Jo Wilson is a solo musician based in Inverness whose album, The Grand Complication, was released at the start of December. He’s been in a band since his days at Aberdeen University in the early-noughties and, as DLDown, released his first album, Puzzle, in 2006. Jo’s now releasing music as a solo artist and his album The Grand Complication is now out in the world after a multi-year gestation period during which Jo spent time living in Pakistan and welcomed four children into the world. On listening to the album, we were drawn in by the tracks’ compelling lyrics and fantastically varied instrumentation, and felt that it was high time to hunt him down in person. Here, he tells us a bit more about himself as a musician and shares some insights into his new album.
Musos’ Guide: Welcome to Musos'! Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about yourself and your music?
JW: Hi, I'm Jo, hailing from Inverness. I sing and play things with strings, keys, or circuitboards, and occasionally cutlery or items from my toolbox. As for genre: now there's a hard one! Singer-songwriter/rock-jazz-prog-folk. I tend to write when I get particularly interested or upset about something - the subject of the song usually matters in some way, even if only to me. I love interesting harmonies, complex timings, and not going for the obvious chord. I especially love it when I manage to get the song to sound like what it's saying - onomatopoeic, I suppose. Never thought I'd use that word beyond Higher English!
MG: How long has music been part of your life?
JW: As long as I can remember - both my parents play/sing, and things like the Singing Kettle were on constant repeat. I went through various instruments through school (violin being the most horrific for all concerned!), but it was the keyboard that first really got me playing for enjoyment's sake - partly, I think, because my teacher encouraged us to go and buy music books of our favourite bands (at the time The Lightning Seeds and Blur) and learn to play those. Part of it was also learning that I connect with music by ear far more readily than through sheet music, so the classical route favoured at school wasn't really for me.
MG: You haven’t always been a solo musician, have you? What other bands have you been involved with?
JW: DLDown started when I started jamming with saxophonist Tim Buick in about 2004. We started with a few cover songs, and some little jams which gradually turned into Puzzle and The Turning Song. We went out to open mics and got ourselves a few wee gigs around Aberdeen, doing fun stuff with a loop pedal, and gradually adding in more of our own songs (‘Lazarus’, ‘Icarus’, ‘Romans 7’) into the repertoire.
In 2006, uni finished and everyone started to disperse. We felt the songs were too good to waste so I took a bit of time out (i.e. procrastinating from starting a career!) to make Puzzle. We did a lot with the little we had - guitar/keys/sax/loop pedal/Garageband, and a single microphone. You can make a lot of interesting combinations of sounds with an acoustic guitar especially! After moving back to Edinburgh, I kept the DLDown moniker going as a solo-plus-hangers-on project, and put together Also, He Made the Stars... in another gap in employment.
MG: Congratulations on the release of your album, The Grand Complication, which came out at the start of December. How would you describe the record and how did it develop?
JW: The title The Grand Complication is taken from the song ‘The Watchmaker's Waltz’, which was inspired by an obituary of a renowned watchmaker (or horologist) called George Daniels; a ‘Grand Complication’ is a name sometimes given to timepieces which have all sorts of ridiculously complicated and unnecessary features, achieved solely through mechanical means, and created mainly for the joy of the craft. So it kind of fits the feel of the album - complex, with connecting pieces, and lots of those little moments (even if I’m the only one who ever notices them!) where the coming together of particular notes or words or instrumentation or all three resulted in a certain euphoria when they happened. And an element of “it’s like that just for the sake of it”!
The final song, ‘I’ve Seen Enough’, touches on how we come by our particular world views and beliefs. As I was writing the mid-section of that song, I realised that aspects of all the other songs connected with what I was writing, so I started adding in lines, snippets of melody and instrumentation from the other songs into the background (except in a different key, and in 5/4, because, well, remember the title?), resulting in the fugue-y sort of thing before the final chorus. So while I didn’t set out for it to be this way, it’s ended up as a concept album of sorts, with all the songs getting woven together at the end.
MG: I really loved the detail in the tracks on the album and the interplay of your lyrics and instruments. What’s your creative process, in terms of putting your songs together? Do you have a set ‘way’ of doing things, such as starting with musical ideas and then crafting the lyrics, or do you just see where inspiration takes you?
JW: It depends. I add to a notebook of scribbles when I feel inspired on a particular subject, and record snippets of sung melodies or little chord sequences for use in the future. (A whole lot of these got used when making ‘Alea Jacta Est?’, a 1 minute instrumental which has multiple versions, selected by dice roll for each copy of the CD.) Then, sometimes months later, I’ll get round to the actual songcraft bit of turning it into something coherent, which is where the hard work is. A thesaurus and rhyming dictionary can really help at this point. Occasionally sections of words/melody arrive fairly fully formed in my head, and sometimes just a change of instrument (or even, in the case of ‘Drones’, a single string tuned differently) can be enough to inspire a song to go in a certain direction.
MG: What was the recording process like for the record, in terms of building up the tracks and getting a final version recorded?
JW: By necessity, I recorded the album in my little home studio in dribs and drabs. For some songs, like ‘Outrun’ or ‘Still Life’, the song itself was pretty much complete before I started recording, so I had a good idea of the 'layout' before I got started; then it's a case of laying down a whole take with the main instrument before adding other stuff over the top and retaking bits where necessary. Others, like the extended outro of ‘Drones’, ‘The Music In My Head’, or some of the variants of ‘Alea Jacta Est?’ were written as I was recording them, so I really had no idea how they would end up. I'd get to the end of a section and think "it'd be cool if it built up on the piano like this now", or "now it needs the synth to take over the melody here", and just try it out. It doesn't work for everything, but I really loved writing in this way - almost a live jam in the studio with yourself - and I love how these pieces turned out. That's the beauty of the “little and often/home studio” method - not better or worse than traditional studio recording with a band (which I'd also love to try, by the way), but very different, and with interesting results which wouldn't have happened any other way.
MG: The record has a really rich, diverse, and distinctive sound, and I found the lyrics and instrumentation really striking. It’s real treat for the ears! Your vocals are also great: they have a really troubadour-ish vibe and there’s plenty of drama and colour to them. Who are your musical and creative influences?
JW: You’re too kind! One of my favourites in terms of instrumentation is ‘The Watchmaker's Waltz’, which I had initially planned to keep stripped back acoustic, as it tends to be when I play it live. But I got bored of it, frankly, and thought a bit harder about matching the instrumentation to the song, switching sounds for each section before bringing them all together in the final chorus, and getting my friend Lee-Anne to add vocals to highlight the male/female dynamic in the story. I'm very pleased with how it turned it in the end.
In terms of influences (amongst many others): Ben Folds for the piano, Dave Matthews for the guitar, some oddities from my Dad’s 70s music collection (10cc, Yes, Steely Dan ...) for my love of unusual harmonies and timings. I’ve often been told I sound like Nick Drake, though I’ve never actually got round to listening to him - I try to sing very much in my own voice.
MG: Having recently become a dad again, I assume that a stream of live dates aren’t on the horizon just yet! How do you feel about playing live and do you have any plans to get out on the live scene in the future?
JW: I very much enjoy playing live, but have nothing planned for the immediate future (having 4 children under 5 is pretty intense!). I’ve done sporadic solo gigs over the last few years, but would love to get into doing house concert-type events more and I’d also love to get a full band together to bring my multi-tracked arrangements to life. I don’t really mind too much about what instrument line-up that would be, but like many of my favourite bands, I’d love the music to have a mixture of tight composed sections and looser parts with room for improvisation.
Jo’s album, The Grand Complication, is out now. You can give it a spin on Bandcamp, where you can also download it or order a physical copy. To find out more about Jo and his music, check out his website, and keep up to date with what he’s up to via Facebook.