Anna Jordan: Directing her own musical destiny
With her band Selk, the daughter of Neil Jordan is definitely not chasing after fame
Anna Jordan: ‘I don’t really need to worry about the connection between what I do and who my father is. I got here through music college and hard work’
Eight years is a long time to tiptoe from total obscurity to just about popping the head over the parapet, but Dublin-based Selk are in no hurry to capture the attention of too many people. Yes, they would love if thousands rushed to their sporadic gigs and bought their lush music, but maturity has a way of levelling expectations. The way Anna Jordan – one half of Selk; the other is Dennis Cassidy – tells it, whatever dreams she had of being a household name have long since drifted away. You sense that’s just the way she likes it.
Jordan and Cassidy formed Selk in 2012, their intention to make sparse music based around piano, vocals and drums. It has, essentially, continued in that form, but over the years extra instrumentation such as ukulele (via Jordan) and glockenspiel (by Cassidy) have added appealing textures. More recent music from Selk – including their forthcoming single, Silent Sea – highlights a progressive nature that takes its cues from non-commercial areas. It figures that both musicians have a jazz background – Cassidy as drummer with jazz/hip-hop collective Mixtapes from the Underground, and Jordan from her training at Newpark Music Centre in Co Dublin, the main hub in Ireland for jazz and jazz-related music education.
The idea of creating something where there was nothing before and it’s your own, that feeling was great
Jordan started in music as a child. There was a lot of music on her dad’s side, she says, with various instruments placed around the house. Her father, incidentally, is film director Neil Jordan, about whom there is justified pride yet in an equally acceptable no-big-deal fashion.
“I have got to the point now where I have enough material to stand on my own,” she says casually, “so I don’t really need to worry about the connection between what I do and who my father is. I got here through music college and hard work.”
As a child, she recalls “being encouraged to write something of my own. That was when I was about 10, but the idea of creating something where there was nothing before and it’s your own, that feeling of excitement, was great.”
Her technical skills developed apace, from routine, rigid practice to just “messing about”. Doing Mozart pieces at the age of 13 was difficult enough, she admits, but “then I gave up lessons, which was simply me wanting to progress. I then became obsessed with the acoustic guitar, and convinced myself I was going to be the best blues player in Ireland. That lasted about three months. But I became caught up with strumming and singing at the same time, listening to the likes of Sinéad O’Connor, The Cranberries and all the rest. That’s when singing became big for me.”
Jordan now regards that time as her teenage obsession phase, a few years when nothing else mattered.
“And you just don’t think of anything else, either. You don’t think about whether you’re going to be good or not, you just think the possibilities are endless. It’s really quite amazing. It’s only when you get older you realise you’re probably not the best blues guitarist in the world, let alone Ireland.
I teach a lot of kids, and they’re so musical and different, so I try and adapt to them as much as possible
“When I think of being a teenager compared to now? I wouldn’t say it happens that often these days, but me and my friends used to just sit around constantly playing music, singing harmonies; we worked so hard at it for nothing but the joy of it. We never had gigs – we just played and sang until the early hours of the morning, and it was lovely. We made a lot of noise with those acoustic guitars, I’m sure, but I learned so much from that time.”
Learning without pressure from parents, guardians or tutors is pivotal in the development of any creative person, she agrees. Such an approach bleeds into the making of Selk’s music, as well as her own “real job” as a piano teacher, which she started after graduating from Newpark. “I teach a lot of kids, and they’re so musical and different, so I try and adapt to them as much as possible. It annoys me that many are given up on because they’re deemed to be not musical just because they can’t learn things quickly enough. They should be allowed to tinker away – when they know it and like it, then it just comes so quickly. Some of the best musicians I know are not good at sight-reading, or they don’t do it at all.”
She says she is terrible at describing her own music – Jordan is Selk’s primary composer – but she knows it has changed over the years, from “using a lot of electronics and live looping to more acoustic. It’s a bit more folky, I suppose – avant-folk, maybe? Is that a good way of terming it? There’s probably a jazz root to it, more experimental, definitely. Dennis and myself just have fun filling out the sound, live looping, playing with many different kinds of instruments – drum machines, ukulele, glockenspiel. I like to keep it exciting.”
Not that it was always this way. Jordan says it took her some years to shake off the academic constraint of a song not having a beginning, a middle and an end. As a career in making music opened up more for her she gradually understood that “you don’t always have to create in a particular moment. You realise structured songwriting is still an art form. It took me a long time to actually know it was okay to do that, probably because I recognised singing was what I wanted to do the most.”
It was at this point she started to take herself seriously. “I felt the jazz part of my life wasn’t really me, whereas Selk was and is. It’s also the first time in my life where I don’t over-analyse or second-guess things all of the time. That can be such a killer of ideas, and some people can never get out of it.”
It could take me a few months to finish something – to work around it, to perform it, to see how it can develop
There’s a sense that Jordan has an abundance of worry beads at home and in her pockets; also an impression that, like some artistic people, she needs to have the administrative aspects of her creative life overseen by someone with a diary, a pen and a fastidious can-do attitude. When the business of gigging is mentioned, for example, she makes such a pained expression that I’m tempted to call for assistance.
“We don’t gig enough,” she says when her face returns to normal. “I try and organise about three headline gigs a year. I’m not enough of a networker, so that can be a problem.”
Another issue, she admits, is the time it takes to finish a piece of music.
“A strong idea can come easily to me, but getting to the finish line is another thing. Some songwriters can start and finish a song within a week, but not me. It could take me a few months to finish something – to work around it, to perform it, to see how it can develop and change. I enjoy that, however. Over the space of some months, the end result can be very different from start to finish.”
There is more, of course: the nuisance of being a perfectionist. This is, she silently screams, “one of my big problems. I try to let it go, but I suppose there’s a fine balance I aim for. I’m always trying, but I can say that I endeavour to let things go a bit quicker.”
With this in mind, recently off the backburner is a reworking of Silent Sea, which originally appeared on Selk’s 2013 debut EP, Dust. A collaboration with Spanish composer Javier Navarrete (Oscar-nominated for his score for Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth), it is a striking tune that shines a light on Jordan’s velvet voice and the deft interplay between the original song’s airiness and Navarrete’s weaving ambient/electronica.
I tend to mull over the music a lot. I take it with me when I’m walking, driving, cooking
“It’s all very personal,” she offers. “In my music I try to turn something negative into a positive. If I get anxious or overwhelmed, then I put that into a song and good comes out of it. That’s always a therapeutic thing, and it’s what so many artists do – they channel tension, anger, joy, beauty, positivity, dreamy things, not just negatives.”
And let’s not get too concerned about the live shows – not for the moment, anyway. Jordan admits it isn’t all about performing or gigging – she also likes the solitariness of writing.
“Of course, frustration comes from that, yet when something works it’s the best feeling. I tend to mull over the music a lot. I take it with me when I’m walking, driving, cooking, and trying not to get too attached to it. If it takes time for the music to arrive then it takes time. It’s just the way it is, and I’m okay with that.”
Silent Sea is released on AMS Records in early May