In Part One of our interview (Issue 142), cellist Jo Quail discussed her creative processes, and what has inspired her unique approaches to playing the cello and composing. Here, we explore how she is able to produce such diverse qualities from her instrument, and she tells about new projects in the works, and more.
Russ Welton: How have you developed your sound over the years?
Jo Quail: The way I play, my musical language, has certainly evolved as I develop as a cellist and composer, and has become richer as I understand much more from a psychological perspective. Or perhaps more accurately, rather than understand, it’s a case of realizing how much more there is to uncover! Either way, as we discussed before, it’s a combination of technical maturity and personal belief, I guess.
On a practical basis, I use a lot of scordatura [altering the standard tuning] in my work, and I love close harmonies, [and] unisons that microtonally drag away, and I use this often. I also love space in sound, and in music, and that’s something that appears quite frequently in my own compositions, either harmonically or in terms of placement of notes, percussion [and so on]. I think this approach informs most of what might be considered “recognizable” in my sound. I know when I first started to write and perform solo, I didn’t think about space in sound, and now I do, a lot.
RW: You have a great spirituality in your music. In what ways has this, along with your classical and rock influences melded together?
JQ: This is a big question. Personally, I find that the experience of live music creates an exchange of energy between the artist and the audience, and because of this exchange of energy, a wholly separate energy is invoked.
When it comes to melding genres, music is music. There is as much power in John Tavener’s Svyati as anything I’ve experienced on a festival stage, it’s just the instrumentation and delivery that’s different.
I have very defined personal spiritual beliefs that are not borne of traditional religion, and I wonder if music is perhaps able to explore spirituality in a more multifaceted way than other art forms, but I have not studied this in depth; this is just my own experience.
One of the things I love in metal [music] is the power and intent experienced in texture and tone, and these are aspects I incorporate into my music. When I want to convey something with great weight, or a shapeless power within the Earth’s core, I may draw on conventional textures, that is, overdrive or distortion or equivalent, and make the color with this effect, obviously working a lot to shape the sound the way I want it. I write a lot of music exploring the cardinal energies of earth, air, fire, water and spirit, and I find exploration of archetypes a continuous source of inspiration in music.
RW: Which composers and musicians are your greatest references for inspiration and why so?
JQ: Evolution again – the theme of our discussion! It’s a revolving door of composers and musicians who inspire me, and it could be something as simple as one aspect within the sound of someone’s voice, or the particular arrangement of a track or song that makes me listen repeatedly. Kodály’s Sonata for Solo Cello is an example of how to write beyond brilliantly for solo cello, and the vast capabilities of the instrument (in the right hands, I can’t play this very well!). Bartók and Kodály worked a lot with folk music and I love the modality of these melodies; I use this at times in my work. It’s an openness of sound that is less easy to obtain from standard Ionian or major/minor scale work. Messiaen’s “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus” from the Quartet for the End of Time is something I continuously return to, so achingly beautiful, perfection in creation.
Trent Reznor would be an obvious example to state too. I’ve arranged some Nine Inch Nails for cello quartet, and translating the electronics [of the original] into something playable on acoustic cello has enabled me to get right in to the center of his compositions. I’m a little late to the party but I recently was introduced to the music of [singer] Ghostemane – “Hellrap” is one I’m listening to constantly at the moment. It is the development of the vocals, the range, texture, it’s brilliant. I [also] learn a lot from the various sessions I do, live and recorded, and I am always inspired in one way or another by the artists I work with.
RW: Tell us about your cello!
JQ: It’s made by Starfish Designs in Fort William, Scotland. Dave Shepton is the incredible craftsman there. I went to visit Starfish to try out their electric cellos, some 12 years ago I think, maybe more actually, I tried both four and five strings (I prefer four strings) and went to see how I felt, though I knew in my heart that I would commission Starfish for my cello.
Each Starfish instrument is essentially a bespoke creation. Dave measured my ‘normal’ cello and created my electric with approximately similar dimensions, neck length and so on, and that makes a huge difference. He also made a modification on the fingerboard at the end to accommodate some of the extended techniques I use (particularly bowing behind the hand) and this adds so much to my cello both practically and aesthetically.
Starfish make harps now. I believe their range of cellos and violins have been out of production for some years, but given that each instrument is bespoke that’s understandable really.
My stand is entirely bespoke, and was created by Kev Boyss, who is a master blacksmith here in London. My first cello stand (I stand to play) was made from a keyboard stand and served me well but I needed something a little more appropriate. I went to see Kev four years ago with my cello, explaining what I needed and that it couldn’t weigh more than 5.5 kilos and had to fully come apart to fly with and so on, and he worked a miracle!
RW: What equipment do you use to most faithfully reproduce the tones you intend to present?
JQ: When I write and perform my solo electric cello pieces I use two pedals by Boss – the GT-100 multi-effects pedal and the RC-300 Loop Station [looper pedal]. I’ve always used Boss pedals, though I’ve upgraded over the years. I like the multi-effects unit because of ease of programming for live performance, given that I routinely alter the signal chain to create some of my sounds. The RC-300 Loop Station can handle my multiple layers [of live overdubbing] and has great functionality, allowing me to synchronize or not within its three loop channels (and [it does] much more than this) and be as free as is possible within this framework.
When I record, I use Cubase Pro 10.5 [software] here at home, [and] Pro Tools usually in larger studios. Whilst the sounds begin life on the GT-100, they naturally evolve (again!) in a studio setting, and I sometimes then return to the source sound and manipulate it to recreate what I made in the studio setting.
I always work live with my Cosmic Ears in-ear monitors; they are the best available and give the greatest clarity of sound. I will model most of my sounds using these [as a reference] too, then put them through a bigger rig just to check how they behave in this setting, but it’s [usually] minimal adjustment that’s needed.
RW: Tell us about your recent work with Maria Franz and Christopher Juul of Euzen.
JQ: Maria and Chris are dear friends of mine, and I’ve supported them when they [perform as] Heilung on several occasions. When they invited me to record for the next Euzen record I was hugely honored and highly intrigued – Euzen being a very different beast to Heilung. Maria and Chris are two people at the absolute top of their craft as composers and artists, and recording for them is an experience I shall treasure for all time. It was a Herculean effort to navigate both Brexit and COVID regulations – full marks to them for their organizational skills – and getting to Denmark in the first place was a win!
We spent four highly intensive and hugely enjoyable days in the studio, recording multiple cello parts across 11 songs. The parts Chris had written were sometimes challenging, always beautiful to play, and suited so well to my way of playing. He also has a great manner of direction, using lots of imagery to convey how he wants the parts performed, and it made the session very easy to translate from the dots on the page to the sounds and energies they both envisaged.
RW: You have recorded in so many studios. Which have been your favorite to record in and why?
JQ: I love them all; they are all unique and represent a period of time for me that is as clear as a photograph when I hear the record. One of my favorite studios is certainly Maria and Chris’s studio – Lava Studios Copenhagen. It is both cozy and spacious, the great drum is omnipresent, wide-spreading, [and] all the furniture for the hardware in the control room has been lovingly crafted by hand. It just feels like a good place to be. Before recording the Euzen record I first went here to rehearse with Myrkur a couple of years ago, and then I wrote and recorded all the cellos here for her Folkesange album which is such a beautiful masterpiece.
I regularly work with producer James Griffiths here in the UK, and we have worked in large and small spaces, and makeshift and professional studios, and each record has been a unique experience. I’ve a huge soft spot for Wick Studios in Brunswick, Melbourne, [Australia]; I’ve used these rooms for my preproduction on a few tours, recorded some ad hoc sessions and talked life and the universe with the crew there into the small hours. For me, it’s as much about the producer as the space we are in. I need to feel a connection with the producer, and when we are on the same wavelength it doesn’t matter how fancy the space is; we can find the music wherever we are.
RW: How do you most enjoy listening to music at home and how do you set up your hi-fi equipment?
JQ: I have a Bang and Olufsen system in my music room, and my husband has a vintage TEAC system and amplifier with Pioneer speakers that he prefers. However, and I probably shouldn’t admit this to you (!), generally we listen to music in the kitchen through a standard Bluetooth speaker, nothing fancy at all. We invariably have music on, and usually it’s things our daughter likes to listen to. She is nine, so it’s a kaleidoscope of change, usually good pop thankfully! Music, outside [of] my music room, is for the accompaniment of cooking and arts and crafts! I spend a lot of hours each day forensically listening to the innards of sound, so when it comes to relaxing, just give me a straight 4/4 with a sing-along chorus, please!
RW: Who would you most desire to perform with and who would you put in your own supergroup from the past or present?
JQ: I put my dream team together for the cast of [my upcoming album] The Cartographer. I wrote specifically for these musicians and they are all so brilliant, I can’t wait for you to hear this record. Aside from this, I’m very lucky to have worked with some incredible artists in my career so far, and I look forward to what the future holds. I’m very excited about sharing a stage with Wardruna next year as support. I would love to write and perform with a taiko [drum] ensemble – I saw a great concert years ago at the Southbank Centre and this sound forever changed my musical world. If Steven Wilson was ever to be looking for a cellist I’d get straight in the queue. I would have loved to have met maestro János Starker, the great cellist and teacher. He would be in my supergroup for sure.
RW: What is your next project?
JQ: I’ve just finished producing The Cartographer and this will be released in April 2022. I was generously granted funding from the PRS Foundation (Women Make Music Performing Rights Society) for this recording – which was another COVID achievement, getting an ensemble of 15 together in between two lockdowns.
I will be recording my solo acoustic cello works in one volume later this year, which will be supplied with the sheet music, and I’m currently working on a short film and a new electric cello album. There’s lots going on behind the scenes, including a really exciting collaboration!
I hope things will continue to move in a gentle and positive fashion, and the magic of live performance can return to our stages and our lives at the earliest moment. Thanks so much for chatting with me.
Header image courtesy of Simon Kallas.