Adventurous singer-songwriter Joanna Wallfisch joins us at Highland Park’s beloved Civil Coffee to discuss her latest album Far Away From Any Place Called Home, her traveling experiences that inspired the album and her memoir, and the frustrating experiences that women sometimes face when trying to make a name for themselves.
So right now you’re riding the highs of your recently released album Far Away From Any Place Called Home. Wanted to say congratulations.
Joanna Wallfisch: Thank you!
So for those who have yet to discover its amazing-ness, care to give us a little insight on the lyrical themes and instrumental elements that you’ve included in the album?
Joanna: Sure! So the broad theme of the record is travel and adventure, but the album from start to finish was formed has a song cycle, which is basically a classical term for a piece of music with individual songs that all tie together to create one big story. Back in 2016 I did this tour of the West Coast from Portland to L.A. where I traveled by bike, and I called that tour ‘The Great Song Cycle.’ At the time, it was kind of a cathartic escape from New York/figure my life out kind of tour apart from being a concert tour, but it also inspired this whole new album and book. All the songs are true stories about people that I encountered and my own experiences with answering life’s call. I suppose it’s like when you’re just not sure which direction to go in, and then you go and try something you’ve never done before. The first song, “When We Travel,” is all about when we when we travel outside of our heads. You might have an idea, but if you start living that idea then potentially amazing things can happen.
It’s crazy how that works, right? *both laugh*
Joanna: Right! I mean, you just use your imagination and go. And sometimes, most of the time, it’s very scary. I mean, I can’t deny that the tour originally, and the one I’m about to do, which I’ll talk about, was very, very, very scary before I began it. And then once I was going just day to day, it was all fine. So yeah, that’s the overall story of that album! It’s about travel, and adventure, and love, a lot of love. There aren’t really any love stories in the album, but there’s underlying energies. In the instrumentation, I play a baritone ukulele, which is kind of like a small tenor guitar, obviously I sing, and I’m also playing instruments like a toy piano, kazoo and a melodica, so quite novelty instruments.
And which song would you say was your favorite to write and then record, if they’re separate the songs?
Joanna: Oh God, how do I choose? *laughs*
‘They’re all my children!’
Joanna: Yeah. And they all have such particular events behind them. I always remember where I was when I started writing the song, but this is also a question of where I was in life that then inspired the song. With “Road Trip,” I actually wrote that back in 2016 and it’s recorded on my last album as well, so I just re-did for this one. That song, I don’t think it’s my favorite of all time, but I’ll mention anyway because I wrote that song during the tour, and it’s the only song that I wrote during the tour. I was at Half Moon Bay with my ukulele, it was cloudy and freezing, and I was camping after I just had these weird experiences meeting crazy people, so I started writing that song then. But my favorite song to write was “Green Sleeping Bag.” I wrote that song in December, I tracked most of the album in September but then I went to do overdubs in January, and I knew that I had a missing part of the story. It was about this man called Scott Macbeth, and his voice is on that track. When you hear an old man’s voice, that’s him. He died about two years, he was eighty.
A long life!
Joanna: A very long life, an unbelievable life! I got to stay with him in Carmel by the Sea for two days, he was a friend of a friend and I was just given a phone number, but I show up at this guy’s house right on the sea, and he was such an eccentric. He’d tell me tales of living in the Himalayas and just all these amazing things he’s done. I was going to visit him on another day later on, but then he died. So when I was writing “Green Sleeping Bag,” it was a very quiet experience, and I got, not really spooked, but I felt like he was really there when I was writing it, and I haven’t had that type of experience with writing a song before. It’s like I was invoking him somehow and bringing him into the room as I was writing his lyrics and finding the music for it. So I would say that may be my favorite song experience, like writing experience, because it was really quite profound. I was trying to search for how to how to describe that event and my encounter with this amazing person while also honoring his life, and including the sadness of him having died and me not knowing I wouldn’t see him again. And then my favorite song to record, well, the recording process was kind of crazy because we had to do it all in one day, but “Ballet of Birds” or the title track itself, just because of what the band brought to them. Actually, let’s say “Far Away From Any Place Called Home” for this, because I remember when Jesse, my pianist, did his solo, and I was standing in the booth watching him through the window and I was like, ‘Ah! I love it!’
So if you could choose three artists to go on the world tour with, who would you choose and what would you name your tour?
Joanna: So for my dream tour I would love to have Ella Fitzgerald. If I could your with Ella Fitzgerald and the Duke Ellington Orchestra, I want to do like a double bill where we do some duets, a bit like she what she would do with Frank Sinatra or Louis Armstrong in all those beautiful concert halls wearing amazing gowns. My background is jazz, and Ella Fitzgerald was my first inspiration. Oh gosh, what would I call that tour? Well, one of my favorite songs that she does is called “This Could Be The Start Of Something Big,” so let’s do that for the name. Yes, the ‘This Could Be The Start Of Something Big’ Tour: Johanna Wallfisch and Ella Fitzgerald go on the road! *laughs* That’s one fantasy. Current artists, hmm, let’s think of someone very cool that would potentially be a good match. I think someone like a Sufjan Stevens or even The Punch Brothers or Andrew Bird, something in that kind of vein, and I’d call it ‘The Weird and Wonderful’ Tour. And then let’s say Joni Mitchell for one because it would kind of be amazing to go on tour with Joni Mitchell back in the day. The Wall Street Journal did a nice piece where they compared this record with Hejira, and that was very cool. So we call. We could call it the ‘Joanie and Jo Traveler’s Songs Tour.’
And speaking of touring, you were already mentioning your experience with creating the album by biking across the West Coast, which is awesome and terrifying at the same time! I don’t know if you rode on the freeways and stuff, but I was like, *gasp* ‘Oh my gosh!’
Joanna: I was lucky that I stayed on the Pacific Coast Highway the whole time. I mean, through Oregon, there were quite a lot of back roads where I was not on the coast the whole time, but once I hit the PCH, is was easy because I didn’t have to look at the map. The PCH does have some old highway to it, like, there were times where I could go on these old highways where basically no one drives. I mean, you can drive on it, but no one bothers because it’s so slow. It was okay though, because the shoulders were as wide as a road. I think there were only two times I felt sketched out. One was in Central California on the old highway, and the main highway a bit far away so I was totally isolated, like, seven miles totally by myself. I thought, ‘Well, if any crazies come down here, no one’s gonna hear me scream.’ I mean, I could only pedal ten miles an hour, and that’s not that fast if someone is running after you. And then Big Sur would be another one because there’s no shoulder and a lot of dumb tourists on the road.
That sounds about right. *both laugh*
Joanna: There was just one time that the car got too close, but otherwise it was always fun. The energy of the road has so much vibration, especially when I had a tailwind, and there was this interesting feeling of being incredibly powerful and zen all at once. Whenever I got on the on ramp, I was like, ‘Woah!’
And I’m sure with a lot of cars coming by you’ll get a little gust of wind too.
Joanna: Oh yeah! I did a lot of cycling in Europe as well, but it’s always when you hear a truck coming by that you know you’re gonna get blown around from it passing by. So you just have to bear down and you prepare yourself. But from a driver’s perspective, it looks way worse than it does from a biker’s perspective. When I’m driving, I’m like, ‘Holy shit! This is crazy!’ *both laugh* But once you’re on a bike, it’s not that crazy, it’s all relative.
Yeah. And I guess you have more leeway to veer out of the way of danger than a car does.
Joanna: I was definitely always prepared to throw myself into the bushes or just get the hell off the road. You mostly you just hope and pray that no one hits you. *laughs*
Well, you’re here with us today! You survived! It worked out! *laughs*
Joanna: Yeah! *laughs* So far, so good!
So what are some music related differences that you saw during the tour in the different places that you performed in?
Joanna: On the West Coast, it was an interesting tour because I’ve never done anything like it before. I pitched myself quite low, like, I only went for coffee shop gigs, or small venues, small music clubs, libraries, and bookshops. But I found that everywhere I went, there was always a really great response. I didn’t feel like there was a huge amount of difference, you know? It was still tip jar kind of deals.It was all still California apart from bits of Oregon. But I felt like the audiences and the venues were really cool. That’s an interesting question though, because I think I was so in awe by the experience as a whole, that there was very little judgment on the gigs themselves. Part of the reason I did it by bike was because I was at a stage in my life and gigging where I was just getting so frustrated with crappy gigs that I was like, basically if the gigs sucked, it didn’t really matter. So when I was out on the tour, I didn’t really notice when the gigs sucked because I was like, ‘Alright, great. I’m just going to get back on my bike, go jump in the ocean, and just really enjoy the experience of being here.’
So you’re also going to be releasing a memoir recounting the entire experience of the tour. Apart from obvious reasons of writing for a book versus writing music, what are some similarities and differences that you’ve seen between the two?
Joanna: Very, very different process. When I started writing the book, I was like, ‘I can’t do this.’ It’s such a long process. With a song, I mean, when I finally get inspired by the songwriting process, it can be very quick for me, like, maybe half a day or an hour. It’s really short in comparison because there are only a few words in a song, whereas the “Green Sleeping Bags” song for example, that’s two chapters of the book to really tell the full story.
Not just bullet points.
Joanna: Basically, yeah. And it’s like poetry – the metaphor, the imagery, the feeling, all of it. When I first started writing the book, it was like. ‘I went to the shops and got kimchi and microwave curry, and when I got back in the Subaru, I saw this guy who I’d seen back in Half Moon Bay.’ But I was asking myself, ‘How to say that really well and poetically?’ It took me about three attempts to really get going, and then I put it aside for six months. *laughs* But last summer, I had a month of basically no work, so I came to this cafe and just started from scratch. Once I got into the flow of it, I got totally addicted to the process, like, I would spend five hours a day and just write, write, write. Because it’s a much longer writing form when doing a book, being able to have the space to really get into an idea and really describe something and tell a story in full, it’s really fun. I hope I can have a chance to do it again. It’s funny, the editor of the book was like, ‘Oh wow! You’re definitely a poetic writer.’ and I was like, ‘Well, it’s because I’m a songwriter. Essentially I’m a poet.’ There’s quite a lot of floral language here and there.
I mean, songs are in a way, a form of poetry, just set to music.
So what are your thoughts in regards to the music industry’s obvious preference for single style and EP style releases as opposed to a full length album?
Joanna: I mean, it makes sense because of streaming and the way people digest music these days. They’re doing playlists of styles as opposed to sitting down and listening to one artist’s journey. I’m an old fogey, I don’t really do all that stuff. *laughs* Someone said to me last year, ‘You know Jo, you really should have been doing this in the 70s.’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, but I’m not. So here I am doing music.’ *laughs*
I’m sure we’ll get back to those old-school types of releases eventually.
Joanna: Yeah, probably. Maybe it’s because I come from a classical family, like, all of my family are classical musicians, and I grew up with long form music and valuing a long career and quality over quantity. It’s like when you make a roast instead of a microwave meal, it’s gonna take a while, but it’s going to taste so good. I’ve always loved listening to whole albums myself. I tried to release some singles for my 2018 record Blood & Bone, but to be honest, it was more trouble than it was worth in the end. There’s so much more publicity that you have to do, and if you’re going to hire a publicist, that’s plenty of money that you’re spending per song plus you also need to do videos for each song. Unless you can have all that ready to go for each single, it’s very hard and exhausting and time consuming. I mean, if you’re going to put the time in then put the time in, but it’s also a financial thing because you’re not making any money on Spotify at all unless you’re doing tens of millions of listens. You can have ten thousand plays and get five bucks. Not even like ten years ago when you had to buy a song for 99 cents, that was ten thousand dollars that could go to the artist. 99 cents was nothing to anyone who regularly consumes music, but now it’s become this whole ‘No, it must be free’ kind of world. So I don’t know, I feel like the music industry in general is frustrating. I’m sure I’m not the only one who struggles with the way it works and the speed of consumption and the expectation to be putting out something new all the time. It’s like, if you don’t have this whole backlog of new content ready to go, do you just fall by the wayside? A friend of mine did a Facebook post being like, ‘I really hate to do this, but because the music industry basically looks at your likes before they listen to your music, would you please like a Facebook page? It’s totally backwards, and I feel like consumers are potentially being cheated out of some really good stuff. There’s a lot of good stuff that isn’t being noticed because they don’t have their analytics up to par with other people who know how to play the game. It’s a whole spiderweb of issues.
Yeah, and speaking of analytics, social media plays into that a lot since it’s the primary form of marketing, whether we want to admit it or accept it. It’s heavily based on analytics, but the analytics and tactics themselves are always changing.
Joanna: I mean, what’s great about social media and having publicity tools at your fingertips is that you can save on publicists. You don’t have to hire anyone to do this work for you, but it means that you as the creator also have to set aside an enormous amount of brain space and time to do that work well. Like, I do it, but I’m pretty sure I don’t do it well. *both laugh* But the other thing is, I know that if I post a picture of me in a bikini, it’s going to get four times as many likes than when I post an image of my new record, and it’s like, ‘Are those likes useful or do they just plug into my dopamine fix?’ Am my getting gigs from those likes? No. But a record label could be like, ‘Oh, well she gets these likes when she’s in a bikini so let’s sign her and make sure she only wears bikinis.
I hope it never ends up coming to that.
Joanna: It probably already has in some places, but yeah, it’s surreal. It’s an interesting ball to dodge and figure out all the time.
And do you think it makes it easier or harder for artists to make names for themselves?
Joanna: I think both. I’ve looked at some of my peers who have been struggling, and then something happens, I don’t know what it is, but something clicked and suddenly they went from two thousand followers to eighteen thousand followers. I want to know the story behind that, because I know it’s not an overnight thing. I want to know who’s helping them. Who are they working with? What is their management like? All that stuff. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation because social media and music is so saturated, it means that it’s very hard to get through, so you really have to do amazing stuff to be heard. But it also gives everybody a voice, for better or worse, so I think it can be both good and bad.
And do you feel that social media also adds pressures to, like you are saying, to constantly have stuff going on? Or even feel like you need to portray yourself in certain ways to your audience?
Joanna: Yes, definitely. A few years ago when Instagram was just starting, and I had a mentor who was a manager for other artists. We would meet to discuss social media tactic, and she was like, ‘Well, you need to be personal. People want to know the real you. So like, while you’re sharing about your gigs, also share about what you have breakfast or something.’ And I’ve experimented with the full gamut of how personal to get, like, I never share family or relationship stuff because I feel like that’s too personal for my liking. But for example, I had all this great press for the album, and then I was on vacation in one of those places in the world for a week. I also love the beauty in nature, so I feel like me posting a picture of a lake that I’ve been swimming in is totally personal and reveals more about my personality as a whole and as an artist as it’s the things that inspire my art. Sometimes I look at my feed and it looks so schizophrenic, like, ‘Oh, I was on a mountain and now I’m here and now I’m there.’ How do people see that as one in the same person? I look at other people’s feeds where it’s so curated and so good looking and I’m like, ‘How did you do that?’
Too much time and effort. And a personal photographer. *both laugh*
Joanna: Right! But then with the selfie thing and always having portraits, that also gets tiring. I have some friends and it’s all just their face, and I’m like, ‘You look gorgeous, but you’re not really saying anything. I’m confused about what you’re trying to say. What’s behind the face? What are you looking at? I want to see what’s on the other side of the camera.’ It’s a mystery. Honestly, I feel like everyone has an opinion on how to make it work best, and then also, there are people who just aspire to become professional Instagram and YouTube and Facebook people. It’s a real thing, and that’s great and all, but if I was told I never have to post anything again for the rest of my life, I’d be so happy. *both laugh*
So as a woman pursuing a career in music, do you feel that women need to portray themselves in certain ways in order to be successful?
Joanna: I feel like in order to be successful, you have to be ‘good,’ and if you’re not good at whatever you’re trying to do or if you forget the importance of the craft over image, I mean, you might get somewhere, but where are the foundations and how long is it going to last? Like I said before, if I’m in a bikini, I get more notice than if I’m not in a bikini, but I don’t want to portray myself like that. I like appearing sexy, but that’s not my purpose and that’s not what I’m going for in my image. What I do think is very cool these days is that there’s a huge feminist movement going on. It’s very powerful and very cool, and I feel like now, in a way, women can now portray themselves as really strong or physically fit or intelligent. I do think that it’s still very hard to be a woman in the entertainment industry in general. When I first moved to New York back in 2012 or 2013, I was constantly navigating through double entendres and meanings of things. I was in the jazz scene, which is primarily a man’s world, and essentially the people in the room were gonna be, like, five women to fifty men. I was constantly going through scenarios like, ‘Hey, let’s get together and play music!’ and me being like, ‘Yes! Let’s do it!’ but what they really mean is, ‘I want to sleep with you.’ That’s just annoying, because that’s not what I mean when I say that I want to get together to do music with someone, you know? I have to use so much energy to figure out what these men are actually trying to say to me. It’s one of the things that I really learned about being a woman, which I never experienced before I moved to, The States, and I don’t know if it’s The States or I noticed it more because I was finally coming into my own for my career aspirations and being independent, but one thing I learned was that I did have to be very careful of how I portrayed myself. I’m naturally a very open, effervescent, confident person, but I learned that apparently that means I’m ‘asking for it’ and it’s like, ‘No, I’m really not. Just because I’m comfortable speaking with men doesn’t mean I want to sleep with you.
I hate that expression so much. It’s almost like the slogan for rape culture, and it’s disturbing when it gets thrown about all casually.
Joanna: Oh, absolutely!
It’s like, just because I’m a female doesn’t mean that I’m asking for whatever you want to do to me. We shouldn’t be afraid to be ourselves and always be thinking two steps ahead.
Joanna: Right. And as far as wanting to be a powerful presence in whatever career aspirations you have, the amount of energy I feel like women have to spend on navigating that bullshit takes away from the amount of energy that you could be pouring into the work itself. I think it’s different with every industry as well. As a musician, or in the arts world, I feel very free and I can wear what I want. But yeah, it’s a fine line and it’s a tricky question to answer.
So how do you balance your personal life with your professional life?
Joanna: Luckily it’s not that hard for me. I did this bike trip in 2016 because I wanted to reconnect my personal life with my music life and not have them separate, as well as having my personal life not just being relationships with friends and family, but also with myself as an adventurer, as an artist, as someone who wants to be successful, but also just wants to feel good, be healthy, have fun, and enjoying this existence. I’m figuring out ways to really combine them and having it be totally justifiable. People can easily be like, ‘Oh, you’re just running away from your problems or just wanting a holiday,’ but I’m also doing concerts and book signings and actually being productive, like this is actually my job. I think if you’re going to have a relationship it’s really important to have a partner that understands the world of it. You both have to be able to enjoy having space and distance, and it all comes down to trust. Trust your partners, trust yourself, hopefully your family trusts that you know what you’re doing. *both laugh* So yeah, I feel like I balance pretty well. Of course, I’d like to be doing way more music than I am sometimes, but having to keep a roof over your head is important to do.
Darn roofs getting in the way of what we really want to do in life! *both laugh* And if you could give your younger self some advice in regards to what you’ve experienced so far with music, or with life in general, what advice would you give her?
Joanna: How young are we talking? *laughs*
We can go as young as you would like! *laughs*
Joanna: Actually, I’ll tell you something very sweet. My niece, she’s five now, but when she was about two or three and just starting to find her words and language, we were playing and she suddenly goes, ‘*gasp* Jo, I can do anything!’ and I was like, ‘Wow. Please always keep that as the one thing to remember always.’ If one of your first sentences is ‘I can do anything,’ that’s just so profound. I feel like that’s where I’m at now, like, really trying to keep that ‘I can do anything’ thought in my mind and continuing to do anything and everything. But I’m also very impatient, and always have been very impatient, and I think what I’m realizing is just how long it takes. Even though the last five years have just flown by, I don’t feel any older, but I feel much better in both my musical stuff and in myself. I think the main advice is, ‘You can do anything even if it might take a lot longer than you think. And be comfortable with saying ‘no’ but never stop saying ‘yes.’
What do you hope that your audience will take away from your music?
Joanna: I hope people feel inspired by my music. There’s very there’s a full range of style and story, but ultimately, I hope that it serves as an inspiration for those who feel stuck or just need to be able to go beyond their fears. Mostly I just want to inspire a sense of positivity and adventure, and to also take away the fact that music can’t really be boxed in specific ways.
Yeah! And to end us off, apart from continuing to promote the release of your album and also your memoir, what exciting things should we be expecting from you?
Joanna: In September I’ll be in Australia for almost two months doing a tour. The publishers of the memoir is University of Western Australia Press, so it’s being published there initially and then distributed worldwide. I’ll be doing another ‘Great Song Cycle’ while I’m there, and I’ll be biking from Brisbane to Hobart, which is about fifteen hundred miles. And yeah, between now and Christmas, a lot of shows, a lot of touring and hopefully next year, another book and another record! I’m in no rush on, you just gotta stay alive long enough to make it. *laughs*
About Civil Coffee:
Every day is a good day to be civil, and Highland Park’s appropriately named Civil Coffee does its best to embody that mantra by providing locals and visitors alike a warm and welcoming spot to enjoy a great cup of joe. In fact, brothers Alan and Alex Morales created Civil Coffee in 2011 to run as a locally based espresso pop up catering service, with their experience with serving many caffeine lovers and an array of events giving them the chance to finally open its glistening wood-paned door in 2015.
While Figueroa Street is known for its booming local business appeal, Civil Coffee has successfully kept customers happy for years. Whether you’re looking for a quick pop-in or to sit or looking to enjoy some of their signature food and drink fare cozied at one of their available indoor benches or outdoor patio bistro tables, it won’t be hard to find something to enjoy about the shop. I will have to say, sitting out on the patio with my cookie-tastic Figueroa specialty espresso drink being serenaded by the smooth sounds of crooners playing through the speakers overhead was a nice bonus to the overall experience I had.