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An Interview With Joanne Juskus

Those of you who aren’t on the East Coast of the US may not recognize the name, but it’s only a matter of time. I went to see the Joanne Juskus band here in DC and they blew me away. Tight harmonies, beautiful melodies and complex instrumentation are combined with Joanne’s talented keyboard playing, singing and amazing songwriting. After the show Joanne took a few minutes to answer some questions for Guitar Noise.

GN: Can you describe how the songwriting process works for you?

J: For me, in most cases, I hear melodies first, and the challenge is often to capture them, either by singing them or playing them on piano, and then to be open to what they are communicating lyrically. I’m someone who hears a lot of music streaming through and it’s a matter of receiving it. (I do a lot of humming — it probably drives people crazy.) I’ve heard other songwriters talk about being the recipient of songs that seem to be swirling through the ether. It seems like the songwriter’s task is to take dictation — and stay out of the way — or maybe let yourself be run over by it, smack dab in the way! Some of my songs were poems that I set to music, like Breathing Underwater and 2 Days in July. Other times, Brad (Brad Allen is producer, guitarist, songwriter) brings me chords and I listen to them over and over until I discover a melody that seems to be lurking with them, as with Good Thing. Or he’ll have full-blown songs, finished entities within their own right, that I add my own melody lines on top of, and write lyrics, such as with Intersection. Sometimes I’ll sing or play a melody for years before the words come, as with Meet You There, based on a poem by the Sufi poet, Rumi.

GN: Have you ever dealt with a time when you just couldn’t find the inspiration to write? What did you do about it?

J: I can only think of a few instances where I had to force myself to write — usually if someone requests a song for a certain occasion or something like that. Art on demand. I don’t enjoy that kind of writing. I normally don’t worry if I go through a period where I am not writing. In fact, it seems to come in waves. Sometimes, I’ll have a half-dozen songs in various states of being, written in my notebook. At other times, I’m just living, which is a necessary step in the writing process. John Prine once said “pain writes”. For me “love writes” and so if I’m lucky enough to be living and feeling deeply, especially with love, then the faucet is more easily turned on.

GN: You have an interesting mix of instruments in a lot of your numbers: violin, mandolin, all sorts of percussion, acoustic/electric guitar and keyboards. Does this affect your songwriting? I mean do you think of the final sound in the initial stages of writing a song?

J: I think Brad thinks about it more than I do, since, for one, he is a multi-instrumentalist, but also because he is the primary producer. When we are working on a song in the studio, we both hear particular instruments or sounds that seem to want to be a part of the song. But because I primarily hear melodies, or feel my way around the piano, and think in terms of the meaning of the lyrics when writing, I don’t think that much about instrumentation, at least not initially.

GN: I see you write as a team on a number of your songs. How does that work? Or is this a Lennon-McCartney thing, (or is it McCartney-Lennon now)?

J: The more we write together, the more we seem to be writing together! What used to be clear cut — I’ll write the lyrics and melody, you write the chords, or something like that — is now more of a merge. There may come a point where we do the Juskus/Allen thing (or is that Allen/Juskus?). On our first project, mostly because I was so shy, working with such an accomplished musician as Brad, and because the writing process is so personal for me, I had to be alone to write. Brad and I live about 35 miles from one another, so there’s that long drive home — on the Washington Beltway, which can be quite a journey! I’ve written several songs, notebook in my lap, on that Beltway! Or he’d give me a CD of something he was working on and I’d play it in my car or at home, working separately, and then go back into the studio and share what I had come up with. It’s been interesting watching the evolution of our writing process. I think we are a lot more comfortable with each other now, and we really like what each other does, what we each offer the music.

GN: I was trying to classify your musical style and the best I could come up with was Alternative folk/jazz -Mediterranean- Middle Eastern- Flamenco – American Indian influenced music. There must be a better description than that. Do you have one? Where the heck will they put the CD at Tower Records?

J: We have CDs in Tower Records! In the Pop section! Right there with Britney Spears and Michael Jackson. Classifying music is getting more and more difficult, which is probably not a bad thing. There is a lot of fusion going on, and with it, the potential for more interesting music. Record company executives don’t always see it like that though! When describing our music, I often call it “Progressive Folk”, mostly because we end up playing a lot of “folk” venues, but we often hear the comment that our audiences are surprised by our jazzy sound. They don’t expect to hear the variety of influences that show up in our music. This probably comes from the fact that Brad is a jazz-based player, as is Willard Morris, our violinist, both well-schooled, as well, in progressive rock. I was influenced early on by folk and classical music, because that’s what was played in my home growing up. And all three of us have had interest in eastern philosophy, oriental cultures, and such. So our sound is a merge of all these factors.

GN: So how do you write music for so many different flavors and styles?

J: I have to say that, most of the time, that is the farthest thing from my mind. I usually make no attempt to have a certain sound on a particular song. I have one song that has not yet been released — one of the first ones we recorded together — that is about addiction, but the piano part sounds sort of Chinese! There is no connection, at least not consciously, at all. It just rolled out that way! On the other hand, Within Your Fire, was inspired by the Hindu god Krishna, and I wanted an Indian sound. Brad was able to bring that about — teaching himself tablas and fooling around with sitar sounds. The result was exactly what I envisioned — and more.

GN: Joanne, forgive me for the list, but here is some of the recognition you’ve received:

Never Be the Same finalist in Women of’s “Song of the Year” contest

Birthday Silver Prize Winner, Adult Contemporary Music, Mid-Atlantic Song Contest.

Washington Area Music Association, “Wammie” Award Nominee “Best Contemporary Folk Vocalist”, “Best Contemporary Folk Duo/Group” (Near Oblivion), and “Best Debut Album”.

..and to top it off, the Washington Post just picked Birthday as one of it’s top 10 MP3s of 2002.

So do you ever find yourself prone to fits of giggles, pinch me if I’m dreaming kind of stuff? How do you follow up on a list like that?

J: I’ve been very grateful for the attention we’ve gotten. I try to make sure it’s not really about that, though. We write because we love to write; we feel compelled to write. When people like it or are inspired by it, then that is an added bonus. It feels great to share what we do and have it well-received. The reality, though, is that you have to go after those accolades. Especially now, when there are SO MANY musicians vying for performance opportunities and record contracts and public attention. We do work hard in the PR department!

GN: Joanne, Who are your vocal influences?

J: At the top of my list of influences — both in songwriting and vocally — is Joni Mitchell. And one of my favorite vocalists is the British/Indian singer Sheila Chandra, who has an amazingly open and natural voice and who does quite a bit of experimentation, which I admire. I love the old folkies Judy Collins and Joan Baez, and used to copy their singing styles when I was barely old enough to talk! My biggest vocal influence right now is my vocal coach, the wonderful bluegrass singer Dede Wyland.

GN: You all have played some big venues, like Merriweather Post Pavilion here in the DC area. We often get questions about dealing with stage fright in our forums. For our readers just venturing out into the world of open mic, do you have any words of wisdom? Do you all still get stage fright? How do you deal with it?

J: Stage fright used to be a big problem for me, and it kept me from performing for years. There were a couple of things that helped. There is a book called The Confident Performer by David Roland. And the comedic-folk singer Christine Lavin has some great tips about performance in general on her site ( that helped me as well. The most useful thing for me is making sure I center myself before I perform, stretching and relaxing and breathing and remembering this isn’t about me! If I don’t take the time to get grounded, I can really feel the difference. The best remedy is doing lots of performing. Even if I go a few weeks without a performance, I can feel the difference; some of the momentum is lost. Eric Clapton is quoted as saying that “To play sober, to play straight, is like going to the dentist.” He said that you may be extremely nervous until the actual thing is taking place, and then you call on some reserve inside you which is just waiting. Once you get past the first couple of songs, you’ve broken the ice for yourself and everyone else. (He said this in 1994, even after years of performing!) It’s also true that a little nervous energy can be fuel for a good performance.

GN: So what’s next for you?

J: We are working on our second CD and I’m very excited about that. It is our intention to have the CD out before the end of 2003. We continue to perform, expanding now beyond the DC/Baltimore area, playing more in New York and other areas, and playing more festivals. In the future, we’d also like to add some visual components, multi-media kinds of things, to our shows. It would be nice to have our performances be more than just an auditory experience. We did a show called “Sound & Vision” at the Knitting Factory in New York recently that combined visual art, poetry and music. I’m also working with a new songwriting partner — a Swami in California! We are taking his poetry, and works from some ancient Indian devotional poets and putting them to music, as well as taking some of the many gorgeous Bengali and South Indian devotional tunes and creating new English translations for them. Brad, Willard and I recently did our first performance with the Swami at an Interfaith Center to much acclaim.

If you’d like to find out more about the Joanne Juskus Band, go to:

Don’t miss the Guitar Noise review of Joanne Juskus.