Jo Quail: Lee Beamish Interview’s The Phenomenal Cellist At Portals Festival

After catching an appearance at Portals 2021, and then supporting A.A. Williams in London in March, the opportunity to see the phenomenal Jo Quail again at Portals 2022 was something that I was in no doubt about seeing happen. Add to that a very special opportunity to sit with Jo, and ask some questions, it’s been an absolutely incredible few months indeed.

Questions were asked, answers were given, and a lot of chit-chatting was had.

So here, in its refined glory, is the outcome of that meeting, ladies and gentlemen, it is my absolute honour to welcome you ever so briefly, into the world of Jo Quail, cello artiste extraordinaire…

Jo Quail - Photo by Simon Kallas
Jo Quail – Photo by Simon Kallas

Returning to Portals, how has it been, and what draws you back?

Well, I’m back here because Tom (T.E. Morris) and I have just played For The Benefit Of All. Originally, they invited Her Name Is Calla to perform, which is Tom’s band, but they’re doing a one-off set at Arctangent Festival, so Tom said ‘How about Jo and I do For The Benefit Of All?’ and that’s why we are here today.

I was here last September, and I love this festival. I love the guys that run it, the atmosphere, and the people who come here are very open minded. There’s quite a broad range of music, so it’s the ideal place for us to play this record. There are a lot of unknowns, for us as well as the audience. When you’re working with so much electronics and looping and stuff, you don’t know quite what’s going to happen, so Portals was the place for this, and I’m absolutely delighted to be back again”.

The Cartographer was really well received, my ensemble are such phenomenal players, and there was such an energy on that stage…

How was Roadburn? How did you become involved, and were you at all expecting the response?

Roadburn was epic.

It came right at the end of the Amenra tour, so I had been focusing on the concert, but also on the tour with Amenra too. We got to Tilburg to work with the ensemble. There have been a few hurdles we had had to overcome, not counting the pandemic, we had good rehearsals, sound check, line check, and everything else, and somehow it still didn’t feel real. Even when we’d finished the piece, it still didn’t feel real, and I only know it was real because I can see the photographs.

The Cartographer was really well received, my ensemble are such phenomenal players, and there was such an energy on that stage, that when it got to the finale, we were all in this euphoric moment, and the audience loved it. Roadburn were very happy with it, because they had set out to explore where classical music and heavy music meet, and I think we did the job.”

Well, I became involved in 2018, when I was playing at Roadburn for Myrkur, and I also played with Mono with my quartet, and also with At The Gates, so that was my first introduction to Roadburn. I had previously met Walter Hoeijmakers (Roadburn artistic director) in London at a congress, and at some point, the commission was talked about, and he said ‘what we want you to do is whatever you want’, and that was that. For one reason or another, they thought I would be the composer that could do this for the next festival.

Regarding the response, no, because I had no idea, I had written the piece, and we had recorded it, but essentially it had sat there for two years, and it couldn’t be released, or played to anyone, outside of a few people, who had heard bits.

I had no idea, but I was ready for anything. I was ready for people to say it was some interesting sounds and a bit ‘out there’, but we’ve had this wave of publishers saying it’s wonderful, and it’s contemporary classical. It’s great, it’s done its job, and I feel humbled, very very humbled by that, and very inspired.

Jo Quail 'The Cartographer'
Jo Quail ‘The Cartographer’ Artwork

In comparison to previous releases, has The Cartographer been received differently?

It’s had more press, but this is the first release that I’ve done through a record label (By Norse), whereas in the past I’ve always done it by myself. Having By Norse involved is wonderful, they are very supportive of people who aren’t that easy to classify, and they have a very rich heritage with Nordic bands. It has been different, just because everything seems on a much larger scale now.

How has being seen as a new force in the ‘metal’ scene left you feeling?

It’s very bizarre. It seems to me that metal fans are really broad minded about it. Some are very specific, but they are very few and far between. I had played at a festival, and after, a man contacted me and said that in his music usually, he only looks for brutality, but I watched you, and I was crying.

This is what I find, people will say ‘I usually like blah, but you reached me’. To me, these people are extremely broad minded. To be part of the metal community is a privilege, it’s not anything I ever thought I would be part of because my musical roots, when I was growing up, studying, and DJ’ing was more rock. I’m old school, it’s Judas Priest, and that’s what I love, so I’m not very good with the more modern metal, it was British heavy metal or hair metal, and I liked both of them. For me, it’s always been part of my musical vortex around me, as well as my love of classical, so it’s really nice that people seem to be into it, and everyone is so supportive as well.

To be part of the metal community is a privilege, it’s not anything I ever thought I would be part of…

So, stepping back, and musical upbringing, what drove you to take on the cello? And how has it transitioned into where you are now?

So, the short answer is that when I was at primary school there was free musical education in the schools, and that’s where I picked up the cello, and it went from there.

I then joined the Centre For Young Musicians, and this followed right into studying A-levels, and then my degree in music. After that I stopped playing for a while because I loved the rock, I didn’t feel the greatest passion for playing in orchestras and didn’t want to do that for a living, even though I love all types of music.

Then I transitioned into a different style and played at Whitby Goth Festival, and that was when I started to play again. That was my first experience of doing with a band on a stage, and that was years ago. That started the walk, and as you are walking the path unfolds from there.

Jo Quail - Photo by Simon Kallas
Jo Quail – Photo by Simon Kallas

Where do you get your inspiration from?

All over the place. I listen to spoken word poetry, art, and sculpture. Sometimes I will be playing, and say I like that, but more often I’m thinking in spatial terms, so for example, I would take a Hepworth sculpture or a structure with a hole in the middle, and how can I talk about this in musical terms. I get the tiny seed of an idea and go from there. I have this idea, and how do I make this into a piece.

Bands who you have played with, and supported, were they acts that you already knew, and how did these opportunities arise?

Well, it’s a bit of both really. So, my first big tour was with Caspian, and I knew exactly who they were, and they happened to be on the same bill as me at Dunk! Festival. They came up after my concert, and said it had been a great set, and suggested I should tour with their band. Then I started with a booking agent, and he sent a lot of opportunities my way, that I never would have gotten on my own. So, Myrkur, Amenra, and Mono, and what’s interesting is that in all these situations we’ve formed very close friendships as well, so I think it’s more than just a touring partnership. Most of the people I work with, I know who they are. Like My Dying Bride, you know who they are, so when they ask you to go for a recording, it’s a great privilege.

I would take a Hepworth sculpture or a structure with a hole in the middle, and how can I talk about this in musical terms…

To most uninitiated, cello in heavy music doesn’t extend beyond Apocalyptica. How do you feel about this, and are they on your radar?

Well, I used to know their manager when they had done their first album, and I gave him a copy of my album at the time. A few weeks later he wrote to me and said they had been listening to it on the tour bus. Now I’m very familiar with seeing cellos and similar on stage, so it’s no longer a novelty. It’s very important because now we can be judged on the merits of what we are playing. I’ve noticed there’s now a lot more brass being featured, so next, there may be more presence of things like rhythmic vocal performances. More and more times now, it’s not about noise necessarily, it’s about those enhancements, and it’s not about pushing everything up to eleven. Luckily cello and violin are widely accepted now.

Jo Quail - Photo by Simon Kallas
Jo Quail – Photo by Simon Kallas

So, you have an ongoing working relationship with David Rooney, who’s incredible art features on The Cartographer, and you also work with him on the musical project Echotal. How did this all come about?

So, God Is An Astronaut invited me to collaborate for a track on their Ghost Tapes #10 album last year, and they sent me a copy of it, and it had this amazing artwork, by David Rooney, I messaged them, and said this artwork is amazing, they said they would put me in touch with David, which they did, then it was mentioned that he has this project called Echotal, and could I put some cello on one of the tracks. He sent the track over and had mentioned elements of The Revenant soundtrack that he liked, I knew what he meant, and so I had to find what it was in that that he had liked, and I made a good guess. I did the track, and he was very very happy, and this has all been in the last couple of years.

I then wrote to him about The Cartographer, I’ve got this crazy project, would I be able to commission you to make the artwork? Through the course of the conversation, he was sketching ideas, and by the end, he had drawn a sketch of what would become the album cover. He’s a very talented man. Then I did another track with him which has just been released and it’s beautiful.

after listening to Dowsing Voice the penny dropped, and I understood what she [Emma Ruth Rundle] had loved about The Cartographer…

Looking forward, and being asked to support Emma Ruth Rundle on her upcoming EU/UK tour, are there any plans to work together musically?

After The Cartographer performance at Roadburn she came up to me and was very complimentary about it, and then after listening to Dowsing Voice the penny dropped, and I understood what she had loved about The Cartographer. So now, if we were to collaborate, I think I know where we would go.

So, there you go, I hope this made for an interesting read, it was definitely a real eye opener on one of the most underrated, and genuinely lovely people I’ve ever met. To hear Jo speak with such passion and knowledge about not only her art but her whole outlook and experiences truly has been a wonder.

In closing, I would just like to say a massive thank you to Jo for her time, it really was a pleasure, and for anyone out there who hasn’t already, get your hands on a copy of The Cartographer, it’s a thing of beauty. If you can, go and see Jo perform, either in her own right or with other artists, because it will take your breath away.

Band Links: Official | Facebook | Bandcamp | Twitter | Instagram

Interviewed by: Lee Beamish