JOE STILGOE is a UK-based jazz pianist, singer and songwriter and 2015 is shaping up to be a busy year for him. Joe, son of entertainer Richard Stilgoe, is all set to release his latest album – a swinging 12 tracker intriguingly called ‘New Songs For Old Souls’ . Then at the end of April he stars in the Old Vic’s revival of Cole Porter’s evergreen musical ‘High Society’. Between rehearsals and preparations for the album launch, Joe managed to find a little time to talk to SJF about the new LP, the show and things musical. First though, it made sense to find out something about Joe’s background and musical influences…..
I’ve been performing in jazz clubs for nearly 10 years now since moving to London. I was born in Sevenoaks, Kent, where I also went to school, studying classically on piano and singing. In my other life I was a drummer in dubious rock bands and then in an acid jazz outfit that didn’t really survive its only gig. Dad and Mum, both musicians, played a huge role in being great supporters and sometimes practice-enforcers, as well as giving me a great musical education across the board, from Buddy Holly and the Beatles to Bach, Bill Evans , Billie Holliday and Bacharach. No, I don’t know why I chose people whose names start with B!
So music was the obvious career path?
No, my ambitions early on were fairly non-existent, I just enjoyed music, but as it became my career my first ambition was to make a living, which eventually happened through cruise ships and then playing in piano bars and accompanying everyone from drag acts to comedians. Only later did I have ambitions to be a solo artist, and I started to take this seriously when I was signed to Candid records in 2008. Since then I’ve worked on my sound, and who I am on stage.
So what then is “your sound”?
I draw on a lot of influences, from the swing and style of Nat King Cole and Sinatra to the humour of Dudley Moore and Sammy Davis Jr through to the energy of Louis Prima and Oscar Peterson. In terms of songwriting, it’s everyone from Schubert to Cole Porter to Brian Wilson to Randy Newman to Carole King to modern pop.
Did you find it a help or hindrance having a famous, musical dad?
Neither really. Boring answer I know, but if there were any doors to be opened they would have been firmly shut very quickly if I was no good, and if it was ever a hindrance I probably haven’t been told… If you took away famous, it was a HUGE help having a musical dad, as he is a mentor in performance and writing (so is my Mum).
So how did your professional musical odyssey develop?
I left university with a music degree, got a job with Disney on the Caribbean cruise ships, and then spent the best part of a year at sea. Then I studied further at Trinity College in London where I started to meet other musicians who I could get gigs with. I was also a member of the National Youth Jazz Orchestra at that time, which was a trial by fire but I learned quickly and met lots of amazing musicians. During the early years I played in pit bands, wedding bands, funk bands, got work arranging music for Jamie Cullum, Diana Krall and others for sheet music books, accompanied lots of singers, worked every night in hotel piano bars, got sacked from teaching at a secondary school and then, after building up a steady reputation in jazz clubs, got my first booking at Ronnie Scotts in 2008. Since then, more gigs, lots of radio, and three albums later we’re here.
OK – so the new album, ‘New Songs For Old Souls’….the title is intriguing… what do you mean by “old souls” –surely not old codgers like Victor Meldrew!
Definitely NOT old codgers. I am a nostalgic soul, but that doesn’t extend to wanting things to remain the same as they were at a particular time, just that I love surrounding myself with the style, wit and joy of an age that seems to be behind us now. Old souls tend to be people who like the finer things, think deeply and have a spirit that seems to come equipped with wisdom and great music taste (I made up the last bit).
I’d agree with that last bit! But what were you trying to achieve with the album?
I was trying to make the best album I possibly could, which is always the aim, but hopefully my songs get better, my voice and playing gets better and my musical choices become sharper. I want jazz, or at least songs inspired by jazz throughout the decades, to reach more people through this album, and with the current interest in retro music and style, I hope it doesn’t stand out as pastiche or too retro, just a collection of new songs played with a nod to the past. It was great working from the start with producer James McMillan, so we both knew the direction of the record before we recorded a note. I also threw open the song choices to a select bunch of people who’ve been great supporters in the past, so I did a live solo gig with little voting cards and everyone chose their favourites. Some of the songs had only been finished that morning. It was the day after the Scottish referendum, so democracy was in the air…
Now some specific songs –why did you choose to re-record ‘Gold On Silver’? Is it just because it’s big on nostalgia (the melody is lovely, by the way)
It was more that I felt because it was on a live album before I didn’t get a crack at doing the full arrangement which really puts the song in that cinematic frame. I also got the lyrics wrong on the live album, so a perfect chance to atone for awful mid-gig brain loss.
That’s one of three big band cuts – what was it like working with a big set up and why not use ’em for the whole album?
Simple…. Too expensive! Now I know why Sinatra ended up having to pay for his own band! It’s amazing, really utterly amazing, to work with a big band, especially in Angel Studios where at close quarters it sounds like an exquisitely tuned supersonic jet chucking gold in your ears. I would love to do a whole album of big band tunes one day, but for now I’ll take these three tracks and see what happens in the future.
The Beach Boys cover, ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’, is another landmark track –why choose that one. Brian Wilson was clearly trying to say something there… do you feel the same way and if you weren’t born for these times what “times” were you born for? Why did you make it a duet (with Liane Carroll)?
‘Pet Sounds’ is probably my favourite album ever. Well, that and ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’, and that ‘Times’ song has always chimed with me, perhaps not for the slightly inward-searching lyrics, but more the title and the beautiful melody and harmony that Brian Wilson was able to conjure even through the haze of the chemistry lab he’d ingested before making the album (and those incongruous goats on the front cover). The title sums me up. For a long time I’ve thought I was born in the wrong era. I just always loved old movies, old music, stupidly bucolic images of bygone days and the style that came with it all and I love that Liane was able to duet with me as she’s a genius and a wonder and we share the same taste in songs (and Hastings wine bars).
The other cover is the lovely ballad, ‘Too Late Now’ tell us about that one…. what sound were you looking for there?
‘Too Late Now’ is just one of my favourite songs, and I wanted a simple standard on the album that wasn’t too well known. When I cover a song I want it to sound like it’s my own, or at least that it sits in a modern setting, and I was inspired by some more modern piano players/ trios like Geoff Keezer, Brad Mehldau and EST on this one. I tried to sing it with as much romance as I could muster without it tipping over into slush. I’m always wary of slush.
I like ‘How To Fall In Love’ too – reminded me of Bobby Darin – especially his ‘Things’ hit – similar melody in places …. was that conscious?
Thanks, but now you say that I’m worried about Pharell-style lawsuits. I had no idea it sounded anything like ‘Things’, but how funny it made you think of that. I actually always thought it was a bit of an odd song so I definitely didn’t intend to reference it. Maybe we all have melodies floating around in our heads. ‘How To Fall’ was the first song I wrote for the album, and we’ve performed it live for the last 2 years. I was actually thinking more of Louis Prima, with his band shouting in the background, and I wanted to bring my own feel rather than copying from the 50s. Thus the middle 8, which is probably inspired a bit by Ben Folds, a bit by Stevie. It’s also apparent I only know 9 letters of the alphabet.
What other tracks are you particularly proud of?
I was really pleased with how ‘Roll’ came out, as I’m not really sure how to categorise it. It just felt right, and Tom Richards did an amazing horn arrangement which lifted the whole thing. I’m also proud of ‘Nothing’s Changed’ as it was inspired by various things that irk me (and many other people) about the modern world, but like all of music I try to sneak through a lyrical message cloaked in rhymes and extended piano solos. Is this ridiculous?!
Changing tack now, you’re soon to join the cast of ‘High Society’ at Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic – how did that happen? What part will you be playing…. it’s a special part isn’t it… not in the original show?
I was doing a Radio 2 concert and Maria Friedman ( the show’s director)was one of the guests, and she called me while I was on holiday the week after (I don’t take many holidays. Maybe I should…) to ask if I wanted to be in a new show she was directing. When she said ‘High Society’ and The Old Vic it’s fair to say I bit her hand off. But we were on the phone. So I bit my own hand off. No, I said yes, loudly, and since then I’ve met Kevin who is artistic director of the theatre, and it’s all been a bit of a dream. This will be his last show in charge. He couldn’t be in it, sadly. The role I’m playing is new but kind of based on Louis Armstrong in the film, in that I’m a musician friend of Dexter, and I flit in and out of the show as a sort of rabble rousing party pianist. So, it’s a part that’s been specially created for me, which feels amazing. I never intended to go back on stage after doing lots in my early years, but I always dreamed that there might be a possibility of something like this. Funny too about Mr Spacey, he played Bobby Darin in ‘Beyond The Sea’, backed by my pal John Wilson’s amazing orchestra. I’ve wanted to meet him ever since I saw him on screen; there’s something he brings to every role which, though most of his characters are fairly unsavoury, brings a touch of magic to the screen.
After the run what next for Joe Stilgoe…. a long holiday, I’d think? And where can we find out more…
After the run, a few nights in Edinburgh for the end of the festival, then a LARGE holiday (more phone calls?), but back into the studio in September and then I’ll be on tour throughout the UK in October and November before heading to New York at the end of the year. Please find out more, I’ll need the company. … www.joestilgoe.com
Joe Stilgoe’s new album ‘New Songs For Old Souls’ is out April 27th on Linn Records and Joe performs a every special concert at the Old Vic on June 14th .