays? 

These incredible artists definitely serve to inspire and move me, but I don’t feel like they influence me in the sense that I try to emulate them. The artists that I listen to and are moved by the most these days would have to be of course still the inimitable Kate Bush. After her there is Lisa Germano, Hannah Fury, PJ Harvey and Bjork. And I do still listen to show tunes and Opera. And I love 70’s soul music, it is so damn sexy. I just get so nostalgic for the 70’s. I have been listening to some of the classic dramatic composers too, like Gil Melle and Jerry Goldsmith.

You worked together with some musicians on “Island”. Do you see JO GABRIEL more as a band or more as a solo project? How did you work with the musicians? Did they inspire you a little bit or did they just play their parts?

I will always consider myself a solitary artist. Of course working with Linda Mackley is the most organic thing in the world. We read each other and play so synchronistic ally. I recently referred to us as thunder and rain.
And I worked with Matt Turner who is one of the foremost improvisational cellists. He was an angel. He stepped in and brought about a level of lament and transcendence to the music that rips me open every time I listen. Working with masterful musicians inspire you so much to embrace those elements and textures that they contribute. You most definitely reach a threshold of evolution when playing with people who are brilliant with their instrument. 

Your lyrics seem to be very personal? How important are the lyrics for you? Are the lyrics just coming right from the heart, or do you THINK about them a lot?

Words are so very invincible. I love to manipulate words. Words have a mind and inner soul of their own and once we speak or write life into them they take on their own power. My lyrics are absolutely an authentic examination of myself.

They are naked truths, revelatory, transformative, theatrical, referential, failures and triumphs. Heartache and Joy, love and savage betrayals. All things I am closely familiar with. I think about words all the time. But the ones that manifest themselves as song lyrics introduce themselves to me from that hidden place that art often taps into. I don’t try to force things, lest it seem like artifice.

What are your next plans about?

I am hoping to be able to tour with Linda Mackley my drummer, so that we can perform live for an audience, and have that ephemeral rush of the collective energy.

I would love to release The Amber Sessions and The Last Drive In. And I am really hoping that I get the opportunity to score some films. I would also love the chance  to collaborate with a few of my favorite artists.Have a guest appearance on one of their albums or visa versa.Perhaps even be asked to share a show some time. 

Really, I will be content to continue creating and reaching outward. 

Thanks so much Dirk for letting me reach out a little with you and Zillo. Peace…Jo 




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