She’s one of the hardest working people in show-business, has a CV longer than a giraffe’s neck, and is on the cusp of breaking through to the mainstream. Haven’t heard of Jo Harman yet? Well, you soon will. A critically-acclaimed, award-winning vocalist who channels soul, blues, country and everything in between with due aplomb, the Devonshire singer-songwriter is one of several notable names performing at the one-day Edinburgh Blues ‘N’ Rock Festival at the Corn Exchange this Saturday (30 July).
UK electric-blues legends Dr Feelgood, and Edinburgh’s very own Safehouse and The Rising Souls feature in the eight-band line-up that also includes Bernie Marsden Band, The Al Brown Band, Neil Warden & Gary Martin, plus a closing rock ‘n’ roll set from Davey Sloan & The Rattlers.
Yet, it’s no surprise to see Harman’s name high up the billing – she’s already received a Female Vocalist Of The Year Award at the British Blues Awards after all. Indeed, given Harman has played over a hundred festivals, question is:
How does Edinburgh and its audiences compare to other places she’s encountered on her travels?
“Well, firstly I enjoy coming to Edinburgh because it’s a great, friendly city with magnificent scenery and architecture. It has to be one of the best cities in the world from that perspective. I don’t play Scotland very often but I’ve found the people very welcoming and the audiences very warm. We seem to have a disproportionately strong fan-base given how little we visit. I feel Scottish people have a lot of soul and maybe that’s a connection. In any event, long may it continue.”
You’re one of the hardest-working people in music. What’s day-to-day life like for you? Do you take things as they come? Or do you have a long-term plan?
“I don’t consider what I do to be work, because I’m doing something I love, but, yes, there is more to it than just singing. I’m very involved in every aspect of my career, including the business side. As any touring musician will tell you, the amount of administration is huge – never ending. I do my own touring arrangements (production), design my own posters, and as everything grows, there is so much more to do. When I finish this interview I’m on a Skype call to my American management regarding album launch, label and distribution business, publishing, American touring, Visas and God knows what. I have to be careful that all this doesn’t overtake who I am as an artist. I now try to schedule playing the piano and guitar into my everyday schedule because finding time to do that has really suffered recently with ‘taking care of business’.”
What’s been your greatest musical achievement to date?
“Making a living making my own music on my own terms.”
You’ve achieved a lot in recent years – not to mention picking up awards along the way – do you feel you’re on the cusp of breaking through to the mainstream?
“Obviously, I’d like my music to be better known – universally known – and in that respect I’m ambitious (for the music, not for myself). I’m actually a very shy person and I struggle being recognised in even the smallest ways, which even stops me from wanting to go to friends gigs, etc. Not that I am that recognised or bothered generally, but you know what I mean. I struggle being ‘Jo Harman’ off-stage and I’m happier being the anonymous ‘Johanna’ if you get my drift? When I was in Nashville I wrote with some great and successful writers and we came up with some very commercial tunes, which I think would have been very radio friendly, etc. I didn’t put them on the album because, at the end of the day, they weren’t me. I wanted to make a very honest album, a ‘Jo Harman’ record; and, in fact, everyone – my management, the labels, the producer – were ultimately 100% behind that decision. So, to answer your question, I want to make uncompromising music which I want as many people as possible to hear, and like. But if they don’t like, I won’t try and do anything different to make them like it. It may be a selfish thing to portray but I make music for me. I have to self express. I need to self express.”
Your voice sits nicely within blues, soul and roots music. Which genre do you prefer, if any? And do you feel people try to pigeon-hole you into one or the other?
“I’m a singer-songwriter. My voice is my voice. My big influences are African-American but equally I have been heavily influenced by my father’s 70s vinyl record collection, which included a lot of the likes of Cat Stevens, The Beatles, folk, prog rock and more. My Dad was also an Average White Band fan and I work with lots of guys from, or associated with, that band nowadays, ironically. I’m also a classically trained musician so, for me, music is music. People should describe my music on how they hear it rather than how I might describe it, perhaps. I’m probably more influenced by soul and gospel than blues, although vocally they are branches from the same tree, of course. I don’t really know any blues tunes and never knowingly played a 12 bar blues, ironically enough, given all the blues awards which came my way. Not that I’m complaining of course – I welcome any community that enjoys what I do, of course.
You’ve been working with Fred Mollin (Carole King, Barbara Streisand, Billy Joel) on your new album. What’s it been like working with one of the top producers in the business? What can fans and curious listeners expect in your new work?
“Incredible. I’ve been lucky enough to have worked with a number of great Grammy-winning and multi-Grammy-nominated producers at various times throughout my career, but the Nashville experience was something else again. Fred is a genius but his greatest strength is taking the time to get inside the artists’s head and empower them to be the artist they can and should be. He’s often a light hand on the tiller while throwing his magic dust into everything at every turn. He pulled together an incredible band – perfect for my music and every aspect of this project. From finding the right studios, players, tracking, mixing, mastering – he was simply world class. Fred poured his own blood, sweat, and tears into the project and he makes you feel like everything, every little detail, is life or death important. He cares. He believes. He lets you fight with him like cat and dog but always with the greatest of love and respect. Working with Fred, and the whole American team, was one of the best experiences of my life. Fans and listeners can expect a deep record. A Jo Harman record but one made in the best possible conditions. It’s not an instant record but one you have to dig into to, I suspect. I believe it gets better with every listen. I’m incredibly proud of it, whatever the commercial outcome.”
What about the challenges women in the music industry face. Are things improving? Has attitudes towards women in music affected your own career?
“I feel very empowered to be a women in the music industry. 99.9% of the time I’m treated with total respect. The odd fan or social media comment may make me roll my eyes or whatever, but generally I find no problems whatsoever. Certainly not at the professional end and that only seems to improve the higher up the ladder you go? However, I certainly understand that there can be issues around gender, and not everybody enjoys the empowerment and respect that they deserve. There are also not enough women in the industry in positions of power perhaps?”
What can we expect from your show at the Corn Exchange?
“A bit of everything, I think. We can rock out with the best of them but I might also do a couple of intimate voice and piano ballads, too. I hope to take people on a musical and emotional journey in my shows. But, there again, I don’t know what to expect from the Corn Exchange audience so, we’ll see. I’ll be different from some of the other guitar-led acts, great as they are, that’s for sure.”
What’s your hopes and dreams for the future?
“To live a happy, meaningful, and fulfilled life, both within and outside of my career in music. Ideally, on the career side of things, I’d want my music to make a difference to people. My goal is for my music to connect with people, in some way. I want to maybe help people find something in themselves, in the way that other artists music has connected, and helped me, at times. I don’t mean that to sound as pompous at it does but hopefully you’ll understand what I mean.”
Describe your music in three words…
“Real, heartfelt, hard-fought.”
Edinburgh Blues ‘N’ Rock Festival, Corn Exchange, New Market Road, Saturday, 30 July, Doors 1.30pm, £20-£25, www.ebrf.co.uk
Words: Barry Gordon