OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS Q&A with Jennifer McMahon

Ahead of her performance with the Jennifer McMahon Quartet at Signal Series on Thursday 3rd October at Arthur's, Dublin singer-songwriter Jennifer McMahon shared her ideas about the power and vulnerability of performing, creative projects in soundscapes, and finding more personal relationships with audience in a globalised world.

Straddling the boarders of jazz, soul and folk, Jennifer McMahon is a singer, songwriter and producer from Dublin. Inspired lyrically by life experiences, compositionally by exploration and jazz- inspired harmonies aswell as more conceptual ideas; Jennifer’s music has become a cross over of genres bringing drama through jazz, improvisation through soundscapes with a touch of soul for good measure, all the while retaining the storytelling importance of folk music. At the heart of Jennifer’s music is the human experience; living it, witnessing it and sharing it: the light in the dark, the beauty in sadness, the turbulence in stillness. Absorbed with the juxtapositions of life’s extremities, Jennifer’s music is an aural oneness of opposites.

Q. What is the most important thing to you when making music?

Honesty. For me, music is sacred. If I’m not honest, then I literally feel as though I’m lying, to the audience and myself! It’s different when you’re ‘performing’, you can be an actress, play a role but when I write I don’t know how to be anyone other than myself so I want that to be authentic. I used to feel that my music had to ‘fit’ into a certain genre and if I found myself writing something else, I’d wonder if I’m being honest with my ‘style’. Now I believe the opposite is true! I try to write whatever is honest to me in that moment, regardless of style or fitting into some brand of sorts. As a result, some of my music is jazz-infused, samba-inspired, some more conceptual, some very much story-led. Regardless, it is mostly based on emotion. I think my work is in trying to remain true to myself and sharing that in all it’s vulnerability and power. I love to work with other artists for the same reason. I love seeing people in their rawest forms. This stuff is so individual that that is the thing that needs to be nourished, in my opinion; cultivating the honest artist, whatever that means.

Q. Who or what inspires you at the moment - be it in music, arts, politics or your personal life?

It sounds cheesy but I can inspired by everything! Nowadays I embrace my intensity in life, where before I’d try to run away from it; I’m learning a lot from that! I love nature, I might get inspired by a leaf floating in a pond or feeling it crispy underfoot. I like ‘otherworldly’ ideas which can come from books or memories or perceptions of the past. That’s one of the joys of an active imagination; we can right wrongs, offer advice in hindsight. My most recent project was very much an effort in self-healing but I am working on material for a future project tentatively called ‘Laniakea’ which will touch on some of those outerwordly explorations! I love getting to know people from other cultures and trying to see life through their lense. I’ve started training for a half marathon which gives me a whole new understanding about my own body.

I’m loving artistic research projects right now, I will present one at the ISSTA (Irish Sound, Science and Technology Association) conference at the end of October. It’s a project deconstructing soundscapes and using prompts and material from it to inspire new compositions and improvised performances. It’s a collaboration with a colleague in Spain, which is an interesting approach to work, for us both. I’m also really interested in the mind; how we perceive life, the limitations we put on ourselves and why, the narratives we tell ourselves. It’s fascinating! I think pretty abstractly and in ‘big picture’ form and I’m interested in how some practices relate to life, how we can use one to learn about the other. For me, music is one of those practices. It’s like a compass. I’m really curious so I like to try new things a lot, find new perspectives; that keeps my creativity flowing and interest piqued.

Q. How would you describe the type of music that you create?

My music goes through different periods, as I do. The content tends to reflect whatever I’m dealing with in life. It’s kind of my therapy. I hope that it’s human; I guess that’s the best way I can put it. I hope people can relate to it. I go through periods of immersion in different styles not so much to master that style but to be able to sprinkle a flavour of it in my music. I’ve always liked various genres so it makes sense that my music reflects that too but ultimately, I like to create things and music is my main tool in my toolbox!

The music is my way of connecting, transmuting feelings on a particular emotion, process or event into something that feels tangible. It helps me deal with the tough stuff by summing  it into something that feels more ‘controllable’ or ‘understandable’, maybe. And hopefully it offers the same for the listener.

When I was younger, my brothers would have Nirvana or Eminem in the CD player, my folks liked music from the 70s. Somehow I heard Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Etta James, I love that era. When I started to play guitar I listened to Damien Rice, Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley. I studied Jazz in undergrad coming from a love of Ella, Miles and broadway tunes. These days I love Gregory Porter, Esperanza Spalding, Bon Iver, Dermot Kennedy, they all scream honesty, and that’s an important quality to me right now.

Q. In your ideal gig, what experience/response would the audience have?

Ideally, I want the audience enjoy themselves, to discover something in themselves. I want them to feel empowered in their own story. I hope that the music and the narrative resonates with them somehow and they can take something away from the experience of sharing that exact moment with those particular people in that specific room. I want us all to be aware of the inherent uniqueness of the event. Ultimately, I hope they can take whatever they need from it. I don’t think I can ask too much more from them!

Q. What direction do you see the music industry headed towards in the next 20 years?

I think technology is moving so fast that it’s hard to predict that far ahead! I imagine a lot of changes though. I imagine blockchain technology will gradually cut out the middle-man somewhat and artists will get a more direct payment for their music. I think collaboration is the way forward and we need to build creative communities to help each other thrive. This DIY musician thing is great and it gives us a lot of tools but we need to stop considering what we do with scarcity, secrecy and struggle, and embrace a more co-dependent, collaborative and interactive musical/ creative environment that doesn’t just rely on big labels to hold the reigns.

Creators are experimenting a lot more which excites the heck out of me! I love learning about electronic possibilities in performance, projection mapping and generation of visuals; the idea of a show, it gives creators more possibilities to express themselves and I’m all for that! I imagine more artist focused, multi-disciplinary events where the performers interact in real time; music, painters, dancers, live visual artists and so on. It’s already happening but we need not to rely solely on the organisations with the funds to back big shows. Instead, artists have the power to take more decisions into their own hands by embracing collaboration.

Relationships with audiences seem to be becoming more personal, even with the bigger acts, which I feel is essential and lovely! Given the global environment, we need to find solutions to flying around the world to tour. It’s just not sustainable, and the more conscious artists are addressing ways to make changes. There could be some major innovations, as a result. I love Esperanza Spalding and Bon Iver, their approach to being an artist in today’s climate, is inspiring to me for those reasons. Artists are becoming more and more like creative entrepreneurs and I hope the skill-sets and qualities we have are recognised accordingly, by society. We’re still pretty out-dated in our collective understanding of what it is to be an artist. I hope that moves forward. I also see a lot more music in education and therapy which is definitely needed. Artistic research programs and understanding the mind ‘on’ music are growing topics of study so I’m excited to see where all that leads too.

Thanks Jennifer!
Hear the Jennifer McMahon Quartet LIVE at
Signal Series
Thursday 3rd October, 9pm
Arthur's Blues & Jazz Club
Tickets: €10 online/€12 at the door

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