Name: Joe Downard
Occupation: Bassist, improviser
Current release: Joe Downard's Seven Japanese Tales – THE REMIXES, a collaboration with Todd Speakman, is out now on Ears to Learn With.
Recommendations: I recently visited the small town of Giverny in France to see Claude Monet’s house. The gardens, the water lilies, his bright yellow dining room. I saw it as one piece of art or a live painting in itself. One of his great masterpieces. Listen to Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the end of Time’ and then John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”.
If you enjoyed this interview with Joe Downard, visit his personal website for all the information you could ever desire.
For further reading, check out our in-depth Todd Speakman interview.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
My journey into writing/composing began very early into my life as a musician. I was encouraged to compose and arrange as part of my daily practice by my bass tutor.
I try and make a conscious effort to write music as often as possible, as new ideas aren’t going to come from nothing. So even if it is just a 1 bar melody, the idea is that laying down foundations can help with inspiration and creativity.
Production came a little later. I had moved from leafy Sussex to London and time spent here as a busy session bassist meant that I got to see first-hand an evolution of a scene around me. Artists and musicians alike began to set up home studios and guerrilla recording set-ups, so I got into it that way.
Early on, bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Pink Floyd really changed my life and got me hooked on music. That ebbed and flowed from Dylan to Frank Zappa to Prince to Funkadelic to Stevie Wonder. The list goes on and then Jazz landed in my lap which has pretty much been my life for the past 10 years.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I think you’re completely right. That is certainly how I have got to where I am as a musician today. For many others and I, when not being taught the fundamentals of our instrument or our craft, learning is done through transcription and even now as I am writing this, I have some manuscript beside me as I work on taking down some music.
I am currently really in it. This is just me developing my ear, my sound, my language in the hope to influence my own voice.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I just try to be as honest with myself as possible in my identity and let that take me in directions of creativity.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
A challenge for me has always been finding that last piece of the puzzle when finishing off either composition, arrangement, or a remix. Also, the art of knowing when to take the pen off the page as such. It can be a hindrance but also something that keeps me driven.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
My very first instrument was a Casio Portasound keyboard. I still use this today of course, as those sorts of retro synth-y pads and lead sounds are seemingly becoming all the rage now! I then saved up for a Fender jazz bass and to this day that's the bass that I use for pretty much everything.
From that point, I have always collected gear and I am constantly changing what is on my pedalboard to experiment with my sound both live and in the studio. Amidst the “chase” to be technologically relevant or current, my double bass continues to be the king of instruments for me. The shape, sound, and technology have essentially stayed the same for centuries and this proves it to be the GOAT of all instruments that have been as relevant in the 1800s as it is now in the new roaring ’20s.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material that is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you? Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Thelonius Monk. Even though I am not a piano player, there aren’t many stones left unturned by Monk and I try to listen and study as much as possible to hope that one day I may be able to transfer some of his endlessly deep, hip, and honest music into my own.
In terms of transferring those skills, I have really found success in using a DAW to write a decompose. I might set a loop up or just play freely and if suddenly don’t have time to pen a whole tune out, I can save it and take it with me. When the moment a new part of melody comes to my head, I can quickly record that part and come back to it.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
I have always been someone that is always thinking up new ideas in my head. This is just as a matter of practice to keep the creative mind flowing, but I’ll often be drafting out new projects or collaborations hoping that the opportunity comes up to fulfil one of those ideas.
My latest project Seven Japanese Tales - The Remixes was exactly one of those moments where Todd Speakman and myself had always wanted to work on our own project that floated around jazz, experimental, electronica. So, when I suggested we remixed two tracks from my debut album, I think we started working on them that very day! That's the kind of way I like to collaborate!
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Exercise (sometimes). Coffee. Work. Practise (Bass, Piano, Guitar, Recording, anything musical). Listen to records. Wine (not every night). Read. Bed. This kind of day is my daily schedule if I am just at home without any gigs or sessions. And when I am working hard or busy, it all goes out the window! I at least try and keep some time for exercise or time away from music just to keep from burning out!
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
The best moment of my career for me was releasing my debut album Seven Japanese Tales. It was my first chance to showcase my voice as a composer and bandleader. It had been 2 years in the making from the first melody to the final Moog moment and it just felt so good to be releasing something that I was really proud of.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I think with just how many distractions there are now that can fit in the palm of your hand and how fast pace the world moves it is really hard to settle into those ideal states of mind through choice. So, I just try my best to absorb the things that inspire me as much as possible and try to do one creative thing a day no matter how big or small.
I don’t react well to forced concentration, I find my mind just tries to fight it too much and I end up getting frustrated and so I notice that my micro-creative actions will often help me fall into those states of true focus and concentration naturally as and when they decide to arrive.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I would love to see the continued application of music therapy to help improve physical and emotional well-being. I have certainly been using music more than ever to help with my mental health during the past year.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I am a firm believer that anything created has always come from something else, been inspired by something else, or developed from something else. That is just the spirit of how art evolves. The sharing of culture in art is something special and some of my favourite music is when a combination of cultures and origins are apparent.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
For me, the fact that music can engage sound, sight, and touch allows it to be accessible in so many different ways and helps to inspire me to create music that enriches all of those senses. It's just a real shame you can't taste and smell music! Can you imagine what a Prince gig would taste like?
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Being honest and ensuring that the art form you are presenting to those around you is 100% you, and not anything else. Of course, you take inspiration and pick up things along the way that help us to become who we are but at the moment of presenting your sound or your art or your words, making sure that you are staying true to yourself. That is all I can really say on the matter.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I don’t think I really know the answer to that. But I think Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the end of Time’ might have the answer. Perhaps one of his greatest works that he wrote while a prisoner of war in German captivity. It is one of my favourite pieces of music ever! Especially the 5th movement. Hauntingly beautiful.