Interview with Joel Sarakula
On his new album "Companionship", prolific writer, producer, performer and multi-instrumentalist Joel Sarakula keeps the mood easy and the grooves deep. Ten new songs see Sarakula develop a deeper, more introspective lyrical style from his previous works as he celebrates and laments friendships, love and loneliness. The result is one of the most exciting albums of 2020. We spoke with the Sydney-born and London-based artist about his new album, his fascination for smooth West Coast and soul music of the 70s, and the effects of the Corona crisis on his new release.
*Joel, with your highly-acclaimed last album "Love Club" you moved two years ago into the golden age of soul and soft rock music of the 70s. With your new album "Companionship" you follow this way consequently. Are the smooth West Coast sounds the perfect supporting medium for your song themes?
There's a permanent sunshine in West Coast music and you could say there's a deep rooted optimism at the heart of most my lyrics. Maybe that's informed by my childhood in sun-kissed Sydney where I had the beach as my backyard. So yes, I guess they are a good match!
*With your last album you dedicated an entire album to the topic “love”. Is there again a thematic red thread on "Companionship”?
Relationships are again at the heart of “Companionship”. There are themes of love, friendship and isolation running through the album. We are ultimately defined by our relationships so it's a never ending source of creativity for an artist.
*"Companionship" seems even more homogeneous, focused, sophisticated and smooth as its predecessor. How do you estimate your further development since “Love Club”?
I tried to set more of a limit to the styles I employed on “Companionship”. I drew on a smaller set of influences both externally and internally. I think I'm closer to expressing myself completely emotionally and intellectually in the music on this album and in my music... while simultaneously I somehow find myself less able to express myself outside of my music, haha! You win some, you lose some.
*"Companionship" opens with your current single "Midnight Driver". And when I first heard this song, I had to think of early Steely Dan. Which music and artists influenced you for the new album?
I love Steely Dan of course, they are one of my favourite bands along with Hall and Oates, Sly and The Family Stone, Todd Rundgren, Young Gun Silver Fox and many, many others. I'm not sure I was directly influenced by any particular artist or song while making the record. In fact, I try to limit the amount of music I'm exposed to while I'm making a record. But of course these inspirations are inside our memories and subconscious and they work their way through our synapses and membranes and express themselves when we least expect them to! I also take a lot of lyrical ideas from conversations I have with people and my direct surroundings.
*Joel, despite all the passion for West Coast music and Soft Rock, your affinity for R&B, fusion and soul is always present on "Companionship". In the wonderful song "Sunshine Makes Me", for example, you can hear a little homage to Roy Ayers' classic "Everybody Loves The Sunshine". Underneath all the shimmering smoothness and lightness of your music, the depth of soul still lurks. Would you agree with that?
Yes, I love Soul and fusion and most jazz-based styles. It's what I grew up with in my formative years as a musician. My musical heroes as a 10 year old were jazz piano legends like Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck and Duke Ellington, haha. So yes, soul and jazz is always present in my music. It's deep and spiritual while also being cerebral – a beautiful balance and I always return to it.
*Joel, please tell us a little bit about the recording process and the production of "Companionship". Where was the new album recorded? Who supported you in the studio this time?
Like “Love Club”, I used quite a few studios to put this together with lots of great players. The studios were dotted between London, Berlin and Dordrecht. There were too many musicians involved for one short answer so please, please check out the liner notes for more info about the talented musicians! But I'd like to single out some standout contributions from Phil Martin in Dordrecht on drums and percussion and engineering for a lot of tunes, Geno Carrapetta on drums and Paul Housden on bass in London, Alex Dommisch on Guitar in Berlin, Sheena Ross who sang some incredible backing vocals for me in London and Alexander Mink in Stuttgart who laid down those great flute solos!
*You have been in contact with your label mate Andy Platts from Mamas Gun and Young Gun Silver Fox for quite a while now. You told me some time ago that you wrote a song together with Andy. Did the song make it onto the album?
That's right, Andy and I wrote a song together called “Don't Give Up On Me” and it did make it onto the album. It's one of my favourite tracks.
*Joel, hand on heart, do you have a favorite song on the album?
Does anyone ever really answer that question?! Ha. Well I'm most proud of “King Of Clowns”, “Game of Spies” and “Don't Give Up On Me”. I think I've had to arrive where I've arrived to do those tunes.
*When one reads about your music, the term “cinematic” or “cinematic mood” comes up again and again. Would you characterize your music like this? And if so, which movies and soundtracks have a significant influence on your musical work?
I am definitely a cinephile and images, external or internal really inspire my writing and recording. Again, I think the direct influence is more subconscious but I do watch a lot of Film noir, French new wave and British cinema of the 60s and 70s. I am so obsessed by images I sometimes feel I'm trying to produce a soundtrack to a 70s movie that exists only in my mind! I feel I'm operating in a space between memory (imagined or not), dream and cliché. But the trick is trying to make it relevant for a contemporary audience.
*How important is authenticity for you as an artist and musician?
The idea of authenticity is a difficult one and it's understood differently by most people. I used to think we've devalued the idea of authenticity in the modern age. If the general public can accept a kid going on a TV talent show, being signed as a member of a boy band and then accepting them re-branding themselves as a serious artist as a valid route to artistry then I'm not sure I understand what authenticity even is in this age! I was thinking about Harry Styles then but that said, Scott Walker's career path had parallels with this and no-one would dare question his authenticity would they? So maybe this kind of route to authenticity has always been around.
Nepotism and familial influence is the other issue in authenticity. As I came from a humble, non music industry background I used to be steadfastly against the idea of generational influence, almost not accepting artists who had a direct parental influence – Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Baxter Dury, Shuggie Otis etc. But I've mellowed over the years and I realise we are all somehow products of our familial and otherwise influences. Now I personally value my childhood experiences of seeing my dad playing the piano and my parents expose me to the music of their youth and knowing my grandma studied to be an opera singer and realise they all influenced me.
When I started hearing Thundercat around the Drunk album, I really dug him. Then I read in his bio that his father was a famous LA session player and that just took the glow off him a little for me cause as I said, I like my geniuses to come from nowhere and struggle a bit, haha. But I was chatting with a drummer friend about this and he actually liked Thundercat even more because I told him about the famous session player dad and thought that actually gave him an added level of authenticity! So that just brings me back to my first point that authenticity is interpreted differently by most people.
*You are known for being on tour almost all the time. How much do these experiences, foreign countries, new contacts and musical ‘companionship’ influence your creative process?
I think my travelling experiences have been very deep influences on not just my music but my worldview. I try to keep myself completely open whenever I travel and I'm lucky to constantly see incredible places to meet some very inspiring people. And I'm also influenced a lot by my musical companions of course, by their techniques, writing styles and so forth. I'm so open to influence that the danger would be losing a homogenous consistency... but I'm too stubborn on doing things my own way for that to happen!
*What does it mean for you to perform live? How important is the interaction with the audience and other musicians for you as an artist?
It's very important for me. It's a spiritual act for me to perform. It's also my daily exercise routine, I'm pretty athletic onstage! It's a great privilege to connect with an audience via my music and that connection is the one thing that brings me back to the stage time and again. I give a lot to every performance.
*Originally, you're from Sydney. When and why did you decide to seek your fortune in London?
I had already travelled and toured extensively but I moved to London permanently about 10 years ago. It's simply a much better connected city than Sydney is – the ease of jumping on a short flight to Berlin or Barcelona is an incredible drawcard. And since my first travels to the UK and Europe, I guess I've felt a lot more connected culturally than I did in Sydney, there is a scene for everyone in London and it is one of the great cultural cities. That said, it's a fast paced city, it takes no prisoners and it can leave a lot of people feeling cold and alone. It requires constant attention and a kind of struggle and I find myself often reevaluating my feelings toward it. And as for fortune? I'm still seeking it!
*Was there ever a professional alternative to being a musician for you?
I have a bachelor degree in science, specifically computer science. I haven't worked much in that field but it's handy having the knowledge and the affinity with computer technology. But if I were to 'choose' an alternative career path in an alternate reality where I wasn't an artist I might have studied architecture and town planning as I have a passion for these things... or a movie director of course!
*Joel, in view of the Corona crisis, we must also talk about the effects on you. You’ve planned to tour "Companionship" through Europe and the UK this spring and summer, which cannot take place at this time. Among others, you should be the opening act for Mamas Gun. How do you think it will go on for you and your new album?
I had a really big tour of Europe planned for May and June. The Mamas Gun gigs and my London show have been rescheduled to September at least and most likely a couple of other shows might be rescheduled around that time. But the advice changes daily and who knows if we can actually go to concerts in September. We just wait in hope! So aside from radio and press which have always been good to me and handled well by my promotional team, we also need to focus on digital marketing to make people aware of the album. That's a world I'm not too familiar with but I'm trying to learn the language.
*What do you do with the time you involuntarily gained?
Writing and recording, jogging, a lot of cooking and reading.
*Are you currently planning special online offers for your fans, e.g. online shows?
To celebrate the release, I will perform a little house show livestreamed on Facebook on May 1st to celebrate the release of the album. You can check out my Facebook page for more details.
*One last question: What significance does music have for you in this time of crisis?
Music is a direct connection to our creativity and hope as humans. It can convey so much feeling, emotion and intelligence. We need it now more than ever.
Thank you very much for the interview, Joel!