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In The Spotlight: Sammy Stein Talks To Jo Harrop

Jo Harrop is a vocalist whose personality flows into her sound. I have seen her perform in the intimate space that is Hampstead Jazz Club and more recently in the Piano bar in Soho, where my companion, Georgia Mancio, herself a wonderful singer, was greeted by Jo and invited to join her for a song. Georgia sang ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ to the delight of the crowd, who had been enjoying Jo’s renditions of known and unknown songs, each one crafted into Jo’s vision of how the number should be delivered. 

The difference between the first time I saw Jo in 2019 and the most recent performance is astounding. She is confident, sure of herself, her identity, and sounds like the individual she is. 

Platinum Mind decided it is high time Jo got her chance in the spotlight so here she tells me about her career so far and where she is going. 

SS- Sammy Stein

JH – Jo Harrop      

SS – Tell us briefly about your journey in music until now.

JH – I can remember singing all the time as a little girl. My family loved music but were not musicians in any shape or form, so I had no clue about how to be a singer, no formal training, other than listening to the radio, watch MTV, playing records and dreaming. I would write poems and add lyrics in books and learn all the words off by heart to anything, from Ella Fitzgerald to Whitney Houston. 

I moved to London from the Northeast, (Jo still retains her subtle accent) at 18 on a wing and a prayer and auditioned for everything, got no call backs, until one day I found a manager and agent, Sue Carling, who would send me to do backing vocals with pick up bands for international artists. In doing this I met real musicians, jazz musicians, and started playing jazz standards in bars and at functions for years, learning all the words off by heart. I had a folded piece of A4 paper with the songs I knew, and the keys written next to them and that was it. 

Eventually, after having my two children, I didn’t even know what I was going to do with my music career. I had worked hard, but it was not really going anywhere – until I was lucky and got a call to step in for someone’s singer who got sick. 

Someone came and wrote a glowing review that night, and I just got this insane fire in my belly to really go for it and start singing again. I met my now manager, Mayank, owner of Hampstead jazz Club, who asked me what my plan was – I said I didn’t know but I would like to write songs, be a recording artist, travel the world and play with the best musicians on the best stages. 

So, a few months later in 2020, a global lockdown happened, and that is when I put pen to paper and began to write songs with co-writers. We released two albums in that time on Lateralize Records. And I have Iggy Pop and Jo Whiley to thank for playing my music on BBC Radio 2 & BBC Radio6 and to the team at Jazz FM, because suddenly I had followers and people buying my records. The childhood dream was starting to become a reality. 

SS- Your list of recordings is growing. Are you releasing music in the near future? Are you able to tell us about this – what inspired you, how did you find musicians to work with?

JH- I can’t believe I have now made five records with my label, Lateralize. ‘The Path Of A Tear’ is my latest release for 2024, and it was produced by legendary producer, Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Herbie Hancock, Melody Gardot, and many others). 

He has such an outstanding, organic, and beautiful way of producing records, that this album sounds timeless, and I am very excited to release it. It features songs that I have co-written with different writers, mainly I write the lyrics and the top line melody, and the collaborators write the music. The songs tell a true story, a journey that I have been on, but I think the message is universal and people will relate to the songs very much. It’s very honest and heartfelt. 

The musicians on this record, were chosen by the producer, Larry Klein, and are world class heavy weight players. Anthony Wilson (Diana Krall, Madeleine Peyroux) is the guitarist, Jim Cox (Leonard Cohen, B. B King) on keys, Victor Indrizzo (Willie Nelson, Alanis Morissette) on drums, and David Piltch (Blood, Sweat and Tears, Holly Cole, K.D. Lang) and Larry Klein share the bass parts. They all are incredible artists in their own right, and brought their magic to the table as we recorded the album very organically in the three days we spent in The Village studios in LA. 

SS- How is it promoting your music? Do you target specific audiences, or put it out and hope for the best?

JH – I have always mostly had a loyal jazz following, as I started out singing the standards and playing jazz venues. However, after Jo Whiley and Iggy Pop played my music, the audience has widened, and I often have people come up to me at the end of a live show and say that they didn’t know that they liked jazz, but they loved the show. Jazz is a very wide term anyway, but I have always strived to make music for everyone of all tastes and ages, because my own musical taste is so eclectic. I stand by it when I say that a good song is a good song, no matter the genre. So when I promote, I tend to try to reach out across the board. Using social media and YouTube I think it’s getting easier to do this. Being played on the radio has definitely helped so much so I am always very grateful to the DJs. 

And yes … there is a lot of hoping for the best too!! 

SS– How have you found a label /agent and other people to represent you?

JH – I was singing at my (now) manager’s jazz club in Hampstead in 2019, and he approached me and asked me if I could come up with a plan and go and have a meeting with him. So I did, and he asked to represent me. He was very sweet and said the kindest thing that I have heard about my music, he said ‘I don’t think that you realise how good you are’ – and I was taken aback by that as I really needed someone to believe in me. 

I am not sure that he was prepared for all of the crazy things that have happened in the past four years, but he has stuck right by me. The label has done everything that they promised and more for me. 

Having representation has opened doors for me that I don’t think I thought I could even so much as dare knock on before. 

SS- You recently went to the US and sang there – what was memorable and how did the audience receive you?

JH – I will never ever forget singing on stage in the USA as long as I live. I sang in two of the best jazz clubs in the world (Dizzys in New York & SF Jazz in San Francisco). The audiences were so warm and receptive. I was terrified – to sing in a new country where nobody knows you, especially America, which is so famous for its music scenes. I mean I didn’t even know if anybody would turn out, let alone applaud, give standing ovations, and ask for double encores. It was just wonderful. 

SS- As a female artist, do you feel there is any prejudice or expectations of women that male performers do not have, or do you feel the field is even now?

JH – Oh it’s still a man’s world – it’s getting better, but this industry is still very male musician heavy. There are more female singers but less great male jazz singers on the UK scene. Musician-wise we are seeing some incredible female players explode onto the scene and I think that we are all holding our own. But yes there is still a lot of expectation on some levels for female performers to wear the glamorous attire on stage, to entertain visually rather than just focussing on the music that they’re playing. The guys don’t really get that so much.

SS- If you were to advise a young performer just starting out, are there any lessons you might pass on?

JH – I’d say, believe in what you are doing. Be yourself and be inspired by others, but do not compare yourself. This can be such a downfall, especially with all of the social media platforms. It looks like people are thriving on instagram, but its not always the case, so try not to measure yourself against other peoples’ success- set you own goals.

You have to believe in the music you’re playing, singing, or writing. I never sing something that I cant believe in or doesn’t suit my voice. Oh, and learn the words – lose the iPad on stage!! 😉 

SS- Looking ahead – what would you like to have achieved in say, five or ten years time music-wise?

JH – I hope that I can keep writing and making good albums. To keep collaborating with the world’s finest players and writers – explore new musical styles and genres too. To play great festivals and on sacred stages. I would love to perform my own music at The Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie hall too. 

I have learned that the joy is in the journey and that there really is no end goal – it is just to love the process and all of its ups and downs. 

SS- What would you say are the hardest areas of being a musician?

JH – Being poor – ha! It is a very difficult industry to make a living in because of the way digital platforms have changed the way people listen to music. 

We don’t do it for the money of course – it is who we are – but we still need to eat and pay bills. 

SS- Is it difficult to fit music in with other aspects of your life?

JH – Well there’s so much uncertainty, it is an unpredictable life – and for me, it is like living two lives. I have to leave my children a lot to perform and tour. With all the unsociable hours, it’s hard to make plans with friends with ‘normal’ jobs. I have late nights and then early school runs. Trying to remember to do everything and be organised, and creative and giving yourself all the time, I beat myself up a lot about it. I think it is hard for people not in this business to appreciate how crazy it can be. On the flip side, no day is ever the same, we get to travel, work in amazing places, with amazing people and create beautiful things. Its worth it! 

SS- Have you found the impact of streaming on making a living from your music to have had any impact?

JH – Yes, if people pay £10 per month to have as much music as they like on tap, on streaming platforms, and something crazy like 100,000 tracks per day are uploaded to those platforms, then how on earth does anybody get paid? The artists I mean. You have to pay someone to plug you to a playlist, on a platform where people are listening virtually for free. You pay for promotions to be able to stand out in those 100,000 uploads. We seem to be making the music and then paying people to listen to it. The system is a bit of a joke. 

However – people at jazz clubs do buy CDs and Vinyl! Thank you to those people! We will keep making records for you!

Talking of recordings and vinyl – take a listen to Jo’s new release. ‘The Path of A Tear’ is a wonderful listen and, even though I was well aware of how beautifully Jo can sing, I was not prepared for the depth of emotion, or the vocal prowess Jo displays on this album. The tracks are perfect for her and include the sumptuous self-penned with collaborators, ‘Whiskey or The Truth’ and ‘Never Lonely in Soho’ and her delightful version of Cohen’s ‘Travelling Light.’  Jo has developed such a confidence; such a connection with the music and listener, you cannot help but believe every word she sings as she relates different scenarios and heartfelt stories – including some sassiness and a touch of devilry in there too. Definitely catch Jo live if you can, but I think on this recording you get the full effect of Jo’s vocals without interruption or sidetrack noise – it is well worth investing in this musical journey of discovery. 

      

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