Jo Beth Young - interview,
In 2018 I was sent an album by a new outfit called Talitha Rise. Everything about it, from the evocative album title and cover through the most wonderful music and vocals, really resonated with me. Eventually, after far too long a wait, a second album came through from RISE. The heart and voice of both is Jo Beth Young, who is producing some of the most beautiful and heartfelt music I have ever been fortunate enough to come across. Having been talking for a while, it seemed the time was right to actually undertake a proper interview, so settle back in your favourite chair with a glass of something special and savour the words which follow.
Kev Rowland: Who, what and when is RISE?
Joe Beth Young: RISE was one of my alter egos as Jo Beth Young, an indie-folk, singer, songwriter, musician, producer, all-round lover of creativity and the arts. RISE is now vanishing into the mists of time along with the longer version Talitha Rise and I have returned to my real name permanently. Back in 2013 I formed a duo with Martyn Barker (of Shriekback) and it became clear after a few years that he was not going to be able to commit long term to the project. We agreed to change the name of the duo to Talitha Rise so that when the time came for us to part, I could carry on with a name that sounded like a person: all quite logical thinking at the time and when the duo ended in early 2017 that’s what I did. It is from a phrase in the bible where Jesus brings a dead young girl back to life commanding ‘Talitha Koum!’ which means Talitha Rise! and it resonated with me... rebirth, getting through the impossible, all things that have influenced my songwriting. After ‘An Abandoned Orchid House’ came out I changed it to RISE for ‘Strangers’, to mark the end of the artistic collaboration completely whilst honouring the Talitha Rise journey.
Why have I returned to my real name now? I feel I have come out of the end of what has been a very long and at times challenging chapter in my musical path, but one of great learning, development, strengthening, growth, and independence. I am owning the gifts from a trip to the underworld and it’s been a healing journey. I think or hope that the songs from the last two albums will say more about that than I ever can here. It was a moment of liberation to finally say I will never perform under any name but my own again. As confusing as I am sure it’s been to some, for me, it’s a new dawn where I’m finally free of some hidden shackles, and it's a name that can and will never be changed! It feels really good like anything is possible now. A firm foundation for the journey ahead.
KR: What are your earliest musical memories and who/what inspired you to start playing music and what motivates you now?
JBY: My parents tell me I sang way before I spoke. Music has been my lifelong love and I do not remember a time when I didn’t make up songs. My Mum is a beautiful pianist with a touch I envy, and my Grandmother was a very talented multi-instrumentalist who encouraged me from a very early age to make music on the piano, she felt I had a very intuitive way of improvising and playing by ear that should be developed and encouraged but I think everyone expected me to go down a much more academic route. My brother Alan used to sing “music was my first love” to me because he totally got that I was obsessed! It took many years to accept being a songwriter, however, as that is a different, a bit like accepting a long-term sentence of sorts and giving up on a ‘normal’ life, so I was very reluctant and terribly shy. I was influenced as a child by the eclectic tastes of my four older brothers. They were all avid music fans and some played instruments themselves. Everything from David Bowie, Elton John, Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Toyah!, Kate Bush, Genesis, AC/DC, Madonna and beyond. I loved Genesis and I think hearing ‘3 Sides Live’ with all that raging energy and passion made me want to sing like that and be on a stage one day!
I played classical recorder and sang classically as a child, I was a soloist in the church for weddings and events. It really was the only place I felt free (outside of being alone in nature). I was quite the geek and experienced much bullying as a child, but music was my safe place, no one could touch me there.
I went through a range of instruments, drums, trumpet, piano but then realised at 13 I wanted to be a lead guitarist. Singers to me at that point were just not as cool. I began getting guitar lessons at 15 and then it was a freak incident that year that changed my life’s course forever. I joined in with RockShop, a then-new project run by Herbie Flowers to get teenagers to play music. I joined my friend's rock band ‘First Born’ as a backing singer, just to get out of school if I am honest! On the night of the main event at the Brighton Dome which was being filmed in front of a large audience, the lead singer bolted with nerves and I was left to take his place. I was absolutely beyond terrified and can recall in vivid detail shaking and walking out the front of the stage with the band feeling two miles away from me, but I did it and I remember the band picked me up at the end and threw me in the air they were so elated! When I got back to school my guitar teacher said, ‘we’re not doing lead guitar anymore, you just blew a full audience at The Dome away and we’re going to get your songs out and start working on them! You’re a singer-songwriter!” I was quite annoyed at the time, but actually he was right, and I have a lot to thank him for.
Musically my influences have been and are endless, from Celtic, Heavy Metal, Indie, Jazz, Prog, Punk, Soul, Ambient, Folk, Gospel, Classical, Baroque and Opera. After being nearly completely self-taught all my life I went back to study music ‘properly’ at the age of 29 in Galway and immersed in contemporary performance, classical and Irish music which I absolutely loved.
What motivates me now? It is no longer for some ambition or a major altruistic reason as I perhaps thought in the distant past, though I do always hope that anything I make is helpful and even healing if possible. It’s simply that making music is my fundamental nature. I can’t not write and play. It’s impossible not to be a musician when you are one, painful in-fact. Without creating I decline, a bit like the legend of the Selkie, music is my seal skin and if it stops, I shrivel up and stop functioning on a very basic level. I tell people music is my mental illness and I am only half-joking. I have always made music and I don’t want or even know how or know how to stop it flowing. It does not have to be heard or notable, I’ll sing to the birds and the trees and be perfectly okay with that... if people want to hear it then I am humbled and delighted. I have finally accepted it’s just the way it is. Everyone has something they are compelled to do.
KR: Everything about ‘An Abandoned Orchid House’, from the album title and cover photo, through the music and songs, is incredibly atmospheric and emotional. How did you meet the musicians and build the band, as you are still working with Peter Yates to this day?
JBY: ‘An Abandoned Orchid House’ was in the making for over four years so very different to ‘Strangers’ in that regard and a progression of the sounds both myself and Martyn had been working on together and alone. The songs started originally when Talitha Rise was a duo and the amazing guests came over meetings during those four years. It was a deeply emotional album where I was delving into the themes of abandonment and belonging and what good can come from surrendering to a feeling of being left on the outside. Going in to get out if you like. The title of the album and the cover have a very interesting story. Back then I occasionally cat sat for two dear friends Laurie and Wendy who lived next to a real-life abandoned orchid house in Sussex. I wrote the title track at their house when I awoke one night to find a light on outside (this is in the heart of the countryside). I thought I saw a light on in one of the abandoned greenhouses but upon inspection saw it was the full moon reflected. I went downstairs to double-check and found I was wrong again! There WAS a light on in the middle of the night. It triggered this whole narrative around an imaginary man who is there anonymously in the night, perhaps recalling his life and what it means to be both someone and no one. I wrote the song the next day. Laurie is a photographer and Wendy is a makeup artist. They arranged that whole album cover shoot as a thank you for all the cat sitting. It was incredibly generous and kind, and I was thrilled with what they did. It was taken in the actual abandoned orchid house next to them which once grew orchids for the likes of Queen Victoria. It was a magical day with the birds swooping in-front of the camera. We wanted the feeling of a light or a spectre coming out of the dark. Hope and beauty growing in what was once left for dead or useless.
I met Peter Yates at a gig we did with the brilliant Evi Vine at St. Pancras. I was ignorant of who he was but thought he was an incredible guitarist and a very lovely humble and genuine person. He asked me to sing on a song he was recording with Andy Delaney (Rubicon) and it just evolved from there. I have been extremely lucky to work with amazing people in my life through chance meetings and just connecting through music. I will never get over the magic of how those meetings have happened. He kindly played on ‘Orchid House’ and ‘Strangers’ and it was a total thrill to make the Yates and Young EP with him last year too.
The live band of AAOH was again through amazing chance meetings in my second home of Devon. Matthew Rochford was really responsible for that (guitarist) though I met Ben Roberts (cello) through Evi too. Matt invited me to come and play for The Blackbird Collective in Totnes, we all just hit it off and it grew from there. Helen Ross (violin) is a dear friend of mine and we knew we wanted to work together. Jules Bangs (bass) I met at a gig in Lewes, Sussex where he came along and brought me a Guinness. I knew by talking to him he had a real talent and feel, I have a good instinct when it comes to that, so I invited him to work with me. I think he was shocked I would ask when I never had heard him play! but I trust my gut, and I wasn’t wrong! He is amazing! Ric Byer, Will Tyler, Jay Newton, Nadia Abdelaziz, Tony Goldsmith, Ella Partington, Pete Lamb, the band has kept growing as a collective and it has been amazing. They just completely got the ethos of the album and it seemed a natural progression to invite them onto ‘Strangers’ and continue the collaboration. As I’m writing this, I’m working on album 3, my first official album under my own name, and we’re still working together with that too. They are amazing musicians. The next phase will be different though... perhaps a little more stripped back again.
KR: Looking back on the album now from a few years, how would you describe it to someone coming across it for the first time?
JBY: A cacophony! lol! I suppose I would see it as quite a rich journey, a tapestry of sounds and emotions that is perhaps woven from many influences and genres and feelings. I really thought hard about what tracks to include (some were kicked off along the way) and what order to put them in so that with each song you progressed a bit further along emotionally.
KR:‘Strangers’ has a much brighter photo for the cover, where you are out in the landscape. When I reviewed the album, I said that when listening to it “I am taken to a magical place, up on the moors, in the wilds, where there is just me and the landscape, at one with nature.” Does that resonate with how you feel about the music?
JBY: The cover for ‘Strangers’ was taken by the brilliant Craig Sinclair and is on The Beacon in Firle, where I was born and raised. The land: nature, in general, is my biggest muse, it always has been. There is so much we can learn from nature that no book will ever be able to teach. Though I had been doing it less consciously with ‘Blue’ and ‘AAOH’, I made a concerted effort with ‘Strangers’ to listen to the land and tell its stories, not just my own. Many of the pieces, unlike ‘AAOH’ are totally improvised one-offs, which did create limitations live for sure. I was thrilled and humbled with that description of the album because that is how I wrote it, in commune with myself and the land, intently listening to the stories from wherever I was standing in that moment. Some pieces were improvised in a 600-year-old farmhouse in Wales on a grand piano (“Strangers” and “The Old Sewing Woman’s Song”) and that was an amazing experience. I only played and recorded “TOSWS” once, I will never actually know what I did, and I cried when I recorded the vocals because I actually had no idea what I was going to say next. It was a piece of magic really where you accept that it’s not ‘you’ making the music, you’re simply a tool for this stuff to come through and you spend your life as Jerry Garcia so eloquently said, learning how to get out the way. Some were written in The Burren, Ireland (“Radio Silence”, “Temples”) others were old friends renewed (“Skysailing”) Others were from time in Devon (“Cry Back Moon”). There is a real mix there, but the land is always in it. Right now, I am working on a very special project alongside the next record which is all about our spiritual connection with nature. It is the most ambitious task I’ve set myself yet and includes more improvisation, but it feels a natural next step.
In essence ‘AAOH’ was “help I’ve fallen down a pit, oh wait I’m still alive and I’m climbing out of it little by little” and ‘Strangers’ was “here’s me owning my mistakes, walking away, mending my heart, becoming wiser and going back to what is real and natural”. I wanted ‘Strangers’ to be as raw, unfiltered and as real as I could get.
KR: The arrangements are often incredibly complex, yet wonderful layered, and even simple at times. How do all the strands come together?
JBY: Thank you, that is a very lovely compliment. I produced the record in my cottage in Ireland and sent all the roughs to the musicians, normally it was just me and piano or me and guitars. I did not let any musician hear what the others had done. I was clear about that. I did not want them to be influenced by anything other than what they were feeling upon hearing the skeleton and essence of the song. Of course, that meant I was sent a ton of sometimes incoherent parts to sort through, but it really worked. I am lucky that they are all such superb musicians and connected emotionally with the songs so deeply adding their own responses like a two-way intimate conversation. I chipped away with these beautiful takes on instinct, sometimes keeping two violins, cello or guitar takes together and blending them and finding these wonderful ‘watercolour accidents’ as I call them: moments where the two takes though independent have now locked in and are complementing each other perfectly. It was a deeply intense and immersive experience but all in all just came down to what felt right at the time. There are many little touches I put in there like in “Radio Silence”, every instrument and vocal goes through a radio transmitter sound at least once in the song, and that was influenced by Peter Yates putting these great radio sounds in. Kev Bolus who is my ‘album angel’ and mixed both ‘AAOH’ and ‘Strangers’ also added some absolutely superb touches which he always does, I also had the brilliant Matt Blackie making beats to the rough tracks too and that was amazing! There is a game we used to play when I was a teenager where one person writes the line of a story then folds it over and passes it on. By the end of the round, you have a random but brilliant story where no one saw the previous line. It was a bit like that, something you could never plan or think up, you have to let it happen naturally.
KR: You are now working on the next album, are you planning to have it as improvisational as the last one? What process are you going through? When are we likely to hear it?
JBY: The new album is a really interesting experience so far. During the last few years when I was touring, I was always writing and playing a few more folkish tunes, but they never found a place on the records. Now they are finding a home on this new album, so it is a great completion to finally pin them down. It is not as improvisational as ‘Strangers’ at all, but I am writing new material for it along the way which continues the theme... a little! I feel like each record always has a nod to the one before like a progression of the themes. I am excited to see how these songs are going to tell me to put them together, they kind of dictate! I won’t share the theme yet as it’s a bit of a giveaway to the album name! but I will say that it’s been very influenced by the challenges we’re currently going through and looking to the answers of change and evolution. The ending of illusions.
Release wise I am hoping for an early-ish 2021 release, but let’s see how we go.
KR: You have told me there will soon be an EP coming out soon containing songs from the archive, has this been finalised yet?
JBY: It is out on June 1st and it is a two-sided single so not so much an EP. There are many songs I never got to release or finish properly, and it is tying the loose ends from the Talitha Rise/RISE threads up neatly. “Allumez” felt right to release now... it means to illuminate and switch your lights on. I saw the word stuck in a traffic jam outside Paris and it felt something of a spiritual song to record. Being courageous, loving no matter what as a way of rising out of heartbreak. The B side is “Invisible Fishing”, another archive song I am very fond of and needed to finally get a digital and full release. It feels equally apt right now, holding on in the storm.
KR: I was lucky enough to see some of your home music videos during the lockdown, where can people find out more details about these, about you, and your music?
JBY: Thank you so much. I recorded a couple of things at home just before and at the beginning of lockdown. One of “Skysailing” on my Mum’s piano and another where I'm singing in the woods which is part of my new project ‘A Spirit Of Origin’ which I mentioned earlier. You can find the videos up on my Facebook page and I also send them out with some little extras on my mailing list.
Right now, I am recording a special home performance for a project I’m involved with alongside folk musician John Reed and producer Ali Karim. The first single “Pauper’s Son” will be out via a live stream launch on midsummer’s night June 20th live on Facebook@johnreedlive
Everything you need to learn more about my music and the link to join the mailing list is up at www.jobethyoung.com . Thank you so much for taking the time to ask me these questions and for showing such interest in the music.