Blues and soul star Jo Harman to make her Portsmouth debut at Guildhall Studio | Interview

When the lockdown hit in March 2020, acclaimed blues/soul singer-songwriter Jo Harman was about to take a break anyway – she was due to have her first child.

Friday, 20th May 2022, 3:31 pm

Two years down the line, and with a healthy toddler about to celebrate her second birthday, Jo is finally picking her music career up properly again.

‘Things are starting to get back for me,’ says Jo, ‘and I'm starting work on the third album – that's starting to take shape in a newborn kind of way.

‘Stuff's happening, we've got projects on the go and I'm going on tour! Everything's so different now though.’

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While Jo had been preparing to take a maternity break anyway, that doesn’t mean the last two years haven’t been tough.

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‘I think every new mum struggles with the identity of being a mother. So much of my identity was wrapped in music and what I did every day and my recording, performing and touring and all of that.

‘Suddenly you're not doing that because of the pandemic, but you're also trying to keep a baby alive. I used to live a relatively glamorous life – I put makeup on most days! Now it's slightly different – you definitely struggle, your body changes so much.

Jo Harman is at Portsmouth Guildhall Studio on May 25, 2022. Picture by Haydn Hart

‘It's drastically changed me mentally and physically. It's been a really hard time, just trying to get to grips with who I am and where,’ she sighs, ‘the changing and morphing of my being has taken me – it's been challenging.’

She released a powerful EP, Signature Soul in February 2020, mixing covers and originals, but her last full album was 2017’s People We Become – which featured the Radio2 playlisted single When We Were Young.

Jo planned to return to music when her daughter turned one, but it hasn’t been that straightforward.

‘There was all kinds of stuff in my personal life we were trying to get to grips with. I always said I'd take a year and get back to it, but we were still in the pandemic as well.

Jo Harman is at Portsmouth Guildhall Studio on May 25, 2022. Picture by Haydn Hart

‘It's very hard when you're focused on someone else's needs all the time, you find that you come last, or at least second.

‘I found it very difficult to be able to focus on my stuff. I found it difficult to focus my brain on actually making some progress – it's all been incredibly slow. For the past year I've been trying and mostly failing to get things going again.

‘Mark [her manager] said this to me a lot: “It's ok, it will come when it comes and it will happen when it happens”.’

There was, though, the chance to look back at her debut album Dirt on My Tongue, which got a 10th anniversary deluxe rerelease.

‘I still perform a lot of those songs – but it was really cool, even just thinking about how we made the record and talking over stuff with Mark about how it came to be.

‘It was my debut album so it was quite a few years leading up to it, it wasn't just about making the record, it was the whole journey from a couple of years before which was really important in my development as an artist.

‘I'm really proud of that album and what Mike [Davies, producer and co-writer] and I achieved – he's such a wonderful guy and a wonderful producer. I had full trust in him.

‘I look back on that time really fondly because it was such a naive time in a way.

‘I'll never make another debut album again – it's been nice looking back to it.’

There has been new music though – a cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case of You, was released last November. It was recorded to a backing by Redtenbacher's Funkestra, who she worked with on the Signature Soul EP.

‘I recorded the vocal to that last year, when I was just starting to do some stuff. I happened to be in the area, near Hastings with my daughter and partner because he was working around there.

‘Mark was going on at me for ages: “I really want you to record this vocal”. They'd done the track and sent it to me.

‘I took my daughter along to this session, and Mark desperately tried to entertain her while I sang, and she was not interested at all,’ she laughs at the memory.

‘I basically sang this speedier than I normally would have with her sitting on my hip, so that was quite an experience. It was the only way I could stop her crying!’

‘At that point, I had barely done any singing so I was really struggling – I didn't have all of my chops and flexibility. My voice just didn't feel right.

‘It's definitely coming back though. You do realise that the muscles remember, but it does take a bit of time. There was time when I thought I'm never going to sing the same again – this is it – I'll never get back to where I was, but it does.

‘I'm feeling alright about it now.’

While this show in Portsmouth will be with her regular band, Jo’s planning something a little different for the autumn.

‘We've got this "four cellos” project that's happening, so that's full-steam ahead. We're doing a pilot show in September.

‘I'd always thought about going out with a string quartet, but then decided they can be quite twee and it's all been done before.

‘Then my partner, who works in classical music, he said: “Why don't you do it with four cellos?” "That's it - that's the thing to do!”

‘It's going to be doing a gig with a view to it being a bigger project, a longer tour, at some point. It's going to be my songs with four cello players, and we'll still have a pianist and a guitar player as well.’

Jo Harman is at The Guildhall Studio, Portsmouth, on May 25. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk.