IINTERVIEW WITH JAN TODD over the period of Feb 2022 thru end of March 2022
by Lee Henderson
Many may know Jan Todd more for her multiple roles in the wonderful Orchestra Of The Upper Atmosphere (Discus Music Label) but she has her own project under the name Frost Lake which is very different in genre and nature. As you will find out in this interview, she has performed on countless other recordings as well. The point to all the interviews I do with various artists, is to find out more about them as a person and their music. Readers will learn much about the composer so enjoy the following answers to my questions.
JT= Jan Todd
LH = Lee Henderson
LH: I am always interested in the first moments, hours, days, or even years that a accomplished artist realized they were drawn to this field, got hooked, or at least had a strong passion for the desire to make music for the world. Can you remember when this happened to you? Or was it otherwise?
JT: Haha! Does singing an original song, along with a xylophone bought with pocket money, to the whole school when I was ten years old, count? I got the performing bug quite early, always took part in the local Music Festival and began playing Folk Clubs in teenage years. I got my creative fix as a Primary Teacher, inventing arrangements, writing and performing with children, passing on a love of sounds and singing. It was later in life when I had to give up teaching through illness, that I found the desire to share my music with the wider world again.
LH: Did you have early musical training (lessons, education of sorts) on any particular instrument and/or style?
JT: A typical UK Primary music education - full of recorder consorts, tuned percussion, choirs and general enthusiasm! At Grammar School it turned very traditional- violin, viola lessons, Youth and School Orchestras, Choir, Madrigal Group singing and performing. It was a bit formal but has left me with a love for Benjamin Britten and Kodaly and intricate choral/instrumental arrangements eg Thomas Tallis. I self-taught folk and classical guitar, learned ragtime finger picking from college friends and played mostly Joni Mitchell covers at folk clubs.
LH: Tell us how you came together with the now so well loved Orchestra Of The Upper Atmosphere? And how the evolution of becoming part of the great Discus Music label occurred?
JT: Martin Archer of Discus Music put out a call for any singers, poets, performers to join an avant guard performance group to add sounds to an early CD of Orchestra of the Upper Atmosphere.This went so well the group Juxtavoices took on a life of it’s own and Martin knew what I could do vocally. Meanwhile Terry had been playing bass for Orch.U.A and had secretly made a CDR of my guitar songs and passed them over to Martin to have a listen. When I picked up Terry at a recording studio, Martin said what Terry had done, to my surprise, and offered to help put out a recording, which became the first Frostlake CD. I was encouraged to use Ableton to record my own ideas, under Martin’s tutelage, and having seen what I could now do, asked me to compose and record some vocal overdubs for an Orch.U.A track which was very successful. I was invited to do more and more and eventually asked to become a permanent core member. My skill at recording and electronic material had grown so I was able to contribute whole stems and pieces as well as overdubbing instruments and vocals/voices.
LH: I know your husband Terry Todd was in Orchestra Of The Upper Atmosphere from day one (bass guitar at the early stages) and then he made your latest solo of Frostlake even more melodic with acoustic guitar. Does the chemistry work on many levels between you and he, as far as music visions are concerned?
JT: We had always shared musical tastes, with enough differences to be interesting, and I find Terry’s bass ideas to be inspiring as starting off points for creativity-I don’t really follow expected chord progression/shapes and neither does Terry! He got a cheap acoustic bass for the first Frostlake CD and we liked it so much he has continued to upgrade and keep it electro-acoustic. We work really well and easily together- not afraid to say if something is not working and will often work separately on an idea, then come together in the studio to see what we have. Things start quite simply- a musical phrase, a riff, a few chords that are interesting, a structure evolves, Terry will work on a melodic bass-line, I will add arrangements and vocal melodies and we go from there.We are both open-minded musically and value listening to each other. Quote from Terry: ”We definitely share a melodic sense and Jan’s bass parts on guitar ( eg. Moth People) certainly have a close affinity to my bass musings”
LH: What are some of the other artists (besides Orchestra Of The Upper Atmosphere or Frostlake you have worked with (and what capacity) that many might not know about?
I have performed live and contributed to many CDs for the avant-guard poetry/performance group Juxtavoices ( Discus Music label). This has included speaking, whispering , shouting, singing solos and duets, conducting at live shows, adding acoustic instruments and often at unusual venues eg down the Bearpit in a Sheffield Park, on the stairwell at a Library, with the USA group Matmos at Maida Vale Studios,London, where they invited us to perform with them and their washing machine ! All great fun and invaluable for developing improv skills.
Similarly, I have sung live with the improv outfit Meson- under the guidance of poet Bo Meson and have added spoken word/vocals to the release 5C4L3 and electric harps to his other projects. https://discus-music.co.uk/catalogue-mobile/dis55cd-detail
I have performed live improv with electric harps/vocals as part of Anthony Donovan’s Murmurists experience-sadly curtailed by Covid, hope he does another soon! I took the harps to play a live show of The Merseyside Improvisers Orchestra,, who came to Sheffield from Liverpool.
Collaborations with others: I sang Song Always for saxophonist and poet Keith Jafrate of Orfeo 5
Also adding lyrics and melody to Under a Blue Moon with a Soundcloud acquaintance
I composed/sang vocals for a track on Cotyledon -CD by Lost Garden- Nick Robinson and Andy Peake (English Electric label)
I do my own improv gigs as Freelake, instrumental only- electric harps, tongue drum, Wave Drum, Hulusi flutes etc.electronic tracks and looping with live instruments. I have recently contributed to the latest CD by French singer Carla Diratz - 'The Scale'. I made a Shepard tone with my own voice, quite tricky, which Martin manipulated in his inimitable way and added backing vocals and tones to Carla’s amazing voice.
LH: Hello Jan, can you give us a overview of the existing three Frostlake albums? And who played on each?
JT: To put things in perspective very briefly, here's a rundown: on what 's what on the Frostlake albums..Terry played bass on White Moon, Black Moon (1st CD) and some musicians also played cameo roles in that I recorded them playing and chose/manipulated their contributions eg Nigel Manning flute, Andy Peake keyboards, Martin Archer clarinets, Charlie Collins weird percussion, Steve Dinsdale drums, Michael Somerset bass recorder, bass flute, bass clarinet. The list is found in the booklet with the CD but this saves you searching through..Terry also played bass/tuneable tongue drum on Ice & Bone (2nd CD) but was the only contributor as I played all the other instruments this time- he also co-wrote two of the songs. This was more of a live album as we played it out in it's entirety at gigs and it was easy to rehearse and play with just us two.
The Weight of Clouds is with Terry on bass and 12 string guitar and I played everything else. He also co-wrote 8 of the 16 songs, mostly written in lockdowns, when we were basically living in isolation and had no contact with anyone else even if I had wanted anyone else to play with us!
It started out as a studio album and I enjoyed the recording and editing process, specially the greater use of drum patterns etc. but we are now rehearsing many of the songs for live performance as the country gradually comes back to life from being frozen by the pandemic. I didn't list the instruments under each track in the lyrics booklet and wonder if I should , as I get asked 'what is that sound? eg Strange Land is just two instruments: a big floor harp and an alto jouhikko ( a Finnish horsehair bowed instrument)
LH: About making this 3rd album, did you begin the process with any particular idea, change of framework, from the first two?
JT: The third album is the most personal and unapologetic as far as style and content in that the ideas came along organically as we explored sounds and ideas that we liked. There was a conscious decision to move away from my finger-style guitar as the basis for every track and that expanded our framework- three tracks only ended up with my guitar as the basis: Blue into Gold, Moth People and A Piece of Me. Terry worked on some excellent strummed 12 string guitar chord sequences which I structured into songform and we were able to add melodic bass, vocal melody and arrangements. This was during the UK Lockdowns, there were no impending gigs, so I had the time to explore my ever growing collection of acoustic instruments and some tracks have no guitar/bass at all.eg Strange Land, Liquid Life, Anchored, Clouds.
LH: If you do not mind, can I pick your brain to ask how you feel about composing music in general? And how different do you approach writing with the alternate outfits you perform in, verses your solo work?
JT: Composing music is part of everyday life. I will hear or envisage a sound, phrase, passage in my head (often in the shower!) and rush to capture it quickly by Zoom recorder before it disappears into the ether of my brain! The house is awash with notebooks and recorded snippets of ideas which come in response to thoughts,feelings, words read, images, notes I like and the spark of ‘that’s it!’ can come abruptly or not at all. Creativity happens naturally for me, I can’t timetable it in a disciplined way, either I’m in the ‘zone’ after tinkering away in the studio for a while or pressing concerns such as having to be somewhere/cook a meal etc. can stop the flow. If only there was an ON/OFF switch for this, but as it is, I have to mentally reboot back to the ideas after interruptions and am lucky to have a wonderful husband who knows better than to knock if the studio door is shut :) I find uniqueness in other musicians inspiring and always strive to be original and will discard something if it sounds derivative.I am often surprised if reviewers mention similarities to others or a particular era when I don’t know that music or wasn’t aiming for a specific soundscape. I compose my own material by playing and listening and if I like it, then it stays to be worked on. I am aware that we are all the sum of our own experiences so I think no-one creates in a vacuum of no influence, albeit subconsciously.
Working with other people is is slightly different in that you might already have a skeleton structure or framework set which then needs fleshing out or developing. I use improvisation a lot, often the first free improv of melodies or vocals turn out to be the best, so I am probably more of an instinctive composer than a technically accurate theorist who writes a score. It is fun to work to a specific direction and see what you can bring to complement their vision. This is something I really enjoy doing!
LH: Do you often take recent headlines, or at least world topics into account, to write either the lyrics or music ? Or is the process more of a personal stance, where emotions and ideas of your own are put into the bars of a score?
JT: I can’t separate myself from my music, no matter what the subject, narrative or commentary, it will always have some sort of emotion coming through.There are far better songwriters expressing all that needs to be said on the bewildering horrors of the modern world. Social observations are perhaps creeping in more in my work eg the insidious anonymity of the internet in Hidden Walls, or the fickle nature of Moth People. I am a watcher of people, of life, of my place in the world and how everything affects it and continue to marvel at the natural world and its resilience. Lyric writing is always personal, but I find it best not to over-explain it as listeners will always have their own interpretations and experience to bear.
LH: Any ideas already at play for the 4th Frostlake album? Will we see another release?
JT: We already have a couple of tracks ready to work on, but we need a break to make time for the next Orch.U.A album, where studio time is booked, so it may be a while. It is an expensive process and funds would need to be in place before a Frostlake 4 is underway, so not this year. We may yet decide to expand the framework and develop new directions, possibly involving others now the initial pandemic panic is abating but ideas will continue to be recorded and this year will see more live gigs also.
LH: Literary influences?Hobbies?
JT: I’m not sure it’s very rock and roll to confess all my hobbies etc. but you might find it interesting to read :) In addition to music making, collecting unusual instruments and listening…I have always been an avid reader and enjoy books every day. I love a book that surprises me with evocative prose, descriptive or strange language, psychological insight, a new way of seeing the world (this one or an imagined one) or an incredible story. Even a simple phrase can spark off an idea for music or lyrics. I studied English Literature in Further Education and remember the classics well- from Chaucer to Shakespeare, Jane Austen and the Brontes. I still have a fondness for English Romantic poets like Keats ,Wordsworth and Byron which expanded to include people like Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, or Simon Armitage and have worked creatively with contemporary British poets like Geraldine Monk, Alan Halsey, Bo Meson ,Keith Jafrate ,whose love of words is inspiring.
The list of authors I like would fill its own book, so in general I enjoy Scandi noir, dark thrillers,historical settings (eg Hilary Mantel) or contemporary fiction, which all feed the imagination. I devour books like bags of crisps, always wanting more :) These preferences spill over into enjoying TV drama and film in a similar fashion. Love comedy too!
My degree was in Art, focusing on photographic screen printing, and aquatint etching and I have kept up a healthy interest in my own artwork and the art world at large. I still enjoy photography and image making and will dabble in painting with acrylics, watercolours and inks, both observational and experimental.
I also have a great interest in the natural world and plants, having spent many years developing, landscaping and growing a natural garden which I share with wild life. We have the usual British suspects: from slugs, snails, dragonflies, frogs, newts, mice, birds, owls, squirrels to local cats,foxes, and badgers-all welcome apart from the annual carving up of the grass by said amorous foxes or hungry badgers! I see gardening as painting with foliage, form and flowers and the best bit is just sitting and watching everything-a delight for the senses!
Another delight for the senses is my love of cooking and I can be found in the kitchen baking up a storm and feeding us well with great, fresh food. If anyone is wondering where I am, I’m either in the studio, reading a book,TV, out in the garden or creating something delicious to eat which makes me sound like a hedonist- but shouldn’t life be full of these simple pleasures though? People are now realizing the benefits of mindfulness in this stressful life and luckily I came to this conclusion a while ago through time and circumstance. I think I might have been a cat once, in a previous existence!
LH: Jan it has been a special experience talking with you and than you so much for the not only detailed answers to my questions, but also the most interesting facts you provided.
JT: No problem Lee, it has been a pleasure talking to you- hoping that Big Beautiful Noise continues to give an insight into so many interesting genres of music for years to come- all the best!
©Interview by Lee Henderson 4 - 2 - 2022