Raised in Southwest England, Harman found success on her own terms with her debut, Dirt On My Tongue. The album was released independently in 2013 and supported by a touring schedule that found Harman sharing the stage with icons like Patti Smith, Joan Baez and Sinead O’Connor. Wildly successful for an independent record, Dirt On My Tongue was embraced with particular devotion by the blues community in the U.K., with Harman racking up more than a half-dozen nominations from the British Blues Awards.
Released worldwide on February 3, 2017, "People We Become" marks the biggest leap of Harman’s career. To make it, she headed overseas to Nashville, Tennessee, where she found a trusted collaborator in producer Fred Mollin.
“I’m not trying to fit in anywhere,” admits Harman, whose super-sized voice fills the record’s 10 tracks. “I’m 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.”
Soul, Blues, Gospel, Beatles-worthy pop. These are the core ingredients of Jo Harman’s People We Become, a modern album rooted in the classic, timeless music of past generations. Her incredible creative vision with “People We Become” is a testimony to her International Appeal.
We would like to welcome Jo Harman to JazzMonthly.com.
Jazz Monthly: You grew up in Southwest England and have an exceptional talent. Did you start out singing as a child or did you start by learning an instrument? At what point did you discover this great passion that you have for music?
Jo Harman: Thank you. I was brought up in a very idyllic part of the country in the South West of England; a beautiful village consisting of little more than an 11th Century Church, a cricket ground, fields and streams and a few thatched roof cottages. As my manager wryly remarks 'Jo learned to sing the Blues stroking ponies in the most picturesque of chocolate box English villages!!'.
I don't come from a particularly musical family - as far as I know neither my Mother or (late) Father, or two brothers for that matter, can sing, particularly - so I'm not entirely sure where my pipes come from.
I do, however, come from a particularly supportive and encouraging family and my parents encouraged me to try out as many things as possible as a youngster and to follow whatever passions took my fancy. I do also remember my Mother saying to me as an 8 year old 'you have a beautiful singing voice, Jo'. Now, whether I did or whether she was just being a mother, I'm not sure, but that positive encouragement sticks with you. Apart from my immediate family, I also went to a very supportive school, South Dartmoor Community College, which was noted for its encouragement for the arts. There I started studying the bassoon, of all things, and I ended up playing in some prestigious youth orchestras and that classical musical education gave me a great musical grounding. My father owned an extensive and eclectic record collection, and he played guitar (especially in the days before us kids came along)- but he was really just a huge fan of music. I probably get my passion for it from him, really. He also owned a bookshop, where I spend many hours as a child; in hindsight, this also had a huge influence on my song writing, years later, I believe.
All this while I was singing for fun and, as a young teenager, I discovered Ella and the other early jazz greats, Etta, then later Aretha- and that really fuelled my love of soul, jazz, blues and black music generally. I never thought about doing anything seriously with my talent (such that it was) until after my Father died, when I was in my early twenties, when I simply decided I had to do in life whatever made me happy, whatever that was. I went traveling to India, returned to England, ended up living in Brighton where I met my manager and a lot of top musicians who encouraged and supported me to 'do my own thing' and so it all began.....which is another story in itself.
JM: What was the thought behind traveling to Nashville to record "People We Become"?
JH: After the relative success of my debut record 'Dirt On My Tongue' I came to the attention of someone senior at Universal Music who recommended me to Sands-Foley management who became my American management team. When, in keeping with seemingly the rest of the music industry, Sands-Foley moved from New York to Nashville, it seemed an ideal opportunity to record my second album there. Which was an amazing experience, not least working with these incredible musicians, in some incredible studios, with a fantastic, yet entirely sensitive and supportive producer, the great Fred Mollin who made it clear from the off that we were 'going to make a Jo Harman record'. Fred has, quite literally, worked with dozens - no, hundreds - of some of world's greatest artists and his ongoing belief in me as a vocalist and writer means, so much, even now. So, when people ask 'why did you record that record in Nashville' my response is 'why would I have not wanted to?'
JM: "When We Were Young" along with your Official Video is an upbeat, driving, fun-loving video that everyone should hear and see. It just leaves you feeling good throughout. Tell us more about this song and video and also about your super guest vocalist.
JH: Ha, I'm generally known for my 'Queen of Pain' wrist slashing ballads, so I guess a bouncy uptempo tune, is something of a novelty for me (smile!). Even then the lyric is a bit darker than people might first think. Anyway, I've long admired a British band 'Mamas Gun' and their leader Andy Platts and myself came up with the tune which, actually, became play-listed on BBC Radio 2. I only really ever write with friends and musicians I know and trust to understand me as an artist. Andy fits into that category. The Michael McDonald connection came through producer Fred. I'd covered one of Michael's songs which he heard, and liked, and he offered to come down and sing some backing vocals on my album for free. Amazing!
JM: One song that just rhythmically gets you right in the gut from the opening drumbeat is "The Reformation." I know there's a story attached to this one.
JH: Well, there's a few stories attached to that song. The first lesson is always give 100% at every show because you never know who is in the audience! I was playing what still remains probably my most difficult gig - a rainy Monday night, thinly attended, show in the most modest of venues with possibly the worse ever stage sound. A really challenging show, but, unbeknown to me, a very senior guy at Amnesty International was amongst the crowd that night and, apart from buying every item of merchandise on our table, he left his business card with the invitation to 'get in touch'. Within weeks I was playing a tribute to (awardee) Joan Baez to thousands of people in Berlin at the Amnesty International 'Ambassador of Conscience Awards' - sort of Oscar night for Human Rights - alongside the likes of Patti Smith and Glen Hansard. Anyway, my association with Amnesty, and in particular the 'My Body, My Rights' campaign for women's freedom to make choices about their own bodies, inspired the song 'The Reformation'. It's proved to be one of my most popular songs, for one thing attracting my most Spotify plays to date, although whether people really understand the sentiment and message in the song is another question. It was really an eye opener getting a better understanding from Amnesty International about human rights abuses around the world and it's still very much a subject close to my heart.
JM: Your background vocals really contribute to the force and emotion of your music, adding passion at just the right time. Do you have a specific technique when designing your background vocals? Tell us about this progression.
JH: Although it would be accurate to describe me more as a spiritual, rather than a religious, person I have always had a huge connection with gospel music. It really moves me and I think my love of big backing vocals arrangements - something undertake myself - comes mainly from those gospel choirs, I believe. I like to think of myself as a musician and composer as well as a vocalist and this is one area where I can really indulge my musicality. It's actually probably my favourite aspect of writing and arranging. The hard work is done, and the fun starts!
JH: Yes, although nothing was contrived or over thought, there is definitely a theme and creative vision to 'People We Become'. It's a break up album with a difference - that's all I really want to say about that - and the songs just flowed out of me during that time. It was definitely some form of therapy and self expression. In fact I don't think I've written a song since!, whatever that means!. Much of the album was written by me alone or with long term writing partner Mike Davies who produced my first record. Mike one of the best all round musicians I know. I met him when he was fresh out of music school and he's since gone on to become one of the most in demand session men around, now touring the world with some of the world's biggest artists. Anyway, Mike and I pretty much had completed demos of all the songs for 'People We Become' when I met Fred in Nashville. One of Fred's many strength's is making the record all about the artist, not the producer, and he stayed very true to the spirit of the songs and the arrangements. But what Fred did do was to make everything sound golden, adding more than one or two touches of his absolute genius, using some of the best musicians and studios in the world. Listen to the detail and mix on 'Silhouettes of You' to get an idea of his skills - it's simply incredible. Fred is rightly considered one of world's great producers and he has the CV to prove it. It was an absolute honour to work with him and I'm very, very proud of 'People We Become'. It's exactly the record I intended to make and I'm so grateful to everyone involved in facilitating that.
JM: Is there a special song here that means the most to you? One that comes close to your heart?
JH: All my songs are close to my heart. My answer can change with my mood but if absolutely pressed I'd say 'Amnesty' from the first album and 'The Final Page' from 'People We Become' are right up there as amongst my current personal favourites.
JM: What was the most gratifying thing about doing this project? The most challenging?
JH: Everything about my career is both gratifying and challenging. To get the chance, as an independent artist (i.e. not signed to Universal or Sony - not that I would necessarily want that), to work at the highest possible levels of the industry and to maintain a profitable career as an international touring and recording artist, entirely on my own terms, feels no small achievement in itself. But it is also incredibly challenging. Artists have to be music entrepreneurs these days - it's a Do It Yourself business now - and getting the balance between the creative and the business side of things is always a challenge. It's a day to day battle and you never 'make it' or 'break through' - it just doesn't work like that. It's an entire, endless treadmill of work and the more successful you become, the more there is to do.
JM: Do you listen and ever evaluate some of your older recorded songs? How do you feel you have evolved as a composer and musician along the way?
JH: Well I listen to 'Live At Hideaway' - our very first ever informal release just to sell at shows and to get my gigs - and think 'crickey, how did we get away with that?'. But even that has a raw power and energy to it, so, as with everything, there's something gained and something lost with the process of evolution. People tell me I have a 'signature' voice but I hear that my voice has changed quite a lot over the years, I'd like to think I've become much more rounded and technically better singer over time, but generally there's something in my 'God given' pipes that people like. You're either born with that or you aren't. I think lyrically and as a complete set of work, 'People We Become' is a step up from 'Dirt On My Tongue' but some people prefer the first record. That's fine, it's all me, Jo Harman, and I'm certainly very proud of my debut, particularly given the circumstances of how it was made. And not least because of how much it grossed in sales, and accolades it attracted, for a new, unknown, independent artist without any discernible marketing budget or knowledge and effort on our part.
JH: My supporters are wonderful. They have stayed with me every step of the way and I couldn't be more grateful for it is they, more than any industry figures, that give me this career. For me it's perhaps more about quality, not quantity, of fanbase. I feel I am very fortunate in that most of my fans - or supporters as I prefer to call them - really are true music lovers. People who absorb themselves in music, rather than be just casual listeners, as it were. Although I only ever write for myself, and myself alone, it is very gratifying when I hear or read that my music touches an emotional chord with people. That it somehow important to them, emotionally.
Of course I'd love to have as many fans as a Beyonce or whatever, but, realistically I'm not that kind of artist plus I wouldn't want to achieve that at the expense of the integrity of my music. I do things on my own terms and I certainly ignore the 'norms' and pressures of trying to move forward by virtue of 'career moves' or tactical collaborations or whatever else it is that gain some people traction. It's probably something of a selfish approach but I do this for me, first and foremost. I'd like to believe it's largely that sincerity which resonates with people. I've always been it for the long haul too. I was just reflecting with my manager that's it's almost 10 years to the day since he first saw me playing a virtual 'open mic' in a pub venue to me playing The O2 Arena this week. Whatever else happens, it's been quite a journey.