Interview by Nerys Dutters
I arrange to meet Jo Bartlett in a Reading coffee shop. We haven't met before although I have a guide to her appearance from various music magazine pictures. The woman across the room in direct eye contact with me, putting out an occasional smile could be Jo. I smile at her, she at me. Of course that's Jo, stupid me sat here for ten minutes playing eye footsie. Then in walks the real Jo Bartlett, not the one I've conjured up five tables away. Oops.
Just to backtrack a bit... from 2000 to 2005, she and her partner Danny Hagan released four albums as "It's Jo and Danny," part of the folktronic movement. This in turn went on to spawn Four Tet and The Beta Band. She is renown for the founding of The Green Man Festival in Wales 2003. Previously forming her psychedelic instrumental quartet The Yellow Moon Band.
Now, Jo arrives from a snap rain shower, jackets off. We grab a drink, no food we only have an hour. I pull out the new album 9 x 7 (nine songs by seven musicians) released January 12th 2015 on Strike Back Records, preceded by the single "Dying Kiss" available November 24th 2014.
There has been a gap of some four years between 9 x 7 and her last solo album Upheaval in 2010. The reason? Very simple she explains "It's not easy to put an album together when it's self financed." It would be nice to get a hard copy out to all the major press outlets, but reality is what it is.
" Not sure if I should be but the answer surprised me "So what is the plan?" I ask.
"We have a couple of gigs lined up early in the new year, Bethnal Green and Reading, more to follow but that's where we'll start. Ideally to play gigs, initially in the area, get a fan base and have it develop from there. We are going to put out a video with the single Dying Kiss," she says with a hefty chunk of enthusiasm. "It will be me driving at night with a camera capturing my journey and surrounding areas, simple by effective, I hope," she says trying to restrain a satisfied grin.
Jo has a radio slot once a week with online station Totally Radio called 'Fringe on Top.' Her playlists are diverse and very entertaining.
I liken her style to Giles Peterson he of Radio 6 fame these days. She thinks about my comment "That's very kind" Don't think she's fully convinced with the comparison. However it's this diversity and depth which is captured on 9 x 7.
She looks fondly back at her festival organizing too. "We worked hard to set up the Green Man, gave many artists an opportunity to perform in front of sizable crowds, Ben Howard for example. It had its time then we moved on."
She doesn't strike me as someone who can be without a project for very long.
Upheaval was her 2010 album, one day in the making, Jo and an acoustic guitar. I particularly like "Spanish Steps" on this album. Yes, I know we aren't reviewing older albums, but its very good. The new album 9 x 7 is a studio based, bringing together many ideas and concepts to the listener.
When talking about the construction of certain songs she has an endearing habit of playing air guitar chords across the table, to accentuate a certain point. I take this vision with me as the album begins.
The title track and single, "Dying Kiss" is a strong solid track to kick off the album. It has a slow celestial melodic flow building on organ and subtle use of synthesizers. As we reach the chorus line with added choral backing "I'm not afraid of this and you can't save me," "Dying Kiss" is indeed a kiss goodbye. Her voice has a vulnerability, it wobbles, it trembles, it's persuasively different.
"Measure of the Storm" highlights the quality of production throughout this album. Violin and Hammond organ don't vie for space, they simply collide with musical respect, each one taking the lead as required.
Fans and first listeners may not agree, but I have issues, positive issues with "Olympic." It's 3 minutes 55 seconds long, when in fact another ten minutes should have been added. Some would say it's a brave decision to add an instrumental track. Wasted, space filler, lazy option. Not here. Think of Laura Marling on guitar supported by a "Tubular Bells" background. I hope when performed live, this track gets some extended space on the set. This is simply a teaser of what could be a very memorable arrangement.
Does she agree it can be deemed a brave decision to release an instrumental? "Mmm I can see some people would think so," she ponders, but I write all types of pieces. I have arrangements in various stages of completion. No plans to do so, but an EP of instrumentals at some stage is an option."
"Suitable Drama" closes off 9 x 7. Gentle guitar, violin opening, creep into earshot as if trying not to wake a sleeping child. Introduction and excellent use of tamborine increases the tempo. Violin and organ again provide a wonderful collaboration. Electric guitar and percussion drive out the beat to it's conclusion.
She tells me the album is a mix of songs which were written years ago, with "Rising to the Bait" and others hot off the press. Most of the nine tracks worked for me, "Advent" being one of the weaker offerings.
9 x 7 is an album which asks, then makes you listen. This isn't background fodder. As she articulates this is where the luck, or not begins. The album won't be be nicely wrapped, landing on radio stations polished tables, asking to be heard. There isn't the budget for mass publicity. It will scrap for attention along with other releases.
This is a well thought-out album, with some very strong tracks plus deft touches on the arrangement side of the house.
I wish the album well on it's journey, but Jo Bartlett knows better than most, success doesn't come easy. If work ethic can be an indicator to success 9 x 7 is on its way.
Also see the Fringe On Top website for more on Jo Bartlett
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