Jo Serrapere

By Elizabeth Nitz

Jo Serrapere

Singer/songwriter Jo Serrapere is very down-to-earth Detroit. Or so she likes to claim.

There is music in each decade and nearly every genre since the dawn of American culture she not only deeply adores but draws upon convincingly in her own pieces. Raised on pop and folk music, she soon rebelled and became a fan of punk and heavy metal. From there she discovered roots, old-style blues, the 20’s flapper scene, show tunes, classic rock, Tom Waits, and anything other than what was popular at the time. Her first original songs were folk tunes but she could not resist incorporating the many styles she surrounded herself with.

As expected, a woman with this many tastes and this much talent cannot be contained in a category for long. Not content to work on just one project, she has two new records out. She Went Upstairs, a collection of early-American traditional and traditional-sounding songs, was released with friend K.C. Groves, under the band name Uncle Earl. Her latest solo CD, Tonight at Johnny’s Speakeasy, was recorded live with her band The Willie Dunns. She interlaces originals of all genres with old blues and good-times bar covers. She remains committed to the indie scene by releasing on her own label, Detroit Radio Co. Recordings.

Fresh from her second visit to Garrison Keiller’s A Prairie Home Companion, Jo took time to answer a few questions about her songwriting, her many influences, her band, and her distinctly un-Detroit-like philosophies on life.

FEMMUSIC: Can you describe your songwriting technique?

JO: Well, it’s varied. Sometimes I have just a melody and sometimes mostly lyrics. And sometimes both come at once equally. This can create different sounding material. Lyrics-first tend to sound like beat poetry or talking songs. I have a song, “Love at the Flea Market” (it will be on my next record) that was mostly lyrics-first, or at least the main verse was lyrics-first. And it comes across like a slow meditation about finding love.

“Jesus Wears Red” was mostly lyrics-first. Very melodic songs are usually a good indicator of melody-first. “Ann Arbor Days” was very much melody-first. I also wrote that one in a cold sweat, because I told Garrison Keillor I would write a song about Ann Arbor for his show. He asked, and how could I say no to Mr. Keillor? Song-writing assignments are usually difficult, and especially about a town. That’s not my style. And I was about to expose myself to three million people with a potentially crappy song? Yikes. I was stuck on one line in a particularly highlighted spot. I ruminated for three days and the show was in two. But it was a blessing. I sometimes think the
universe is against me, but I’m often surprised. It was all such a blessing. But anyway, back to the point: melody-first. It’s rare but sometimes a poem will fit into a melody with only minor adjustments. “Sheltering Sky” is a perfect example. I wrote the poem after a particularly moving session with a client (my day gig is psychologist). It wasn’t about the session, but it put me in the “space.” I had an hour to spare so I wrote “Sheltering Sky” as a poem. I built the melody around the poem with part of a preexisting melody I had rolling around in my head. Then it came together. It’s great when that happens. So many lyrics and melodies never find each other.

The songs I listed are examples of songs that come from a deep creative place. It’s channeling, but I’m from Detroit so I have a hard time saying words like that without laughing. It’s infinite and ever-flowing and makes me feel like I’m part of the sky. Oops, too much New Age for my Detroit
sensibilities. 🙂 Anyway, there are also songs that are purely crafted from the mind. I’m a huge fan of roots music (guess that’s obvious), and started out as a musician studying to be a Delta blues guitarist. I fell in love with Appalachian songs and hot jazz and early country and all that stuff. So I tried writing in these styles. Sometimes I’ll throw in a line or two or twelve that is specific to me (like a musical wink-of-the-eye — example is “Living Well”), but usually I try to keep it straight. “Dream, My Girl” is that way. I have a few more straight swing tunes I haven’t released yet. I’m waiting until swing isn’t passé again, I guess. Song assignments (from workshops or like in the Garrison Keillor case) are also in this category of crafted. I’m surprised that all my assignments have become playable songs. I ought to give myself assignments.

Right now I’m working on pop-oriented roots songs. I was a metal-head and punk rock teenager, so I like a dark, hard feeling in songs as well. (Unfortunately, my ears hurt at super loud volume because I’m old and boring now, so I try to incorporate just the feeling.) I’m also a real fan of
organic writers like Howe Gelb of Giant Sand or Vic Chesnutt. I enjoy the looseness of this writing with little structure at moments.

Songwriting techniques are never this categorized, but it gives you an idea of the process I go through.

FEMMUSIC: As a woman in the music industry, have you been discriminated against?

JO: Yes, and no. I’ll tell you, when I was playing old blues (I have tendonitis now so I rarely do it) I got a lot of attention because I am a woman. I was a mediocre guitar-player, but because I am a chick, folks thought I was great. I figure sexism hurts us in so many ways, why not take the one
positive outcome. 😉

Women are throughout the business now. So this helps. But I sometimes still find boys clubs in the tech end. I’m also surrounded by men in my band. I wonder if this curbs things as well. When I tour with my all-woman old-time band, Uncle Earl, I’ll have a better sense.

I’m also very indie, so I’m my own boss most of the time. I don’t have to deal with a label. I have a woman booking agent who loves to wheel and deal for me. I hate doing that. My distributor is a women-run company called Goldenrod out of Lansing, MI. They stock the womyn’s fests and women’s bookstores as well as big chains, so no problem there. I guess I have a lot of buffer people. I’m in a band with men who like to discuss their feelings and hate sports (if you can believe it). My web guy’s the same way. Even the recording engineers I work with are pretty similar. I think I’m pulled toward that. My biggest challenge with sexism is within myself. I don’t
always have a strong sense of entitlement, and often do not advocate for what I want, especially when I’m tired or coming right off stage and feeling vulnerable. My band helps me there sometimes. My best friend is my guitar player, John Devine. So he often protects me when I ask for it. I also want to be nice to everyone, and it’s been a challenge to protect myself against overextending or people who want too much. Again, chick socialization. Take the bad with the good.

FEMMUSIC: What one thing would you like to change about the music industry?

JO: The main thing is the access to good music. Well, what I mean is music that is authentic and not designed for image, MTV or selling Pepsi. Sure there can be room for that. I’m sure N’Sync loves what they do, and more power to ’em. But I remember when Saturday Night Live played obscure, underground artists. I think it’s all evolution. The underground will come back, stay
interesting for a while and then go mainstream. And the Kurt Cobain’s will be disillusioned again. But who knows what will happen. With the advent of computers and MP3, a lot is changing. Indie artists are able to get their stuff out. Unfortunately, there are a lot of artists to go through, and most of us get lost. And who knows what will happen with buying CD’s vs. downloading. The labels now only take artists who do not really need them. They do not want to do the work to develop artists, because there are so many who do it for them. The crowds are already there, so there’s less gamble. But I’m actually not that cynical. I believe things manifest in a different
place (oh, God, New Age again!). We create as much success as we can hold. Look at Ani Difranco and Oh, Brother Where Art Thou? That didn’t make sense. Because it isn’t about making sense. So the industry is a pain in the ass, but it’s what we have. Why let it get you down, right?

FEMMUSIC: Who have been your biggest musical influences?

JO: Wow, too many. Tom Waits has remained my favorite consistently for 8 or so years. I love how he takes familiar roots influences and expands on them to create something so textured, unique, eclectic and new. And it doesn’t fit anywhere. And his lyrics are incredible. I love how he takes a great line and hides it in a song. Most songwriters will take a great line and build a
song around it. Tom will put it in the second line of the third verse and say it underneath his breath. Like he’s got a million of ’em. And writing with his wife has added an even more sensitive side to his music. I could go on and on gushing about him.

Like I said, I was listening to heavy metal and punk and industrial music (and Patsy Cline, go figure) as a teen. I remember hearing Shawn Colvin on Garrison Keillor’s program when I was 16, and it stopped me in my tracks. I think that’s what introduced me to folk music. My parents liked that stuff and I thought it to be quite lame. But this opened my eyes. I also spent my college years in the women’s community, and there is a lot of acoustic music there. That opened me up to it too.

I also love the old blues folks like Bessie Smith and Mississippi John Hurt (John Devine’s favorite) and the Hokum blues of the 20’s. I guess I consider myself Americana, but I hope that includes African and Jewish-American roots music as well. I love the old pop songs of the 30’s and 40’s like Gershwin. I also love the 60’s garage pop/blues like Van Morrison when he was in Them.
And 50’s R & B. I think I love all American music (except jazz fusion and bebop, I have to say — too heady). I just haven’t gotten to all of them yet in songwriting.

Currently, my biggest influences are bands like Calexico and of course Tom. I love Neko Case’s stage presence and voice, and Gillian Welch is always amazing. There’s a Detroit band making it big in England called the White Stripes. They’re great. God, so much great music.I could go on and on.

FEMMUSIC: What inspired your descent into this old-style sound?

JO: I went into some of that. Garrison Keillor started me out. But I remember hearing REM’s first record and old-time music and bluegrass that affected me in profound ways. It felt like “home.” That’s not to say I’d want to play it forever, but it just felt familiar. It was the harmonies. Old church hymns do that too. Again, my Detroit-ness keeps me from discussing past-lives. The Stanley Brothers feel so familiar. Maybe genes have memory. My grandfather was from the hills of North Carolina. But I never knew much about that at all. I identified more with my Dad’s side of the family who are all Italian.

I also loved blues, and I started taking guitar lessons from Shari Kane, a great Delta blues player who is part of the duo Madcat and Kane. She introduced me to the early blues.

I also love the 20’s flapper scene. That was a big time for challenging social norms. I fell in love with Clara Bow and started immersing myself in the 20’s and 30’s. For some reason, writing swing or hot jazz tunes come really easy to me. I usually don’t follow through with any of these melodies in my head, because I don’t want to perform any more of them. I have to say I loved when the swing thing was happening, because I got to step back in time with others around me. I’m super nostalgic. I seem to covet much of that which is early twentieth century. Antique stores are an addiction.

FEMMUSIC: Why did you decide to make “Tonight…” a live album?

JO: Making an album with the band turned out to be such a tough endeavor. We tried so many things and tried to do it cheap and we spent so much more money screwing up. I can’t even tell you the problems that plagued us. (eg. We did a great live show at a venue called the Ark, and the engineer didn’t know how to format the tape. He didn’t bother to check it out before we started
playing. Things like this happened again and again.) I finally started working on two solo albums and an album with my friend, KC Groves (we later formed Uncle Earl out of that) because I was so tired of trying to get the album together. Finally, we decided to record a show in our friend’s house (it used to be a speakeasy) because the energy was always there and it would just take one sitting). Well, naive me actually believed this.

FEMMUSIC: Who are the Willie Dunns and what do they add to your music and live shows?

JO: I started as a solo musician singing my own folk songs and Delta blues. I came down with tendonitis and couldn’t play anymore. My friend, John Devine, a great solo blues player decided to “be my hands” and play behind me. My own sexism set in and I didn’t want to be just a “girl singer,” so I started played a little bit again. We became a duo. When I recorded my first
record, My Blue Heaven. I was just starting out. The engineer was a bass player (Jef Reynolds) who joined up with us. We were a trio. Jef was a session player and could play a bunch of instruments. We later added a drummer (Barry Salem) and they became The Hot Tail Section. It was a name-on-the-fly response when someone asked us the name of my back up band at a festival. I figured they were the tail section and we played a lot of old hot jazz. And lord knows I love a good double entendre. And writing songs about the perils of being objectified and sexism and such make it contradictory. And I always love a good contradiction. Later, Barry moved
off to Lancaster, PA to join an Amish metal band called “Buggies of Rage.” Well, he got married. So we hired Stuart Tucker.

I love the band because I can do so much more of what I want to write and play. I can do traditional tunes, blues, jazz, country, rock. The only thing I cannot do is anything electronic. I have a couple tunes that I’d love to put to at least some electronic music. Johnny’s a great guitarist and he loves a challenge. Without them I’d still be playing just folk tunes and old-time blues.

FEMMUSIC: Do you intend to stay indie or are you pursuing major labels?

JO: I would love a bigger indie label if a good offer came our way. But right now I like my own label. I had an indie label before, and it helps. I didn’t bother to shop these new records. I was too impatient to get them out for Garrison Keillor’s show. And it was time. I needed to move on. And
major labels would probably have no use for me anyway. I do not have Britney Spears’ ass.

FEMMUSIC: So you were on A Prairie Home Companion — what was that like?

JO: Incredible. We were on the first time in Ann Arbor, which is hometown area. That was in a huge concert hall. And, like I said, Garrison Keillor is a hero of mine. I was raised on him. And listening to his tapes helped me get through some very hard times. The second time was actually scarier. We are doing a promo blitz, and I felt I had more at stake. Plus in St. Paul I couldn’t walk around back stage and ignore the show until my time to play. The theatre is too small and noisy, so we had to sit there. Overall, it really was a dream realized. And meeting Al Franken was a liberal gal’s dream as well.

It also helped us so much on We had a number of #1 spots in different categories. That’s even greater exposure. We even cracked the top 50 overall, and that includes folks like Madonna. That was cool.

FEMMUSIC: What is up next for you? Where do you really want to go?

JO: I would love to be a critic’s darling or NPR DJ’s darling. Does that make sense? I would love to have a career that would keep me going, and make me enough money to open a little venue somewhere that does good things for the community and has a homey feel and showcases great music. And do music in independent films!

Right now we are just working on how to tour without going broke or losing our health. I’d like to get that down. And I’m still working on another record or two. Uncle Earl also wants to do another record. We just put out both records so we are trying to promote them. I’m trying to build enough
support so I can write more and do business less. All indie artists wish for that. Call up local NPR and college stations and request us if you like. This is what helps. We’d surely appreciate it.

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