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PZ: Welcome Joan! Thanks for joining us here at Philzone.com. So let's learn a little about your past. What brought you to becoming a musician? Was it early aspirations or something you pursued later in life?
JO: I always loved music as a kid, but never thought of it as a career option. I was actually going to school at New York University studying to become a documentary film maker when I first stumbled across this amazing music scene that was happening in New York at the time; particularly in the blues and rock clubs in downtown New York.
I went to a bar that happened to have an open mic night. A friend of mine convinced me to sing and I got up and sang a Billie Holiday song because I am a big fan of hers. You know one thing led to another and I started hitting these clubs and going to all the open mic nights and meeting different musicians and going out and seeing bands. It was a real love affair with the music, in particular the blues music. Eventually it took all the energy that I had and I was less and less interested in the film side of things and became totally immersed in the music.
PZ: When you think back to that open mic was there a feeling for you that this felt really right?
JO: I think there's something about the immediacy of performing that really affected me. When you work with a medium like film - from the initial idea to the finished product is a very long, very involved, and sometimes very expensive process. It involves lots of other people, and technological equipment and this and that. Whereas singing is just so immediate and I think there was something about that that was very gratifying to me. It's a real cathartic emotional thing for me most of the time so it's more of a "heart" medium for me then film, which is more of an intellectual thing.
PZ: You mentioned Billie Holiday, what are some of your other musical influences?
JO: The blues really just kind of took me in. People like Etta James, Tina Turner, Mavis Staples; those are all really my idols. Those are really my heroes; it's that kind of emotional singing. Also, people like that who come from blues and soul music are generally influenced a lot by gospel. There's a lot of gospel technique in what they do. To me that's the highest aspiration you can have with music is to allow it to take you to this higher spiritual place. So to touch on gospel and those kinds of music, I think the greatest artists do things like that.
PZ: How did you first become involved with working with The Dead?
JO: Well I have a booking agent who has also been friendly with Phil and worked with Phil and Jill Lesh for many years. When they were putting together a summer tour for The Dead back in 2003 or 2004, he knew they were going to want to have some supplemental people besides the original four guys. He suggested that they consider me and brought the idea up to me and I was open to it. I went out and did a couple of shows in San Francisco, I think it was the Warfield, and it went really well; it was really fun. So we decided to do it. So it was really through my booking agent, who kind of brought me into the fold.
PZ: Were you surprised to get that kind of an invitation being that they never really had a female lead singer, so to speak. Were you ever a "dead head" in your earlier days?
JO: No, I mean I knew some of their music and I knew some of their songs and had a bit of appreciation for them, but I was not like some friends that I had who had been to dozens or hundreds of shows and were tape trading. At this point people were trading cassette tapes of shows. I mean I wasn't a "dead head" per se, but of course I knew about them and some of their music but that was as far as it went. So, yeah, I was kind of surprised.
But that was part of the reason that intrigued me, sort of an interesting challenge out of left field. I do like to do things like that, that sort of push me out of my comfort zone, that make me stretch, and make me do things that I wouldn't do on my own.
PZ: How did that segue into working with Phil and Friends? Was that discussion right after being with The Dead or was there a call later on?
JO: It was a call later on, later down the road. After the initial experience with The Dead I went off and did some stuff of my own and they did another tour with Warren Haynes and we kind of parted ways for a little while. But then I got the call again from Phil and it seemed like the right thing to do at the time, so here I am again!
PZ: As you became immersed in the material, were there any specific songs you feel you connected with the most?
JO: They have such a huge catalog, so that was part of the challenge for me, to learn all this material, because I really only knew a handful of their songs. Every day was kind of like Grateful Dead boot camp, to get this set which, of course, was completely different than the set we did the night before with songs I had never heard of. I would have to sit and learn them that afternoon and perform them that night. So it was a real concentrated way to learn all this material, but, yeah, there were many many songs that sounded really gorgeous.
In particular a lot of the stuff from, I guess you can call their "space cowboy" era. Songs that had a little bit of that country, blues, rootsy influence to them. Songs like "New Speedway Boogie", I really liked in the beginning and still really love doing. I love doing "Brokedown Palace", although I'm not sure I've even done it with them but actually I've done it in my own live shows a few times because it's a song that captured me. "Stella Blue" is an amazing tune. I still have a great remembrance of doing that one night at Red Rocks. It was a real magical evening; there was just something about that night that felt the whole world was standing still when we were doing that song. It was really beautiful.
PZ: It's amazing how something seems to happen at that venue! (Laughs)
JO: Yeah, it's such a spiritual place, it's definitely one of the best places to play that I've ever been to.
PZ: Like you said, it's such an impressive catalog, what was your process with Phil learning this material?
JO: Well the process is they blow everything at me and I try my best to learn it. I certainly won't say that I've never made any mistakes. I guess I just really want to know the material. I want to learn it. I want to get up there and be as comfortable as I can be in front of an audience. I'm not somebody that feels I can just get up and wing it.
I really want to do my homework, so that's kind of how it is. It's Phil's thing and he'll say "let's do this, this, this and this" and it's my job to go off and learn it. I certainly can make suggestions or if he asks me to do something I just don't think I can pull off I'll certainly tell him. But it's kind of his thing. I just try to be as much like a sponge and absorb it as quickly as I can.
PZ: Do you do some pre-stuff on your own, listening to material, or does most of the learning happen during a tour?
their catalog is so huge, they will send me a list of, say, 200 songs
that they'll be choosing from for a week's worth of touring, as opposed
to all however many hundreds or thousands that they have. So they will
whittle it down to a certain group for me, and I will start listening
to that and then as we go through the rehearsal process certain songs
will be added or some will be dropped. We mostly do the work during the
rehearsal process and then during the day when we have a show I'll go
back and review all the things that are going to happen that night once
I find out what the set list is that afternoon.
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