During our Sounding Out project week at the end of June we were very fortunate to have present two wonderful musicians from the Royal Academy of Music Open Academy, Joe Bentley and Hermione Jones. Both contributed a huge amount to the success of the project and greatly enhanced what was possible for the band to achieve musically, as you can hear here.
Joe kindly agreed to fill us in on his experience of being involved in the project:
Starting with your day job, can you tell us a little about your own musical background please?
Well, for starters, my musical background is about as varied as all the day jobs I’ve had! I’ve worked as a sandwich artist, scrap-metal disassembler, barista, set carpenter, welder, and assistant church music director, in addition to freelancing in the Boston and Providence areas in the United States. As far as my background goes, I was a self-taught rock & roll bass guitarist from the age of 13 to about 19, when I began seriously playing the double bass at the Community College of Rhode Island. From there I transferred to Rhode Island College where I earned my B.M., and after a gap year I began my studies at the Royal Academy of Music here in London. I’ve never really wanted to be anything other than a bass player, and I’m just as happy to sit in with a small jazz combo or bluegrass band as I am to sit in a section, or play Indian classical music. Currently I am focusing on my studies at the RAM and am taking part in as many of the wonderful opportunities there as I possibly can; Sounding Out being one of them!
What were your expectations for the project? Did you have any anxieties beforehand?
To be totally honest, I didn’t quite know what to expect, from the project or the participants. With this type of work it’s hard to predict the level of talent or skill in the participants before meeting them, so I was preparing myself for anything. I had guessed that the music we would be composing would be modern rock/pop/r&b/hip-hop style based on the short video documentary Sara presented to Hermione and I, so I was prepared to be a rhythm section player, but I tried to approach the project with as open a mind as possible. I’d say my main anxieties were about finding the place in the group where I’d be of the best use, and coordinating my schedule between Sounding Out and the very busy musical theatre project I had at the RAM that week!
Was the reality different?
Yes. I ended up doing very little rhythm section work, only playing the bass-line on one of six songs, and doing more background string-section work.
Did anything surprise you during the project?
I was very happy to be surprised by the level of creativity and soulfulness of all the participants! I expected a certain level of timidity and reticence from the people we’d be working with, but everyone was so full of ideas that they all jumped right in and began performing and writing straightaway! Every one of the participants surprised me at one point or another; there was one point where Sharleen brought a song to the group that she premised with a very shy “…I dunno, it’s not finished quite yet…” but when she began to sing everyone in the room dropped what they were doing and just listened. Everyone had a moment like that throughout the week, and it was surprising to be in a room that was so brimming with good energy and talent.
Great. Really, great. I feel as though I’ve learned much, much more from them than they from us over the course of the week. There were a few moments where we had to rein it in and draw the focus back to the project, especially on recording day where we were under a strict schedule, but generally the group dynamic was very good. Everyone was eager to do justice to what we were creating, so when it got down to it I found everyone was able to focus. Also, I was impressed with the skill set in the group; the rhythm section managed to come up with some serious grooves, and ideas they all had for songs were just plain cool. Selwyn was telling me that he took the changes for his tune from a portion of Swan Lake! How cool is that?!
What was it like working with the MiP project team?
Inspiring. The level of open-mindedness and the nurturing artistic environment that Sara, Charles, and Nick brought to the project set a precedent for me, and it certainly showed me how important it to approach art with a clear head. They were all very professional but very relaxed, and were quite good at coaxing the best bits out of what we were all trying to do; a skill that is invaluable in a workshop leader, and pretty amazing when three of them are doing it.
Is there a particular highlight/standout memory from the week?
I think it was the big laugh we all had on Wednesday. From the beginning of the day, progress just seemed gruelling; I even remember Sara saying that with every project there is one of “these days,” where the whole process just slows to a crawl. We were unfocused, we had no energy, the singers seemed to have writers’ block, and we were all having a hard time locking into the groove, when in one of the breaks, someone started goofing on an old hymn tune, and then the whole band started joining in! Before long Valter, Fudge, Sharleen, and Eileen joined in on choruses, the rhythm section put a great gospel setup for it, and I think everyone in the room was shouting an “Amen!” or “Hallelujah!” Fudge may have even come out with a bit of old-fashioned southern-style preaching if I remember correctly, haha. After a few minutes the song collapsed into a heap of laughter and smiles, and instantly the energy was back. Definitely one of the best laughs I’ve had in a long time.
What do you think you’ll take away from the project?
Oh boy, there’s quite a bit. I think the biggest thing that I will take with me is how important it is to approach the artistic process with an open mind. One of the things that impressed me about this project was that there was relatively little arguing about the songs themselves; we were all willing to give just about everything a try. Most of the time we ended up taking the first suggestion and running with it – that certainly wouldn’t have happened if we were all set in our opinions.
Also, this project reinforced for me the idea that music can bring out that which is intrinsically good in a person. It’s no secret that the participants are people who’ve been through quite a lot in their lives, but for this one week we were all just musicians; the past was not a concern, and together we simply wanted to create something beautiful. I don’t know… to me, that’s an experience powerful enough to want the whole world to be in on it.
Do you have a favourite song from the project?
Haha, well, I honestly can’t say that I think any one song is better than the others as I’m very proud of all of them, but I have to say Future probably has my favourite groove. Gotta love some Reggae!
One of the things that I was confronted with while doing this project was my own preconceptions about what type of person constitutes a convict, or ex-con. I feel like many people have this idea that once a person enters the prison system that they are no longer useful to society; a good example being that many are denied employment because of criminal history. The people I worked with during this project were anything but useless; they were creative, motivated, energetic, self-aware, conscientious, and diligent. Everyone in the group has potential, and it would be a shame to waste that. The purpose of a project like Sounding Out is not just to help give the participants skills to successfully re-integrate into society, but to also show the world that it’s possible for people to make big change, and be part of something stronger than the mistakes of the past. If you’re reading this interview, please come along and spread the word!
Thanks for the plug Joe!