THE INSIDE STORY: Joe Sheehan and SONGS OF LAKE VOLTA

Joseph Sheehan composes and performs music to connect with musicians and audiences from diverse traditions. His music has been performed at prestigious concert halls, underground jazz clubs, outdoor music festivals, and in intimate chamber settings. Musicians involved with his work include professional performers of jazz, classical, hip-hop, and African traditional music. His recent release on Ansonica Records, SONGS OF LAKE VOLTA, was featured on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR News station.

​His work is rooted in three music traditions: jazz, classical, and West African traditional music, drawing from years of study and engagement with all three traditions. This includes several extended trips in Ghana to study its traditional music and dance, academic degrees in classical composition, and countless gigs as a professional jazz pianist. For Joe, all three music traditions share the value of wisdom. A wisdom that, though expressed differently in each, balances knowledge of tradition with the novelty of self-expression and stylistic evolution. It is to this quality of wisdom that Joe’s music and performances aspire to.

Today, Joe is our featured artist in “The Inside Story,” a blog series exploring the inner workings and personalities of our artists. Read on to discover Joe’s passion for sports as well as fine arts…

What inspires you to write and/or perform?

Music has been a nourishing and exhilarating force in my life. Almost every day, I am touched by the gifts and dedication of other musicians through their music and performances. Because music has meant so much to me, I write and perform to share my gratitude, and the little knowledge I have, with others. I hope my music can inspire, challenge, and enrich.

Music, like language and food, is a way to understand and empathize with people of other cultures. Every culture has their own musical traditions, languages, and performance rituals. Learning these practices helps us connect and grow as human beings. That is why I try to create music that is open-minded and can comfortably inhabit different performance spaces. I hope this music reaches diverse audiences and cultivates cross-cultural dialogue.

What advice do you have for young musicians?

Music has an incredible variety of uses for society! If you like music, try to identify how you might use your talent and training positively. While we need lots of performers, conductors, and composers, we also need educators, therapists, producers, leaders, promoters, and engineers.

This also applies to musical style. Yes, musical self-expression and art are essential to preserve and value. But there is also a huge importance in creating music that reaches large audiences, and is not too self-conscious – in other words, fun! Don’t limit yourself because of what others think.

Do you have any specific hopes about what this album will mean to listeners?

First, I hope this album reveals the beauty and elegance of Ghanaian song to listeners unfamiliar with this repertoire. If it inspires respect and curiosity in the songs from the continent, then I have achieved something.

Second, I hope Ghanaians who hear this music enjoy their musical sound in a different context. I hope it conveys proper respect and genuine knowledge of Ghanaian traditional music, as well as creative honesty.

Third, I am fascinated with the idea of musical wisdom. It is present, and celebrated, in the music traditions I present on the album: classical, jazz, and African traditional. A wisdom, though expressed differently in each, that balances knowledge of tradition with the novelty of self-expression and stylistic evolution. It is to this quality of wisdom that this album seeks to express.

How have your influences changed as you grow as a musician?

For quite some time, I was concerned with my relationship and attitude towards the classical canon, especially contemporary classical music. I was constantly evaluating my work in this context – was it artistic? Was it worthy of the tradition?

Gradually, I became more relaxed about my work. In some ways, it felt as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. I still tried to write the best music I could, but was not overly concerned about whether it was innovative, or serious enough, or appealed to a certain kind of listener. I was also freed up by performing more and more outside the concert hall – to audiences at outdoor music festivals, music clubs, restaurants, etc. This helped me adopt an open-minded attitude, and the goal of reaching all kinds of audiences.

Where and when are you at your most creative?

Traveling! The distance away from everyday concerns provides a certain kind of clarity that inspires my best thinking. A long-distance trip frees up the mind to relax, and wander. Also, seeing new places, having new experiences, and meeting new people provokes all sorts of new directions to explore in the future.

I’m also a morning person, so I function best when I get up and can work uninterrupted early in the day. Mornings are quiet, and expectant with the day’s possibilities.

What are your other passions besides music?

I already mentioned travel, which is one of my biggest passions. I also enjoy the world of sports. My favorite sports to play are ultimate frisbee, badminton, and tennis, and my favorite to watch are basketball, tennis, and soccer. Someday I hope to learn surfing, but that will be difficult to manage in Pittsburgh! Sports for me provide a refreshing break from the world’s problems and struggles. In its best sense, sport draws out collaboration and problem-solving, pushes players to physical and mental limits, and showcases the human body.

Other passions include hiking, walking, reading, and family. I am lucky to have an incredible wife, two young boys, and wonderful parents on both sides.

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SONGS OF LAKE VOLTA is now available through Ansonica Records for streaming or purchase. Click here to explore this new album.

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