Jo Harman is not a familiar name on the blues scene at the moment but without doubt she will soon be a household name on the circuit. She is packing out shows in prestigious venues in London and recently did support onThe Average White Band tour by their request for her. Testament to her talent is the seasoned musicians that are willing to play in her band. All great kudos; for any newcomer to the blues scene, many artists take years to get to this stage. But as they say cream always floats to the top. Jo is now excited to be pursuing her own artistic direction.
BM: You started out in the pop arena, what made you change tracks and start on the Blues train? Did you get disillusioned with the pop business?
JH: Yeah, the ‘pop’ thing wasn’t planned, but when you’re fresh out of music school and a Grammy winning producer comes knocking on your door you’d be silly not to invite them in, wouldn’t you? And, also to be fair, it wasn’t a shallow pop thing, it was a serious project with well written songs – and simply amazing production values, as you’d expect. It was a fantastic experience and I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity. Like I said I was just out of music school so didn’t really have a clear idea then of who I was or what I wanted to be but once I did …well, there is no choice; for better or worse, I realised I’d only truly be fulfilled doing my own thing.
Who were or are the artists you admire and do they influence your singing or performance?
It’s quite wide and varied – I enjoyed a lot of my parents music like The Beatles and Cat Stevens – and like a lot of singers my age, Lauren Hill and Jill Scott were big influences in teens, followed, inevitably, by Amy Winehouse. But overall the musicality of legends like; Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald and, in particular, Etta James have really informed my style. These days I’m increasingly drawn to Gospel singers plus I’m really enjoying discovering old school soul/blues artists like Millie Jackson and other classic male and female Memphis voices.
What is your background, do you have family or friends who perform? Does your family encourage and support you in your choice of career?
I don’t actually come from a musical family and it’s always a matter of amusement to them that I sing like someone from the Deep South..and not deep south Devon! But what I do come from is an incredibly supportive family who have always encouraged me to follow my own path. My father sadly died before I started singing professionally but his sister and her family helped put me through music school and, at every level, I’m very blessed to be allowed and encouraged to pursue this, often challenging, career. My mother and brothers are incredibly supportive, without ever interfering, which is everything you can ever ask for!
Your live shows seem to be capturing a following, not having seen you live myself I can only appreciate your vocals and performance from the CD & DVD I have been watching and listening to. I am looking forward to seeing you live. Do you have a tour planned for 2012?
Yeah, not so much a ‘tour’ tour, but certainly we’ve getting out there playing some really lovely arts centre, theatre and festival venues around the UK. I’ve got a very good team around me – not least my amazing musicians who are genuinely some of the best musicians of their type in the country, with the CVs to prove it. We do have to be a bit selective about the number of gigs we can undertake – given our respective commitments – but they really put themselves out for me, for love rather than money certainly, and that’s another fantastic essential area of support for which I’ve truly grateful.
Can you tell the readers what drives you to perform live?
Listen, getting out on stage playing your own music – together with music you want to cover – with a band like mine, to people who seem to dig it, is the best feeling in the world. Because of the calibre of musicians, it’s not an over rehearsed gig which I also really like so we can pull and push thing around a fair deal and play ‘in the moment’. Moreover I find over the hour and a half we’re on stage that we can really change gear and do something really intimate like ‘That’s Why I Got To Memphis’ through to really rocking out and most things in between. We like to try and take the audience on a bit of a journey; emotionally and musically.
On the subject of live performances what has been your favourite to date and why?
Oh, so many it would be hard to single them out. Each has its merits, whether it’s making our debut playing to a full house at the Pizza Express Jazz Club- which we did recently – or another great London club like Hideaway, where we return regularly to play their Friday night crowd. I’m sure it’ll come but so far we haven’t had such a thing as a bad gig yet! I do like playing places where no one has heard of us – Chagstock Festival and Exchange Arts Centre in Dorset come to mind – and watching the audience feedback change from polite to warm to ecstatic over the course of the set. Like I say, with a band like ours, I’m lucky that I can just ride their fire!
Do you write any of your material and do you play any instruments yourself? How easy do you find writing or constructing songs?
Ido write my own material, sometimes alone, and often with others, not least fellow band members. I’m an OK, if lazy and unpractised, guitarist and pianist. I’m a classically trained musician so I can normally find the chords I need easily enough. But I do like vibing off the ‘feel’ of players who can play so much better than me, particularly the more up-tempo guitar driven things. I’m also so spoiled by the quality of my musicians I feel very uncomfortable and inferior playing guitar and/or piano myself on stage, which I’m aware I need to address, but there it is!
You have some great musicians playing for you which means they must rate your talent and want to help you give the best with a little help from your friends. If you could have any musicians in the world dead or alive back you as a band, who would you choose?
The guys I got are fine by me, trust me! Seriously, my bass player, John McKenzie is a legend. He’s played with Dylan, Bowie, Tina Turner, Dr John, and dozens more big name acts.. I mean how greedy do I need to be? What’s more John is so sympathetic, and critical, to our music.. he never overplays, but has a beautiful sense of melody and invention, he can drive the bus and take us through the gears when needs be; the cat can play in any style with total authority and authenticity..the man is a master, master musician. And that’s just John…they are all equally as good in their own way. Plus we sound like a band, we play like a band, not like a load of session players, and I love that!
Your album from last year, Jo Harman & The Company ‘Live at The Hideaway’ has been getting some good reaction since its release, do you have any plans for a studio album?
Yeah, it’s a good record, I’m proud of it and it really captures the spirit of how we sound live – or how we sounded a year or so ago, at least. We never rehearse and each gig is different and because we haven’t been going that long we’ve developed quite a bit since then already. We got a couple of great girl singers who have joined the show since then, for example, and on that recording we also deliberately held back some of our songs for the studio record. In some ways the live album and the live DVD are stop gaps. Don’t get me wrong they are excellently recorded, a real representation of the raw excitement of our set and, like I say, I’m proud of it in that context. But, yes, I feel I – and we- have so much more to offer on the debut studio album. I’m in no rush on that either. I’m aiming high.. I wanna make a classic record and, in many ways, I still feel like I’m an artist in development; I’m 28 but I’m still maturing, both vocally and as a writer so I’m in no rush, but I’m getting there.
Do you think women have work harder in the music business to get recognition and who is your favourite woman singer?
Not really, there are as many advantages in being female as disadvantages surely? Like I say I ‘m lucky I’ve got a great team around me and the boys in the band always watch out for me in any case. And fans are great too; as are the media; I really haven’t had any problems with anything yet. I just feel very lucky and supported. Oh, my favourite singer? Right now, the American gospel singer Kim Burrell.
Would you say your voice is more suited to Blues Jazz or Pop? Or should I be asking which genre you prefer to sing?
I think, naturally, I have a signature voice, with quite a trademark vibrato, so whatever I sing it sounds like me! I’ve learned, however, to be more versatile though, through doing sessions and singing other material as a guest vocalist, which I quite enjoy, albeit as a sideline. I’ve done jazz, I’ve done pop, I can belt and I can sing in half voice, I can pull a lot of things out of the box if I need to. But overall and at it’s most natural, people tell me I have a classic old school soul/blues voice which is handy cause, by and large, that’s really all I’ve ever wanted to sound like!
I hear you went on tour with The Average White Band. What’s the story on that; as it’s good to have such an amazing band who want you on their tour with them?
I supported AWB in Brighton when I first started out and I think musically I had a real connection with a couple of their guys who generously joined me on stage during my set. I think ‘my people’ subsequently talked to ‘their people’ and they kindly allowed us to do a mini UK tour with them last year. I also then ended up doing a few gigs as vocalist for their saxist Freddy V’s all star UK band. You know, the ‘old school’ funk and soul community is quite tight and there are always connections at one level or another.. someone knows someone which leads to something. I also really, really enjoyed doing some major guest singing with another of AWB’s contemporaries, the legendary cult band Kokomo. Jesus Christ, those guys can groove like a mother and I’ve become close friends with those guys..They are lovely, gifted, people who you can really learn from; they really have been there, done it and got the T Shirt! It’s a nice feeling when you suggest singing ‘A Little Help From My Friends’, the guitarist says ‘great, I haven’t played this for 30 years when I last did it with Joe’ …and yes, he does mean Joe Cocker!
Is there any stories you can share with us about touring with the band?
Tour stories…you know the rules! What goes on tour stays on tour! Seriously, all very tame but highly, highly enjoyable all the same. Laughter in the van all day and all night!
You have recently had Mark Butcher cricketer/guitarist playing as a guest guitarist with you, are there any plans to make that a regular guest appearance?
Yeah, Butch is another great guy who I just feel comfortable with; if he’s in town I’ll always drag him up for a number and vice versa. Again, we share the same musical landscape …he’s a really under rated guitarist. Got a great ‘down home’ style and feel.
As your early beginnings were playing classical music have you any plans to sing with an orchestra?
Not so much classical vocals. I was a classical musician – a bassoonist if you must know – but I’ve always only ever been a dirty voiced rock and roll singer! But would I love to sing to strings? Yes! If it was good enough for Etta it’s good enough for me!
What would be your ambition in the music field? Or do you have any personal ambitions outside of music you would like to share with us?
Musical ambitions? Well to keep doing what I’m doing on my own terms, building it year on year, gig on gig, whatever it takes. Do I want to be famous and successful? Of course! But equally I’m sensible enough to know it’s all about the journey, not just the destination and so far I’m having a blast. I’m afraid to say music consumes me; I live and breathe it, so much so my plans to be a Nobel Prize winning scientist are going to have to stay on hold for a while yet)
What do you do to relax when you’re not performing or is your life constructed around music?
I hate myself for saying all this, as I know I’m gonna sound dull – but I enjoy working out at the gym, seeing friends, eating peanut butter when I’m not meant to (ruins the diet!). I had many years of partying and fun while I was at university and many years after, but nowadays my enjoyment seems to come a nice cup of hot chocolate and an early night! As a working musician I’m forever getting dressed up, putting my face on etc, so my favourite thing nowadays is a Saturday night on the sofa in my jammies! I’ve completely quashed the rock’n’roll myth I know (sadly), but there you go – it’s the life of a professional singer unfortunately! Oh and my beloved Arsenal Football Club. Obsessed. Up the Gunners!
Thanks for taking the time to talk, have you anything you would like to say to Blues Matter readers?
Thank you very much for your kind support and interest, not just for me but for all of us, out there, doing our thing. It’s publications like yours, and your readers, which help us do what we do and I’m very grateful for the part you guys play in keeping the scene alive. Thank you ‘Blues Matters’… it does matter!