Joanne Hogg: The lead singer from Celtic music pioneers lona

Wednesday 1st December 1999

Mike Rimmer journeyed to Randalstown to talk to JOANNE HOGG.


You would think that, that I get a lot of inspiration from living, here and people who come here say 'Oh! It must be really inspiring.' but I think home is home." One of Irish Christian music's most respected singers, Joanne Hogg, is talking about the idyllic farm setting where she lives in rural Northern Ireland near Randalstown. She continues, "No matter where home is there's always the things going on that demand attention. In fact somewhere like this has a lot of maintenance and there are always jobs to do, so I can look around and always see something that needs doing." I look around at the extensive farm and outbuildings, the nicely furnished tennis court perched on the edge of a river which Joanne calls "home". On this beautiful sunny day, we begin by sitting outside and enjoying a cup of tea, looking out at the river. The family dog wanders around and Joanne confesses to enjoying the peace of a row down the river in her boat.

But when it comes to serious inspiration, she says, "When I'm really serious about writing and looking for inspiration, I would tend to go away for a few days out to the West of Ireland and Donegal. It's simply to get away from the telephone and from the visitors and all the things that go on here." We decamp to a large outbuilding which contains Joanne's grand piano and a full size snooker table. When lona convene to write or rehearse, this is where they play. Joanne explains, "For writing, as a band point of view, it's an ideal setting, because there's room for us to set everything up and we're not near enough any neighbours to be disturbing anybody. The band being so scattered anyway, no matter where we rehearse or write, everybody else has got to travel. It's been reasonably economical for us to rehearse and to write here."

We're sitting on a sofa in the quiet of the snooker room, one of her dogs settles down sighing in the cool of her room. She explains that some of her solo album 'Looking Into Light' was recorded here in this room, including her version of "Be Thou My Vision". Her lona cohort and producer Dave Bainbridge was familiar with the song, but it had become such a firm fixture on recent recordings, she explains, "We decided to give it the stretched treatment. That was one of the ones we did and we played it in this room, Dave on keyboards, myself at the vocal mike. It was quite dark outside and Nigel Palmer was sitting in this little alcove." She gestures and points behind me and continues, "He was having to be very quiet 'cause we didn't have any screen to separate off the desk. It was just one take straight through, and that's the take on the album!"

Looking Into Light' is a magnificent album which has gone largely unnoticed, even though lona were on a long sabbatical during the time it was recorded and released. Earlier, in her kitchen as she made us tea, she confessed disappointment that she didn't have the opportunity to make more of the album. I agreed that there must be a number of lona fans, particularly in America, who don't even know of its existence! It's a shame, but then Joanne had deeper reasons for recording the album than commercial success. "In a nutshell, I wanted to do this album for my dad. Because we were having a sabbatical, there was the opportunity to actually do something, because there was time to do it. It was one of those almost throwaway suggestions that my dad had made several years ago. It was actually after his first experience of an Iona concert. The band had been going for years, we had recorded 'Journey Into The Morn' but we were playing in Belfast, which made it physically feasible for my dad to get to the concert. His comment at the end of the concert was that his favourite song was 'When I Survey', which we had played right at the end. He didn't say he didn't like the rest of the music, but my dad's never really been into modern music, especially if it's got drums. He said, 'Why don't you record a whole album of hymns?' and my response at the time was, 'Well dad it's not really lona's thing, we write our own songs.' It was one of those little suggestions that, once it had been planted in my brain, it kept coming back."

But what of choosing the hymns? Surely that must have been difficult! "Whenever I sat down to try and compile a list of hymns for the album, there were already about five definites that I wanted to do." She pauses and lists them. "There was 'When I Survey', 'Be Thou My Vision', 'I Heard The Voice Of Jesus', 'How Sweet The Name' and 'Brightest And Best'. Aside from those, there are so many hymns and I was leafing through the hymnbook, but what I was looking for was more the words that I thought were really lovely. When I came across words that I liked, I would source what the tune was like in the hymnbook, and if I didn't feel too excited about it then I just tried to come up with a new melody. Because the words were so inspiring that wasn't a problem. On hymns like 'How Sweet The Name', 'Spirit Of God' and 'Almighty Father', those were actually very easy to put to music. It ended up going that way, not deliberately, in that half the album ended up being familiar tunes and half of it ended up being completely new."

The hymn "Rock Of Ages" has specific significance for Joanne. "It was one of those hymns that I found myself playing at the piano, at a time because of the circumstances I was in." She recalls, "I was feeling very isolated and very vulnerable and lonely. I had just been through two experiences of bereavement and they'd come quite close together. The first was the death of my mother, which was very, very sudden and happened while I was on tour with the band. That was very hard to deal with, and I threw myself very quickly back into concerts and activity. In a way I pushed the grief out of my life simply by filling it with other things, and then five months later a really good friend of mine was killed in a riding accident. It was as if with that second bereavement, a lot of the grief that I think I suppressed five months before, came out on top of the other one Shortly after that, I then experienced an illness which meant I wasn't allowed to drive for six months, so I found myself quite isolated and having to just try and get my head round what was going on. I found the piano a real source of comfort, and I was just sitting at it one day and started playing this music and singing the words of 'Rock Of Ages'. At that stage the only words I knew were the first verse. I looked it up in the hymnbook and started singing the second verse of it, and it was like something just broke within me. Although I was weeping, I just felt that God had really met me and just brought a real peace into my spirit. That hymn became very personal for me and became a very special hymn on the album."

lona's sabbatical has drawn to a close, although instead of returning with a new studio project, there is the 'Woven Chord' live album buying the band more time as they write and record. Joanne admits, "We are slow, and if you were to point the finger at any one person in the band who's slowing things up I have to admit it's probably me. It's the whole songwriting thing. I find it very difficult to write songs when people are saying, 'You need to write songs, you need to write five songs in the next three months.' I've never really written to demand like that. I got pretty well absorbed in the hymns project, and although that wasn't songwriting as such, it was where my creative energy was going. There's no shortage of instrumental material for the next album, but what we still haven't nailed are at least five good, strong songs. I suppose we are aware that there is a certain amount of anticipation about this studio album and it better be good. I think if we rush it, it won't be as good as it could be. I hope it's worth waiting for. If it's not you can blame me." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Mike Rimmer
Mike RimmerMike Rimmer is a broadcaster and journalist based in Birmingham.


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