Iona  the Open Sky Interview 
Wed 17 May 2000 
By Steve Stockman

Stocki talks to Joanne Hogg from Iona about the process of writing the new Iona album, what she hopes the listener will gain and ends up talking about one of his own poems and Rich Mullins... 

Steve: Oh goodness me. Well, does the fact that this album is new, I mean it is the first new stuff since 1995, make it easier to talk about it. Are you excited?

Joanne:  I am excited Steve because I haven’t heard the finished tracks. When I recorded the vocals the tracks were still at the very early stages and I haven’t actually been in the studio most of the time. All I’ve heard so far is the three track promo that you have. I don’t know what the rest will sound like but I’m really pleased with what I’ve heard and I’m looking forward to actually getting to rehearsals and working the songs out for live performance. It’ll be good to play some new songs.

Steve: Tell me about the process. Iona albums are very focused and I imagine with the little bit of insight that I have that you’re coming from all over the UK to one place and that you have lots of ideas going on. How does it work once you get in a room together? Do you bring ideas you’ve already been thinking about at home? Or do you say “Here’s a concept, let’s think about it for a few days.”

Joanne: The concept of this album has been there for a couple of years. Dave’s inspiration from some stuff that he had been reading. He put down some ideas on paper for different  tracks and we all had a look at that. And there was a period of time when I was mulling these ideas over in my head.

But I struggled for a while with inspiration for this album. It was almost as if I couldn’t get my head around the whole idea. It seems so long, Steve, since I’d actually written stuff and I went through a spell of not being very creative. So for this album different tracks were written in different ways. This album is like going back. I would compare it to the earlier albums in that it is more of a half and half vocal and instrumental album. 

Steve: Yes, “Woven Chord” is nine minutes without you, Joanne. Which, of course, I don’t like.

Joanne: Then you won’t like half of this album (laughter!).

In that sense I’ve felt a little more remote from some aspects of this album because I don’t get involved at all in the instrumental writing although there are a couple of the tracks where I play piano on and was involved in those at an improvised level. 

Steve: So do you work differently now? 

Joanne: No we don’t work any different. I think what happened was that I was struggling to write  songs but Dave has got so much. He has so many ideas and is so creative that he was working away and writing instrumentals while I was trying to write songs. So I had a bit of a brain freeze for a while. And then I took myself off to Donegal early in the spring of last year and that was when I really started to free up.

Steve: And at that time had you any idea that this was going to be called Open Sky and that there would be a good bit of sea on it. So Donegal was the right place for you?

Joanne: Well the title was the last thing to come for this album because the working title was originally Songs of Ascent which is one of the tracks on the album. But there was a bit of descent (laughter!) of this as an album title.

Steve: Open Sky is just so perfect a title for an Iona album. You look at it and say “goodness I expected that one earlier”. I don’t know why but it just sits perfectly.

Joanne: I’m really happy now with this title because it’s more in keeping with the general feel of the album. There were some of the songs that I really worked at on my own but there were still songs that were band writing session songs where there was maybe just a melody idea to begin with and we just played.

Steve: Would you do all the lyrics?

Joanne: Yes. Well, Troy wrote a few for this album. Just a few lines on “Castlerigg.” I’m pretty sure I’m right in saying I’ve written all the others. 

Steve: Have the changes in personnel in the band since Journey Into the Morn changed the whole process?

Joanne: I think having lost Mike from the band changed the musical structure of it. There’s a very strong instrumental writing force now, certainly with Dave and Troy because they are in effect composers as opposed to songwriters. Frank and Phil I would say are a little more song orientated so I think we’ve managed to keep the balance. I think what we lost on the instrument front with Mike we’ve made up for with Frank because of his violin playing which I think is just fantastic.

Steve: I asked Maire Brennan this. With a band that has such a disntinctive sound, do you consciously try to make it sound different or do you just go with the flow?

Joanne: I do think we consciously thought that we’d like this album to be original. You’d probably get a better feel for that question from Dave because I don’t get that involved in the production end of it. Certainly he did want to bring some new sounds and ideas to it. I think there is a new flavour there.

Steve: What do you want people to get from the album? They bring it home and listen a few times. What is it you were trying to reach the listener with?

Joanne: You know one of the things I’d like people to get from it is a sense of joy and an uplifting  of their spirit because I think in the songs lyrically that is what I was trying to express. When I went to the west of Ireland last year I was feeling really quite creatively inert. It was just an amazing experience, Steve, and I don’t think the songs adequately express it. I think we all in the band have been through some pretty profound experiences of grief in the last few years and I didn’t want to be writing songs that were going to be expressing my feelings of grief so I wanted to get through that. What God gave me last year was just a wonderful revelation of joy in His creation and in my observance of it. It was an indescribable sense of hope and so I’d just love it that if people get anything from the album that they get a sense of hope and joy and just the wonder of life.

Interestingly when I was thinking of titles I had rung Richard and Denise and said that we’re really struggling for a title for this album and Richard emailed me a wee note and included in it a poem by someone called Steve Stockman and it was about missing the wonder. Okay! And so that is what I was trying to get people to see – a bit of the wonder of this wonderful life and the gift that God has given us.

Steve: It’s funny because in that poem when I look for that wonder, I look for the sea and the sky. I look beyond the confines of what’s around me and go to see those transcendent things. You know we try not only to box God in but our world and everything has to fit into that wee box in the corner.

Joanne: Well, You know I’m not a creationist but you can observe the wonder in so many ways and in everything. You can be walking down a grotty street and still see wonder in the light reflecting off something.

Steve: Rich Mullins has a song where he sings “So much beauty around us for just two eyes to see/and everywhere I go I’m looking” and it’s that “I’m looking” that expresses it all. Now I cannot wait to get the album on minidisc and walk across the beach in Ballycastle with it
 in my headphones!

Joanne: If you listen to it in that sort of setting, hopefully you’ll be able to relate to what I felt as I wrote these songs, particularly “Wave After Wave.” 

Steve Stockman is a Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He used to book the bands for Greenbelt, edits Juice magazine, has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster and a web page - Rhythms of Redemption at http://stocki.ni.org. He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and 20 month old daughter Caitlin.
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