Caro Meets Music Interview

Joe Stilgoe: Big Band Christmas

By | Published on Wednesday 30 November 2016


If you’re feeling up for some jazzy music and a touch of Christmas cheer, then we have the perfect thing for you in Joe Stilgoe’s three upcoming Lyric Hammersmith performances, which are spaced weekly through December.
To find out more about these shows, and other things the internationally acclaimed musician has been getting up to lately, I put some questions to him ahead of his London dates.

CM: Tell us about your Lyric shows – is there a Christmassy theme? What sort of performances can we expect?
JS: The Christmas spirit seems especially important now as 2016 has been a bit of a shocker. I’m not even sure Trump would say he enjoyed this year…

So, Christmas will be liberally spread over the proceedings at The Lyric, in as classy and classic a way as possible, you understand. No gold tinsel, but there will be snow.

It’s also quite difficult to avoid Christmas as we’re sharing the theatre with a panto.

CM: Who is your target audience?
JS: If people come with a little morsel of Scrooge in their souls, they won’t be unduly sickened by the level of Christmas cheer in these shows and they might even be turned like old Ebeneezer himself.

It’s not a full-on Christmas gig as you might expect at somewhere like the Albert Hall around this time, as those Christmas songs are like salted caramel – too much and you feel sick, and you don’t want any in January. So, the band is the main focus, and how I can present this joyous but dramatic, intricate but simple music which really feels like it belongs in the 40s and 50s, and drag it into the present.

There’s a real mix of ages in my audiences – it’s amazing to see young people enjoying this music, but I suppose that’s why I wrote my own songs in the style. We can’t rely on the oldies any more (in more ways than one).

CM: You are currently also touring your ‘Songs On Film’ show – can you tell us a bit about that? What made you want to do a show with that theme?
JS: ‘Songs On Film’ indulges my film nerd side, celebrating my love of films and the music that gives us those time-resistant memories that shape so much of our lives. We still put on a Joe Stilgoe show but it’s more theatrical, and by performing really well known songs from films I’m finding a new audience who might not have heard my own music.

We package all the songs in a slightly different way, so there’s a spin on each piece of music. I love doing it, there doesn’t seem to be a limit on how far we can dig into the slightly more obscure pockets of cinema, or how we can try to improve on songs from terrible films that maybe deserve a fresh listen.

CM: What would be your top three film soundtrack recommendations?
JS: In my car at the moment – ‘Mary Poppins’, ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ and ‘Frozen’. But then we do have a small daughter. My own choices would be – ‘Cinema Paradiso’, ‘American Graffiti’ and anything by John Williams – it might have to be ‘Jurassic Park’ (we walked down the aisle to it).

CM: How important is it to you to include an element of humour in your work?
JS: When I first started performing the humour just crept in, possibly as I had nothing to say so I just uttered stupid things about the songs or arbitrary comments about my day. I now think about it much more. Doesn’t mean I’m any funnier. There are jokes in ‘Songs On Film’ – actual jokes I wrote – so there’s a challenge not only to perform the music but to deliver the lines properly.

Working on radio taught me the script has to be watertight, and the trick is to say it as though it’s just come into your head. My favourite moments though are completely unexpected interaction with the audience, who after all are the best thing about performing. Some people ignore the audience, treat them like a mirror to sing into, but I let them in pretty early and no matter the size of the venue try to make it as intimate as if we’re chatting in the kitchen. A kitchen with a piano and a massive sound system.

CM: You’ve done other shows with more of a comedy focus, haven’t you? Can you tell us about those?
JS: I was a founding member of The Horne Section, which started in Edinburgh as a drunken meeting of top comedians and a killer jazz band and morphed into a pretty slick outfit but always mixing comedy and music. We had a Radio 4 series and a few telly appearances and then my own career got a bit busy so I had to duck out but they’re still going strong and doing excellent things. Definite highlights were performing with Harry Hill at a run of shows in the West End, and then singing love duets on ‘Never Mind The Buzzcocks’ with Paloma Faith, who we insisted on calling Pamela. I hope she found it funny…

I then got asked to do a few slots on ‘The Now Show’, and I often have to write hopefully amusing songs for banks and other organisations that want to throw their money at me.

CM: Can you tell us about the albums you have released? Are you working on any other recordings?
JS: Lovely question, thank you. Now I have to remember… 1st album, feeling my way in, still quite proud of it. It was for Candid, the label that discovered Jamie Cullum, Clare Teal and Stacey Kent. I then self produced my second – ‘We Look To The Stars’, almost all original songs, and moving into a slightly jazz/pop world as I wanted to include all my non-jazz influences like Earth Wind & Fire, Billy Joel, Randy Newman, Supertramp, Beach Boys. That topped the jazz charts and got lots of radio play which was incredibly satisfying.

Album 3 was ‘Songs On Film Live’, then last year was the one I’m most proud of. The one that probably best sums me up as a musician – ‘New Songs For Old Souls’- again, mostly my songs, but much more jazz and big band influenced, paying lip service to my heroes Ella, Frank, Nat King Cole and the three Louis – Prima, Armstrong and Jordan. This year we released ‘Songs On Film – The Sequel’, which was great fun to record. Only took a week, so very different to ‘New Songs’. I’m now with a lovely record label called Linn Records who’ve released the last 2 albums.

CM: Did you always want to have a career in music? How did you begin?
JS: No. Burglar. Estate Agent. Skier. All of those were on the table at some point. Music was always in my life but with parents who were musicians they were probably loath to suggest or push it as a career path. It’s more of a log flume than a path. But it’s a great ride (still on the log flume thing), and I’m so glad and grateful I’m making a living out of something that genuinely feels like it’s not a proper job at all. I began by walking into piano bars, and bars that didn’t even have pianos, and asking if I could play. My first gig I got £30 for 5 hours work. Pitcher and Piano. I was ecstatic. They didn’t ask me back.

I then worked on a Disney cruise ship as pianist and head of music, had a fling with Cinderella, captained a lifeboat, and I haven’t looked back since. Sorry, I mean I haven’t been back since.

CM: What’s in the future? Do you have any ambitions you want to dust off?
JS: I’d like to be a film star. Can you help? Oh, and I’m writing a musical. It’s going to be LOTS of fun.

CM: What’s next for you, following the Christmas dates and the tour?
JS: I’ve been trying to write a book. Idiotic ambition, given that I have a young family, we’ve just moved house and I’ve got albums and shows and even some gardening to do. I might need to go back on that Disney ship…

‘Joe Stilgoe and his Big Band’ is on at Lyric Hammersmith on 5, 12 and 19 Dec. See this page here for info.

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