Danielle de Picciotto & Friends in Conversation

Jo Quail: If you’re a freelance musician and a parent you need to be incredibly well organized”


Photo: Simon Kallas

I met Jo Quail in London in 2016. We were double billing a concert and the three first things I noticed about her were how much her fans seemed to love her, how professional and prepared she was and how incredibly nice she is.

I am mentioning this because I always especially enjoy meeting talented artists that manage to stay naturally friendly. Somehow over the years after working together with many a neurosis I have to say that the attribute of modesty and kindness have become just as important to me as charisma and talent. Everything else is just an energy drainer and in spite of perhaps achieving brilliant artworks you leave feeling nauseous. I also think that being polite has becoming a new modern attribute in the art and music world. The upcoming generation seems to put more emphasis on this than the last ones and together with inclusion, empathy and perception, which edge away from the ego driven “mad artist” or rock star attitude of the past we may possibly have a new era of artists that do not try to self destroy, which does not necessarily make your art any better anyway, but instead support themselves and others, trying to find new ways of interacting in interactive worlds. A fascinating concept opening many new doors and something I have always found incredibly inspiring.

Jo Quail has all of these lovely attributes besides being one of the most talented and innovative electronic cello players and composers out there today, writing new music continuously, touring non stop and collaborating with countless musicians such as Anna van Hausswolff, Winterfylleth, Soricah and Myrkur. She also does fascinating live online composition blogs explaining how she works.
Her show in London in 2016 was impressive. Joanna is a master of looping melodies and rhythms, her compositions are new and fresh and yet have the quality of timeless classic music with deep beautiful waves of sound. She has been touring a lot and if you look at her schedule she is already booked to the end of 2018, so if you can catch one of her shows do so, you will become addicted very quickly! I am so very happy to present Jo Quail here today:


Photo: Stephane Lord

Danielle de Picciotto: How and why did you choose cello as your instrument?
Jo Quail: I began playing cello and piano with the Centre for Young Musicians here in London when I was 6, and continued until University, graduating in music at Leeds. Initially I never actually wanted to play cello, in fact I said ‘no thank you’ when the first unbelievable offer of free music lessons came to my primary school! Thankfully a space became available in the class and I took it up, in year 1, initially to get out of something or other at school, and here I am now, forever thankful for that opportunity to change my mind; the opportunity that changed my life.
The music I write is ‘cinematic’ for want of a better word, it’s pretty heavy at times, but also spacious… I’m privileged to play for classical, post rock, post and Black Metal, Goth, Electronica (I guess that’s the term!) and widely alternative, broad minded music fans, and I love each and every performance, whether ‘gig’ or ‘concert’.

What is it you look for in your compositions?
My compositions must have what I term ‘integrity’; they must make musical sense to me, and have flow and placement that is ‘right’ for each piece. In the majority of my concerts I perform as a soloist, and I make my music using my BOSS RC300 loop station and GT100 FX board. However, I prefer to see these two amazing pedals as a part of my set up, as much as my bow and strings are, not as a medium that defines my music. Not sure if I have total success here but that’s my intention! I try to push my technology to its (or my!) limits, and I don’t loop for the sake of it, I make sure that every note and phrase has purpose and direction. I feel strongly that my compositions must stand up in their own right, irrespective of what has or has not been looped in, and I try to use the looping facility in a kind of serial context. As I don’t sing (not on a stage anyway! I do a fair amount at home with my 6 year old and her friends!) I can’t rely on the natural build of verse/chorus, so I have to be able to develop my compositions in a natural and meaningful fashion, where harmony or rhythm is expanded or extrapolated, or perhaps a slow opening motif becomes the moving bass line for something further along, that kind of thing. If something gets looped it’s for a purpose, not just for the sake of it.

I’ve performed some of my compositions with both professional orchestras and choirs, and amateur ensembles, here in Europe and in Australia too, and this is something that I love doing, and it’s so very important to me too. It’s a privilege to work with the likes of Cappella Gedanensis (Poland) and perform a whole program of my works, and equally it’s so inspirational working with community choirs and ensembles of varying ability. One of my pieces ‘This Path With Grace’ was written specifically to be scored for electric cello and ensembles of mixed instrumentation, and of all abilities, and I’ve work shopped and then performed this work with orchestras, choirs, cello ensembles, mixed instrumentation ensembles and more, during the last 4 years.

I’d love to say I have a specific process when I write, but the reality is very different. At times the pieces are born of a ‘mistake’ that I make whilst practicing standard repertoire, other times I am simply playing around with an effects chain and an unusual sound occurs which sets in motion a whole new work. In all cases I know that my pieces are created from what I call the DNA, it’s a very small motif, it could be rhythmic or tonal, or something else, it’s short and succinct, and this tiny aspect can build a whole 15 minute work. The whole piece can be traced back to this initial thread, and I love the sense of completeness and continuity when working this way.

How do you experience the life of a freelance female cellist?
Female or male, if you’re a freelance musician and a parent you need to be incredibly well organized! I have a busy home life, and I could not do what I do, the amount of travel and planning involved, without the support of my husband, my family and my manager too. And the fact that my daughter is a very chilled out child and is used to our comings and goings. She is my priority, and as long as things are settled and fine at home then I continue in this somewhat crazy world! I’ve toured this year alone with Amenra and Boris as a support artist and had a host of my own concerts, including two for Robert Smith’s Meltdown festival at the South Bank Centre, so I feel very lucky indeed.

I have only my own experience as a freelance or self employed musician, and we are all individual. Personally I find that as my own tours either as soloist or support artist increase, so my session commitments lessen, it’s a natural curve I guess. I can’t take on as much as I used to, as I have more commitments in terms of touring and the like, but I very much enjoy the collaborations that come my way these days. I’ve recently played on Poppy Ackroyd’s latest record ‘Resolve’ and performed in a live capacity with Myrkur at the Metal Hammer awards here in London, and at Roskilde too as part of her ‘Folkesange’ project – both incredible experiences. I had two amazing tours in the last two years with US post rock giants Caspian, and I learned so much from these musicians, it was a master class each night in stage craft and delivery. The more I write, record or perform, the more I realize I do not know, therefore yet to discover, and I love this!

Up until now I’ve always released my own records, and been responsible for my own PR too. There are periods of time where playing my cellos and composing are the last things that happen each day, or even each week, as there’s a huge amount of work that goes in to touring and just getting the concerts in the first place! But those minutes on stage, that is where everything slots in to its rightful space, and I sense I’m doing the right thing and I’m on the right path, even if it’s a bit overgrown somehow at times! I’ve got the best crew that travel with me too, loyal and wonderful people, and without them I’d be utterly lost.


Photo: Simon Kallas

What are your inspirations?
It probably sounds a bit limp as an answer, but literally everything inspires me. I feel strongly that we all pass the creative baton to one another, it’s a continual process and it’s by no means limited to music. Inspiration takes all forms for all people, whether it’s a gentle meditation as you do the shopping, casually thinking about next weeks’ activities as you’re on the train or something, making a sandwich, or writing a poem. What I see, hear and feel as I carry out my daily activities inspires me, whether as an actual sound, or as an impression or a sensation I hope to convey. Music is clearly a direct inspiration, and I listen to all sorts of music, but I’d say equally art and sculpture.
My latest record was kicked off by the Barbara Hepworth ‘Sculpture for the Modern World’ exhibition, specifically when it moved from Tate Modern in London to the Arp Museum in Bonn, Germany, and I was invited to perform a concert there to celebrate these beautiful works. It was a huge honor to be the musician they felt encapsulated this incredible artist’s work sonically speaking, and my forthcoming record was born of this event (though ironically the piece I wrote specifically for this occasion didn’t actually make it on to my new album!). The landscape around me inspires me greatly, I often write about a particular piece of coastline in East Sussex, especially in my second album ‘Caldera’ where three pieces (The Hidden Forest 1, 2 and Adder Stone) explored the incredible landscape of Pett Level. One of my continual inspirations is TS Eliot, most specifically ‘Four Quartets’. I return over and over to this work, and every time I open my well-worn copy, sometimes at a random page, I find something that resonates (pardon the pun) with what I am doing, or where I feel I am heading, musically speaking. There’s something deeply evocative for me in his words, in the pace and the intention, and also the space left for us to find out own interpretation. I hope to mirror this in some way, in my music.

What are you working on currently?
I’ve just finished recording my 4th album with Chris Fielding at Skyhammer Studios, and composer James Griffiths is mastering it. I’m currently finalizing the title of track one actually! Next up is the recording of a special bonus track for the vinyl release, and sorting out the artwork… Later this year I’ve two big support tours, one with MONO and the second for Myrkur, and I’ve a couple of really nice recording sessions too for Woclensmen and more… I’m also putting together a special concert repertoire that showcases pieces from all four albums, which is really cool in a way, getting the opportunity to revisit some older works, and see how they sit now next to the newest stuff. I did an Australian film recently that’s just about to be finalized and released so I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing that. I’m also working on some more composition and performance preparation workshops following a really great run last year including teaching at the Sage Gateshead and the MRC Melbourne, I love doing these and I love working with the people that come along, whether one to one or group settings, they are such good fun.

What are your future plans?
I’ll be releasing my new record in November this year, so there’s a lot going on around that at the moment. In the near future I will spend a hell of a lot of time looking at Sibelius on my computer! I’m orchestrating the whole of the new record for full orchestra and choir, and also working with some awesome musicians to present a ‘band’ version too. I plan to tour this record, and to play a special concert in late spring where I present this album in all three ways, solo, orchestral and band versions, so we shall see what happens. I’d love to go back to Poland to perform this later in 2019 with Cappella Gedanensis too, under the baton of Jos Pijnappel, so fingers crossed!
Other than that it’s the usual fare for me, including buying school shoes at the optimum moment, trying to find navy blue tracksuits in August, vaguely wondering whether everyone’s eaten enough vegetables, dreading how crowded the local pool will be after school on Friday, setting up a shrine to thank my luthier for his speedy bow rehairs, all the usual kind of stuff…! Thank you for chatting with me!

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