Quick Q and A with Joe Jencks (Brother Sun)

Joe Jencks’ biography describes his background – all the wonderful places he’s played, albums he’s recorded and awards he has won but perhaps the one sentence that rung the most true for me: “Jencks weaves a diverse web of stories with brilliant musical skill, ensnaring even the most rigid of hearts, inviting them to open.”  Joe sings about what matters most to him and to a world struggling to make sense of the injustices that occur day in and day out. It’s important music.  It’s honest music.

Check out Joe’s powerful voice and inspirational lyrics here:

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The last couple of years have been extremely busy between your own solo career and recording and touring with Brother Sun.  Do you have any particular highlights from your recent past that you’d like to share with us?

It has been a really busy few years. And there have been a lot of highlights so choosing a favorite is hard, but here are a few.  I spent a week performing at Carnegie Hall in December, working with a Cuban quartet, and a Greek/Argentine world music group. Getting to perform 10 shows in 5 days with that kind of ensemble in that kind of hall? Well, it’s incredible! An honor. And a song that I wrote with the children of migrant laborers in Washington State a few years back was one of the focal points of the program and the accompanying curriculum that the children study, before they come to Carnegie to see the show. The song is called “Adonde Pertenezco (Where Do I Belong),” and looks at the life of fruit pickers from the standpoint of the children. We were all representing different cultural idioms, and for the second time in three years, I got to represent folk music of the United States. But we all played together. And when we sang “This Land Is Your Land,” I felt like Woody would be really proud. A group of musicians from all over the world, singing at Carnegie Hall for kids from all over the world, and every one of us owning the idea that WE have a share in the dream, that this land was made for you and me. Wow.

Another highlight was with Brother Sun up in Ripton, VT, just last month. The Ripton Community Coffeehouse is a classic folk circuit sort of gig – done perfectly. I met Beth Duquette and Richard Ruane who produce the concerts, at my first NERFA 10 or 11 years ago. And I have been hoping to make it to Ripton, for most of the intervening time. It isn’t a destination for everyone, but because I had known them for so long, it became sort of epic in my mind. The concerts are held in an old-school town hall. White pillars out front. It was snowing, and the aroma of wood smoke in the air. From the moment we arrived, they made us feel welcome… and there was excitement in the air. It was what folk music is about, starting with a pretty high level open mic, and then moving into the concert. It was about community, the snack bar was full of incredible home-baked goodies. And the people were as enthusiastic and supportive as you could ever want. And Brother Sun gave a fantastic performance for a standing room only crowd. It was a really great night. We gave them a great show, but they literally set the stage. It was a perfect folk evening!

Tell us about the new Brother Sun recording.  Did you, Greg, and Pat co-write any of the songs on this recording?  Or did you work on songs, present them to the group, and then record.  What process works best for a band like yours that is separated by many miles.

We are just beginning to look at our first co-write. It is a commission piece from one of our fans and supporters. But as far as the new CD goes, there are no co-writes per se. We all choose material either our own or covers, and bring it to rehearsals. Then we try it on, so to speak. We can usually tell pretty quickly whether or not a song is working for us. If it is, then we dig into the vocal and instrumental arrangements with a certain methodical zeal. We arrange the song for our voices, each of us taking turns singing high and low parts. Unlike some ensembles where each voice always sings in the same range, we all cover a lot of ground to account for the fact that we are all, also lead singers.

So once we hit the studio, we usually have a pretty good handle on the arrangements. But on this record, there were some serious surprises. Ben Wisch, our producer, has a very unique process. He records a lot of music, and then begins to whittle away at the arrangement in the mixing process, like a stone carver slowly revealing a sculpture. What emerges is a sonic work of art that has all of the elements of the original arrangement, but also has more space, and focus, and direction. I think we have a marvelous new record, and Ben deserves a good bit of the credit for that. He was a fourth Brother Sun for the duration, and hung in there with us bringing his own unique creativity to the process while honoring all of our thoughts and ideas. That is a delicate balance to hold, and he did it well.

Every record is different, in part because we are always evolving and changing as people and musicians. We learn new skills, pick up new instruments, refine styles, and keep absorbing new musical ideas from the larger world. So the making of each record is unique. As far as how we manage the distances between Chicago, NYC, and Boston, it’s just a matter of logistics and some very supportive and understanding sweethearts. We spend a lot of time together, and we try to take advantage of down days on the road to rehearse, record, and do our collective business. It’s amazing to see that we are now well into our third year. I hope we can keep doing this for a while. We’re making good music. Music I am proud to be a part of.

You’ve long been involved with social justice.  What prompted you to devote your time and energy to causes?

Well, my mother was a very liberal and fiery Irish Catholic. The messages of social justice in Christian scripture were definitely emphasized in the home of my childhood. She fostered in all seven of us kids, an acute awareness of Irish history and the suffering that is caused by profound economic and political hardship. She also encouraged us to look at US culture through the same lens. And my dad, while much more conservative than my mom, was also deeply committed to work of service. He never preached his faith, but he lived it with immense consistency and integrity.

As a teenager under a Reagan and Bush administrations, I began to get politically active, because I felt like I had no choice. It was a moral obligation for me to help bring some balance to what seemed like very conservatively skewed perspectives. And when you grow up in a rust-belt town, issues of labor and workplace dignity are obvious places to dig in.

But it was really music of social justice that led me to activism in a more direct sense. From Irish Revolutionary songs, to the US Civil Rights movement, from the Weavers to Holly Near, it was the musicians who were committed to matters of justice, to civil and human rights, who most affected me. And I still look to their music and their lives for guidance. Emma’s Revolution, John McCutcheon, Charlie King & Karen Brandow, Holly Near, Si Kahn, Maria Dunn, Anne Feeney, and so many others keep the traditions and carry them forward. I am proud to call them my tribe!

 I’d love to know more about your Cultural Ambassador tour the Caribbean in 2010.  How did that come about and what was the mission of bringing your music to those nations?

Well that was a serious career highlight! Wow. I performed on radio and television, libraries, schools and concert halls for 12 straight days, in Antigua-Barbuda, Dominica, Barbados, and Grenada. And it was one of the finest experiences I have ever had as a musician and citizen of this country.

You see, once you leave US soil, people care a great deal less about your political affiliations or parties. You become a representative a whole nation. And people will love you and challenge you based on a bigger picture than we see here sometimes. It was a little bit like the astronauts who first saw the Earth from space, and were taken with how small and precious it looked from out there. I too saw our nation through a new lens, by looking from “out there.” And I felt patriotic, maybe for the first time in my life. I started to understand more clearly the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism is good. Nationalism starts wars and genocides. Not good.

A man who was a big fan of my music, and a former security officer with the State Department introduced me to the cultural programming people there at State. We began a nearly year-long conversation about what I had to offer and where it could be useful. They chose the Caribbean, and specifically asked me to blend US folklore and contemporary music, alongside content that was reflective of my own interest in social justice and civil rights. So I sang old and new songs ranging from jazz standards to labor anthems, civil rights hymns to rock n’ roll. But a lot of the music had themes of social awareness.

The Minister of Culture for Grenada was interviewing me on live national television one morning, and asked the Charge d’Affaires accompanying me why the US Government would send an artist like myself, who was obviously patriotic but also potentially controversial, as a representative of US Culture? The Charge, in true diplomatic form said, “Minister, that is an excellent question! I would like to let Mr. Jencks answer that.” Nice!

So I opened my mouth and prayed for the right words to emerge. And I said this, “The United States has a very troubled and complicated and beautiful history. And we have learned that for democracy to flourish there must be room for dissenting opinions to be heard. True democracy must give space for the minority to voice their ideas. And in the civil (or not so civil) discourse between divergent opinions, sometimes new solutions are fashioned. The music and art that comes from the various people’s movements in the United States upholds and supports the idea that the country indeed belongs to her people, and that they have not only a right but rather an obligation to speak up and sing out in the face of injustice.”

Every once in a while I open my mouth, and the right words come out. I am always delighted when that happens.

You’ve had occasion to do some preaching at Sunday services at various churches across the country.  What kind of insights do you share with congregants? Do you enjoy this type of music ministry?

Indeed, in the last 12 years, I have sung in and preached at over 200 congregations in our fine Unitarian tradition, from all over the US, to Canada and Ireland. And I am always honored to be welcomed into people’s houses of worship. And I love ministry so much that I even started seminary at Meadeville-Lombard in Chicago, a few years back. I realized that I could manage the road and school at the same time. Lots of people manage careers and continuing education. But then we formed this trio, and I couldn’t manage all of that with the trio. It was going to have to be one or the other… for now. And I chose the band. I don’t regret that choice at all. But if for no other reason than personal development, I would like to continue my studies someday.

Ministry is a powerful kind of work. And for me, music is already ministry. It is a ministry devoid of dogma, but one that just reaches the heart in healing and powerful ways. And harmonies take that to a new level. Good harmonies are the foundation for a lot of the music I most love. As a conservatory trained musician and vocalist, I respect a broad variety of musical styles. But the ones that speak to me most are always the ones that have great harmonic traditions. There is something inherently ministerial and healing and uplifting about people singing together.

As for ideas, I have been on a bent lately about the differences between a pursuit of excellence rather than perfection. Excellence breathes. Excellence makes room for compassion and humanity, and the fact that even if it is different from day to day, our best is our best. And our job, in whatever we pursue is to give it our best. Perfection is an unattainable goal, and a ruinous pursuit. Excellence is about giving the best we have to give. And whether on stage, in the pulpit, in the practice room or in my relationships, I strive to give my best. The journey with Brother Sun keeps teaching me more about how to do that.

For more information about Joe, visit his website.

Joe Jencks, Greg Greenway, and Pat Wictor (Brother Sun) will be at the me&thee in Marblehead, MA on March 22.

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