Her eyes closed, Joanna Wallfischpictures herself at the Royal Albert Hall. “I’d love to be performing my songs with an orchestra, in big concert halls, to eclectic audiences, to be able to create a cinematic soundworld around my songs and still maintain the sense of intimacy, with the song being the driving force”. It’s a nice dream to have, we both agree. We’re halfway through our conversation, one where the word “intimacy” appears rather often. It’s only natural, given the nature of her songs, stories of love and life, that she tells with this hypnotic, ethereal voice of hers, supported by the minimum of instruments.
Half English – half Australian, born in London and based in New York, she is currently touring around Australia, performing with a series of different jazz musicians on her side, but also on her own. She very often performs solo, just her and her ukulele – and a loop pedal that enables her to create layers of her own voice to build her performance upon. Her latest album, ‘The origin of adjustable things’, is a duet with the brilliant pianist Dan Tepfer, who is known for his ingenious blend of the classical and jazz traditions (and who is often playing with the legendary Lee Konitz). Joanna Wallfisch also brings many different influences in her music, infusing her songs with jazz, classical and folk elements, while she tries to create her own niche within the singer-songwriter genre.
“I’m not really a jazz artist”, she admits. “I grew up listening to Ella Fitzgerald, I started in jazz, I still play in jazz clubs and I feel very close to it. But I don’t really improvise anymore. Jazz is a very hard genre and once you’re labeled as a jazz singer, you become ‘a thing’. I don’t think I’m ‘a thing’, I think I’m many things”. And at this point, it is when the another word that dominates our conversation comes up: obsession. “I think I’m obsessed with music”, she says. “Every single day, everything I’m doing is focused on trying somehow to build a life as a professional musician. The more I do this the more I know I want to do this”.
It hasn’t always been this way. “I avoided it for a long time. I hated music lessons, I never practiced and as soon as I started something, I always gave up. My two older brothers (Benjamin, who is a conductor and a composer and Simon, who is a baritone and a cellist) were always sure. But I wanted to do different things. I was painting, I was dancing, traveling a lot. It wasn’t until I was 23 that it was time for me to do music”.
In a way, it was inevitable, as Joanna Wallfisch comes from a long line of musicians, spanning four generations. “I was born into music”, she explains. Her great-grandfather was a conductor, her grandfather, Peter, a pianist, her father, Raphael, a cellist, her mother, Elizabeth, a baroque violinist. But the towering figure is her grandmother, Anita Lasker – Wallfisch, who was one of the members of the women’s orchestra in Auschwitz. “Music is the reason she survived; because she could play the cello, she wasn’t killed. But emotionally, as well, she survived through music. You can be literally in hell and have an orchestra in your mind that can take you wherever you’d like. I’ve been thinking a lot about her and her life. I’m fascinated by how she managed to have a whole life after that. Despite going through hell from 11 to 18 years old, she went to England, met her husband, had children, traveled the world, had an amazing life”. And created a family of musicians: “I can’t tell how many cellos there are in my family”, she laughs.
And yet, she chose the ukulele. “It’s small, cheap and if I fail, there’s no big loss”, she laughs. She’s making the most of it, actually, having managed to create a bigger sound than anyone would have thought, given the means she uses. In a way, she’s a highly sophisticated version of a one-woman band. It didn’t happen by accident. “I think it’s a few things coming together”, she says. “I’m not sure which came first. I started playing solo because literally I couldn’t afford a band. When I first went to New York, I was trying to work with all the great musicians out there; I started spending $200 a week to a gig and I realized that this is ridiculous – I want to play but I also need to eat. So I got a ukulele and a loop pedal and I realized I could do something from that. You have to be really practical when you’re forging a career as a musician out of nothing, if you’re really doing everything yourself”.
Not that she complains. “I love doing solo”, she’s quick to clarify. “I’m totally autonomous, I’m in control and I can manipulate the situation completely. But I’m very limited by my instrument; if I play solo, I stretch my limitations, I explore my resources; when I’m playing with Dan (Tepfer), even if I don’t do well, I have an amazing pianist to fall back on”. The two of them have matched perfectly, as anyone who listens to their album can see. And yet, a duet was not her original plan. “At that time I was trying to work with a band – I had this idea that I wanted to have an accordion player, a string player, a full rhythm section, piano, electric guitar, me, few other voices, all these different textures and I was pretty carried away; and then it came down to how I’m going to pay these people”, she laughs.
“Dan and I had made a few duo concerts, so we started working the songs this way”, she remembers. The result more than satisfied her. “It’s very appealing to have the songs stripped down to essentials and realize that they’re still working. For me, as a songwriter, this is a very interesting learning experience: realizing what element of the song is more important, the spectacle or the story. In the end, I’m just trying to tell a story; doing it with the fewer people possible is great, because the energy is concentrated. I tell very detailed stories. If there’s noise around me, the lyrics are buried”.
It’s not the lyrics, though; and it’s not the orchestration. It’s her whole approach to singing and communicating emotions that makes the audience relate and engage to her and her stories. “I was in Japan a few months ago, playing to a non-english speaking audience. “We don’t understand your language”, they told me, “but we understand your heart”. She has had similar experiences, from the very beginning of her life as a singer. “I lived in Paris for a while”, she remembers. “I did a semester, as an undergrad student, at l’ Ecole des beaux-arts. On my first week there, I was walking at the ile Saint-Louis and I run into a band playing on the bridge. I ended up singing with them every weekend. Once, a note was left for me, from a woman in the crowd, saying: “You communicate such love through your voice, that you make people love you”. It was the first time that I realized that through singing, I create a circle of love; I give people love and they love me back”. But where does this love originate from? “I have no idea”, she exclaims. “Magic! Music is a very mystical thing”.
LISTEN & PURCHASE
On Sunday 20 December, Joanna Wallfisch will perform at the Laneway Lounge, as a guest of the Perth Jazz Society. On 3 and 4 January she will be in Hobart, playing solo at MONAand at the Republic Bar.