sun 14/08/2022

10 Questions for Singer/Pianist Joe Stilgoe | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for Singer/Pianist Joe Stilgoe

10 Questions for Singer/Pianist Joe Stilgoe

Joe Stilgoe learned 250 new songs for the 67 episodes of "Stilgoe in the Shed"

The Entertainer: Joe StilgoePublicity photo

Singer/pianist/songwriter/entertainer Joe Stilgoe responded remarkably rapidly to the new circumstances of March 2020.

Even before the first nationwide lockdown was declared, he had started doing a series of daily performances on YouTube: “Stilgoe In The Shed”. Back in July, 67 online shows later, gigs were starting to come in again. So to mark what felt like the end of that period, he spent just one day in producer James McMillan’s studio, and recorded an album of a selection of the songs he had performed in his online shows.

SEBASTIAN SCOTNEY: What are your thoughts about the new lockdown?

JOE STILGOE: Oh I love a lockdown! Lockylockylockdown. Yum yum… Actually, this one’s not officially a lockdown is it? They were trying to rebrand it. Like the Post Office. That didn’t work either - people can smell a lockdown a mile off. There was a universal hope that things were improving and life would return to normal - for musicians and people who work in theatre and all forms of entertainment it’s another massive blow as we all had work lined up, so another black line through the diary there, but I’ll always stay positive, and whereas before the only creative energy I could muster was to do my shed shows, now I have lots of writing projects to juggle and I’m busy working on various things for next year. I suppose it gives me the time to focus on these, while spending lots of lovely family time (and coping with the realisation that I was funnier and more interesting to my children when I was away more).

Back in March you launched straight away into the 67-episode “Stilgoe In The Shed” series? What spurred you to do it?

The acceptance that with all gigs lost, this would be the only way I would do any piano practise. It ended up as quite a public piano practise… It was actually my wife’s idea. All my best ideas are hers. She said ‘get in the shed’ and I obeyed. It turned out to be a great idea as I kept my chops up while learning new songs, getting to interact with people and actually finding some of that adrenaline from live performance finding its way back into my system. Or out of it. Not sure which way adrenaline flows. Maybe up and out of the top of the head?

Does the sense of building connections, even helping to unite or re-unite co communities have anything to do with it?

Absolutely. The "Shedders" community grew quite quickly and the regulars watched every episode apparently. They even started their own online forum as many of them made friends during the live chat that accompanies all live streams. We started to read out dedications and requests - birthdays, anniversaries, moments of happiness and even deaths were shared and that made it both more real and also allowed me to enjoy a closer connection with fans. It really felt we were doing some good, and when we started to choose local or smaller national charities who were being forgotten in the scrum, it gave each week a focus.

You are also a broadcaster,and there’s a family heritage in broadcasting…but you chose to just put out the daily show on YouTube. In retrospect, are you glad you did?

I’m glad technically because it turns out it’s very easy to broadcast on Youtube. Anything else was beyond me in this early stages. I had a phone, a tripod and a shed, and that’s all there was. That’s all there is now. I thought about using expensive microphones and more cameras but what’s the point when it’s all about the connection with the audience, and them seeing me in my most natural state, in my place of work? Also, more and more people aren’t using social media anymore so it means it’s all in one place, easily accessible with a quick search or a link.

There was a poignant episode where you reacted sincerely to the police murder of George Floyd. Is it harder to be serious or to be funny?

It’s much harder to be serious. I still find it a struggle to appear sincere, as I naturally veer towards clowning and being silly. That’s how I deal with things. This platform gave me the opportunity to actually try to encapsulate how those momentous world events affect us all, but particularly those of us who write music and words and try to get a sense of the human condition. I’m getting better at it, but I still feel like it’s not my place - a case of imposter syndrome perhaps. The audience was very supportive when I did try to talk about these sensitive subjects, and with two young girls growing up in a rapidly changing world I feel like I have to educate myself and talk about these things.

You have a capacity to learn, even adopt new songs. Do you have any idea how many there now are or how many new ones you’ve learnt this year?

I think at the last count I did over 250 new songs in the series. How many of them I could play to you right now I’m not sure, but luckily I’m quick to learn the music and then adapt it to my own style. The words are harder but luckily we have THE INTERNET. How did people find all those lyrics before? Word of warning though - there are lots of mistakes on lyric sites. It’s often just people sending in their own rough idea of what the words are, so do check with official sources if you can.

Part of the “Stilgoe In The Shed” story is of your taking on new songs that were requested. What were the best ones ? And presumably there were some requests you needed to rule out?

I had a policy of turning nothing down, but then somebody requested "Copacabana" and somebody else a Metallica song, both in the same episode. I had to draw a line there. No disrespect to Messrs Manilow and Ulrich but a man has his limits. The best requests were those sort of songs I never thought I could cover, had a crack at and quickly fell in love with. That’s nearly every song on the album - they were all chosen by the audience, and the songs that resonated most were those that perhaps I didn’t think would fit my style. Maybe it’s time for "Enter Sandman" after all.

You decided not to compete with Petula Clark’s Irish accent for the song “How are things in Glocca Morra” from Finian’s Rainbow but to do it as an instrumental on the piano. What’s the story there?

Oh Petula! We were just listening to her actually, on the Mary Poppins cast recording - she plays the bird woman who sings "Feed The Birds". It’s the greatest Disney song ever - Walt’s favourite apparently - he had the Sherman brothers play it to him every morning during the creation of the film. But back to that rainbow - I actually had a look at the words when someone requested this song and because of the slightly archaic vernacular I chose just to play the tune on the piano. As I was playing it I remembered I knew the song from one of my favourite albums by Wynton Marsalis and his father Ellis (Standard Time Vol. 3), and I had an enormous and sudden sense of love for this piece of music. What a tune!

Why choose to record the album in just one day?

I wanted all the performances to be as live, so we only did one take of each song. I thought I was emulating that great record Bill Evans did with Tony Bennett, but I checked the other day and it turns out they did up to 15 takes of some of those songs. So, this was a massive misunderstanding and I regret it hugely. Joking - I love that it captures me at the piano, playing as if I was recording a shed show. James and I have made 5 albums together now so it’s a very easy and quick working relationship.

You have been working with comedians. Has that changed the way you work.. or look at the world? And what new projects do you have after this album

Working with comedians is the only way that my choice of career makes any sense as their lives are even more unpredictable than musicians, and often more solitary. I’ve always been a bit of a comedy nerd, so to work with or even meet some of my favourite comics has been a constant joy. It also improves my stage craft, as a great comic leaves nothing to chance, even if there’s improv involved. It’s about preparing for every eventuality, and having material that captures an audience immediately. They say in comedy you have 20 seconds to grab an audience and make them like you - I often think musicians forget this or don’t think it applies to them. Perhaps it doesn’t, but I think it’s a good maxim to perform by. There can be a lot of ambling about and a lack of thought about the whole performance sometimes at gigs. When I’m a tiny bit off I can be guilty of this, so I have to remember to be firing as soon as I’m on stage. One of the few times I’ve been properly starstruck was meeting Eddie Izzard in a BBC portakabin at the Edinburgh Festival 3 years ago. A huge moment. For him.

New projects? I’m working on a new record with the brilliant Giacomo Smith from Kansas Smittys. We’re actually forming a new band called The Entertainers. All the songs are about characters or situations you might encounter in any jazz club in any part of the world. All the same people seem to turn up whether it’s London, New York, Berlin or Kuala Lumpur. You know the same people you see...? The drunk, the shouter, the loud flirt, the record executive, the reclusive time-bomb, the happy revellers who can’t stop, the secret lovers. We’ve had a great time writing these songs - about 20 now, so we hope to record early next year and release it in the summer. It was going to be this year’s big project, with a Mainstage slot at Love Supreme, but as with everything, it wasn’t to be. We wait, like everyone else. 2021 is going to be quite the year.


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