“Before I wrote The Cartographer, I would’ve avoided using anything except strings – because I didn’t understand and had no cause to”: Jo Quail learned to write for trombone just in time to add energy to her EP set Invocation/Supplication

Jo Quail
(Image credit: Simon Kalla)

Experimental cellist Jo Quail has harnessed primal and spiritual elements in her latest releases, the dual EPs Invocation and Supplication. Comprising two three-song cycles and the distinctive vocals of Heilung’s Maria Franz and O.R.k’s Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari, the EPs find The Cartographer musician moving into new sonic worlds.

If progressive music is about anything beyond long-winded epics and curry-stained capes, it must be a wide-eyed and persistent disregard for the norm. The greats of the genre all had a desire to push music into new territory, and use any artistic or technical resources that came to hand.

The cello-wielding embodiment of that ethos, Jo Quail, may not be making traditional prog rock of any kind – but her fearless, questing spirit has won countless admirers from the prog and heavy music communities over the last few years. 

Her last full release, The Cartographer, was a wildly atmospheric orchestral piece that made oblique nods to Rock In Opposition bands Art Zoyd and Univers Zero. Her latest, Invocation/Supplication, is effectively two distinct collaborations with two singers: Maria Franz of runic renegades Heilung, and Italian producer and composer Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari (or Lef, as Quail calls him). 

Another immersive and disarming piece of deep left-field, gleefully experimental instrumental music, Invocation/Supplication continues the cellist’s established tradition of making records that sound like nothing else on Earth.

When Prog catches up with her via Zoom, she initially seems a bit flustered and murmurs something about “spinning a lot of plates at the moment.” Once we begin to discuss Invocation/Supplication, all traces of stress disappear from her face, as she explains how Franz and Fornasari’s voices ended up on her latest project.

“I’ve known Maria for years,” she explains. “I’ve met her loads of times, I’ve supported Heilung, and I’ve stayed at her house stacks of times, but I’d never actually written for her. It was funny, because I wasn’t quite brave enough to think that our friendship would extend to her agreeing to sing some songs that I created! Also, she’s Maria and she must get 50 million people every day asking her to collaborate or to appear as a guest.

“I wanted to make it perfect before I presented anything to her, but then I mentioned it to Michael Berberian at Season Of Mist Records, bless him, and he went straight in and ran it up the flagpole! I was mortified and very thankful as well!”

Lorenzo Esposito Fornasari has worked with everyone from Lisa Gerrard and Bill Laswell to King Crimson alumnus Pat Mastelotto and former Porcupine Tree bassist Colin Edwin (in ongoing post-rock crew O.R.k.). He has an extraordinary, ethereal and evocative voice: the perfect match for Quail’s amorphous cello explorations.

Sometimes I feel like the custodian of something, not the creator… like I need to care for this, I need to make sure it’s kept safe and warm

“The first time I ever met Lef was actually onstage,” she says, eyebrows raised in mock surprise. “I was invited on to perform with him without any rehearsal, so I’d never even said hello to the bloke. But I knew him. You know when you have that connection? He was so easy to be with onstage, and after that I was like, ‘Jesus, that’s one hell of a talented man!’

“Lef’s voice is in the same register as my cello. I was thinking of him when I was working on Supplication, thinking very lyrically with the cello. I wanted there to be no space to tell where I ended and Lef began. We have this sort of creative closeness.”

Six tracks and 36 minutes deep, Invocation/Supplication is the classic game of two halves. In the first, Franz’s haunting vocals collide with hypnotic, tribal drums and intertwined tonal surges (Macha), waves of queasy, glacial ambience (Willow Of All), and profoundly cinematic, orchestral disquiet (Baroscyre).

In the second, Fornasari’s lithe, exotic voice soars across a minimal backdrop of earthy cello drones (The Calling), a funeral procession of churning strings (Maestoso) and an ululating fog of subterranean bass and ghostly crescendos. Ideally consumed in one disorientating hit, it’s a collection of great contrasts and secrets.

“The main differences are that Maria’s side, Invocation, is quite strident and a very outwards-looking-type thing,” Quail explains. “The orchestration is huge on that one, but Lef’s side is much more intimate: the orchestration is much smaller. It’s just me and Lef on there, with a little bit from Koen [Kaptjn] on trombone, a snippet here and there.

“So Invocation, for Maria, is quite powerful, it’s about the feminine archetype; whereas Supplication is almost like a glimpse of a very private moment. So that’s where the balance is, although that’s just my opinion. People are free to interpret this however they wish! Sometimes I feel like the custodian of something, not the creator. It’s very weird: it’s like I need to care for this, I need to mind it and make sure it’s kept safe and warm.”

I needed to write for trombone, so I began to learn about the instrument – and what a beautiful, beautiful instrument it is

While Quail’s early releases were hazily defined by her strident cello playing and liberated attitude towards composition, both Invocation/Supplication and The Cartographer speak of an upgraded creative process that now knows no boundaries or limitations. The cello remains a primary voice throughout the six new pieces – but Franz and Fornasari’s vocal efforts, alongside small but telling contributions from several other musicians, play an equally vital role.

Interestingly, Invocation/Supplication once again finds Quail writing for trombone. Prominently featured in The Cartographer, the oft-maligned brass instrument has clearly become a favourite. “Before I wrote The Cartographer, I would’ve avoided using anything except strings – that’s because I didn’t understand and had no need or cause to,” she shrugs.

“As far as I was concerned, the trombone players were the people that were always too loud and behind me, slightly to the right! Then I had the fortune to be put in a position where I needed to write for trombone, so I began to learn about the instrument – and what a beautiful, beautiful instrument it is. It occupies the same register that I occupy with the cello, so writing for it, for me, is quite instinctive. It’s the texture and the timbre of the instrument that I love.”

Originally conceived as two separate, single-song collaborations, Invocation/ Supplication steadily became much more, as Quail plunged head-first into a world of unique and stunning voices, meticulous sound design and shape-shifting trombones. Some significant time after recording it, she notes that the end result completely surpassed her original goals.

“When I write music, I don’t set out with any specific intention; I never have. I didn’t set out with a plan to create what I did with Maria and Lef. I just wanted to make a landscape for each of those voices. But their voices are wild enough to have gone in any direction they chose, so the whole thing was easy, really!”

It doesn’t matter to people who is on it, whether it’s the milkman or Lef or anybody else – if they don’t like the music, they don’t like it

With no specific destination in mind, Quail’s music honours prog’s adventurous spirit, while also highlighting the incalculable importance of the unprecedented and the unpredictable in music. Permanently on the edge of being overwhelmed by her own creativity, her desire to always create something new, and to connect with like-minded music explorers along the way, is something to be cherished. Just watch out for low-flying spinning plates.

“I never know how a record’s going to be received,” she concludes. “The Cartographer was like jumping off a cliff; I had no idea what people would think. Same with this one. With the greatest respect, it doesn’t matter to people who is on it, whether it’s the milkman or Lef or anybody else – if they don’t like the music, they don’t like it.

“But they have liked it and it has resonated with people, and that’s inspiring and a little bit frightening. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I’ve made the same album twice, so my anxiety is always about what I’m going to do next!”

Dom Lawson

Dom Lawson has been writing for Metal Hammer and Prog for over 14 years and is extremely fond of heavy metal, progressive rock, coffee and snooker. He also contributes to The Guardian, Classic Rock, Bravewords and Blabbermouth and has previously written for Kerrang! magazine in the mid-2000s.