Interview With Joe Solo
You probably don’t know the name Joe Solo, but it’s about time you introduced yourself to him.
Folk punk troubadour. Committed socialist. Disciple of Woody Guthrie and Joe Strummer. A historical storyteller. An artist who wears his heart on his sleeve and isn’t afraid to back up his ideals with actions. Solo is a man of many things without diminishing any of the other aspects of himself, which is incredibly rare in life, never mind someone in the music industry. He walks his own path, picking his subjects carefully and deliberately.
“Sledgehammer Songs” went live for pre-order last Bandcamp Friday and immediately covered it’s costs within a few hours meaning that Joe was then able to raise over £2000 for front line grassroots support. The success has also caught him by surprise meaning he’s had to quickly order more CDs.
Twenty years in and his passion for his craft hasn’t been diminished. “This is an album about music and its importance, not only to the political struggle, but to our own sense of who we are. It is both personal and protest” says Joe. We managed to catch up with him for a chat over email to discuss his ideals and also his music.
So, this year marks of you performing as Joe Solo. Before that you played in the punk band Lithium Joe. What facilitated the change for you?
We came to a natural end in 2001/02 as we were living in different towns and the ability to work remotely wasn’t really a thing back then. We never really split. There was no bust-up. We just couldn’t find a way to keep going when we were so far apart, we had young kids, and the world wasn’t interested. It was ten fantastic years that I’d not swap for anything, but everything has to end, and our rock’n’roll dreams ended there.
Your music is stripped back which makes the parts that are there more effective. Was this a conscious decision?
Yes. I’m a lyricist first and foremost, and as a songwriter you play to your strengths. Making room in the arrangement for the story to be told is more important to me than showing off my licks....not that I have any, but you know what I mean, everything that exists in the music is to draw your attention to the words, not distract you from them.
There’s a very strong political theme to your lyrics. Was this a natural step or add it something that you deliberately aimed for?
I just write about what is important to me, and a sense of place and time and history and connection and Class, that is what shapes my world. Humanity needs us to be more than selfish creatures trying to service our own desires. To survive and to grow as a species, we need to be better than this. Everything to me is political.
Previously your songs have covered topics and themes such as people volunteering to fight in the Spanish Civil War, the Miner’s Strike, the effects of the blitz in 1940’s Hull, the dawn of Thatcherism, as well as the principles of socialism. Do you find it important that you chronicle these things? What drives you to write about them?
I think my job is to hold up a mirror to our times, to draw parallels, to remind people of flashpoints in history which reflect what we are living through, or demonstrate the spirit of the kind of solidarity we need to survive. There’s this philosophy of history in which people like me are described as rag-pickers on the battlefield of time. We collect what seems to us to be important and we speak of it; and even though it may not always be apparent precisely WHY it is important in any given moment, there will come a time when somebody, somewhere, needs the example of the story you have told in order to reignite the struggle further up the road. I believe that’s my job. To inspire the future with snapshots of the past.
From following you on social media, I know you donate a lot of money from shows and sales from your music to charity. How did this begin? I can imagine that it really helps lift you knowing that not only are you spreading your music but you’re actively trying to make a change.
That started around 10 years ago when it became abundantly clear that the political choices made by the government were hurting Working Class people up and down the land. We went on to start something called ‘We Shall Overcome’ which uses gigs to raise food, cash, clothing, bedding, sanitary products…whatever…for grassroots community outreach projects. We’ve raised not far short of a million quid with well over 1000 gigs, and that all stayed in the town that raised it to help people locally. There’s the rag-picker holding up that mirror again, when I first started in the 80s, benefit gigs were for victims of earthquakes or famines abroad, and now they are for people on the streets of our own towns and cities. That is how far we have fallen, and it takes someone like me to point that out.
I know you’re a fan of Joe Strummer. What is it that you draw from him? Is it more of a musical influence or a one that reflects his attitude?
I just like the way Strummer didn’t preach. He would show you glimpses of things in his lyrics and ask ‘Look at this. What do you think about it?’ It forced you to make up your own mind. That was incredibly inspirational to my generation who up until then had pretty much been spoon-fed everything we knew. All of a sudden we had to think for ourselves. Course, it helped that he was cool as fuck too.
Your new album is called “Sledgehammer Songs”. What can you tell us about it?
It’s an album about music and why it is politically, psychologically and spiritually important. It weaves between the personal and the political, but over all it’s just exactly the kind of record I would have wanted to hear growing up. It comes out swinging and it doesn’t pull any punches. It’s also really fun to play live, which always helps.
What’s your thought process when you’re preparing for a new album? Do you have ideas in mind going in?
Not usually. If it’s a history album, yes, I have the subject and I read about it and listen to people talk about it, until I know where to start. The initial process takes a while, but the songs come really quickly after that. With an album like ’Sledgehammer Songs’ I just keep writing until I know where my head is at, and the path presents itself. There’s no one way of doing any of it. I might never write another album, or I might write two next week. I can’t tell. I don’t ever want to. It would take all the fun out of it.
You’ve recently released “Twenty From Twenty”, a retrospective of your career. How tough was it to choose the songs you included and were there any that came close to being on there that weren’t?
It was actually quite easy. I asked people for their favourites. I got a list that didn’t fit on an 80 minute CD. So I picked the only 20 that did. Pure mathematics. The choices were great ones, mind. They did good.
You juggle a lot of things. As well as your music you hold down a full time job, you host a radio show, you’re constantly gigging and your a political activist. How do you find the time and motivation?
I make time. I don’t drink, I don’t socialise at all except for gigs and marches and rallies. It’s my life. People are sleepwalking into a right wing hell-hole the depth of which they have no concept of because they can’t see the historical patterns repeating. If Labour take power this year many will cheer, but social democratic governments which take power in economic slumps always turn against the Working Class, and when they do, they become kingmakers for the Far Right. We have dark days ahead of us, not least because a world war is slowly escalating around us. We can still avert all of that if we focus on what is actually happening instead of being sucked into the daily mudsling of the Culture War. That’s my motivation, to bring people together, to unite them in a world that does everything it can to divide.
I know that for some musicians being political can be a taboo subject but, for me, it feels natural to do so. Why do you think some people struggle with this?
Cowardice. The accepted wisdom is that you don’t talk politics otherwise you split the audience and drive people away, and if all you care about is cash and fame, or checking your analytics, then carry on, but I won’t be listening. It’s the job of an artist, and I don’t use that term lightly, an ARTIST, to challenge, to provoke, to inspire, not to indulge the petty fantasies of people who don’t want to think in case they end up with an opinion. If all you care about is numbers, go and be a fucking accountant. Have some respect for the stage and the mic and the responsibility that comes with them. Strummer would tell you that.
As an artist, what would you recommend people to check out as influences on yourself?
The Clash, Antonio Gramsci, the first three Pogues albums, Two-Tone, Marx and Engels, and Woody Guthrie…..though not necessarily in that order.
Any final words in closing?
Nah, I’ll only talk myself into trouble.
Many thanks to Joe Solo for taking his time to talk to us. You can order “Sledgehammer Songs” and his previous albums from https://joesolomusic.bandcamp.com/
Interview - Scott Hamilton