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Interview, Bryony Jarman-Pinto on Motherhood, Society and Self-Expression

Image: Natasa Leoni
Images: Natasa Leoni

Hailing from the North West, Bryony Jarman-Pinto has always made clear the inspiration she takes from nature throughout her work. Her debut album Cage & Aviary set tongues wagging upon release in 2019 with its sophisticated combination of stunning vocal harmonies and mellow R&B grooves. Through her introspective songwriting, she displays both a strong connection to the natural world and an ability to explore love in all its lyrical forms. For several years now, she has been recognised as one of her region's rising jazz stars, having come of age alongside Mancunian producer and musician Tom Leah, AKA Werkha - whose track 'Sidesteppin'' helped launch the burgeoning vocalist's career when it was featured on the tenth instalment of Gilles Peterson's Brownswood Bubblers series all the way back in 2013. 

Bryony's soulful new album Below Dawn is released this month, and explores several pertinent themes close to her own heart - most notably, her experience of newfound motherhood - revealing the vocalist to have emerged from the confusion of the pandemic years with a composed head on her shoulders. With its exquisite musical accompaniment, the team at Presto HQ can already tell this is going to be the sound of the summer. In the week of the album drop, we sat down with Bryony to pick her brains, before asking how her songwriting has developed in recent years and aiming to get an overall glimpse of the latest phase in this fascinating songwriter's career so far. 

Hi Bryony, how's everything been going with the build up to your second full-length album release?

It's really exciting! I think it's one of those things where you finish recording and there's this sort of lull, you send everything off with a few bits and bobs left to take care of, then everything just settles. Now, we're in this up-phase, where suddenly it's like we get to throw everything at it, go everywhere, see everyone and just celebrate the album. It feels like it's gone from nought to sixty!

It sounds like the record had been several years in the making then? 

Cage & Aviary came out in 2019, and I was ready to start writing again. But then when lockdown happened, I felt like I really had something to write about... I've got this space and the time to do it without feeling too much pressure around it. I know that lockdown time was very different and difficult for lots of people and, you know, people came at it in different ways.

For me, it was quite good because a lot of my work was online anyway. So, I was able to start writing again, and I was initially influenced by what I was hearing about in the news and also just the way I was feeling. There's a few songs speaking about particular issues that were coming up, like the Black Lives Matter movement and all the protests that were happening. ‘Leap’ is about that, and then ‘Willow’ is also speaking about our right to protest. I had quite a lot of anger and frustration, which come through in that song. ‘Water Come’ is one of my favourites on the album, just because it feels really personal to me. It was one of the first ones I wrote about my experience of feeling locked in this urban concrete world, this idea of natural water and that connection with the environment helping to cleanse me… if that makes any sense at all!

As time went on, big changes were happening for me. I decided to have a child, and then went through the process of being pregnant and giving birth. The songs started to become a lot more about my experience of motherhood, how my relationship was with my partner and figuring it all out. It's like this lovely journey from a place of reflecting on society and my community, to then moving through and creating my own family – how is that going to be, and who am I going to be?

When I first listened to Below Dawn, I noticed a development in the agency you choose to portray as a songwriter. You've previously established connections between art, the natural world and the feelings these things can draw out of a human being - and then with this album, it's as if you've gone from questioning your place in the world to understanding it more clearly? 

Absolutely. Somehow, because everyone was speaking up suddenly - in protest, particularly - I felt that I had more of an agency to speak out, to speak up for myself and to just to be a voice. I sit quite heavily within imagery when I'm writing lyrics. It's all very descriptive because it's like what you're saying, it's what I see and what I imagine. It's all about immersing myself in a fantasy in some ways. Cage & Aviary did have that, using metaphors and creating these beautiful visual images for me as I was singing because I definitely take my comfort from the countryside. That's where I enjoy being, surrounded by green. I think with Below Dawn, there's a shift into using my own voice and have something to say, but also celebrating the creation of a new life because it's quite a mammoth thing to do – so it feels right to shout about it!

How has raising children opened up your conception of love, and has this affected your songwriting in any way?

I think most songs that you listen to always feel like they're singing about love in some way. It's such an easy emotion to tap into, particularly unrequited love or real heartache. It brings something out in you! And, I think in the same way as becoming a mother, which is such an intense experience, it's almost easy to just let it flood out of you because, firstly, you’re suddenly spending your whole time with this tiny little child. Most of the time, once paternity leave disappears, you're on your own, and so all you're doing is speaking to this tiny little creature that is wholly reliant on you. For me, I just started to sing back, and the lyrics came out. It was a very cathartic process.

It was quite hard to translate that into song because, obviously, then you're actually trying to compose and write, and that's not so easy when you're holding a baby! But, just the creation of melody and lyrics was a wonderful process and, yeah, it's a different way of approaching songwriting to what I've done in the past because it's to somebody – I'm literally looking at them!

Another one of Below Dawn’s interesting narrative threads appears in the form of ‘Station Road’, which exists on the album in two different versions. Could you tell us more about that particular piece of music?

‘Station Road’ is actually a song I wrote before my first album. It never made it anywhere because I couldn't find it; I wrote it on the piano but forgot the part, and then it stayed acapella for years because I couldn't fit anything to it!

It’s such an important song to me. It's written about my Nana and, once again, it's very visual. It's about the memories I have of her, and so each verse is like a snapshot of being together in her house with my sister. I was doing some online piano lessons with a wonderful teacher, and she was teaching me a way of quickly finding chord progressions. I thought one of them would fit with ‘Station Road’ and it did, which was just perfect! This song has to be on the album because it fits in with the story of motherhood. I really felt so strongly about it, and then finally being able to hear the instrumentation, I can see how it will work outside of its acapella beginnings. That's why it's on the album again with the harmonies, which my sister and my mum are singing as well – it’s an ode to the process of songwriting and the rawness of the piece.

On the topic of instrumentation, a musical highlight has to be the blissful Freddie Hubbard-esque trumpet solo on the track ‘Moving Forward’.

That’s my favourite part of the whole album! There's a couple of solos on Below Dawn, two of them are flutes and then there's that trumpet, which makes the whole song. You just prick up your ears like… “Yes!” I wish I had been there to see it – Ben Lamdin, the producer, got his friend to be on it. I’m genuinely gutted that I wasn't there to actually experience it, but I get to listen to it over and over again. I'm eternally grateful for this moment of genius that happened on my record!

Let's talk about some of the people who helped you with this album, many of whom are long-time associates of yours…

Working with Tom Leah, I've known him since I was 12. We went to school and did youth music projects together. He went off to do music and invited me to sing on some of his songs and do some writing together, so that was quite an organic collaboration. Before, I was doing a lot of community singing, leading workshops, working with young people and stuff like that, which I still do. That's a passion of mine; I like to have half and half, otherwise I think I'd go crazy just trying to be a performer! I think it's important to feel grounded in your community as well. But anyway, he introduced me to Tru Thoughts and the idea of writing my own music, of actually thinking of it becoming a career.

Through that, Matthew Halsall got in touch and we worked on a song together. It was such a blessing because it was the first step in working with somebody who I didn't know before. It was quite a nice, gentle introduction into the music industry, and then working with Tru Thoughts, meeting other people and then Ben Lamdin to create this album… I think I’ve had a (lucky is not the word, but) ‘comforting embrace’ into the music industry. I know it can be really quite challenging, and I've had a lot of support, which has been great.

I really admire the look of your previous album, particularly its layout and use of the Albertus typeface... Do you have much say regarding the visual side of your work, and is it important for you to build a connection between those different senses of sound and vision?

In terms of Cage and Aviary, my input was on the decision-making. I had a strong idea of what it was I wanted: I was really inspired by Solange’s A Seat At The Table (2016), or at least the photo shoot that went along with it. With this new album, I wanted to have more of a physical input because I did study art; I went to art school. I freaked out with the first one and let the professionals do it. I really like it, but I don't feel massively connected to it, if that makes sense.

With Below Dawn, the photographer [Natasa Leoni] and I had a wonderful shoot together. I had intended for it to be a lot more abstract than it is, but in the end I just played with colour and textures and it sort of got to the point where it was perfect; I didn’t really want it to go anywhere else. Everyone had said that I should use the same image as the one from the ‘Moving Forward’ single, but it was only me and my sister who were like, “no, no, no! We want this image to be the album artwork.” We pushed and pushed through until, eventually, everyone agreed.

Will we be hearing any more remixes of individual tracks following this new release?

We've got a wonderful one already by Colleen Murphy, [who’s] done a really good remix of ‘Moving Forward’. That’s actually coming out fairly soon, I think, in July. I also really wanted Wherka to do a remix, as I thought it would tie nicely into that connection to the old album because there’s quite a big difference between the two in the way that they were produced. Cage & Aviary I guess you might call a bedroom production because we did cut-and-paste a lot of things, whereas Below Dawn is very much a studio record with the instruments performing live... they've got a very different sound. I wanted to be able to have that nod to the first album, so he's done a really interesting remix of ‘Willow’, which doesn't have a release date yet, but will probably be coming out later in the summer.

In light of these different versions of songs each making their way onto the album with more still to come, how do you imagine listeners will respond to the Below Dawn project in its entirety?

I haven't got a clue! I mean, obviously I know what I get from it. One of the reasons we put an instrumental of ‘Moving Forward’ at the end is that it's just so fun to listen to. You don't need the voice; it’s in itself a brilliant track. My first child loves just dancing to it, and it was like, this has to go at the end because she loves it! We're doing an album listening party, so maybe I'll hear some feedback then, but I hope people see it almost as a lullaby because it has this fluid continuity to it. It's not that it lulls you to sleep but, for what I feel, I hope that it really calms people and lets them relax. 

Bryony Jarman-Pinto will be performing as part of Manchester Jazz Festival's Northern Line Showcase on 19th May, Northumberland Jazz Festival on 26th May and Pizza Express Live, Soho in London on 12th June

Bryony Jarman-Pinto

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