In an era accustomed to brazen R&B superstars, throbbing deep house remixes and whimsical singer songwriters dominating the musical landscape, it takes courage and conviction for an artist to consciously ignore the mainstream, and steer an entirely separate path. It is a route that Jo Harman deliberately chose to follow; a decision that has lead to much critical acclaim, a truly enviable touring and festival schedule, a profitable business model, and the particularly whole-hearted adoption by not just the soul and blues-loving community, but by dedicated music lovers as a whole.
Yet when we think of the blues, we tend to default to a bygone era of overlong guitar noodling, rigid twelve bar song structures and wizened storytellers regaling us with messages of woe. Contrastingly, Jo Harman is none of these things.
So how is it that she has become the 'chosen one' of the blues and soul aficionado? The answer surely lies in her ability to make an emotional connection with the listener. Its not uncommon to see members of the audience at a Jo Harman gig visibly affected by her performance. In fact not just affected, but increasingly often, moved to tears. In the age of beige, when the norm is to suppress the spirit in a deluge of conservatism and political correctness, it is at once a raw and heart-warming sight to witness. After all, it's a rare performer who can convey a song so soulfully that it elicits such an overtly emotional response. It begs the question, what is it about this young singer, about her performance, that creates such a connection? How is she able to so convincingly channel her own life experiences into song?
On the face of it, it could be difficult to pinpoint the source of Jo Harman's capacity to summon such depths of emotion. Traditionally, music's most soulful conveyors of a lyric, from Joplin to Winehouse, have been obviously troubled in heart or in mind. Yet they have utilised that very fragility to their advantage when stepping onto the stage. It is both the source of their darkest moments, yet also the inspiration for their creative triumphs. Growing up amongst the warmth of family life in rural Devon, a quick glance at Jo's upbringing makes the birth of such inner demons harder to recognise. "My parents were loving and supportive in a way that went way beyond the call of duty. They were a little hippy-ish in their way, which I loved. They wanted me to have fun, but also to take responsibility. I used to go out to nightclubs with my friends when I was only thirteen, but it was my mum or dad who would pick us all up at 1am and take us home. They showed huge trust in me." Yet to paint a story of a mis-spent youth would be misleading. Jo's happiest memories growing up were not in the clubs of Torquay, but spent whiling away hour after hour in her father's bookshop, pouring through the latest paperbacks to make their way onto the myriad of bookshelves. It was of course a quest to learn. But it was also an opportunity to bond, to share time and a passion for words with her father.
For Jo, it was bliss. "My father was the apple of my eye. My best friend. I loved being with him." Music was important too. Classical training took her to grade eight level playing the bassoon ("I had big hands! Plus it was the only instrument I could think of that nobody else played. I wanted to be different."), whilst her father's record collection introduced her to the creative highs of Bowie, the Beatles, The Moody Blues and the Stones. However the comforts of music, books and family were not enough to prevent an ambitious Jo from seeking to broaden her life experience in the nation's capital city. University beckoned, and so too did London.
Still in her teens, Jo set about her time in the city with a wide-eyed vigour. Life seemed full of possibility and opportunity. Yet just as the opportunity arose to shake off the shackles of small town life, fate was to deal an unexpected hand. Jo's beloved father was diagnosed with cancer. Sheltering her from the harsh realities of her father's declining health, Jo's parents remained true to form, actively encouraging her to explore her new lifestyle in the city.
The seemingly inevitable occurred when Jo's father passed away, leaving a heartbroken and grief stricken family. Her father had been just 53. Jo was 22. Broke, and feeling devoid of a sense of purpose, Jo's efforts at dealing with the maelstrom of emotions led her to a very dark place; grief would follow anger, would switch to great sorrow, to frustration, to depression and back again.
Angry and withdrawn, she returned home in search of a feeling of closeness to her father. It was the chance to grieve that was so desperately needed. Feeling like an insurmountable wall had formed in front of her, Jo turned to music as a way of escaping from the traumatic aftershock that such an event had inevitably caused her and her family. As is so often the case in life, it was out of a sense of desperation, a genuine need to feel happy once again, that Jo found her moment of clarity; she needed music like never before.
She needed it not just to bring a sense of purpose, to raise her spirits, but most of all, as an outlet for the wealth of emotions she hitherto had no way of expressing. It was to prove a seminal moment. "Out of all of this chaos, I desperately needed something to happen. I had written a song when my dad died, which I somehow managed to perform at his funeral, so I was already beginning to get used to the concept of songwriting as emotional release. Music was the something I was searching for."
With a new-found sense of purpose, Jo dropped everything apart from her guitar, and took her best friend on a flight to India; it was a chance to find space, to explore a sense of spirituality, and to write songs. At least, it was supposed to be; a mysterious virus laid her low within the first week. Falling under the supervision of a local hospital, and one dutiful nurse in particular, it wasn't clear if Jo would recover.
Remarkably, the tender loving care of her treatment meant that Jo was eventually able to leave the hospital on the first day of Diwali, the ancient Hindu festival of light. Still weak from her ordeal, the combination of the visually spectacular festival, and the warmth and generosity of the Indian people not only enabled her to continue her stay in the country, but also provided the final inspiration Jo needed in order to drive her forward. She had seen and experienced enough to know that music was her calling, and her voice the medium through which she could speak.
Returning to the UK, Jo immersed herself in songwriting, and further developed a particular empathy for the depth of emotion conveyed by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Amy Winehouse. As writing began to develop as a vehicle for articulating her inner turmoil, so too gigging became an ever more vital opportunity for expression. Re-settled on the south coast of England, it was whilst performing live that Jo was adopted by a collective of top class musicians, who encouraged both her soulful delivery and her capacity to strike out on her own.
It was inevitable that this proliferation of activity should manifest itself in an album sooner rather than later. There was simply too much emotion to convey, too many lyrics written, too many wounds to heal. ‘Dirt On My Tongue' was released in 2013, and in hindsight, it should have come as no surprise when the soul and blues community responded with such enthusiasm.
Encompassing all of the heartache of her recent years, the themes of the album are both deeply personal, and yet also universal. Jo's vocal delivery veers between outright power and subtle whisper, with a gift for giving the listener the impression that they are the sole intended receiver of the message. From the aching melancholy of 'Cold Heart' to the desperate plea for communication that is '(This Is My) Amnesty,' the album reveals an artist with the capacity to speak to her audience like few others ever can.
Yet it is also an album of optimism, of strength and courage against adversity. ‘I Shall Not Be Moved' is a message of defiance, a triumph of independence and faith in trusting one's heart. It is also a suitable metaphor for Jo's own career, in which she has steadfastly maintained her own journey, both creatively and in a business sense. After all, her capacity to have forged a career as an independent self-fulfilling proposition against a backdrop of seemingly ubiquitous market decline, is itself a rare financial triumph.
So what of the response to her music? How does the artist herself perceive her music, and the enthusiastic response to her debut album? "Its been a joy to have people connect with the music, and of course its wonderful to have been adopted by the blues community. But to be completely honest I don't consider myself a blues singer. There is a bit of the blues in what I do, but there is also a whole heap of soul, gospel and country in my sound." Perhaps most revealingly of all, she is quick to clarify, "You know, I'm really not fussed about the label. I'm more interested in telling a story. I want to tell my story." Which is precisely what her music does.