Interview: Jo Mango

This article originally ran in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland) on November 2, 2012.

The humble bed has long enjoyed a prominent position in popculture, from John and Yoko’s peacenik bed-ins, to celluloid orgy In Bed with Madonna. But few have exploited its instrumental properties quite like Glasgow singer-songwriter Jo Mango. On The Moth and the Moon, from her new album Murmuration, she sings under the covers.

Recording in bed was not without its jeopardies, recalls multi-instrumentalist Mango, who has worked with Vashti Bunyan, Teenage Fanclub and Admiral Fallow. “It was actually really hard to sing under the duvet – you use up the oxygen really fast,” she laughs. “You can hear that in parts I’m a little bit breathless, but it had the effect of making it really close-sounding, really in your ear.”

This intimate eiderdown pop methodology was suggested by Murmuration’s producer, Adem Ilhan. He and Mango struck a chord while performing on The Zero Degrees of Separation Tour alongside Vetiver and Juana Molina in 2007 (Mango was performing as part of Vashti Bunyan’s touring band). “Adem works in a similar way to me,” she offers. “He has all his mad wee instruments, his house is like an instrument museum, and that’s just what my house is like.”

What impact did Adem’s approach, or aesthetic, have on Mango’s songs? “I think the main thing was that every time we started recording we’d have a chat about the music we were listening to – like he was really into Olof Arnalds and Linda Perhacs, and I was listening to gamelan music and Gaelic psalm singing –and somehow  he’d take all of these things and weave them into the sound. So on [tropical lullaby] Evermore, he guided it towards the sound of the gamelan. And the Gaelic psalm singing is reflected on [sublime acoustic chorale] The Black Sun, when all the voices come in, to reflect the flight patterns of starlings.”

Murmuration is the follow-up to Mango’s 2006 debut, Paperclips and Sand (self-released on her Lo-Five imprint, which also issued the first LP from Admiral Fallow). It has found a warm home in grassroots paradise Olive Grove Records, whose roster includes Randolph’s Leap, The State Broadcasters and The Son(s), and which is helmed by Glasgow PodcART’s Halina Rifai and Peenko’s Lloyd Meredith.

Although it’s been a long time coming, and was written almost in two halves, Murmuration is a lovely, cohesive body of work.2007-penned songs like The Moth and the Moon and The Black Sun sound as vital and fitting as the album’s most recent compositions, Crossties and exquisite piano hymn Cordelia. “The record took a while because we had to try and fit it around everything else we were doing,” says Mango. “Adem got super busy with Silver Columns [Ilhan’s electro-disco tryst with The Pictish Trail aka Johnny Lynch] and his film stuff – he did the music for [Armando Iannucci’s] In the Loop – and I was doing my PhD.”

Mango recently completed a doctorate in Musicology, and Murmuration’s themes of communication, exploration, nature and relationships chime with her academic work. “My PhD specialism was about trying to create a different way of writing about music that was musical rather than mathematical, or writing about it the way you might do in your job,” she explains. “I tried to make something that’s more like a piece of music out of words; that kind of reflects how the music works.”

“I did that using schizophrenic ways of thinking and use of language, because people with schizophrenia might use a word for how it sounds instead of what it means,” continues Mango. “There’s an unbelievable parallel between the symptoms ofschizophrenia and the symptoms of modernism across the arts – for example, if you look at a Dali painting and you look at how a schizophrenic person might do a self-portrait, it could be really similar – so it kind of helps us to understand schizophrenia, but it also allows us to understand music and maybe create a new way to write about it. The whole time I was doing the PhD, I was thinking about those themes, and I think some of the album’s cohesion comes from that.”

Murmuration’s evocations of wordless transmissions, deep vibrations, and starlings’ eventide mass-choreography, render it a perfect title. “I was going to call it The Moth and the Moon, and then I then was going to call it The Black Sun – that’s what they call it in Denmark when they have massive murmurations of birds, and it’s also the term the philosopher Foucault uses to describe what’s at the heart of language,” Mango enthuses. “But Murmuration is an onomatopoeic word, and it’s also got several definitions, some of which you might know; others you might make up.” Her words capture the album’s myriad charms. “It’s got all these different meanings. But it’s also just a lovely sound.”

Murmuration (Olive Grove) is out next week but available now from Avalanche (Edinburgh), Monorail and Love Music (Glasgow) and One Up (Aberdeen). Edinburgh Jazz Bar, 1 Nov; Glasgow Glad Café, 3 Nov; Aberdeen Tunnels, 7 Nov; Paisley Brough Hall, 26 Nov; Shhhh! Festival, Glasgow Platform, 1 Dec.

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