When I think of pure art for art’s sake, one of the first people I think of is a young woman from France named Joanne Gabriel. I met her in the good old days of TheSixtyOne when fans and artists could actually get to know one another and become friends.
She is extraordinarily prolific. Some of what she produces are songs in the traditional sense. Others I would describe as flowing ambient soundscapes, full of texture, the kind of music that makes you feel and dream.
Many of her songs feature wordless vocals and she has a lovely voice. She isn’t trying to get famous, she’s just doing what feels right to her. She isn’t afraid to experiment and just play what comes naturally.
Joanne also puts out music under the name Caterwauler and makes “catcore” music featuring her cat Mojo. Mojo sounds scary and makes my little flowerdog growl 😉
I recently interviewed Joanne and learned some interesting things about her craft — and other things, like what a “belly name” is.
She has a ton of songs and albums available for free on Bandcamp. This is a good one, featuring a couple of my favorites — “So Be It” and “The Other Side.”
MusicMissionary: Why do you release some songs as Joanne Gabriel and some songs as Caterwauler? Are you joined by other musicians as Caterwauler or is it for aesthetic reasons?
Joanne Gabriel: Artistic schizophrenia? For me the answer is not as simple as you could think. I took the artist name Joanne Gabriel when I started playing solo gigs. I felt I needed an artist name to help me playing the role of the-best-of-myself on stage, because I was shy and not very self-confident. Gabriel was my “belly name” : a kind of tradition in my family was to give the babies a name they would keep throughout the pregnancy time, until they were born and got their real name.
Everyone thought I was a boy, they called me Gabriel, teased me with this story when I was a kid, and I took the name back when I was older. Then I wrote my first songs and played them live. Soon the audience started to consistently make comparisons, and it was daunting. For instance they screamed “Hallelujah” for the curtain call. I’ve always found Jeff Buckley very impressive. They also called me Archangel Gabriel.
It was quite embarrassing and someday I felt I couldn’t take the responsibility for this comparison anymore and changed my name for Caterwauler. I also refocused on the kind of indie stuff I was performing in band before discovering improvisation. So maybe changing names increased my artistic schizophrenia. I was looking for my style and didn’t know how to handle the disparity of my tastes in my own music.
I guess at some point I was confused enough to split my songs into two categories as if I had two distinct styles or musical personalities. It took me some time to realize my work was a whole and that this way of doing things reflected deeper things than the will of splitting experimental and indie stuff into two different projects. It was all about self-confidence, accepting myself as an artist and accepting how people perceived me.
I took my Joanne Gabriel name back in 2009, released some of the many songs I had kept for myself until then on TheSixtyOne.com, and the feedback and support I got there helped me a lot to cure my schizophrenia. I even realized my experimental stuff tended to be more successful than the songs I was proud of/satisfied with…
So at the moment I think I’m done with the Caterwauler project, but who knows… I like aliases anyway, and borrowing names to attempt things I wouldn’t do otherwise.
MM: Are you joined by other musicians as Caterwauler or is it for aesthetic reasons?
JG: No, I’ve stopped working with other musicians (meaning as a band or on a regular basis) when my 7th drummer left the band some years ago.
Well, that’s not exactly how it happened but I was really bored of spending months working on a project then having to start from scratch again because one of the musicians left. So I decided to become self-sufficient, bought crap e-drums, and started recording my stuff on my own while pretending my skills on all instruments were high enough to do so. No aesthetic reasons, but with time I got to like this way of working, at least this avoids incomprehension and conflicts.
MM: I gather that at least at first, you did sort of use the two names Joanne Gabriel and Caterwauler to separate your music by style. My impression from a sampling your offerings on Bandcamp is that your Gabriel material is a bit more experimental and your Caterwauler stuff has more traditional song structures. Is that accurate?
JG: Yes, at least for the stuff I’ve released. The categorization is much less coherent in my private folders on my computer. Sometimes I had issues deciding what project a track belonged to, and in the end it happened more and more frequently. I’ve even released some of my tracks under one name then changed my mind later and put the song into an album released under the other name.
For instance “Opening all gates” was first released as a Caterwauler song. That’s why the video my friend Viktor Alexis made for it is still tagged Caterwauler, though the song is featured in a Joanne Gabriel album. It’s a quite experimental track. And I have tons of tracks I’ve never released that don’t clearly belong to a category.
All the Introspection albums for example : they are raw compositions, written like a diary or photographs of my everyday life, and I never meant to release them. So I don’t even know in what folder I should put them. There are 7 Introspection albums : sounds, structures and level of experimentation correspond to the mood I was in when I wrote the songs. Some album sessions lasted a few days or a few weeks, others a few months.
Most of the tracks I’ve released online belonged to a session before being gathered in an album. “Excerpts from the lost opuses” is a collection of the most successfully completed tracks of 7 or 8 sessions. The only albums that are the result of a dedicated session are “Almighty” and “The battle for the return of mirth and goodness” (the latter one has never been released).
Lately I’ve realized I tended to categorize my stuff not according to the structures or the genres but rather to the emotions. Some tracks, like “Won’t anyone save me” had a “Caterwauler structure” but a “Joanne Gabriel emotion.” Soon it became impossible to keep this logic when I put together an album. Now I almost always work according to themes or topics.
When a theme inspires me, I create a folder on my computer, give it a name that will become the title of the album, and when a track suits the theme in terms of emotion I put it in the folder. This way, I can open several sessions at the same time and work on several themes. It’s much more convenient and less confusing than releasing stuff under two names.
Here’s one from her alter-ego Caterwauler — there are quite a few of those as well:
Music: the language of emotion
MM: A lot of your music I would classify as “dark” as well as quite lovely. Does your music provide a kind of catharsis for those feelings? (It’s interesting because you come across as very cheerful in conversation.)
JG: Thanks. For me, making music and writing songs is a compulsive thing. There is a catharsis, but most times it’s not the purpose. The purpose is the feelings, the emotions. They’re like a second language, a universal language. Emotions and feelings are the same all over the world. Sound is a perfect vehicle for emotions.
To play their role as a language, touch the listeners and deliver their message, emotions have to be fully rendered. Therefore they have to be fully (and genuinely) felt. I’ve learnt not to conceal my feelings while performing music : on the contrary, I use them. In a way, music is the frame and emotions are the colours.
The wider the emotional range is, the more heartfelt the music is, the more chances you have to make contact with a listener. It happens when someone identifies something he has felt himself someday, or when the emotion is compelling enough to echo in someone’s heart. Transmitter to receiver ; you just have to be tuned on the same frequency.
Feeling low or depressed doesn’t prevent me from being inspired, and as lack of inspiration is the only thing that stops my compulsive writing, my tracks reflect my feelings. On a few occasions I’ve deliberately rekindled some dark feelings to arouse catharsis. Also, in order to be more convincing when writing with directions given by a collaborator, or for a film soundtrack.
I’ve sought catharsis with songs about nightmares and agoraphobia. But mostly, my tracks seize the moment.
MM: Who are some of your biggest influences musically?
JG: Influences, hehe. I like that you specify “musically” There are tons of artists who influence me, and the way they influence me and the impact they have vary. I have “phases.”
To name a few I never grow tired of : Jeff Buckley, who’s been very important for the shaping of my vocal approach and also for my solo performances in gigs. Sunny Day Real Estate, Trail Of Dead, The Waterboys, Swervedriver, NIN, The Dead Can Dance, early Genesis, Simple Minds until “Street Fighting Years”…
Howard Shore’s soundtrack for The Lord Of The Rings also played a big role, and I regularly listen to U2 and Fear Factory. Otherwise I’m fond of gospel and negro spiritual, and Schubert’s Ave Maria always moves me.
These are the biggest ones but many unknown musicians and friends also deserve to be called influences at some point.
The true meaning of ‘success’
MM: Do you hope to someday earn a living from music so that you don’t have to have a day job?
MM: What sort of success have you had getting your music out to the public?
JG: have no clue what sort of success I’ve had. I’m not even sure how to define success. Once I was playing a gig and there was this punk guy, pretty drunk and laughing all the time. It was an open-air concert, in the street, and it was probably the only reason that made him stay.
I started a song, and suddenly he stopped, began listening, and moved closer to the stage. His facial expression changed. The smile disappeared and I found myself looking him right in the eye. He was listening to my lyrics very carefully (he was probably the only native English speaker in the audience).
Then I could read “you’re crazy” on his lips while he was making the cuckoo sign. In this song I was addressing to all the persons I had loved in my life and who had died. Obviously it touched him more than he expected to. I finished my concert, talked with a few persons in the audience…
He was sitting on the floor and was crying. I left him alone (I had noticed he was drinking a lot during the concert and I guessed it added to his turmoil). But I saw him later, just before leaving.
He said : “Thank you, you’ve touched me. I’ve been moving from places to others for a very long time, I have no ties, but you made me feel like settling down. I was trying to escape but now I want to face the things that scare me. But I don’t know how to do it…”
I was really moved. I took his hand, and I told him : “Just do it, you’re strong enough to do it.” There was nothing else I could do or say. He was expecting this answer, he needed it, and at that moment I was the one who was supposed to deliver it. When I left he looked relieved.
I think that was the moment when I realized the importance of the messages an artist can send to his audience, and the responsibility he has. I never knew what happened to this guy after the gig but this encounter has left its mark on me.
When someone asks me a question about my “success,” the first things that come to my mind are this anecdote and a few others, like people coming to me after a performance, with tears in their eyes, saying “thank you” and vanishing in the crowd, or just hugging me.
I guess that’s what success is for me: being able to make contact with a listener so we understand each other and share something. Even if it seldom happens, with only a few persons, and lasts a very short time.
MM: I understand some of your music has been used in soundtracks?
JG: Yes. I first provided Viktor Alexis with songs he used in his films, then he introduced me to his friends Chicken Chris and Jean-David Izambard, and I worked with them. They are still regular collaborators : they “pay” me by making videos for my tracks from time to time. Most of the songs they featured were created before the films though.
So far the only soundtrack I specially wrote was for Chicken Chris’s short film Welt, a sci-fi fantasy tale. It was a great experience. I also recorded several tracks for Viktor Alexis’s adaptation of Le Horlà, but he kept only one for the actual soundtrack.
Lately, Annie Huntley featured a collaborative track with Softspace in videos aiming at increasing public awareness of endangered species, like the Orange-bellied parrots. Annie is studying a Masters of Natural History Film-Making, and she’s extremely committed to protecting wildlife in Australia. I’m delighted this could happen. Having my music featured in wildlife documentaries is an achievement, and the fact it’s endangered species means a lot to me.
Also, “Loin du regard” has been used in a very poignant short film by Will Sheridan, and Stéphane Piter asked me to cover Walking In The Air by Howard Blake for a fan project on Michael Mann’s film The Keep.
Studio vs. Live
MM: How often do you play live and how does your live music differ from what you produce in the studio?
JG: My last live performance was for a “Headphones Festival” in 2008. At the moment I don’t play live at all. When I was at my peak in term of frequency, I was playing live at least twice per month, at most four times. Regarding the difference between live music and what is produced in the studio, it totally depends on the kind of band or project I play in. I’ve played indie rock, punk, metal stuff with bands and it sounded pretty much like what was written in the first place.
But I’ve also performed a lot of solo gigs, and there was a large part of improvisation. So each time I played it was a different version of the produced songs. Most of the music I perform alone is improvisation based, even when I record. I change the patterns of my effects pedals all the time and never remind to note them down, so I never have exactly the same effects when I perform a song. And for some tracks, I don’t even define a structure before recording.
I already tended to record this way when I put together my very first tracks with a multitrack recorder. Later I attended an improvisation course in the Conservatoire of Nancy for one year, and it almost became a rule. If the improvisation fails and I’m not satisfied with the track, I simply put it aside and record another one. Now I’m digging a new way of performing live. I used to play with two looping pedals, build vocal and guitar loops in real time and play different versions of already existing songs or improvise new ones.
For the kind of stuff I’ve recorded lately, I would need more than two loopers and I still have to figure out how to bring in more instruments. I have to try a few things and see what I can handle.
FAWM = great way to kill writer’s block
MM: Could you tell me what FAWM is and why you participate in it? FAWM = February Album Writing Month. It’s a challenge where you have to write 14 songs in 28 days. The first time I participated was in 2008. It was only for the challenge.
I hadn’t recorded anything for a very long time and thought a deadline would help me. The same year I also participated in 50-90, 50 songs in 90 days. That’s a lot, but that’s what made me discover the concept of the “second wind”, which is the answer to the second part of your question.
To explain what I mean I will simply quote a blog post I’ve made after last FAWM:
“The second wind is one of the most pleasant and awesome things I’ve experienced throughout my creative course.I would take part in this kind of challenges only to get the second wind. Many musicians are skeptical about the validity of events like FAWM where you have to force creativity and, on top of that, have a deadline.
“For my part I love the process, because you have to let loose. When I start a FAWM my aim is not to write 14 good songs ; it’s to write songs, even crap songs, so as to put aside all the things that block my inspiration.
“When at last I manage to get rid of all the useless considerations, like ‘is there a better way to play this?’, ‘should I really submit a song that shows how poor my drumming skills are?’ and so on; when I stop spending hours on a song I don’t like because I have no clue how to make it sound better, and when I give up trying to force myself to write songs that are “different” and don’t sound like me; then comes the second wind: inspiration is here, near at hand, simple and natural, the songs flow because somehow the lesson has been learned and the way I should work is accepted.”
Mojo and the Catcore revolution
MM: Hey you know what? I just realized I’m not done with the interview. You have to tell me about Mojo the Cat.
JG: Haha, Mojo the Cat! Indeed it was missing. Here’s my attempt to answer but I confess it’s really tough to explain, especially in English (I still have issues explaining it in my native language).
Well, as you may guess he’s my cat. I got him and his brother Prâna when they were only one month old, and I had to replace their mother (Mojo couldn’t feed by himself).
They grew up with instruments all around them and were accustomed to music. I had this bad habit : I never cut my guitar strings ends, and at some point Prâna used to spend 20 minutes a day “playing the guitar” ; he seized a string end with his claws, held it with his teeth and released it so it would hit the other strings above the nut and produce a tinkling. He also “sang” while I was playing the guitar, and looked pretty inspired when the song used a D chord. At that time I found this funny, I recorded him but never went further. Mojo wasn’t interested in the guitar and didn’t sing at all.
It all began after I lost Prâna a few years ago. I used a sample of Mojo’s babbling in a Caterwauler song then played it to him. I didn’t really pay attention to his reaction, but soon after he started pestering me each time I was recording vocals. He whined, pulled at my trousers, and stopped only when I gave up.
I thought he hated my voice (quite appalling). One day during FAWM 2009 (my second one), I was chatting with my FAWM friend Kevin Reid and we were exchanging old songs. I sent him a few cat samples and he asked me if he could use one. I said “yes of course, but you have to credit Mojo on FAWM.”
On the site you can credit a collaborator and link to his profile. I created a profile for Mojo The Cat, at first with no other purpose than the joke, but soon the idea grew on my mind. I recorded a short track, trying to be as feline as possible in my approach, looped some babbling and pasted them in it. That was the first Mojo song.
Comments poured on the site, they were hilarious and I took a liking to the joke. I completed the challenge with over 14 “catcore” tracks. Only Kevin knew I was behind the profile until I released a collaborative track between me and Mojo at the end of the month. “I would trade all my catnip for chicken wings” was a very important track, it changed the whole project into something serious because it was the first time Mojo took part willingly… and live.
He had spent the whole month listening to the tracks I was producing with his babbling, enjoyed listening and stayed close to me the whole time, providing me with more meows, purring that I immediately used in new tracks… So in the end I really paid attention to everything he did while I was putting together the tracks, trying to guess if he liked them or not, putting him on the keyboards to get nice cat solos or presenting him the mic with the hope of being able to record him in real time.
I guess the process of hearing his voice in different musical structures excited his interest. He’s very smart and he also loves playing to the gallery. The catnip song opened a door for us. I found his reaction intriguing and wanted to see more. He obviously understood the process of recording, the purpose of microphones and loved listening to himself.
After FAWM 2009, the project largely evolved, turning into a real experiment on the one hand, and a completely new artistic approach on the other hand.
During the treatment of Mojo’s voice in songs, I realized a cat’s voice suits music perfectly : it is deep and warm, strange and beautiful, especially when some reverb or delay effects are applied to it. Also, a collaboration with an individual who hasn’t got the same language as me, the same capacities as me, but who can get involved in an activity so that we share something and have fun together is an amazing thing to do.
Moreover we both learn and acquire, be it techniques or behaviours. When he hears himself he winks (it’s one of the things he does when he’s happy), and sometimes he sings while a track is playing. I sing the catnip song for him from time to time, a capella, and he answers me like in the original recording. It’s stunning. During FAWM 2010 Mojo forced me to “lend” him several songs that didn’t belonged to his project and recorded vocals for alternate versions. In FAWM 2011 he hacked one of my songs by singing live on it during the recording.
These are some of the many reasons that turned the Mojo project into a big thing, but there are others. On FAWM several persons copied the process and posted catcore tracks featuring their cats.
The feedback we got there was very interesting, as people reported they played Mojo’s songs to their pets.. They also said that their cats were either conquered, either scared, but all appeared to be responsive to Mojo’s music. Besides, Mojo’s new brother Mantra often tries to copy his brother and to reproduce the same meows when he hears one of his songs. Maybe it’s a new form of music for pets? I’m still experimenting from this point of view.
At the moment I’m trying to adapt the project to the gained capacity to record Mojo live instead of looping samples, and to his tastes. I seriously think about shooting videos to witness his behaviour.
Since I recorded his first own tracks he completely stopped pestering me when I record vocals. Sometimes he claims the mic (and I seize the opportunity) but he usually leaves me alone when I work outside his project style, unless he really likes the song and feels like contributing.
The way I feel towards him and the music I make for him is a little strange: I feel like I’m a kind of tool, an extension for his creativity. I perform what he can’t perform by himself due to physical incapacity, assuming he would perform this kind of things if he could. Musically, he’s not responsive to everything. He enjoys experimental stuff and loves indie tunes with coloured harmonies. Otherwise it depends on his mood. I could define him as a punk-hipster cat, though he’s very wise in the everyday life and looks more like an Aristocat.
Most probably he’s a genius on the cats scale, the kind who opens doors, vanishes when he hears us calling the vet, can count (as long as it’s the number of chicken wings he is allowed to eat) and even knows a few words (french equivalents of “mum”, “no”, “yes”, “lamb”, “up”, “meat” and “I love you”). When my mother calls me he rushes in the room as soon as he hears the ringing. She always asks to speak to him and he purrs in the speaker and rubs against the phone. Animals can be very intelligent, you can teach them a lot of things and if you pay attention you can develop their creativity as well.
The last thing I will say about this project is an anecdote that moved me a lot. During last FAWM, I got this message on my wall from a fellow fawmer, Max: “You know what, Foppe (copycat) left the house December 1st on a freezing cold day and never returned. 13 years old, always on my lap and we don’t know what happened. I’m so happy I did that track last year with him, it means a lot to me now. Without you and Mojo I would only have the pictures of our dear family member, now I’ve got a song with him. Thank you for that.”