Glasgow-based Jo Mango has teamed-up with internationally-renowned criminologist Professor Fergus McNeill to offer a unique soundtrack to his new book, Pervasive Punishment. The result of this one-off project is System Hold, an EP, brought to life by Jo and her friends. With this release and an upcoming gig at Glasgow’s Blue Arrow The Fountain spoke with Jo about the unusual project and how it came to fruition.
TF: A new EP, how exciting, what has the reception been like so far?
The reception has been really exciting and interesting and unusual actually! The EP was released first alongside a criminology textbook (Pervasive Punishment, by Prof Fergus McNeill), so readers of the book have been able to listen to it for a while. They have been really excited about the idea of having music to try to bring to life some of the emotional aspects of what the book is covering. We’ve had some amazing comments from people – including the former chief inspector of prisons in Scotland – who said it’s easy to think about people just like numbers in a spreadsheet sometimes, but music and stories like this make those people come alive to him. And I think that’s just about the best review it could get in my eyes.
TF :What inspired you to title it System Hold, what can we expect from the EP?
System Hold is one of the lines from the song Tightness. That was written by taking every fourth word from a section of the book the EP is based on and putting them together to inspire the lyrics. It makes a language that sounds really disjointed – like someone who doesn’t really know how language works very well but is trying to describe something – and that kind of dysfunctional language was what we were trying to aim at. We were imagining a future where probation officers are replaced by artificial intelligence systems (glorified surveillance cameras), and we were trying to convey how strange people and their human experiences must be through the eyes of a camera or a robot who is trying to understand them. So System Hold – one of the lines that process through up – just spoke to me so well of the theme of the EP – which is a description of lives put on hold by a big faceless system that we don’t really understand the effects of.
The EP is a bit of a departure, sound-wise. It incorporates the usual Jo Mango delicate melodicism and detailed lyricism but puts that alongside some more electronic aspects. We wanted to explore the genre of Glitch music, because where the criminal justice system in supervising people doesn’t allow failure of any kind (indeed, around the world it prides itself on being very tough and intolerant of failure – even the smallest infractions), glitch music really celebrates the sound of failure and turns that into a creative asset. I liked the subversiveness of including that idea into the sound of the EP. I also collaborate with some wonderful and very different artists this time – A. Wesley Chung (The Great Albatross, Boris Smile), Lucy Cathcart Foden (Raukarna, Tall Tales) and Martin Cathcart Froden (Dundee International Book Prize winner) – as well as my old friend Adem Ilhan who did all of the amazing production work.
TF: And how did it come about, I believe it involved the work of Professor Fergus McNeill?
Yes, Fergus had begun writing some short stories to go between the chapters of his book on Pervasive Punishment (about mass supervision – the invisible counterpart to mass incarceration, with ever increasing masses of people being sent to prison or put under supervision of various types worldwide). He wanted to try and bring to life the human aspect of what he was writing about – how it feels to be under supervision, how it might affect your life and your personhood. And we had a conversation about how great it would be to write some songs that attempted a similar thing. It might be the first academic textbook in criminology to have a soundtrack! So, with the support of the University of the West of Scotland and the British Academy we made it happen.
TF: And will you be promoting this with a list of exciting tour dates?
I’m afraid there’s only one launch gig planned so far and perhaps a couple of festival performances. I’m trying hard this time to focus on getting my album finished so hopefully I can tour these together in the not-too-distant future. Do keep your ear to the ground about that! I’d love to see everyone out on tour soon!
TF: Where has been your favourite gig to date?
Oh that’s so hard!!! I think definitely up there with one of the best is a show I did at Hidden Door festival a few years ago, where the amazing artists involved had constructed a circle of five huge sculptures with stages hidden in them (each one with their own PA). We formed a band – Zoetrope – combining fivw bands into a supergroup (combining of Jo Mango, Bear Bones, Kettle of Kites, Open Swimmer and Tall Tales) – and we each had our own stage but we played together simultaneously in surround sound with the audience standing in the middle of the circle. It was one of the most incredible experiences – I’ll never forget the look of wonder and magic on the faces of the crowd as they spun round to experience the music from all angles and took in the beautiful sight of all those decorated stages. Really extraordinary stuff. I also thoroughly enjoy every time I play at Daylight Music in the Union Chapel in London. It’s the perfect venue for my sound with that singing acoustic (and they’re so kind to me there!)
Jo Mango and Friends are performing at The Blue Arrow, Glasgow on 9th May 2019.