Sputnik Faith and Arts Art as an act of aspirational joy: an interview with Joanna Karselis

patrons

Art as an act of aspirational joy: an interview with Joanna Karselis

Through our Patrons Scheme, we support Christians who are making engaging, powerful art or who are using their skills to serve their local communities. This term, one of our grants has gone to Joanna Karselis, a multi-instrumentalist, composer, and singer-songwriter.

Joanna has been a friend of Sputnik’s for some time, through our Birmingham Hub, and we’ve greatly enjoyed following her work, seeing her talent and perseverance pay off. We were delighted to be able to help fund her upcoming EP—and even more so given the story behind it. We’ll let Joanna explain.

Hi Jo. You’ve been involved in Sputnik for several years now but for those who are not familiar with your work, could you fill us in on who you are and what you do?

I’m a multi-instrumentalist and composer. I mainly work in film music, but I also score games, plays, podcasts, adverts… anything that needs music! I also write and sing songs, and work as a session musician and music educator.

Your main field of work in the last few years has been in media music, particularly film. Can you talk us through this? How did you get into making music for film and how has this developed?

I started off studying classical violin performance but through some convoluted and unexpected circumstances ended up doing a master’s degree in contemporary classical composition. During my masters I got disenchanted with the state of musical academia and increasingly felt like I didn’t fit in there. I didn’t write the “right” kind of music for most of my professors and wasn’t given the same opportunities as the other person in my year (it was a small course!)

Thankfully, one kind professor gave me the chance to score my first play, which completely realigned my goals as a composer. Shortly after that, I got my first job scoring a feature film, after the director happened to find my work online. My music wasn’t deemed worthy enough for the classical world, but it worked pretty well alongside a visual image. After a successful festival run for that film, I was expecting the work to start flooding in, but it ended up taking another two years for me to get another credit as the industry is so competitive.

Since then it’s often felt like tough going, and if I’m being honest it’s not an easy career path, but through persistence and patience I’m now in regular employment as a film composer. I’ve scored three films on Amazon Prime, mixed music at Warner Brothers, spent the last few years on BAFTA’s talent development programme, and have scored many award-winning films, so that hard work is starting to pay off.

Even though it’s been a tough journey, I’ve persisted with film scoring because it’s my calling. God loves telling stories, and when I score a film, I get to support the narrative by adding depth and fullness to it through the music. I’m a passionate believer in cinema as an agent of change, so being part of telling these stories that help us understand each other and challenge our perceptions and understandings of the world is really important. Often the composing process feels very worshipful for me and I really connect with God as I do it. I also get to be a woman in a male dominated industry, which brings with it challenges but also opportunities to advocate for equality and fairness and to support my peers, and to do my best to treat everyone I encounter with grace and kindness, which isn’t always the industry standard.

It is a pleasure to be able to support your latest project through the Sputnik Patrons Scheme. Can you talk us through it?

In late September 2020 I became suddenly ill. It eventually turned out to be long Covid which started after an asymptomatic initial infection. It’s an illness I’m still living with now.

The first three months were particularly rough, and for that time I became bedbound and only able to carry out the most basic of everyday tasks. Despite that, I kept a pad of manuscript paper by my bed and every few weeks I had enough energy to do some basic composing. I wrote these little snatches of upbeat and uplifting piano pieces that would bring me joy, as well as capture the pain of the pandemic and my own illness.

In January I started being able to sit up in bed for an hour a day with my laptop and a mini-keyboard, and I began slowly inputting these pieces into my computer. The project has really kept me going through the last year, gradually expanding as I’ve been able to work again and to do things I took for granted before like record myself playing violin. It’s now a fully-fledged EP.

It feels like the most personal and worshipful thing I’ve ever made — I can’t even listen to some tracks without breaking down — and the Sputnik funding allowed me to go and record the piano parts in a studio which felt like drawing the beginning of a line under the experiences of the last fifteen months of illness. It’s a big departure, as I normally either release film music or songs; so to release something that’s neither, feels like I’m reclaiming my own music and letting it stand by itself for the first time in many years.

To stay connected with Joanna Karselis and her work in the lead up to the release, you can follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or check out her websiteTo hear a bit more about her journey, you can watch our longer interview below!

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