Lara Jones: Ensō

Navel-Gazers #10 is an interview with Lara Jones who is going to talk to us about Ensō. This is a recent release which got my attention right out the gate for its unusual combination of themes. 'Ensō' is a concept drawn from Zen, while much of the album's contents seem to concern journeys along the bustling transport corridor between England and France a.k.a. the Eurostar, although I cannot say for sure. The music itself is stunning: "ambient" on the one hand, and yet I'm unable to focus on anything else while listening to 'Ensō'... the interplay between its elements - field recordings, atmospheric sound, and saxophone - is so purposeful and intense that it is almost like watching a film. So to our readers, if you've not listened to it yet, consider this a spoiler alert! Ok enough said.. let's find out more about Lara Jones and 'Ensō'.

AC: My first encounter with 'Ensō' was a memorable one. Obviously I know you're a saxophonist (your page is called Lara Jones - Saxophone) but as for the full range of sounds heard on this album, I went in unprepared. One of the things that struck me is in fact, the saxophone and the way you've contextualised it here - not only does it fit seamlessly with everything else but it seems to wield a sort of significance whenever it does appear. How exactly do you think of the horn? Does it ever seem like a more conventional tool, something that you need to reconcile with all these electronic and conceptual elements, or is that something which comes naturally?

Lara Jones: Firstly, thank you so much for asking me these questions and for taking the time to listen to the album, it's such a wonderful gift to give.

I like this question, it's given me the opportunity to reflect on how I use the saxophone and mostly I've come to the conclusion that I think I, don't really think about it... I suppose I use it as my voice, it's through the saxophone that I'm truly expressing and feel my most free to say whatever I want and need to say, I've never found another instrument/medium that gives me that. If I'm ever lost or creatively stuck the saxophone is always my go-to, since exploring production and electronics over the past couple of years, sometimes I forget my relationship with the saxophone but every time I end up coming back to it and there's this beautiful familiarity and ease that comes along with it that always breaks me out of any block I'm facing.

It's natural because the saxophone is another part of me and where all this music making began, the electronics came after, I have more of a logical and practical relationship with them but there's something about creating sounds using your body & your breath that nothing else can give me. It's like the saxophone is the heart of the sounds, it's at the core of it all, I think even if I created a track that used no saxophone at all, it would somehow influence everything I do.

AC: It's useful to think of it as your voice in this context. There are also some speaking voices heard on 'Ensō' on tracks such as Tai Chi and Sejoin, and so there's a real musicality to the idea that the horn represents the true voice of the artist at the core.

One thing I really like about 'Ensō' is something which reminds me of both slides and The Indian Lake: this is an album that takes me on a journey from one place to another. I wonder if you could tell me about the 'journey' of 'Ensō', that is the story of how it was conceived and/or maybe whatever trans-European journey it was that accounts for some of the track titles and the field recordings we hear along the way?

Lara Jones: It's great to hear 'Ensō' takes you on a journey, it's all about journeys, physical and psychological. This album was actually inspired by a train journey I was taking between Leeds and London over a 12 month period. I was living in Leeds and my partner and her little boy were living in London before we all moved in together, and we spent this time travelling every week to get to each other.

I'd always taken train journeys everywhere, for the past 10 years it's been my main mode of transport as I don't have a car (or license!) and have always loved the sounds but something fascinated me during this time. I started to recognise my emotions in the sounds as these journeys to each other were filled with love, excitement, longing and goodbyes. This can all be heard in St Pancras and 'Sejoin', the two tracks that top and tail the album in which all the field recordings are taken from Kings Cross/St Pancras and Leeds train station. In the middle are 4 tracks which go through a journey of how my experience with these train station/train sounds change. For example, during the year my mum got sick and I started taking the same journey from Leeds to London but to visit my mum in hospital, my experience with the train sounds completely changed, they were no longer the sounds of a love story but the sounds of fear, tension and potential loss as heard in 'Tai Chi'... until my mum recovered and once again my experience with them changed.

AC: There's much relatable in that. I don't have a car either and I know what you mean about trains - not only are they highly sensory in terms of sights and sounds, they're also "connectors" between places, times, persons, emotions...

Seems I misattributed 'Ensō' to the Eurostar - I put two and two together from 'St Pancras' + 'Calais'! Tell me about Calais?

Lara Jones: The field recordings heard on 'Calais' were taken from a refugee camp I have volunteered in a number of times in Calais. We travelled in car and took the Eurotunnel, all these sounds are captured and many sounds from the camps (I say camps, but they are mostly roadsides since the demolition of 'the jungle' in 2016).

This track has huge moments of reflection and hopefully compassion, as at this point in the year, my mum was well and I knew I would be moving in with my partner and little boy, I knew I would be close to the people I loved most dearly... in Calais, people don't have this privilege. Many have fled from countries and left their families behind, young teenagers leaving their parents behind in search for a safer life, husbands and wives have been separated, people are unwell and have little access to health care, and they are banned, thrown off public transport/cars that could get them to the UK and yet they are residing in places where all you can hear are passing cars, cars passing them moving on to the lands they dream of. Again, my experience of these sounds, I found a new sense of gratitude and acknowledgement that I have the privilege to travel to those I love in safety.

I feel I could talk about the field recordings for a lifetime, there are so many sounds that have been captured and placed inside the music. The making of the album was a 3-year process, from first exploring zen practice to falling in love with train sounds, then real falling in love, and a journey of womanhood with a retelling of girlhood/experience through Ballet. It's an endless topic but I'll leave you to listen and hear your own journeys in the rest.

AC: Just on your last comment, thats an interesting question isn't it? Knowing an explanation I'm not sure whether it's possible or relevant for me to relive my original journey. Chris Hill and I talked about this - does the explanation add or subtract to the experience of listening? in this case of this track 'Calais' my initial impression was that it is quite haunting and one of the most memorable tracks. Knowing the explanation really takes nothing away from that, yet now I am also hearing all this pathos in it which is even more powerful and is your true intended meaning.

Lara Jones: Yeah, that is always an interesting question, I think it's dependent on the music and how much of the listener's experience the composer wants to dictate. I've been told that listeners have a deeper experience with my music when they know some of the context but I like the idea that a listener takes from it what they want, I think once it's recorded and released, you hand it over, it's no longer yours but everybody's to have whatever experience they will have with it. It's so interesting thinking about different ways you can determine this experience though.

AC: The 3 year process impresses me especially because your approach is in a way, out of step with the times. Recording and distribution have become so easy nowadays that the tendency of recording artists is to put stuff together quickly and just chuck it out there. Is this your first dedicated recording project?

Lara Jones: Your comment about being out of step with the times made me chuckle... I guess this is true, there is definitely more access to recording and distribution and there is absolutely a speed and almost expected fast turn around these days. However, it's not necessarily as accessible as some think, for me personally it took 3 years not just to write the music but because I was determined to produce the record myself... but this comes with a lot of time, money and learning. It took me a long time to build my set up and experiment with it until it was how I wanted it to be, and it took a very long time to find the right space to record it in... thanks to wonderful Avi Allen at Capel Y Graig in Mid-Wales as this was my dream turned into a reality!

Aside from the practical issues, you're absolutely right that this was my first dedicated solo recording project. I've put a few things out with my bands J Frisco and Beyond Albedo but the process was very different, we worked with sound engineers, producers etc to create those whereas this was my first experience in creating every single aspect of it (aside from the mastering, this was done by Chris Sharkey!). And so yes, I held onto it for a long time, over the years the album was many different sounds, it took so many different shapes until eventually I felt ready to hand it over to the world. I think because it was my debut album and because it's weighted with so much emotion and the first time people would listen to something that was entirely my creation, there was a nervousness and anxiety to putting it out. I really feel as though I poured so much love and care and attention and detail to it, to the point that it was driving me a bit insane by the end...

AC: Do you think you'd always take this approach to the medium?

Lara Jones: It's hard to know whether I'll take this same process with my next album again. I think now I've put something out there, it won't be loaded with quite the same fear or even the same intention and naturally I'll have learned things that will mean my process will be faster. I think I can't plan it really, I have some music I'm working on at the moment and I hope I can share it soon but I don't know when it will be ready, I think it's a more natural process than that for what I do, whereas some of my bands' music, we can have a more formulaic approach just out of the nature of the music.

AC: I wanted to return to one of your comments from earlier, you mentioned there being a lot of field recordings that went into this. Are there ones - maybe less obvious ones - which are particularly significant to you?

Lara Jones: There's a couple in Window Seat, hidden in it is a voice recording of my partner and little boy talking about taking a nap on the train, but it's nearly inaudible it's so quiet, haha. There's a lot of field recordings in 'Tai Chi' and actually the piano was recorded in Reading Hospital on one of those public pianos. I have a bit of a personal rule never to play those but nobody was around and I was waiting for my mum to come out of surgery and I just sat down and played. It was one of the weirdest places I've played before as I was surrounded by hospital sounds and beeps, I knew when this was recorded this that it would end up in the album somewhere.

AC: So what was your approach to field recording here? Would you make these recordings with the intention of using them for 'Ensō', or was it more a matter of this process preceding and developing into work which became 'Ensō'?

Lara Jones: I think mostly the sounds were all recorded with the intention that they would make up 'Ensō', but a lot of the train sounds took a lot of different takes over the year to get the sound I really wanted. I love to collect recordings though and I do have folders of unused sounds, I collect field recordings a bit like people take and collect photos, but I think whilst recording I knew the moments and sounds that would be used in 'Ensō'. The process was long though because in the end I had to be selective.

AC: I appreciate the fact that with even some of the less obvious field recordings - which I'll have to go back and listen for - you're hearkening back to the same themes, and summoning back the same players: your mum, your partner and her little boy, the train itself... This album reveals an internal cohesion, the more we dissect it. Even the thought of you playing the piano at the Reading Hospital, to me that mirrors St Pancras, where there are also public pianos!

Lara Jones: We were considering getting married at St Pancras and having someone play the music on one of the public pianos whilst we do - hah!

AC: See?! It all fits together.

The Ensō - in Zen - also suggests cohesion. Could you tell us about your journey with Zen and the choice of title?

Lara Jones: The inspiration comes from the Ensō circle: "In Zen practice, the Ensō circle is hand-drawn in one uninhibited brushstroke to express the complete and emptiness of that present moment. It represents a Zen state of mind where everything and nothing exists."

I started practicing in meditation about 3 years ago when the inspiration first arose, I was discovering a lot of new music such as Pauline Oliveros and Élaine Radigue and started to become more and more interested by sound and how we listen to it. I became fascinated by sound meditation and felt so comfortable making music in this way. A lot of the album is definitely inspired by this time and my personal journey with meditation, listening and sound. The title was a constant reminder what I wanted the album to be too, it's easy to get swayed around but I knew I wanted it to be a deep listening experience and built upon journeys and lost or missed sounds and I think the idea of Zen, acceptance and the circular motion just made sense to me for the album.

AC: Good parting thoughts to leave to our readers! and it makes me want to go back and listen again. I normally wrap these discussions by talking about any future upcoming projects, which I think we've already covered here - is there anything else you'd like to say about 'Ensō' at the moment?

Lara Jones: I think I'd just like to say thank you so much to those that have taken the time to listen and share their train and travel stories with me. I'm working on some new sounds at the moment that I'm looking forward to putting out there. I've received some amazing responses and support and just so grateful.

Thank you Andrew and readers!

Lara can be found at her website, and at Bandcamp.

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