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Cat Schaupp

Cat Schaupp

Track-by-Track: Jo Wilson - The Grand Complication

 

Late last year we talked to Jo Wilson, whose album The Grand Complication was released in early December. In the interview, Jo discussed the creation of the album, his songwriting process, and what inspires him. Here, Jo takes us through the album track-by-track and tells us more about each song. Read on to find out about the events and realisations that kick-started his creative process and the musical choices Jo made while creating the record. If you'd like to listen along as you read, then click here to listen to the album via Bandcamp. 


1. 'Prognosis'

Ever had a piece of news that made you age several years in a day?

The inspiration for this song came after learning that a family friend had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and I began to think a bit about how receiving news affects us.  Some pieces of news, delivered in just a few moments, have the power to instantly and irrevocably change our perception of what our future might be like.

After my other two albums (released as DLDown), which both began with atmospheric instrumentals, I wanted something more immediate this time around, making my voice the very first thing heard.

2. 'Peter’s Out'

Growing up through Sunday school can make you very au fait with some truly odd stories! Things that you took on board without batting an eyelid in the past, on the rare occasions that you subject them to real close inspection now, can make you go “wait, he did what?!”.

I like to try and think my myself right inside the story: not just how did people feel, but questions like "How did all that food multiply and nobody saw how he did it?", "What did the surface of a stormy sea feel like to walk on? Solid? Sloshy? Like cornflour?”

The tremolo synth in the build-up is a recreation of one my favourite Lightning Seeds sounds from the mid-90s.

3. 'The Watchmaker’s Waltz'

This one wrote itself after I read the obituary of a legendary watchmaker (or horologist, for my fellow pedants) called George Daniels - a fascinating master of dozens of different crafts. The opening line is (almost) a direct quote from Daniels, telling of when he found a broken watch lying in the gutter and knew he’d found his life’s calling. The complex timepieces (usually with all sorts of unnecessary but beautifully intricate features added for the joy of the craft) - Grand Complications – give the album its title.

I know nothing about Daniels’ private life, but the impression I got was not of a particularly happy man; hints in the article about a strained relationship with his daughter were easy to fill out with a little poetic licence.

4. 'Outrun'

The setting for this song is a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-type landscape, through which hidden enemies may or may not be tracking you.

It's a song about the frustration of being hit by the same struggles and temptations repeatedly, even after long periods of winning.  The idea of the punctured waterskin is an attempt to get across that feeling of our new year’s resolutions being sabotaged, whether by human nature or external influence, and having to constantly go back to the tap for a refill.  I suspect none of us are as good as we’d like to be, when we allow ourselves to think about it, and I don’t think that’s too unhealthy a position to find oneself in.

Leading a song from electric is new for me, and I’ve enjoyed the broadening of the sound palette that brings.

5. 'Drones'

It seems to me, the courage and sacrifice of individuals who fight and die to defend us notwithstanding, that the history of warfare is underpinned by the constant drive to be as cowardly as possible: to deal as big a blow as we can whilst keeping the other side as far away (in sight and in mind) as possible. In doing so, we lose any perception of the humanity embodied in those we face - which is what makes recent rhetoric from right-wing politicians and media - now seemingly mainstream - so terrifying. We’ve come a long way since Christmas football between the trenches.

Musically, this is the centrepiece of the album. In my head at least, the song can work equally well as a brooding acoustic piece or as a full-on multi-movement prog-rock extravaganza; I think it’s ended up a kind of combination of the two.

6. 'Still Life'

Some claim to have heard God speak, audibly, with actual sound waves. I haven’t, but this is perhaps the closest I’ve come to that.  In ancient Celtic spirituality there was the concept of a Thin Place, a location/time/circumstance where the physical and the supernatural seem somehow closer together than usual. I think I found one in a little room in Sick Kids hospital in Edinburgh, when we went to visit a relative who died far too early. Psychology and spirituality have a tendency to overlap, never more so than at times of high emotion: I'd be prepared to admit that it was all in my head, but then, to quote the great Dumbledore himself, “Of course this is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

From a perusal of my listener stats (always a dangerous place for the self-esteem, so I don’t dwell there too long!) it’s fascinating to me that Still Life has by far the highest ratio of listeners listening to the whole song, right through to the end.

7. 'Parallax'

I miss those friendly arguments you used to have late at night as teenagers, once you’d exhausted all the “who d’ya fancy?” chat, and got onto deeper subjects.  I’m less concerned about the particular viewpoints (deliberately mixed up throughout the song), but about the acts of discussing, imagining and wondering.  Perhaps we learn the most from moving our heads a little to see from the other viewpoint.  I don’t get out to look up at the stars as much as I’d like any more.

Much as I love odd time signatures, this one ended up as it is (after trying all sorts of more standard rhythms) purely because the lyrics flowed much better in 5 than in anything else I tried, rather than oddness for oddness’ sake.

8. 'There Is No Plan B'

A couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door and asked me if I’d thought about the end of the world enough.  So I did.  But probably not in the way they meant.  I started wondering about the human race’s capability, and to what extent our future is down to us, and how much is beyond our control.  We can do some amazing stuff, but is it enough? Would we have the capacity to move out if the Earth was threatened? 

It was fun to do something with a bit of a different sound, though I was determined that it would still be playable as a solo piece.  Despite all the synthesised sounds, the only sequenced item in here is the drum machine - every other track was me playing live.

9. 'Alea Jacta Est?'

The perhaps inevitable product of having too many snippets of music lying around, the vague stirring of a memory from Higher Music about aleatoric music, and a long-standing mild annoyance about bonus tracks that really don’t fit the album, these are intended to be the result of the dice being (drum-)rolled at the end of There Is No Plan B - an uncertain future crystallising in a particular way. [NB. each copy of the album contains one of 11 completely different 1-minute instrumentals, randomly selected by dice roll. Which did you get?]

The track title comes from a phrase attributed to Julius Caesar as he made the decision to send his army across the Rubicon (which is also where that phrase comes from!), meaning “the die is cast”.  My (dubious) Latin knowledge comes almost exclusively from reading Asterix, rather than from any formal education.

10. 'The Music In My Head'

I have a fondness for music with decent instrumental sections, whether composed or improvised, which can often convey emotions better than lyrics can.  This is kind of a hybrid of many of my favourites from various sources:  Pink Floyd-style guitar & pads, Phish-like jams and build-ups, Rick Wakeman-esque synth leads, and a Springsteen-ish saxophone victory lap at the climax!  This, more than any other piece, was written as I was recording it - I had no idea how it would end up.  I really had fun just experimenting and seeing where it would go next, and working out how to pass the melody line from instrument to instrument.  And I recall polling fellow musicians for suggestions on how on earth to get the F# major chord at the end to drop into the Ab/Bb at the start of I’ve Seen Enough.

11. 'I’ve Seen Enough'

For some, faith is awakened suddenly as the result of a particular event or experience; for me it’s been more of a slow build.  As something of a scientist by nature, I’ve long had trouble with the idea that somehow science and faith are incompatible.  For me, the two spheres of thought address different types of question, yet each can inform, inspire and challenge the other.

The ending of this one has undergone several re-writes, as it felt far too unequivocal, as if I was now settled and immovable, entrenched.  Instead, I’ve tried to get across the idea that whatever we believe, we need to be constantly re-evaluating it, as our ideas of what we think scripture says are challenged by life in this broken world.  I’m not sure if I’ve succeeded.

**

More in-depth versions of these discussions can be found at www.jowilsonmusic.com. To listen to, or purchase, a copy of The Grand Complication, head on over to Jo's Bandcamp page.

An Interview with Jo Wilson

 

Jo Wilson is a solo musician based in Inverness whose album, The Grand Complication, was released at the start of December. He’s been in a band since his days at Aberdeen University in the early-noughties and, as DLDown, released his first album, Puzzle, in 2006. Jo’s now releasing music as a solo artist and his album The Grand Complication is now out in the world after a multi-year gestation period during which Jo spent time living in Pakistan and welcomed four children into the world. On listening to the album, we were drawn in by the tracks’ compelling lyrics and fantastically varied instrumentation, and felt that it was high time to hunt him down in person. Here, he tells us a bit more about himself as a musician and shares some insights into his new album.


Musos’ Guide: Welcome to Musos'! Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about yourself and your music?

JW: Hi, I'm Jo, hailing from Inverness. I sing and play things with strings, keys, or circuitboards, and occasionally cutlery or items from my toolbox. As for genre: now there's a hard one! Singer-songwriter/rock-jazz-prog-folk. I tend to write when I get particularly interested or upset about something - the subject of the song usually matters in some way, even if only to me. I love interesting harmonies, complex timings, and not going for the obvious chord. I especially love it when I manage to get the song to sound like what it's saying - onomatopoeic, I suppose. Never thought I'd use that word beyond Higher English!

MG: How long has music been part of your life?

JW: As long as I can remember - both my parents play/sing, and things like the Singing Kettle were on constant repeat. I went through various instruments through school (violin being the most horrific for all concerned!), but it was the keyboard that first really got me playing for enjoyment's sake - partly, I think, because my teacher encouraged us to go and buy music books of our favourite bands (at the time The Lightning Seeds and Blur) and learn to play those. Part of it was also learning that I connect with music by ear far more readily than through sheet music, so the classical route favoured at school wasn't really for me.

MG: You haven’t always been a solo musician, have you? What other bands have you been involved with?

JW: DLDown started when I started jamming with saxophonist Tim Buick in about 2004. We started with a few cover songs, and some little jams which gradually turned into Puzzle and The Turning Song. We went out to open mics and got ourselves a few wee gigs around Aberdeen, doing fun stuff with a loop pedal, and gradually adding in more of our own songs (‘Lazarus’, ‘Icarus’, ‘Romans 7’) into the repertoire.

In 2006, uni finished and everyone started to disperse. We felt the songs were too good to waste so I took a bit of time out (i.e. procrastinating from starting a career!) to make Puzzle. We did a lot with the little we had - guitar/keys/sax/loop pedal/Garageband, and a single microphone. You can make a lot of interesting combinations of sounds with an acoustic guitar especially! After moving back to Edinburgh, I kept the DLDown moniker going as a solo-plus-hangers-on project, and put together Also, He Made the Stars... in another gap in employment.

MG: Congratulations on the release of your album, The Grand Complication, which came out at the start of December. How would you describe the record and how did it develop?

JW: The title The Grand Complication is taken from the song ‘The Watchmaker's Waltz’, which was inspired by an obituary of a renowned watchmaker (or horologist) called George Daniels; a ‘Grand Complication’ is a name sometimes given to timepieces which have all sorts of ridiculously complicated and unnecessary features, achieved solely through mechanical means, and created mainly for the joy of the craft. So it kind of fits the feel of the album - complex, with connecting pieces, and lots of those little moments (even if I’m the only one who ever notices them!) where the coming together of particular notes or words or instrumentation or all three resulted in a certain euphoria when they happened.  And an element of “it’s like that just for the sake of it”!

The final song, ‘I’ve Seen Enough’, touches on how we come by our particular world views and beliefs.  As I was writing the mid-section of that song, I realised that aspects of all the other songs connected with what I was writing, so I started adding in lines, snippets of melody and instrumentation from the other songs into the background (except in a different key, and in 5/4, because, well, remember the title?), resulting in the fugue-y sort of thing before the final chorus.  So while I didn’t set out for it to be this way, it’s ended up as a concept album of sorts, with all the songs getting woven together at the end.

MG: I really loved the detail in the tracks on the album and the interplay of your lyrics and instruments. What’s your creative process, in terms of putting your songs together? Do you have a set ‘way’ of doing things, such as starting with musical ideas and then crafting the lyrics, or do you just see where inspiration takes you?

JW: It depends. I add to a notebook of scribbles when I feel inspired on a particular subject, and record snippets of sung melodies or little chord sequences for use in the future. (A whole lot of these got used when making ‘Alea Jacta Est?’, a 1 minute instrumental which has multiple versions, selected by dice roll for each copy of the CD.) Then, sometimes months later, I’ll get round to the actual songcraft bit of turning it into something coherent, which is where the hard work is. A thesaurus and rhyming dictionary can really help at this point. Occasionally sections of words/melody arrive fairly fully formed in my head, and sometimes just a change of instrument (or even, in the case of ‘Drones’, a single string tuned differently) can be enough to inspire a song to go in a certain direction.

MG: What was the recording process like for the record, in terms of building up the tracks and getting a final version recorded?

JW: By necessity, I recorded the album in my little home studio in dribs and drabs. For some songs, like ‘Outrun’ or ‘Still Life’, the song itself was pretty much complete before I started recording, so I had a good idea of the 'layout' before I got started; then it's a case of laying down a whole take with the main instrument before adding other stuff over the top and retaking bits where necessary. Others, like the extended outro of ‘Drones’, ‘The Music In My Head’, or some of the variants of ‘Alea Jacta Est?’ were written as I was recording them, so I really had no idea how they would end up. I'd get to the end of a section and think "it'd be cool if it built up on the piano like this now", or "now it needs the synth to take over the melody here", and just try it out. It doesn't work for everything, but I really loved writing in this way - almost a live jam in the studio with yourself - and I love how these pieces turned out. That's the beauty of the “little and often/home studio” method - not better or worse than traditional studio recording with a band (which I'd also love to try, by the way), but very different, and with interesting results which wouldn't have happened any other way.

MG: The record has a really rich, diverse, and distinctive sound, and I found the lyrics and instrumentation really striking. It’s real treat for the ears! Your vocals are also great: they have a really troubadour-ish vibe and there’s plenty of drama and colour to them. Who are your musical and creative influences?

JW: You’re too kind! One of my favourites in terms of instrumentation is ‘The Watchmaker's Waltz’, which I had initially planned to keep stripped back acoustic, as it tends to be when I play it live. But I got bored of it, frankly, and thought a bit harder about matching the instrumentation to the song, switching sounds for each section before bringing them all together in the final chorus, and getting my friend Lee-Anne to add vocals to highlight the male/female dynamic in the story. I'm very pleased with how it turned it in the end.

In terms of influences (amongst many others): Ben Folds for the piano, Dave Matthews for the guitar, some oddities from my Dad’s 70s music collection (10cc, Yes, Steely Dan ...) for my love of unusual harmonies and timings. I’ve often been told I sound like Nick Drake, though I’ve never actually got round to listening to him - I try to sing very much in my own voice.

MG: Having recently become a dad again, I assume that a stream of live dates aren’t on the horizon just yet! How do you feel about playing live and do you have any plans to get out on the live scene in the future?

JW: I very much enjoy playing live, but have nothing planned for the immediate future (having 4 children under 5 is pretty intense!). I’ve done sporadic solo gigs over the last few years, but would love to get into doing house concert-type events more and I’d also love to get a full band together to bring my multi-tracked arrangements to life. I don’t really mind too much about what instrument line-up that would be, but like many of my favourite bands, I’d love the music to have a mixture of tight composed sections and looser parts with room for improvisation.

*****

Jo’s album, The Grand Complication, is out now. You can give it a spin on Bandcamp, where you can also download it or order a physical copy. To find out more about Jo and his music, check out his website, and keep up to date with what he’s up to via Facebook

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