INTERVIEW: Joanna Wallfisch (New CD Gardens In My Mind (Sunnyside Records)

Joanna Wallfisch

“The most adventurous project yet” is how London-born, New York-based vocalist JOANNA WALLFISCH describes her third album “Gardens In My Mind” (Sunnyside), with pianist Dan Tepfer and the Sacconi String Quartet, which stemmed from a Salisbury Festival commission, and was recorded last year in Wyastone, Monmouthshire. Sebastian found out more: 

LondonJazz News: You moved from London to Brooklyn a few years ago….

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Joanna Wallfisch: I moved to New York to London in September 2012, pretty much as soon as I graduated from Guildhall, though I’d already started my love affair with the city in April 2011.

LJN: Is the US home now?

JW: New York is home, that’s for sure. I, as do many others, see New York almost as its own country outside of the US. I am starting to get a feel for the LA scene as well, and I travel there a few times a year to connect with producers and songwriters on the commercial side of things, which is fascinating and a lot of fun for me… but New York is where my heart really belongs. 

LJN: Have you found what you were looking for / expecting to find in America – or mostly different things you never imagined ?

JW: I know I moved to New York because it gave me that feeling of ‘anything is possible’. I guess I was looking for something – an adventure. I certainly found that. But, as with adventures, and as an adventurer, they don’t really have a finishing point, so I would say that I am still very much looking. New York certainly keeps that carrot dangling in front of your nose, and if you have the patience, determination and touch of madness that can endure the perpetual and unquenchable thirst of that, then its a great place to be. I was looking for inspiration, and I certainly found that. I was looking for a new community, and I found that too. I was looking for an opportunity to grow musically and personally… and I believe have, though that is a lifetime’s work.

LJN: This is your third record I believe ?

JW: Yes, since my first visit to New York in 2011 I have written and produced three full length albums, and I am now in the process of recording my fourth. The first, Wild Swan, was certainly, as they say, my “freshman” record, and very much a jazz vocal record. The second, The Origin of Adjustable Things (Sunnyside Records), was a move forward into the ‘singer-songwriter’ realm, the songs a direct result of the first two years of my time in New York. The third, and current project Gardens In My Mind (Sunnyside), is yet a new evolution, and for me possibly the most adventurous project yet, showcasing new songs and my own arrangements for string quartet and piano. The project I am working on now is what I would call my first ‘solo project’… details to be revealed in another conversation… 

LJN: How did this record come into being?

JW: Well, the record came about totally serendipitously after being commissioned by The Salisbury Festival to arrange my music for and collaborate with the Sacconi Quartet, and as a result, the songs do have a certain flavor and story to them.

LJN: Can you describe what you mean by that?

JW: All my songs are based on true and personal stories. You will hear that many revolve around relationships and love, but also journeying and dreaming, and some even have a sense of humour. The title track was directly inspired by the view outside my old apartment window – “there’s a brick wall outside my window’ – possibly the simplest and most banal, unpoetic lyric I’ve ever put in a song. But hey, I’m just telling it how it is man. Then you have Moons of Jupiter, which, though it uses much more poetic language, is also a very plain telling of a true story, this time of love and a telescope (I really do have a telescope, through which you can see the moons of Jupiter from Brooklyn!). I try to be as honest as I can in my songs, and I find that life is a great informer. As Joni Mitchell has said, “a lot of it (songwriting) is being open… as you allow yourself to experience.”

LJN: You mentioned Joni Mitchell – you have two contrasting takes on a song of hers. What’s the reason? 

JW: Well, the full answer to this is that the string quartet arrangement came from a version I had originally created with my loop pedal, using just my voice to layer up harmonies to accompany the lead vocal. During the string arrangement process I took my vocal ideas and transcribed them, and then elaborated on them for the quartet. However, I still felt that the a cappella version was still fundamental to not only the arrangement but to the way I felt about and interpreted the song. It is a song about being on an endless journey, and I too feel that “I am on a lonely road, and I am traveling, traveling, traveling”… to start and end this record with these two versions was my way of saying that the journey has really only just begun.

LJN: So is the album a journey, then.  Which implies that one should listen to it straight through ?

JW: Yes. I would definitely advise listening straight through. The story begins with Moons of Jupiter which tells a tale of love beginning and of love ending. The song itself concludes with a cataclysmic dance between the piano and string quartet, denoting the universe exploding, and in its wake is the next song, my cover of Joni Mitchell’s All I Want. I chose this song because it is about love, journeying and the never ending search for ‘the key’, and I conclude the whole album with an a cappella reprise of the same song. Following this, the other songs start unveiling what happens all along the way of this journey. The middle of the album is gently punctuated with my piece ‘Patience’, which behaves as a sort of meditation on the first act, before the second begins. In a way I see this album as of one of those vivid dreams that you wake from half way through, but are able to go straight back into it again even after waking. 

LJN: The promo video with the flowers – it’s hard to work out if you’re having fun or getting stressed or both or neither – what’s the idea?

JW: Ha ha! I am having a ball!! I mean, lying on a hard floor for eight hours being painted and photographed petal by petal is no mean feat. But I was incredibly excited to bring my crazy idea to life, with the help of my very talented and equally crazy friends. It all came together remarkably easily. The idea of this video came to me from the title of the album… I wanted to create a video where it seemed as if the garden was literally growing out from the inside of my mind. I think my background in fine art helped a lot with the execution and editing of this video… the vast amount of meticulous work that had to go into it was more enticing than daunting, and it also gave me a chance to start revealing the kind of artist I really am… I like to be playful, and I enjoy bringing what is in my imagination to life, without limit or question.

LJN: Ukuleles – are they a fashion or here to stay? You’ve certainly seem to keep yours within reach

You know, I think the ukulele ‘thing’ is kind of great. For me it’s been a life changer. The uke has enabled me to write a tome of songs, tour, hang upside-down from a trapeze whilst playing and singing, and there is a je ne sais quoi about the instrument – it’s a conversation piece. Its quirky, cute and even a little bit sexy. They are pretty great little instruments, and if you have a high quality Uke, it can sound totally beautiful. I have started experimenting with using octave and reverb pedals with mine, which enables me to change the tonality completely, from sounding like a harp to sounding like a guitar to even sounding like a church organ. It gives me solo shows much more breadth and I love it.

LJN: You couldn’t have got a better string quartet than the Sacconis….

JW: I thank Toby Smith, the programmer for the Salisbury Festival, for that! He invited me to perform at the Salisbury Festival, and then had the brilliant idea of joining forces with the Sacconis. I have also known the quartet for many years personally from frequenting the International Music Seminar in Prussia Cove, Cornwall. I am very much looking forward to working with them again in November during the London Jazz Festival – November 19th, at The Forge Venue – and also in the summer of 2017. 

LJN: The carrousel thing [recording of a voicemail message from France]  is definitely a surprise!

JW: Oh yes!! I must thank my dear friend Marc Petit for this one. He is the truest artist I have ever met. A poet and a sculptor, he writes me the most beautiful letters which arrive sometimes out of the blue. One day in 2014, after he’d heard the very first demo of my song Brighton Beach, he wrote me a letter expressing his feelings about it. His words were so touching and inspiring to me I replied asking if he would mind recording himself saying the very same thing, since the sound of his voice is like no other. A little while later I received his message, clucking chickens et al. He gave me permission to use it as the perfect prelude to my song. 

LJN: In what ways has your songwriting moved on since your (previous) duo album?

JW: Well, since there are songs on the new album that originally appeared on my duo record with Dan Tepfer there was some amount of rethinking. But to be honest, I had always heard these songs with some kind of lush orchestration, and so when I was invited by Toby Smith to write for quartet I felt that my chance to realize these songs fully had arrived. None of the songs are co-written. All lyrics, melody and arrangements are completely my own. Dan arranged strings for four of the 14 tracks on the record. I would say that I am quite an autonomous songwriter, however both my duo record, and this one, Dan acted as a collaborator and a creative support. And as far as how my songwriting has moved on since my duo record, well — as I said before, I write from life and so as my life evolves, so do my songs. (pp.)

Gardens In My Mind is released on July 22nd on Sunnyside Records. Pre-Order HERE and receive an immediate download of the title track.

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