On The Table Read, the “Best Entertainment Celebrity Magazine in the UK“, musician Joss Jaffe discusses what inspires his music, and the creative work that went into his latest album, Sun Mountain Sea.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Joss Jaffe about his career in the music industry, his creative process, and his new album, Sun Mountain Sea.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
My Name is Joss Jaffe. I’m a musician, vocalist, composer, and record producer. I play a variety of instruments including Tabla (drums of India), Ngoni (African Harp), Bansuri (Bamboo Flute), Guitar, Bass and other instruments. I’ve been a professional musician since 2007 and have 5 solo albums.
When did you first WANT to write music?
I started playing guitar at age 9 and I remember writing what I now think of as proto-songs almost immediately. I experimented with just making sounds on the guitar. Harmonics. Playing the open strings. Making simple patterns with the notes.
It seemed to me that there was this infinite matrix of possibilities in the combinations of the notes and rhythms of playing them. The process of creation came to me naturally.
When did you take a step to start writing music?
In school, and especially high school, I started meeting other friends who liked music and we started our first band soon after. I liked the process of putting ideas together from different people’s perspective. One person would think of some chords, another would find a melody, and then we would put it to a beat. It was like a fun conversation.
At first it was just playfulness (and in a lot of ways I’ve always tried to get back to that initial playful mindset). As I got older, with more experience, I incorporated different ideas into my music. These included rhythmic ideas, new chords, harmonies, lyrics, and inspiration from other artists and other styles of music.
What was your first piece of music released, and what inspired it?
In middle school I had a music teacher who recorded my first song. I built out the song structure and it was very simple. But when it came time to sing, I completely lost track of the rhythm and couldn’t hear where the one beat was so I sang on top of it free form, stream of consciousness style. The teacher actually said he liked it! I was never sure if it made sense or not and made me want to learn more about rhythm.
I started studying drums shortly after that and was inspired by Bob Marley’s rhythmic approach to playing guitar like a shaker or rhythmic instrument. I worked very hard on rhythm at that point and it led me to the study of Tabla.
What was your latest music released, and what inspired it?
My last album is titled “Sun Mountain Sea” and is an electronic album with songs about nature, love, and spirituality. It was inspired by experiences of growing up and lots of old songs that I wrote as a teenager were actually inspiration for the final songs. I went back through old journals and music books and gleaned the energy and lyrical content I was going for at that time. It was heavily inspired by the music I was listening to as a teenager including Led Zeppelin, Talking Heads, and The Cure.
The current arrangements have a modern song structure with an electronic feel and have been compared to The Postal Service. In that way my next album “Aum Akua” with Jim Kimo West is a departure towards heavily world, ambient, and acoustic music.
The common thread is the concept of “chill-out” music as both albums speak to relaxation, finding peace, retrospection, and meditation.
Focusing on your latest piece of music. What were your biggest challenges with Sun Mountain Sea?
I encountered significant writers block on “Sun Mountain Sea”. So much so that I started working on another album that eventually became “Meditation Music” which charted on Billboard in 2019. Some music flows very easily and naturally and some become more elaborate projects that take a lot of careful attention.
In that way the album “Aum Akua” with Jim Kimo West was much more like the latter then the former. It was very smooth and easy to work with Kimo. The album was almost effortless. It was a lot of fun to make and we are both extremely happy with the unique and soothing blend of sounds.
What are you working on right now?
I’m actually working on promoting everything I’ve already released! I work as the Head of Marketing for the record label Be Why Music that is also releasing the music. It’s fun to see the other side of the music industry and help other artists and myself find the audience for the music. It’s actually a big problem for a lot of artists. They have amazing content but need more ears to listen to it. Connecting audiences with artists is one of my passions and it can be a lot of work!
Beyond that I have 2 more ambient singles coming out this summer with a now distinctive sound palette of Ngoni and Tabla. After that I have some remixes and some larger album projects in development.
Do you keep to a theme with your music, or just go where the mood strikes?
That’a a great question. I think I can work both ways and actually sometimes I like to shift it up by creating different constraints and goals for a project. I particularly like working with other people as the other person’s perspective always allows for things I wouldn’t see myself. Ultimately, it’s very hard to work on something if you are not inspired by it and cultivating the right mood to work on music is crucial for getting a good result. If any of us aren’t feeling it then usually there is some problem and it’s good to take a reset and find a different approach.
Creative projects are very non-linear and it can feel like one step forward, two steps back. It’s a journey. Best to enjoy being along for the ride.
What is your favourite piece of music you’ve recorded, and what do you love about it?
Currently I’m really digging an extended ambient single I released in 2021 called “Tarang”. Tarang means wave in Sanskrit and also means a style of playing the Tabla that is primarily melodic instead of being a rhythmic drum.
My approach is my own and references the traditional art form but is not a traditional Tabla Tarang piece. I call it Ambient-Melodic-Tabla. It’s quite unique and I find it very soothing and relaxing to listen to.
Do you find other people’s music inspires you? Who do you listen to most?
Absolutely. Other musician’s music inspires me a huge amount. I love checking out new music but I also have to be in the right mood to discover new music. Some of my favorite music to listen to right now is ambient music that creates a soothing environment in the background. Not to sound too much like Prince, but I also listen to my own music a fair amount! I also really love silence and meditation and I think it’s important for musicians to give their ears a rest.
Do you record and produce your own music, or pay musicians and producers?
I have done it all. At the moment I really value collaborations with the right people. Having more ears and hands on a project almost always makes it better so I’m a big fan of teamwork and symbiosis. That being said I made “Meditation Music” almost exclusively alone and it was a great process of connecting with that personal sense of what I felt would support a meditation practice sonically. I’d actually like to make another Meditation music album collaboratively and see how it would be different.
What instruments do you play?
I started on guitar at 9 then moved to bass at 13. I began studying drumming at 14 and quickly fell in love with the Tabla buying my first set at 15 years old. Studying Indian music became huge part of my life for many years after that. I studied the Sarode, the 25 stringed fretless lute of India, and its cousin the Dotar with 15 strings. I play keyboards in production and many types of percussion as a touring drummer. Recently my new favorite instrument is the Ngoni, an African harp. The Ngoni I have has 15 strings and is tuned like a Kora. I also am learning Bansuri, the bamboo flute of India, and play a low F flute.
Do you like performing live, or does it scare you? Where can people watch you?
I absolutely love performing live and enjoy how every concert is totally unique. The things that scare other musicians such as sound issues and perfectionism don’t scare me so much as I see performing as an ever-evolving experiment and find it fun to navigate all the idiosyncrasies of each gig. The hardest thing, like in life, is usually navigating personal relationships between the artists, as musicians can be eccentric and demanding people. But that too I find fun. I always learn something!
One thing that does cause me some anxiety is everything is being recorded on social media these days, so if a sound or especially the photographic, visual aspect of a performance doesn’t look right it can be frustrating to have those clips shared. But again, it’s all part of the process. Nothing is perfect. That’s part of the art. It’s powerful to just be yourself and share that authentically with the world.
Is your music available to the public, and where can people listen to it?
Yes absolutely. All my released music is available on all platforms. Thank you for listening and choosing the platforms that gives the most to the artists. We really appreciate your support.
Are you able to make music full time, or do you have day job?
For many years I focused exclusively on music. Currently I work with a record label on many projects in addition to my own music. I’ve actually never been this busy in my life. It’s all fulfilling work and I’m glad to be doing this right now.
Are your friends and family supportive of your music career?
Thankfully yes. I get a lot of good vibes from people saying they are happy I’m doing what I’m doing and they think this is the right work for me to be in. It feels very good to be aligned with your purpose and your work. That being said the music industry is ever evolving and seems to always be changing faster and faster. I am constantly learning new technology and new current trends in music. I hope to always be doing music but I have no idea what that might look like in even a few years!
What’s something you never expected about writing music? What have you learned that surprised you?
I’m learning more and more to trust my instincts and first impressions when they are good impulses. But you also have to separate instincts from hot-takes and reactions. Giving things time to breathe is crucial in creative projects. You feel differently at different times of day and night and also from week to week. I’m fortunate that a lot of the projects I work on have longer timelines and don’t have super tight turn around times. However, I’m open to working on those projects as well! There is a balance between too little and too much time. I guess that’s why I’m a drummer. It has to be right on.
Lastly, I’m a big fan of keeping production flows as simple as possible. I find overwrought and overly complex projects often make things worse and not better. I constantly ask myself – can I say that with less? Can we use fewer instruments? What can we cut out? Less is definitely more.
Have you had any experiences that really stand out because of your music?
I’m always deeply moved when someone sends me a personal story of how my music has had a positive impact in his or her life. One woman told me it helped her process the death of her mother. Another person listened to my album a lot during her childbirth and said it helped her a lot. It amazes me that something I make could help people in this way and it’s an honor and a privilege to be a part of people’s lives at these meaningful moments.
Do you have any important events coming up we should know about?
May 6th “Aum Akua” comes out! I’m extremely excited about this one. Later in the summer I have several fun and experimental ambient pieces and remixes coming out. Look out for the 4th installment of “Dub Mantra” merging sacred chants with reggae and dub music. It’s currently in development. I can’t wait to announce it further.
What is the first piece of advice you would give to anyone inspired to write music?
Play the long game. If you really love music go for it and don’t be afraid to set your own pace. It’s a practice that can be with you your entire life and you get to make the rules for how and what it means to you. Don’t compare yourself to other people and be gentle on yourself and your progress. Look back periodically on how far you’ve come. Continue to refine your vision and be clear about what your current goals are. What is the deeper reason you are compelled to create art? Zero in on that.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Absolutely. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. A friend of mine once said you will never regret investing in yourself. Go for it and make some art.
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