Joanna Wallfisch’s Bike Journey Chronicled by New Album and Book

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Vocalist Joanna Wallfisch has a musical pedigree that reaches back several generations.

(Photo: Courtesy Joanna Wallfisch)

When singer-songwriter Joanna Wallfisch is onstage, one can do nothing but pay attention. During a recent gig at the Blue Whale in Los Angeles, she sang conversationally, her folksy style slightly masking her impressive vocal range. Even so, the supremacy of her performance reflected her pedigree.

Wallfisch’s musical heritage stretches back at least three generations. Her great-grandfather was a famous conductor in Russia and Germany, and her grandmother survived Auschwitz as a cellist for the prison camp’s orchestra. Both her father and mother are world-renown classical strings players, and one of her brothers is a successful opera singer, while the other is a Hollywood film composer.

“I didn’t want to go to school for music,” said Wallfisch, who earned a fine arts degree instead, moonlighting as a jazz singer at nearby Ronnie Scott’s in her hometown of London. “I saw what it was like through my brothers: It seemed so narrow-minded. I wanted to be many things and I saw them having to be one thing.”

After moving to New York, where she worked to maintain a successful jazz career, the pressure to focus on a singular goal resurfaced. Someone told her she needed to be single-minded in order to get anywhere in life as musician, that she needed to forget her “adventuring self” to succeed.

Wallfisch did the exact opposite, booking a 2016 West Coast tour from Portland to Los Angeles, traveling from gig to gig via bicycle. She chronicles the journey on a new album, Far Away From Any Place Called Home, with a more literal account in a forthcoming memoir. She calls her project “The Great Song-Cycle Cycle.”

Wallfisch initially planned to record this music by herself, but eventually enlisted keyboardist Jesse Elder to assemble a band for the recording sessions. “Joanna’s a storyteller,” remarked Elder, who, as pianist and music director for Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, is familiar with pop and jazz singers crossing over into other genres. “Everything she writes is to service a certain story, a certain picture or scene that she’s been through.”

On the album, spoken dialogue and audio snippets from the road trip blend into songs about her encounters: a wheelchair-bound woman spinning defiantly into traffic, a camper who was getting his young son drunk on whiskey, a tender late-night conversation with a kindly old gentleman who soon would leave this world, a red plastic dog making its way around the globe.

The songs run the gamut of expression, from uplifting, urgent and raucous to intimate, thoughtful and wistful, with a persistent thread of solitude. “I think loneliness for me is a useful thing,” Wallfisch said. “A lot more happens to you, by the nature of you being alone. You’re much more flexible, people are more open to you, because you’re not with someone.” She paused to recite a line from one of her songs: “This romance with loneliness survives on the tails of the wind.”

On the album closer, “Final Flight,” Wallfisch reaches the geographic end of her journey—the Santa Monica Pier—only to be surprised by overwhelming sadness. “Talking about loneliness, that was the quintessentially most lonely moment,” said Wallfisch, who now is based in L.A. “When I stood there, it was real grief ... of having to say goodbye. Say goodbye to the journey, to something in me. I realized at the time I was saying goodbye to New York.” DB




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