Jo Mango: The singer songwriter with paperclips, sand & no oversized sunglasses

Friday 21st September 2007

Tony Cummings quizzed the critically acclaimed singer/songwriter JO MANGO about her music & faith

Jo Mango
Jo Mango

Scotland-based singer/songwriter Jo Mango has a seriously impressive set of accomplishments. She has played for David Byrne of Talking Heads in front of a sell-out crowd at Carnegie Hall, collaborated with new folk heroine Vashti Bunyan, received rave reviews for her 2006 debut album 'Paperclips Et Sand' and has even found herself showing REM's Michael Stipe how to play the kalimba! She is in the midst of studying at the University of Glasgow for a PhD in musicology but found time to field Cross Rhythms' questions.

Tony: Can you give us a potted biography?

Jo: I was born in Dewsbury in Yorkshire 26 years ago along with my evil twin Jim. He made it out an hour before me and as he was born on the last day of July at 11pm we were very nearly twins born in different months. This made the registrar particularly nervous and created some question as to whether we'd be put in different years at school or not. Luckily I made it in the nick of time. Since then I've never been punctual for anything in my entire life. Nature or nurture - who can tell?! I like to think it's nature and then I'm allowed to blame God when it comes to exasperated friends waiting for an hour outside a pub in the lashing Glasgow rain.

I don't often tell people I was born in England because I like to pretend I'm Scottish. I've lived here for 19 years of my life so it only seems natural. We lived in a couple of different places in Yorkshire until I was seven or eight and then we moved to Peterhead in the North East of Scotland where none of us had a clue what anyone was saying (smile-and-nod for the first six months) and it smelled like Branston Pickle. I went to boarding school in England for a year but hated it and switched back to public primary school at age 10. Followed that with an uprooting to Aberdeen at the age of 14 where we stayed until I left for Glasgow for university to study music and psychology and soon after that the family home moved to Berwick-Upon-Tweed. All in all I grew up in five different houses and changed school seven times, changing entire education system three times. Phew!

I've settled in Glasgow now where I love it and very much enjoy being stationary. All this moving transpired because my Dad was (until recently) a Methodist Minister and there's a lot of parish jiggling which goes on - at least every five years, sometimes more depending on circumstance - for Methodists. I can't say it wasn't difficult each and every time we had to leave another set of friends behind or face another day as the new girl at another different school. But having a twin was a clever ploy on God's part which meant I always had a friend in my class. And fortunately I have quite an outgoing personality and I don't find it hard to make other friends.

Growing up in the church means you're always surrounded by music - my mum singing worship songs, my Dad playing hymns on the piano. But my parents weren't really big into any other form of music really except perhaps some classical records my Dad cherished. Listening now to the kind of record collections my friends and other fellow-musicians grew up around - the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, the Stones, the Beach Boys, Buddy Holly, Cream, Joan Baez - I feel really quite autodidactic, like my sound came from nowhere. Only much later in life did I go through a process of discovering pop or folk or other acts that my music was kindred to.

The first time I remember coming to appreciate any kind of popular music was when I was 10 and we had to choose an article from the paper that interested us and tell the class what it was about. It happened to be the week that Freddie Mercury died and for some reason I was drawn to an article about him, having no idea what his music sounded like. It just seemed a sad story about a talented life wasted. A couple of years later I saw a Queen tape on sale in a chemists and I remembered that connection I had felt to the sad man in the paper and I bought it. That was the beginning of my taking an interest for myself in any music other than that I used for the purpose of worship but didn't really appreciate on its own. I also shared a room with my sister about this time and I would often hear her up late at night listening to John Peel sessions, sometimes I could hear them through the covers. . . thus I was half-educated in some muffled Joy Division and New Order, the Farm, James, Orchestral Manouvers In The Dark and lots of other much more obscure noises.

It wasn't until our move to Aberdeen that I really started to get into music big time however. The music department at my school there was really great - really free and diverse. I started learning the flute and playing the piano - just improvising on whatever came. And then my brother started a rock band but couldn't find a singer and as a last resort turned to me. We played "Creep" by Radiohead and "Weep" by Skunk Anansie at a charity talent contest at school which we won. The band went on from there, with me getting more and more interested in rock music and starting to learn how to sing better and play the guitar.

Tony: How did you become a Christian?

Jo: Like a lot of children who grow up in Christian families or "in the Manse", I feel that there was no point in my life at which I wasn't a Christian - by that I think I mean that I can't remember a time when I wasn't aware of God being real in my life and of the need for my forgiveness and of the reality of having that need fulfilled by him. Having said that, I was truly caught up in a little Christian bubble, until I moved away from Peterhead at the age of 14. It was only when I started going to a slightly rough inner-city school where you could count the number of people who believed in Jesus on one hand, and after that to a philosophically challenging university course, that I started to question why exactly it was I believed what I believed. An inherited faith can be quite a black-and-white, unquestioning one. I can't say I have ever doubted that God existed, or Jesus died for me, or ever felt like I wasn't seeking for him in the Bible or through prayer, I just began to wonder why my particular set of beliefs and practices and doctrines had turned out the way they had given the raw material of the Bible. I remember looking at the back of a Christian tract a friend had been given in the street and there was "The Sinners Prayer" printed on the back and instructions to pray it and receive salvation. And I suddenly thought. . . where did that prayer come from? When I looked in the Bible I realised it wasn't printed out there, not in those clear specific words anyway. Whenever someone came to Jesus to ask him how they would receive salvation, he always seemed to have a different answer, and a slightly cryptic one at that! That's definitely NOT to say the sinners prayer as it was written there didn't contain the crux of our faith. . . but it made me realise in that moment that I didn't have a clue for myself where it all came from, where and how exactly people had distilled the basis of our faith out of Jesus' teachings and the others in the New Testament. And I needed to know!

Jo Mango: The singer songwriter with paperclips, sand & no oversized sunglasses

Since then, I've been on quite a tiring and exhilarating and faith-changing journey of discovering for myself what God and the Bible really say about things I thought I knew they did. I have learned that things can be very complicated. But that that's ok. We can still relate to God on the simplest level. There are more grey areas than ever before and more questions than I will ever be able to answer. But in some ways I rejoice in that fact. It means I'll never stop seeking and I think seeking is the key. It's my favourite promise ever - seek and you will find. So I guess that time of questioning, of seeking the truth for myself, and the subsequent time of answering or accepting the lack of answers - that is my "becoming".

Tony: I understand that you played in front of a sell-out crowd at Carnegie Hall. Tell me how that came about.

Jo: Aaaaah, the Carnegie Hall! What an amazing experience! I began cutting my teeth as a songwriter about seven years ago by playing songs every Monday night at an amazing open mic night here in Glasgow at a place called Nice 'n' Sleazies (much nicer than the name might suggest). I met all kinds of amazing musicians there and began to love performing. The first time I got up to perform, I played a stupid song about a lonely bear that I wrote on an old squeaky squeezebox that I found in my cupboard. It was that night I met a really talented guitarist called Gareth Dickson who was also a regular at the open mic night. (Bear with me now... it seems complicated but it will all become clear!) Now, two years ago Gareth made a solo guitar album which he sent round to various record labels including Fat Cat Records, home of the extraordinary legendary singer Vashti Bunyan. Vashti happened to be looking for a guitar player at the time and as she lived not too far away in Edinburgh, Fat Cat put them together and they started playing shows together. Last year, just before she was due to head out on a lengthy tour of the Western world, Vashti decided she needed a bigger band and asked Gareth if he knew anyone - preferably a girl - who could play the squeezebox? And perhaps one who could play the piano? And someone to play the flute? Gareth told her that he knew someone (the only one!) who could play all of these things - Jo Mango. So she got in touch, I went to meet her, we got on famously, and two weeks later we were on tour. So in the past year I have been all over the world playing with Vashti and also doing my own shows before/after/inbetween hers. We've played in Australia, Japan, all over America, Canada, Europe, Scandinavia.

The culmination of it all was a night in January organised by David Byrne (of the Talking Heads) at the Carnegie Hall which was showcasing the luminaries of what they are calling freak-folk or nu-folk. The show included Vashti, Vetiver, Coco Rosie, Devendra Banhart, Cibelle and David Byrne himself all playing their own stuff but also collaborating and playing on each others' songs as well. I got to sing, play flute, piano, concertina and kalimba alongside all these amazing musicians at the best venue on the planet! The night was electric! The place was stuffed to the rafters - Lou Reed was in attendance, so was Neil Young (I'm told, but I can't corroborate the Neil Young bit!) - along with my entire family who flew over from the UK to see it. The Carnegie Hall itself is an incredible place. I know it's famous for having the best acoustic in the world, but I tell ya, when I stepped out onto that stage for the first time during soundcheck and played a note on my flute. . . it just soared like no other note I've ever heard. Everyone just stopped what they were doing and listened to that one note ring out. Unbelievable!

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