Jo Hamilton

Scottish raised ‘observer’ Jo Hamilton has been covered by Prince, performed at TEDGlobal and is now using brass to inform her future musical direction…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 7 Oct 2014
  • min read
Raised in Scotland via a nomadic family with roots in both Kenya and Jamaica, Jo Hamilton’s musical journey is as diverse as her upbringing. It’s taken the vocalist, composer and multi-instrumentalist from the folk music realms to TED talks and beyond.

Following the release of her award-winning debut album Gown in 2009, Jo has performed live in Europe, Asia and North America and become the first ever musician to experiment with the Airpiano.

Jo’s forthcoming album – Fractal Sparks – continues her passion for experimenting, this time using a brass band. Jo debuted the new material at a gig earlier this year at the Durham Brass Festival with brass musicians from the Corps of Army Music. We caught up with her before the show at the city’s cathedral to find out more about this latest work…

How did the Durham Brass Festival collaboration come about?

The festival producer was at a show I was playing. They were looking for someone to perform as a centrepiece for the Brass festival and she thought of me at the gig.

The show in Durham itself went really well. Durham Cathedral is the biggest place I’ve played in and the most difficult to contend with in terms of reverb. But we worked really hard to get the sound right and the whole thing went amazingly. The visuals and the lighting worked great together and the band looked great. We had them behind a see through white screen – so we had these huge, full height visuals, enhanced with lighting across the full length of the cathedral. Initially the band were right behind the backdrop so you couldn’t see them. Then when they played they’d be lit up - you’d be like – whoa brass.

It must have sounded huge in that space?

The whole thing was epic. My music is very much about nature and all the visuals were based on that. The cathedral was built originally to embrace and celebrate nature. The brass enhanced that brilliantly. It’s such a dynamic instrument. With my music, I love to go from a tiny whisper to filling the space with sound so to have them enhancing moments of it was such a treat. They can do beautiful, desperately sad whispers to tremendously joyous sounds. It was awesome in the truest sense of the word.

How did the process of composition work?

Well the Brass festival were initially worried as they’d had people previously playing who said they’d write parts, but when they came to it, they’d written them in the wrong key. They did offer us an arranger but I’m so used to writing parts myself. I ended up working very closely with the producer of my records and he’s a beautiful string arranger. So we arranged it all ourselves, the brass had a quick look over it before performing and gave us a few nudges here and there.

Where there any challenges unique to writing for that form of instrumentation?

It was pretty much like writing for anything else. Just the fear of having it in the wrong key. The brass offered us a great vast range to play with.

What does the future have in store for you with the project?

Yes we’re hoping to do another show in Lincoln but not with the brass. We’re thinking of doing it with a choir. It was only at Durham that the brass were there. And now even the band I play with are all saying ‘I’m really going to miss the brass’. They’ve become so integral to some of the songs. They’ve really enhanced some of our dynamics.

Why do you think the cultural legacy of brass is worth preserving?

Playing any instrument is worth preserving. It brings so much joy to anyone who hears it and those who play it. I know lots of people who play for fun – they’re so happy to play in colliery bands.

The thing we found interesting was that we played with musicians from the band of Royal Corps. They said that they play consistently traditional music so for them to step outside of the box and play something else was quite strange. The leader came up to me before the gig said they loved playing something so unique. I was quite touched that they said that. For us to play with people who have their feet so firmly rooted in the ground of a tradition, to hear them playing that with us is really quite interesting. It did flow very well. It’s just musicians playing with musicians at the end of the day but I think we all benefitted from it.

Jo Hamilton will be performing Fractal Sparks at Lincoln Performing Arts Centre as part of Sonophilia, Lincoln’s Festival of Sound.

Visit the event’s website to find out more and how to get tickets.

Check out our full length Bold as brass feature on the health of brass banding in the UK.