Joe Solo is an award-winning musician, writer, poet, activist, broadcaster and washing machine engineer from Scarborough. He has a growing reputation as both a performer and political raconteur. Chris Guiton interviews him about his music and his politics.
CG. Who are the main musical and poetical influences in your life and how has your music and poetry evolved over the years? What was the spark that got you interested in the first place?
JS. I can remember the exact moment the spark ignited me. A friend of mine dropped the needle on 'Go For It' by Stiff Little Fingers and 'Roots, Radicals, Rockers and Reggae' blasted out. This was 1983. My whole life just went BANG and I knew there and then that what I wanted to do was give people the feeling that record had just given me. It's strange because I've never been very good at being an academic, so my politics tends to come from experiences of people and circumstances rather than dry tract. If I'm really honest, if you stripped everything down, the words to that song are probably still the basis for my entire belief system....."Equal rights and justice for one and all...." or "Comfort the afflicted and keep them from harm. Let age be protected and the infants be strong" or "Pass the bowl to make the food go round" or "Don't fight against no colour, class or creed cos on discrimination does violence breed". It's all in there. I think sometimes the headline a lyric gives you becomes a foundation to build on. That's important when you're a kid, or when you're a little lost. Politics can seem really daunting from the outside, but songs give you confidence and a little courage. They give you a place to start.
As far as influences go I'm not really sure. All kinds of things inspire me, from music and books and films to ordinary stuff, the way people find a path through hard times, the stories you never hear; the silent struggles of millions of people too ordinary to grab headlines, but all poignant and heroic in their own way. As a songwriter those are the stories you want to tell, because those are the stories that ring true in ALL our lives. They have a magic that is universal.
And how has my writing changed over the years? I think I just got better at it. I'm older. I understand stuff on levels I didn't as a kid. That helps.
CG. There’s a lot of passion and commitment in your music. What inspires you and how do you go about writing your songs lyrically and musically?
JS. I usually grab hold of a phrase and play around with it while I'm driving. My job gives me a lot of hours behind the wheel and I use that time to beat ideas into shape lyrically, then work them out on the guitar when I get home. They always start like that. I can't remember the last time I picked up a guitar to write a song, they always come formed in my head first. The passion comes from the writing. It's important that you work out what you are trying to say before you start trying to make it fit together, that way you aren't crow-barring lines in just because they rhyme; if you start doing that the song stops being believable and you can't then sing it with conviction. If you've written the song properly the emotion should be in every word right there waiting for you when you start to sing. There's no need to force a good song when you perform it, everything you need is there already. It has been written in to every line.
And as for commitment, you have to have that. If you haven't you don't stand a chance. Not just in music, in anything. As an old friend of mine used to say: "Stand up for what you're standing up for".
CG. The great singer and activist, Nina Simone, famously said, “You can't help it. An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.” How do you define your politics – and what do you think the role of musicians and poets is in society today?
JS. Ms Simone is bang on there. Art defines our culture. It gives us signposts. We have a responsibility to tell those who come after us of our times. Sometimes we speak of them directly, and sometimes we just create a mirror which reflects what is going on around us. It's all a part of the same process. That doesn't mean everyone should be writing politics, far from it, sometimes it's what you don't say; and sometimes a 'bling and bitches' rap, for instance, tells you all you need to know about the artist and their cultural and sociological viewpoint. That does the same thing, just not in a positive way. In years to come people will hear it and think 'Could people REALLY have thought that?' and that in itself is a reflection of the times; rather like a statue of someone who history has redefined. It reminds you of your folly.
As for defining my own politics, I always describe myself as a man of the Left. As I said, I'm not an intellectual so I have arrived at this point through reason and experience, and through seeing firsthand what happens to people when bad politics are inflicted on them. I'm a Socialist, not because a book told me to be, but because shaking a stranger's hand means more to be than counting the money in my wallet. If you have that part clear in your mind, the rest is just details......and in my opinion, people get FAR too caught up in those details. That's why we always spend more time fighting each other on the Left as we do our real enemy. We forget the basics.
CG. What are your thoughts about the political situation at the moment, in particular the hope offered by Jeremy Corbyn and the dramatic shift in the position of the Labour Party?
JS. I think Mr Corbyn's arrival was both necessary and inevitable. I was 100% behind him from the start. The Labour Party had deserted the Centre Left and allowed itself to drift after an increasingly right wing Tory party. It deserted not only its traditional place on the political spectrum, but its core vote too and that part is unforgivable because it became a catalyst for apathy and alienation, and worse still, a breeding ground for far right parties who moved on to our estates and began spreading their bile. This, backed by the Murdoch press, fuelled an anger which has divided our communities along lines of race, colour, creed and class. I'm sure that wasn't the INTENTION of New Labour, but it was certainly the result; and they should have known better, they should have looked after the people who form the very backbone of the Labour movement. When Mr Corbyn arrived he proved something beyond all doubt, that if you offer people nothing but more of the same they will not lift a finger. The fight goes out of them. They get tired of being angry. But while they won't get out of their chair for more despair, they will march a million miles for hope. There was a vacuum on the Left of politics which Mr Corbyn walked into, and having witnessed the same explosion with our We Shall Overcome movement over the Summer of 2015, it was absolutely no surprise when he became leader with a landslide. People want something to fight FOR, not against. They want to feel a part of something again.
CG. At Culture Matters we are very interested in what an incoming Labour Government would do to develop arts and culture policies that reverse the impact of austerity, make the link between progressive culture and progressive politics, and support culture for the many not the few (to coin a phrase!). What are your thoughts on what a socialist arts and culture policy should contain?
JS. This isn't really my area of expertise. I think art is instinctive rather than something you can plan. I think if you set out what you want culture to look like it will rebel, that's what it does. But, on a mechanical level, I think it is vital we get funding into the arts because otherwise people are put off taking part, and there is no doubt that being involved in music, or drama, or creative writing, or whatever, enriches us as human beings and changes our perspectives on the world around us; and it does this in subjective ways, each of us sees something slightly different while sharing the same experience. This broadens our minds and opens us up to possibilities, while giving us an appreciation and respect of others. These are Socialist emotions, that is why Tory governments always try to crush the Arts. They see no commercial value in it, and the last thing they want is people thinking for themselves. They want individualism, not individuality. People get those confused, and they really shouldn't.
CG. The ‘DIY culture’ that emerged with punk is still going strong. A grassroots approach to music and poetry is a great way of empowering people who might otherwise feel excluded from society. What are your thoughts on this, and how might the trade union and labour movement best support this?
JS. Totally agree. If anything it has only grown in the age of the internet. These days you can see something on the news in the morning, write a song at lunchtime, record it on your phone in the afternoon and have it trending on the internet by teatime. There has never been a better time for using music or poetry or video blogs to spread opinion and dissent....and they know it too, that's why they will come after the internet sometime soon. It is the new mass media and it's ours.
I see the start of new relationships between the Labour movement and culture. I see unions and local Labour Party branches going back to what we used to call 'socials' and recognising the value in all getting together and talking over a few beers and a band; not only in cementing relationships between the members, but in the shared experience of the gig atmosphere there is an energy that we have missed for many years. I play a lot of these events and witness it firsthand. There is a growing sense of solidarity out there, a sense of community, and it is inspiring.
CG. You’ve been involved in some really interesting campaigns such as ‘We Shall Overcome’. What do you think are the best ways of setting up these campaigns, engaging with audiences around the country and getting people involved in the political struggle?
JS. There is no magic formula. I wish there was. A LOT of these things start up and a lot of them flounder. All you can do is put your ideas out there and hope they catch on. And don't let it defeat you if they don't. It is nothing personal. It just wasn't the right time. With We Shall Overcome we wanted to create an umbrella movement, a banner to march under. There are thousands of benefit gigs all over the country in any given year, and they all raise money for either the major charities or local causes. What we wanted was for people to march under the WSO banner while retaining the individual nature of their own events. That way you create numbers, and more than anything that is what politicians fear. If we could all march together we would demonstrate a truly mass movement against the way the world is being run. People can engage with the wider politics as little or as much as they want, but if you are running events to help people who need assistance then it is a political act in and of itself, you are recognising a need which a failure in politics has created, you are already protesting. We hoped people would see the value in standing together under the one banner and demonstrating the scale of our problems at street level. It's still a work in progress, we fight on.
CG. Can you tell us something about your new album, Not On Our Watch, and how it builds on your previous albums?
JS. 'Not On Our Watch' is probably best summed up by the closing paragraph of a review on the Yorkshire Gig Guide site:
"It leaves us with the certain conviction that we owe it to those who came before us, and, indeed, to those who come after, to continue to fight oppression and inequality in all its many forms and to make the world a better place in whatever way we can."
That's what I hoped people would hear in it.
CG. How do you combine music, poetry and writing in your life?
JS. With great difficulty. Even when I'm not gigging I'm straight in from work (where I've often being writing and honing ideas while driving) and in to the other side of it all. There's rehearsing, there's booking gigs, there's promotion, there's website updates, there's Hull Pals research, there's We Shall Overcome, there's May Day Festival of Solidarity.....all on top of a wife and two teenage sons. It's often midnight before I close my laptop.....and that's a day off!
Luckily I'm good at multi-tasking and I have a high threshold for pain.
CG. It sounds like 2018 is going to be a busy year for you! Can you tell us a bit about your plans?
JS. More of the same really. As many gigs as I can fit in, as much support for Labour and the unions as is asked of me, writing, recording and We Shall Overcome. There are two new albums in planning, the first a look at how the First World War changed class politics, and the second is still circling around in my head, but the songs are coming thick and fast so watch this space.
One thing's for sure though, 2018 will not be dull!
Joe blogs at: joesolomusic.com, where you can also find information on his upcoming gigs, other news and where to buy his new album, Not On Our Watch.