Melbourne musician Jo Schornikow has spent a big chunk of her professional musical life as a musician in Phosphorescent, the acclaimed project of her partner Matthew Houck – but that hasn’t stopped her from working on her own material. Though she’d be the first to admit it’s slowed it down. An impressive touring schedule and sneaking out two children along the way will do that to you. But now, her debut solo record Secret Weapon is finally out, which she made in Melbourne with Shane Byron. While at SXSW, where she made her solo debut, I sat down with the artist to learn about the road to now, and reflect on a night that still ranks as one of the best shows I’ve ever seen – the final show of the Phosphorescent Australian tour in December 2014.
This isn’t your first time at SXSW is it?
Yep I have been here before, in many different forms.
So, you knew what you were getting yourself into, and how has it kind of lived up to those expectations coming here with your solo material for the first time.
Exceeded. Exceeded them in every South by way, yeah.
We’re here at the BIGSOUND Brunch, and I was just told that the power went out at the end. Yet another SXSW moment…
Classic South by stuff, yes, when the power goes, but you know what? We’re all in it together, and we got through it together.
So how does it feel I guess, playing your own music to the South by crowd? It must obviously, it creates a very different experience to when you’ve been touring with other artists.
Yes, most definitely, in ways that are like humbling and very exciting. It’s just, I’m so happy to be doing it. It’s nice. It felt like it took a while to get to this point, and so I’m rolling with whatever South by brings and beyond.
And you’re playing as a two piece, or at least you did today. Is that kind of your touring setup at the moment?
Yeah, I’m lucky to have my buddy, Shane Byron, who I made the album with in Melbourne, over here to play pedals still with me, and we’re just having a good time going around.
Keeps the setup pretty simple, too.
Very easy. Minimalist is my whole vibe.
You work with some other acts where that’s the opposite approach.
Absolutely, yes. It’s very easy, compared to some of the other things I tour with.
So let’s talk about the album. So you went back to Melbourne to work on it. Can you talk a little bit about that sort of process and why you went back to Australia for the album?
Well, I try to go back about once a year, see my folks and friends and what not, and I just, you know, it was summertime, and we had some time off. Shane and I went to college together at the Victorian College of the Arts many, many moons ago, and we have always just been buddies. And it came about because my parents, also excellent babysitters, and they would look after our two kids, and then me and Shane would go do stuff. They’re not Shane’s kids, just to make that clear. But, yeah, then me and Shane would just go work on songs together.
So you’ve been living in the US for a long time now. What brought you over here originally?
Music. It’s always been that, and I appreciate America in that it’s so vast and so huge, and a lot of the music that I love and spend time listening to and trying to emulate growing up was here. And I got an Arts Council grant to come study over here for a bit after college, and I just thought, “I’m going to give it a go.” Yeah.
So since then, you’ve been writing your own music off and on over that period, but touring with a lot of incredible artists. Sometimes that takes you back to Australia.
That’s true, yes. It was a highlight I liked. We did Meredith a couple of years ago, and The Corner, and yeah.
Oxford Art Factory.
That’s right, yes.
I think that was the last show of that lineup for Phosphorescent, wasn’t it?
That’s true, yes. That was the end of a very, very long album cycle, and it felt amazing to finish it at home. For me personally, it was like, “Oh, maybe it was all worth it. Maybe this has gone somewhere and I am doing something with my life.”
Well that show, that Oxford Art Factory show, was one of the best shows I’ve ever been to. It was …
You were there. Oh, gosh, yes.
There was a certain sense of catharsis coming from the band, and just every note just sounded so much more powerful.
Oh, goodness. I remember that show very, very well. Yes. It was a really, really fun one. I’m glad you were there. It was, yeah, well … I specifically remember having to run off stage and go and like pump breast milk in the bathroom, so it’s never glamorous, you know.
And it ain’t a glamorous bathroom.
No, it was a disgusting like, rock and roll bathroom with hideous stuff *laughs*
The great Oxford Art Factory! So now you went back to Melbourne. You worked on this record, and so tell me a little bit about kind of what we can expect from Secret Weapon? I know there’s a couple of singles that have already been released for it, so that’s given us a bit of a taste.
Oh yeah. It’s very quiet, and intentionally so. I feel like albums, not just mine but everything, it’s like a moment in time that you try and capture, and in this case it feels reflective and happy and sad, all within a very sort of calm and quiet mood. That’s what I hope for, anyway.
And what inspired it lyrically? I imagine too that this was written over a long period of time, in between the many shows you were doing elsewhere.
Yeah, I feel sometimes like, Phosphorescent is such a fun live band, and so big and loud and so much energy, that this was sort of an opportunity to find another space. You need to find the opposite of that to be able to enjoy both of the worlds, you know? So I feel in some ways it’s a response to that, and also it came from a place where I was in. We were in a huge state of change, and I’d been in New York, doing glory days New York things for a long time. And then all of the sudden found myself with like, two kids in Nashville and feeling very much alone and sort of isolated. And I think that’s reflected, too, in just the general sound of how things came out in the lyrics.
It’s an outlet, as music oft is.
Should be, yeah.
So where does this take you next? You’ve got the album coming out on the 29th, and is there going to be a tour around that? Where’s that tour taking you?
Well, we get to go to Los Angeles after this, and then we get to do another week up to New York and back. And from there on, it’s Phosphorescent is extremely busy for the rest of the year.
New album (C’est La Vie) and all…
Yes, that’s right. So we’re busy doing that thing, basically until who knows when, and in between I hope to find times and ways to get this music out there a little more.
Are there plans to come back to Australia and perform, in any of your projects?
Well, I think so, but I’m not sure anything has been announced yet, so I don’t want to say it and then have it not happen, because my mom would be so disappointed, yep.
But I’ll happen eventually, one way or another.
Eventually, mom, we will come back and see you!
There hasn’t been shows since the end of 2014 in Australia have there? For Phosphorescent I mean.
In Australia, no. No, we’ve been busy around here and in Europe, but not back home.
There was a good break, too. You all actually took some time off after those shows.
Yes, yes. A good break. Well, for some. Some had a break, some were like grappling with two infants and figuring out what that was all about, and it didn’t really feel like a break. It’s something different though, and I have the unique ability to be miserable wherever I am, and in whatever I’m doing. I’m thoroughly miserable.
Yeah, and that comes out in the record?
Oh, yeah, yeah, no, it’s misery, top to bottom. Horror.
I’m sure there’s plenty of light in there, as well.
If you look around hard enough.
Jo Schornikow is on tour with Phosphorescent, supporting the band with her solo material at select dates. Her debut solo record Secret Weapon is out now via Keeled Scales. You can find dates of her shows and more details about her music over at her Facebook Page or Official Website.
Photo by Larry Heath