In this interview by Teen Talking Circles, Joanna touches upon many topics we have expressed interest in Blessing All the Birds over the years: the female voice, her songcraft, and her insistence that her songs are fictions (although with autobiographical foundations). This is already one of my favorite interviews from her, even though it is pretty brief.
On the female voice:
I feel like I had a lot of luck and blessing to come of age creatively in an environment that really welcomed my voice — a family and music teacher that welcomed it. I had a music teacher that encouraged improvisation and composition from the very first lesson, from when I was a little child. She always valued the writing voice of her students.
I did have a very similar experience, not only in terms of hearing someone’s singing voice, but in hearing someone’s writing voice. It was very rare, I felt, for girls to be heard. Growing up in my small town, I knew a lot of young women who were musicians, but almost all of them were classical or folk musicians and none of them wrote. It was one of those towns where all the people who were a few years older than me were in a band; amazing local bands that we were fans of. There was a certain point that I realized they were all guys, all of them, including my big brother, whom I idolized. He was in all of these rock bands and I was kind of the weirdo harpist, you know, writing music.
For years between about age ten and age nineteen, I didn’t sing at all. I wrote music. I decided in my teens I wanted to pursue composition as a career, but I stopped singing, because I didn’t think I had a pretty voice. Prettiness or a lack of prettiness is often something that’s discussed vis a vis the female voice much more than with the male voice. Even in popular music my examples and the idiosyncratic voices that I admired were men, like Bob Dylan. And then when I was in college I started taking classes that were surveys of American music and starting hearing women’s voices that were very different than those in pop music.
On her songcraft:
I work in phases. When I’m sketching out a song, I don’t let myself be too critical of it. I actually love editing my work. I love interacting with the text, transforming it by rearranging it, the syntax, nuance, and all that. There’s a way to approach it where it’s not scary and judgmental towards yourself. There are different phases where different kinds of editing come in, and the phase where I’m allowed to wonder if a song or a record is going to be terrible is when it’s finished. And then sometimes I will throw out a song, or be like “No, this one doesn’t represent what I want this record to sound like.” I make little deals with myself: hold it at bay until the work is done, and then you can tear it apart as much as you want to.
On her songs as fictions:
This is a very controversial position of mine, but I personally believe that every fiction that we gravitate towards, reading or writing, is some reflection or projection of our own lives and is our way of working through it. One of the reasons that, say, a novel is successful–in terms of the story that’s being told–is often because it resonates with something that has happened to many of us, an emotional truth.
Hope you enjoy it!