We want Bread, yes, but we want Roses too-An Interview with Jill Lorean
My grandfather was an engineer for Rolls Royce back when they had a big factory in Glasgow. My mother grew up in a single end (a single room in a tenement) up until the family moved to the new town of East Kilbride in the early 1960s’. Thanks to a governmental scheme my grandfather, Bill was his name, was able to attend the Glasgow School of Art and, upon graduating, became an art teacher. He had been working in factories since he was a teenager. He was an unashamed Stalinist and member of the Communist Party. Later in life he softened on his Stalinism but never his loathing for the Capitalist class. “I hate the bourgeoise, but I love their habits” he would say while lighting a cigar. Upon his death we found a coat that my grandmother had made him that had secret pockets for stashing copies of the Morning Star. My mum and dad are currently moving to a new house and are trying to work out what to do with all of his paintings. I grew up knowing this: life was not just a struggle for the basics, there should be a place for creativity, invention, art and beauty.
“I’ve been obsessing over the James Oppenheim poem Bread and Roses, which was inspired by the women’s suffrage activist Helen Todd and went on to be a slogan for textile strikes, union activists and even still today for women’s rights campaigners. We need food but we need art too. All of us, not just the privileged few. This is so profound and is both political and romantic, which is probably why it resonates with me so much.”, Jill O’Sullivan (aka Jill Lorean)
It is a strange time to try and make art, music, poetry etc. For many unemployment gives us lots of time but no means of surviving. For those of us “in work” Capital demands our time and gives us nothing to sustain us beyond the basics (if it gives us that). Disease, climate chaos, war, all encroach upon our sense of security or certainty.
I spoke to Jill O’Sullivan, who goes by the stage name Jill Lorean, about the pressures of living, politics, and art.
Jill and I go back some way, so this is not an objective piece. I love her music. It is playful, at times satirical, but with a deep sincerity that refuses any ironic gesture. She is by far the best signer I have ever sung with. Jill, and her partner Nick, have been a huge source of support to me at different points in my life. We are friends, and I miss them now that we live on opposite sides of the planet. Jill’s music is ever evolving. She is always looking for ways to collaborate with others: exploring, and absorbing ideas into her art. She moves between genre easily without a sense of parody or irony. In the interview she discusses a few of the different projects she has worked on but it is worth noting that in the last few years alone she has collaborated on: an experimental dance project (Brewband), a collection of covers of country/indie folk artist Bonnie Prince Billy (Three Queens in Mourning), an electronic pop group (Bdy_Prts) and her own solo record (Jill Lorean). She is a political person in the best sense; someone engaged with the world around her. She is also a teacher, community worker, and mother. A few years ago, we worked on a songwriting project, one of the parts of which was exploring songwriters’ connections to politics. We didn’t get too far with the interviews beyond one with Robert Wyatt, but I always liked the idea. Musicians are rarely asked questions about their beliefs, their lives, and ideas, that go beyond a surface concern with who they will vote for. I do not believe musicians, songwriters or artists are unique people, but they can, at times, capture the feeling of a moment, a place, or a state of being. The best of art allows us to feel more deeply the world we live in, and to explore the possibility of something different. We need bread, yes, but we need roses too.
You grew up in the US but as an immigrant. You live in Scotland, also as an immigrant. Has that affected how you see the world? Has that consciously ,or not, affected your music?
When I was really little my green card said “resident alien” on it and in my young mind, a tiny hive of imaginary worlds and make-believe, I created an image of myself as a little green Martian with antennae sprouting from my forehead. The immigration officials behind their huge desks with their giant stampers were like astronauts in spacesuits trying to figure me out, asking me questions, taking my tiny fingerprints. It was exciting. Would I get a lollipop at the end or maybe a sticker? As I got older, I understood alien to mean not from here, other, foreign. Not green or blue or purple and tentacled but basically just like everyone else. Just like everyone except (something that I would be reminded of from time to time) if I pronounced a word in a funny way, if it was St. Patrick’s day, if it was the 4th of July, if I wore green, if I said I didn’t like chili cheese dogs. “Oh yeah, Jill, you’re not really American”, people would say. This was brought up again and again by classmates, friends, co-workers, bosses, next door neighbours. “Of course, “I’d remember, “I’m not from here. I mean I grew up here but I’m not from here. I’m different. somehow. My mom refuses to buy peanut butter.”
Being an Irish immigrant sort of sparked curiosity in people, curiosity mixed with a strange desire to connect with me because their great granny was from Mayo. I sort of came to see that in other people’s eyes I was foreign but not that foreign, different but mainly in geography, white, European. non-threatening. I was familiar. It was a jocular foreign that made people smile and talk about how fantastic Lord of the Dance was to see live, or how they rubbed the blarney stone on their trip to Ireland. Being Irish-American, I discovered, gave me a certain currency in a country full of people who claimed some sort of Irish heritage and a pastoral appreciation of the homeland. In a certain way I saw America as a friendly place, a place that wanted to know me and wanted me to know it.
When I moved to Scotland and an interesting thing happened: people still saw me as an immigrant but this time as an American immigrant. Again, I gained a sort of currency from my similar but otherness. This time however people wanted to ask me about chili cheese dogs, sing me Frank Sinatra songs, tell me about their cousins who lived in Michigan and about their trips to Vegas and Disneyland. And it still happens, even though my vowels have softened, and I say “aye” a lot. I rarely even bring up that I’m actually Irish because that sort of confuses the narrative; adds unnecessarily complex plot lines that splits the identity pathways into too many pieces and weakens my claim to either Irish or American heritage. So often I just say, yes, I grew up in Chicago. It’s easier that way. I see Scotland as a place that wants to know me and wants me to know it. And so, in terms of my status as immigrant I have had it easy. The world has for the most part welcomed me with open arms and wants to know me and wants me to know it, but I am not naive. I’m aware that the world plays a cruel trick. It’s a smooth globe with sharp edges. I’m a privileged, white western woman with multiple passports to and from places that don’t require special visas and don’t come with a long list of restrictions and special exceptions. I haven’t consciously compared notes with my friends from Mexico, Columbia, Nigeria, Ghana, India, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, etc. But I have heard enough stories and anecdotes to know that my experience of the world does not likely mirror theirs.
If I’m being totally honest, I don’t really know the degree to which my music has been consciously affected by my upbringing and my subsequent view of the world. It’s hard to measure. I mean, I definitely have been influenced to a small degree by the Midwest of America; it’s spacious, flat, cold winters and hotter than hot summer, the bands and labels coming out of there, and also the dark romanticism of southern gothic writers like Flannery O’Conner (who I read almost religiously in my late-teens/early twenties). When I first came to Scotland people got a kick out of the Americana elements they heard in my voice and style and if I’m being honest (and it pains me to admit this), I probably did somewhat ham that up at first. I’ve slowly dialed it down over time and now I’m, hopefully, just expressing myself without the baggage of expectation or “self”-awareness. Although I have heard one or two folk say the music I make sounds Scottish now. Who knows? I think we often don’t see how a place or thing is influencing us until we look back at it. Fashion is always a good example of this. You always think you’re at the cutting edge and then you look back and go, “Christ those Kris Kross trousers did make me look like I had a front-bum”.
I suppose I’m also unconsciously influenced by my experiences as an immigrant. There is a sadness sometimes to my writing. Perhaps due to distance from family, old friends, and a longing for familiarity and connection. Maybe from a feeling of being alien in some ways and the knowledge that it’s just not that easy to flit from place to place. Travelling is just too expensive now. I’ve been told there is at times a tongue-in-cheek element to my writing, which could perhaps come from my positive experience of the world growing up. The fact that I’ve lived in enough places to see the similarities that cross borders and cultures that maybe other people can’t or don’t want to see, allows for some light-hearted observations.
There is an anger sometimes (although that’s being softened slightly by age), but I can’t quite articulate where that comes from, but I’m not sure it comes from my being an immigrant. That could also be due to my position of privilege as a white, western immigrant. I mean, I find it hard to ignore the inequalities and injustices faced by so many people on this planet while having this scratching feeling in the back of my head that we’re sort of inexorably hurtling towards human extinction due to climate change brought about by…us. And I feel powerless to change it, which is perhaps where the anger comes from because I get the feeling that you don’t have to be an immigrant, alien, or ‘other’, to feel this way. In fact, I’ve worked with immigrants and in particular refugees and asylum seekers who have showed a kind of resilience, strength and positivity that I could only wish to possess. Folk who have experienced some of the worst injustices brought on by this world first hand and have quite literally travelled through the roughest of seas to escape it, only to be met by xenophobia at the other end, yet still manage to get up every morning and somehow remain optimistic about the day.
How far do you see yourself as a ‘political’ artist?
I don’t know if I could lay claim to that kind of title. I mean, a lot of the lyrics in Sparrow were influenced by politics, and by my anger and disgust at the corrupt mechanisms of our political and economic system but the lyrics were never overtly political. Often journalists assumed I was writing break up songs or murder ballads. “I will break you” was genuinely about wanting to break apart our political system and re-build it into something better. I mean the lyric, “I have been reading that times are a changing,” was a subtle nod to Bob Dylan’s album about political change. But, of course, that was written in ’63 and nothing changed. Nobody picked up on my reference or cared to pick up on that lyric. I have to concede that the Sparrow song was probably just not good enough. And the lyrics were not just obvious enough. But whenever I try to write obvious political songs I end up getting disgusted with myself. The lyrics sound cheesy and I recognise less of myself in the song. It feels forced and insincere, even if the intention is noble. I will never forget that someone from another band that was hip at the time once wrote in the Skinny that “I will break you” sounded insincere. Like it was coming from my soul but not my soul-soul. I can’t remember the name of his band, though, so I’m content enough with that… sincerely .I’m working on a new Jill Lorean album with Andy(Monaghan, Frightened Rabbit) and Pete (Kelly, The Kills) and the lyrics are shaping up to be about the breakdown of communication between humans, how to effect change, what it means to be free. But again, it’s quite subtle so I don’t know if I could lay claim to being a political artist, even though I feel like a political animal and I’m pretty sure I have a beating heart.
What do you think the role, if any, of a musician is in society in relation to politics?
The act of making music itself has become political. Right wing politics have dominated the public sphere for some time now and the Tory government here in the UK is constantly slashing budgets and looking for ways to cut funding for the arts or decrease/cancel arts programs in schools (particularly in poorer catchments). If anything, I think the role of a musician is to act as a sort of threat to the government by continuing to make music in spite of the government’s wish for musicians to “retrain” and/or change careers. The simple act of refusing to “retrain” is a political act. But equally difficult when you need to eat. Beyond that I think the role of a musician in society in relation to politics is a bit harder to define. There are a myriad of reasons. I don’t think it’s necessarily the responsibility of musicians to be political. Although it is certainly not a bad thing if they do choose to either express their political frustrations or align themselves with political ideologies and/or groups. However, I do believe that it’s important for musicians to be allowed to seek out inspiration from anywhere and everywhere on the spectrum of life experiences, internal and external. There will always be some folk who express themselves in a way that is overtly political. For others they might be unconsciously reflecting the times. But I do believe the best art is that which is unencumbered by walls. Don’t ask me what “good art” is though please. Having said all of that, it would be good if listeners of music could come around to the idea that it’s OK for musicians to be political either in song or in action. A lot of people seem to get their feathers ruffled by artists speaking their minds. However, those people would be wise to remember that everyone is everyone is affected by decisions made above them and therefore musicians have every right to use the platform of music to shout about their feelings on those decisions. Right now, is a perfect example; the UK government is currently waging a war on the arts and if ever there was a time for musicians to speak up it would be now.
Has the current economic crisis affected your music?
Yes and no. I’ve always been skint and have had to juggle multiple jobs to make ends meet so in some ways I haven’t felt that much different. My partner and I have always had pretty low overheads, probably so that we can pursue music. I can’t afford a car and live in a pretty modest apartment. I don’t see that changing any time soon. However, one thing that has changed is that I have been freelance for a few years now and Covid-19 has thrown up challenges since I do a lot of group work and live performances. My income has been stunted and now the government is saying they won’t keep up self-employment and furlough schemes so things could get tough soon. Creative Scotland has provided a lifeline with their amazing emergency grants and they’re still offering funding for arts practice so it’s a sliver of hope in a cave of doom.
What was your earliest political experience?
I probably didn’t see it as political at the time, but my earliest political experience was probably getting free violin classes in my school as a 6 year old. Chicago was at that point being run by Mayor Harold Washington and he was quite progressive as far as Chicago mayors go. He enacted a huge cultural plan for the city and one thing that came in was free music programs in inner-city Chicago schools. That’s when I first learned to play violin. The program ended when the next Mayor came in but those group classes I took gave me a desire to play music. So that was I suppose an inadvertently political experience, and one that had a long-lasting positive affect on my life. I then joined Amnesty International and the Communist Club in high school so those were probably my first overt experiences of engaging with politics through campaigns.
You are a mother did that change your view of the world. Did it have an effect on your art and music?
Yes, very much so. People have been having babies since the dawn of time and yet not much is spoken of the dramatic change you go through after having a child. Maybe some folk don’t really experience that but for me, childbirth was a profound experience that changed my perspective on life and shifted my focus and priorities quite dramatically. Initially this put me at odds with the music world in some ways. Going away for performances became a thing of anxiety and I totally hated and dreaded late night rehearsals. Over time I learned to engage with music in a different way that worked for me as a parent. For one thing I just had to be more vocal about my needs in relation to, I suppose, her needs. Day time rehearsals are better, long tours are not ideal. It was not natural for me to speak up, but it felt necessary, and oddly helped me become more confident and find the world less intimidating. I eventually found a balance, became less anxious, and was able to relax into playing music and writing music again.
Having her did have an effect on my art and music. My lyrics are much more about exploring connections to nature now and I think that has something to do with having her. I think before I didn’t think of the relationship of the sun to the earth, for example. As far as I was concerned the earth was at the centre of things. The sun was merely shining on its pretty face. After having my daughter, I began to look more closely at cause and effect in nature and trying to understand why, say, a bird sings or a rose has thorns. I mean, its baby stuff but I really never thought about these things too deeply before. And one big thing has been my desire to connect more with the musicians I’m playing with and to make space to allow for everyone’s personalities to appear. I guess it’s like a repression of the ego for the sake of the art. I’m no psychologist though so I could be taking shite.
Do you look for the political in the art you admire? In this I do not mean that the art has to be overtly political. Are you drawn to art which reflects your world view?
I think I probably am attracted to art that has a political arc and reflects my world view, but not always. I am very affected by injustice and unfairness and so I am attracted to art that explores these issues. It’s even better if they espouse the belief in love, kindness, goodwill and sharing. However, I have come to the realisation that I’m a very romantic person and sometimes I moved by something for reasons I can’t explain. The sting of salt on my cheek, a rose battered by the wind, two seagulls having a fight over a chip (yes, really). Things that are not overtly political but speak to the complexities and wonder of life and being.
I am obsessed with thinking about freedom and what it means. What does it mean to be free? And free from what or free to who? I change my mind a lot. I’m not sure if this is political or romantic or both. Maybe neither. “At last I am free, I can hardly see in front of me” Most recently I’ve been obsessing over the James Oppenheim poem Bread and Roses, which was inspired by the women’s suffrage activist Helen Todd and went on to be a slogan for textile strikes, union activists and even still today for women’s rights campaigners. We need food but we need art too. All of us, not just the privileged few. This is so profound and is both political and romantic, which is probably why it resonates with me so much.
Artists/musicians etc. are sometimes viewed as special or as having a unique lens on the world? Do you subscribe to this idea? If so, why?
Hmmm. I don’t know. I mean I certainly can believe that artists can have a unique lens on the world because they look at things other people don’t always want to see or just can’t see. They are like sharks gobbling up information and experiences as if it were seals or sea otters. Then they sort of take what they’ve eaten and digest it in their own way, then regurgitate it back to us in a way that affects us, either by triggering feelings or allowing us to look at things in new ways. However, sometimes an artist or musician just gives us back what we already know, or we suspect we know, and it’s very unthreatening and safe. It wraps us up in a security blanket. I am not going to argue that this is bad art because it’s maybe comforting people but it’s certainly ubiquitous and unchallenging. It’s not exactly pushing boundaries. I worry that the internet is making this kind of music more prevalent with YouTube and Spotify algorithms feeding us back music we might like, or have already heard, or think we have heard. We are not hearing things through a unique lens anymore. Rather we are being lulled through a long hall of mirrors where each new thing reflects the last until they all start looking and sounding like variations of one another.
What is your view on the idea that writing music/making art is work?
I think that depends on your criteria. If you define work as something you make a living from then I’d say that for many artists and musicians, it is not work. This is mainly because it is very difficult to make a living from either. Too many people have come to see music as something they don’t have to pay for. It’s just too easy for consumers to carry on not paying for it when they can join streaming services where the artists get crumbs. In light of this, and also the highly competitive and tiered nature of those industries, it can be troublesome to pursue music or artmaking for the purposes of making money. You might find yourself making choices that dilute your intention with the work to become successful. This is not to suggest all successful people dilute their art, though. A few lucky folk seem to earn a living without making artistic compromises.
However, if you define work as something that takes mental and/or physical energy, but not necessarily something that brings in cash, then I’d say that it is definitely work. The majority of artists have numerous jobs but maybe they use time in the day that is not on someone else’s clock to create music or art. In this scenario it’s unclear whether they’ll make any money from it but they’re certainly working. I do personally think we should be cautious about not seeing music and artmaking as work. Mainly because it can devalue musicians and artists who are trying to carve out some kind of living from it, or at the very least, trying to get enough money to continue making more art. This to me is one of the most important points. So long as we are living in a capitalist society artists and musicians are going to be put in the awkward position of monetising their artwork. At the very least this will help to sustain their practice because you can’t work without tools. As such, if we as a society don’t view musicians and artists as entitled to being paid then we are kind of saying we don’t value them enough to allow for the continuation of art and music as part of our culture. This would affect arts institutions and charities too, who would be (and are) the victim of arts budget cuts. Many of these institutions serve poor and working-class communities so it effectively would starve those communities of access to art programs. You will end up with a situation where many, if not most, of the people who can make music and art are already affluent. And I don’t think that’s very good for culture because it wouldn’t reflect the diversity of experience in our society and, you know, the dichotomy between rich and poor folk. Ultimately it takes away people’s voices.
How far should musicians or artists use their work in the service of political ideas?
Well, folk musicians and hip-hop artists, for instance, have a tradition of showing their political allegiances and I think that is great. I think as long as a musician isn’t expected to use their work in the service of political ideas then it’s brilliant if they want to do that. I mean, if they become an apparatus for state propaganda then that’s becoming dubious but if they are simply espousing a view that, say, aligns strongly with socialism, anarchy, green ideas then it’s good. If they’re Tories, then they can sing away but I’m pretty sure everyone will give them a good ribbing on twitter because why would you be a Tory and want people to know that? If they are Fascists promoting hate speech then I’ll fight along whomever to ban them because, well, it’s hateful and violent bullshit that doesn’t deserve a platform.
Do you feel connected to other musicians right now? What are the difficulties you face in making things better for musicians in Glasgow/Scotland/UK?
I feel very connected in some ways and completely disconnected in others. I can still remember the feeling of being packed into a sweaty old venue and enjoying loud and live music with other people, but I fear that I’ll start to forget what that feels like soon. We can, however, still work online and send ideas to one another that way and it’s nice to be able to do that. I’ve also had a few rehearsals with Andy and Pete and that’s been just so incredible; just to make noise and explore ideas in the same room as other people. I think that I have a hard time articulating my feelings on all of this because we’re still living through it. It feels too raw and real to speak about it in a poignant or prescient way.
In terms of difficulties I face in terms of making things better for musicians in Glasgow/Scotland/UK, I mean, I feel somewhat helpless. I suppose getting a bit of funding and the odd bit of government bail-out for a few months there helped but yeah, otherwise it feels like we’re all sort of out at sea trying to swim towards an unseen shoreline together. It’s actually all the other folk in the music world I worry about quite a bit: sound engineers, roadies, lightning engineers, monitor technicians, venues, bar staff, promoters, small labels, music press and PR etc. All the people who make the music happen and make it a nice space. You know, the ones who perform the sleight of hand that makes it all seem a bit dreamier. Those folk are of floating on an iceberg and the government are turning their backs now and letting them float out further. That breaks my heart. Apart from signing petitions and writing to MP’s, I’m not sure what else I can do to help right now. I feel…powerless.
A light question. What are you working on? Do you have plans for the future? Are you hopeful?
I’m currently working on a new Jill Lorean/Jilllorean album with Andy (Monaghan) and Pete (Kelly). This is thanks in part to Creative Scotland funding. With all the stresses attached to Covid-19 and the fact that it’s kind of gutted the livelihoods of so many folk I know, I can’t tell you how grateful I am for this little bit of light in what was looking like a long tunnel of dark and heavy. I mean, we would have worked on this new album anyhow, but at a much slower pace and probably in a more fragmented way. So… yes! There is that. I’ve also been collaborating a bit with a lovely fella named Tom Doyle. He sends me lovely music and that I enjoy and then I ruin it by singing all over it. haha. In fact, I just sent him my own interpretation of Bread and Roses over kind of a disco beat. Also… I’m doing some online teaching and working with some of the great community groups I’ve worked with in the past like Ensemble (Loretto Care), Articulate Cultural Trust and Vox Liminis. I am doing some violin work and yeah, just bits and bobs coming in. I’m trying to remain hopeful. I wobble. I sometimes feel like I’m being led by a black dog. I think so many of us are. But we have to keep on going. My mom keeps saying, “everything always works out in the end”. I do sometimes wake up worrying about all the people who are in a lot of pain, both physically and mentally, right now. The internet sometimes makes me feel like everything is terrible and fascism is going to rise again but I can’t help but hope that something better and more co-operative will come out of this. Like, better than capitalism and mindless consumerism. But I think it’ll be a long and rocky road.