We are delighted to bring you another inspiring edition of Pathways. In this special series of episodes you’ll hear the stories of music-learners just like you, reaching out and lending each other a hand on our musical journeys. We’re joined by Joanne Cooper, a longstanding member of Musical U, who has particular expertise in a piece of software called Band In A Box.

Joanne’s musical life has never been the same since she started using Band in a Box. She went from writing zero songs to writing and covering hundreds of songs! She has learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way, so we were excited to have Joanne on the show to share her musical journey.

In this conversation Joanne shares:

  • How Band In A Box made a life-changing impact on her song-writing and musical performance.
  • How she used performing with backing tracks as a stepping stone to accompanying herself.
  • The simple and specific song-writing process you can try if you’re just starting out.

If you’ve never tried song writing, are nervous performing, or you’ve never come across the Band In A Box software, this episode will enlighten you.

Watch the episode:

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Links and Resources

Have you picked up useful ideas or techniques in your own musical journey so far that you think could inspire or help others on their path of exploring their musicality? Get in touch by dropping an email to hello@musicalitynow.com! We are always looking for new guests for Pathways and would love to share your story next.

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Joanne: Hi this is Joanne Coooper, I’m a singer-songwriter from Johannesburg, South Africa, and this is Musicality Now.

Christopher: Welcome to the show Joanne, thank you for joining us today.

Joanne: Thanks so much Christopher. I’m really looking forward to this interview.

Christopher: So, I’ve had the chance to get to know you a little bit. We’ve spoken a couple of times before and you’re a member of Musical U, but I only know a little bit about your back story. So I’d love if we could start out there and I know you got started with music early in your early teens, is that right?

Joanne: Yeah, at about 13 was when I first started playing the guitar. Although I loved to sing way before that and I kind of harbored some secret desires to be in one of those shows, those musical shows. But I came from a very unmusical family, so I had no idea how to go about doing that or anything. And at 13, I persuaded my mum to buy me a guitar and mainly because all my friends were learning to play the guitar and she bought me a guitar, which was very surprising because I never … always, I didn’t usually get what I wanted, what I asked for and she went ahead and bought me that guitar. I was brought up in Zimbabwe so she had traveled down from Zimbabwe to South Africa and had bought me a Washburn nylon string guitar and had smuggled it back through the border on her back. And we all thought it was terribly funny because my mom was acting like she was a hippie, but actually, she was probably a lot younger than I am now. It really was quite funny.

Joanne: But I started playing the guitar and have played all my life. But giving away my age, I obviously started playing long before there was any internet or any way of learning songs. So I went and bought myself a John Denver play along book and one of the songbooks that you used to buy with all the chords and the lyrics and everything in it, and I learned all those songs. And then, just really started playing by ear because that was the only way to learn, I wasn’t going to lessons or anything. And I used to hear a song that I would like to be able to play and I would just listen to it and write up the lyrics by hand, and then switch the record off and then just try and work out the chords and sing along, doing my own thing.

Joanne: So I never really worried that much about sounding like the recording because I ended up, everything was A, D and E. And I couldn’t really understand why everything that I ended up working out was an A, D and E. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve discovered that that’s the one, four and five in my key, my favorite key of A. So, played guitar growing up, played at people’s weddings and around the campfire. And then joined up with a friend of mine called Karen in 1998 and had a little band called Ellis Band, which we thought was very cute, and we used to go around to all the clubs and play with backing tracks. And then she left in 2000 and never really came back to South Africa.

Joanne: So I kind of hang up my guitar for quite a few years. I got married and had kids, and then in about 2014 I took up singing lessons and that revived my interest again in making music. And then shortly after, no sorry, it was about 2010 actually that I started the singing lessons. And shortly after that I discovered Band In A Box on the internet and I bought the tool and downloaded it and immediately started writing songs and recording songs and have been very, very active with Band In A Box. Since then, I’ve written hundreds of songs and recorded hundreds of songs, covers and originals. And became a reseller of Band In A Box last year. So I’ve got a little online business around Band In A Box, I did a course, I did a video for you guys. I made a video that’s done really well actually on YouTube, on how to use Band In A Box, making backing tracks and recording song and wrote an ebook. So I’ve got a small online business doing that.

Joanne: And then, in about 2014 I started making these play along videos, because I was gigging on my own with back tracks, and I decided that if I could make karaoke type videos with the chords and lyrics, then I wouldn’t need to take along a songbook with the chords and lyrics written out. So I made these karaoke videos for my own repertoire. It’s basically a foolproof way of being able to perform, you’re not going to make any mistakes with chords and lyrics and you’re not going to forget what they are, and I’m notoriously bad with chords and lyrics. And then I decided … I wondered if other people would be interested in these videos. I put them on YouTube and it’s been absolutely phenomenal.

Joanne: My YouTube channel has taken off with these play along videos, people absolutely love them. And what I do is I just take popular songs and I make these karaoke type videos. So that’s a big part of my business now, a major part of my income on my online business. And that’s where I am now, I’m doing a lot of performing, live performing now, so I’ve kind of dropped my back tracks now. I don’t generally perform with back tracks anymore. My guitar playing has improved enough that I can perform just with me and my guitar. I’m not a fantastic guitar player, but your site has helped me get confidence that I can perform on my own with just my guitar. I generally just sing loudly to drown out my bad guitar playing.

Christopher: I know guitarists who do the opposite. They play loudly to drown out their singing.

Joanne: Yeah, yeah. I just sing loudly. And I’ve actually recently, well in the last couple of years, teamed up with a really young guitarist and he’s brilliant and he compliments me nicely. But it’s still nice to be able to play on my own, so I do perform a lot of folk clubs and I’ve performed in four national arts festivals, and I’m hopefully going to be accepted for my fifth national art festival. So I go down to Grahamstown and I put on a little one woman show. And there, I specifically say in the adverts, don’t come if you don’t like folk music because there’s going to be three quarters of an hour of folk music, just me and my guitar. So yeah, that’s where I am at the moment, it keeps me very busy. It’s not my full-time job. I am a computer business analyst during the day, working full-time for a FinTech company. So it’s a hobby, but hopefully, who knows maybe it can evolve into a more full-time job in the future.

Christopher: Wonderful. Well, I think the thing I was most keen to unpack with you today was the intersection maybe of creativity and technology. And you mentioned Band In A Box, and as you say, you did a guest video for our YouTube channel a couple of years ago, I think.

Joanne: Yeah, it was.

Christopher: Which is consistently one of the most popular videos on our channel. And it’s just-

Joanne: Amazing.

Christopher: It’s such an interesting area because I think the people who know and use Band In A Box absolutely love it. And yet the majority of music learners, I think it’s fair to say, don’t really know about it. So I definitely want to talk specifically about Band In A Box, but maybe before we do that, we could go back to some of the early years and the roots of your creativity, because you’re clearly a very creative and capable person and you’ve been growing into this identity as a musician who is out there performing and is writing songs and is helping others to use technology to write songs. Was that always the case, were you a teenage kid who was scribbling down song lyrics in lessons and that kind of thing?

Joanne: Definitely always scribbling down lyrics, always scribbling down lyrics. And I still got lots of lyrics in my repertoire of misheard lyrics, but are so in me thatI can’t get past it. Anyway, but I don’t know, I think I was always a confident singer, but I’ve never really been a confident guitar player at all. But I always thought that I could do something, I could perform in a pub or … I went, I was in a ski resort for a whole season many, many years ago, and I took my guitar with the idea that I would play in a pub. I mean, there was no way I was going to be able to do that, I just wasn’t at that level. But I think always had the idea that I could get to that level with a bit of work and that’s where Band In A Box came along and just saved me completely, because I’m not a great guitar player.

Joanne: So with Band In A Box, you don’t need to be a great guitar player because they’ve recorded all these fantastic guitar players who can accompany you. So with Band In A Box, I was able to use my voice and make good recordings, without myself having to play my mediocre guitar playing.

Christopher: I see. And for me, I got introduced to Band In A Box back when it looked terrible. Like I have these really vivid memories when I was at university, I was learning blues harmonica with like the one harmonica teacher in Cambridge. And I’d go to his house and we’d have these harmonica lessons, but he had Band In A Box, and it was amazing. He had this old rickety windows PC and he’d click around and suddenly we’d have a 12 bar blues in A, whatever key we wanted to work in. And it was just, at the time it sounded pretty good. These days it has these incredible parts, as you say, that are almost indistinguishable from real music recordings. Whatever you happened to be doing.

Joanne: They are actually real musicians. So what they’ve done is-

Christopher: Exactly. But it’s drawing on the real samples.

Joanne: Yeah. They’ve recorded real samples and the technology actually transposes that into the key that you want and obviously stretches the audio according to your Tempo and things like that. So what year was that when you were first introduced

Christopher: Wow, showing my age now.

Joanne: No, that’s fine.

Christopher: It was in 2002 to 2005, so this was probably 2004.

Joanne: Yeah. So they were probably at that stage completely MIDI based. Whereas now they … I use … The majority of them are real tracks, which are real musicians, yeah. So that, now you’ll find a completely different experience with Band In A Box.

Christopher: Absolutely. And even then though, it was somewhat magical to me and it was so useful. Because I was just learning to play blues harmonica solos, but to be able to just create realistic sounding, to some measure, music tracks on the fly like that was amazing. And it sounds like it was similarly magical for you and like filling a need that you were otherwise having a bit of a struggle with.

Joanne: I think for me, I wanted to, for some reason I wanted to record a CD. I had no idea how to go about doing that, and my guitar playing obviously wasn’t good enough to record. And I also didn’t really know how to go about getting songs, like getting the licenses for cover songs to record cover songs. So that’s when I started writing my own songs, because I figured if I want to write a CD … Sorry, if I want to record a CD, then the easiest way is if I write all the songs, then I don’t have to worry about the licenses and whatever. So that’s what I did, and that’s when I found Band In A Box. So it was really so that I could write my own songs and record them without anybody else being involved and release these CDs. That’s what I started out doing in 2012. The quality of some of these, the work that’s coming out with Band In A Box is incredible. People are getting really, really good at it now, you cannot tell the difference. They’re so good at mixing it so beautifully and doing the arranging, that you really can’t tell the difference.

Christopher: And so, I don’t want to turn this into a full on tutorial, because-

Joanne: No.

Christopher: Not least because you’ve done that for us on our YouTube channel, we can put that in the show notes. But for someone who’s never come across this software and we’re saying, it can produce the backing track or it can help you write a song. Can you just describe like very roughly what it looks like. When you were sitting down and thinking, “I want to make a song, I’ve got this software.” What were you doing and what was the software doing?

Joanne: So if you have got a normal, a chord sheet, like a good old song, let me try and find something here. That you printed from the internet, let’s say, you’ve got something out of Ultimate Guitar, with just the chords and the lyrics. So the chords are above with the song and the lyrics and that’s how you play the guitar. You just open up the program, you change the key of … On a drop down you say, okay, I’m singing in in G or whatever your favorite key is or whatever the chords on the piece of paper are. You change the tempo and then you just type in the … you choose a style and then you type in the chords and you press play and it’ll generate the backing for you. And they as I said, they’re real musicians and they’ve gone and recorded all these samples. So it takes the audio sample that they’ve recorded and it stretches it and it transposes it, so that it fits in with the chords that you just tap into the interface.

Christopher: And so for someone like yourself back then who’s thinking, “I know I can sing, I’ve got these lyrics, I’m writing the songs on my guitar, but I’m not really confident in my guitar playing.” It let you take what you had and produce something that sounded like a real music recording as it were.

Joanne: Exactly, exactly. And a lot of the time I’ve even gone to the extent when I’ve made a video, I’ve had the guitar and I’m playing the guitar as if I’m the one playing the guitar on the recording. So yeah, it really is amazing. It’ll generate backing for you for whatever style you want. So whatever style of music you like it’ll generate the backing for you. And then you obviously make changes to it, you do arranging, you cut out instruments, you put in other instruments, you generate fills, you … It’s quite endless what you can do.

Christopher: I’m glad you mentioned that. Yeah, because it’s not just press a button and this is your option, it’s very conditional and adjustable, right? So you can still feel like you are the one composing it, even if it’s other kind of synthetic musicians that are playing it for you.

Joanne: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well it comes, the Windows version comes with a free DAW called Real Band. So once you’ve generated your basic backing, you open it in Real Band and you can do your normal arrangement. So it puts it in a .wav file and you can do your normal editing and that you would normally do, as if you’ve recorded the audio live in a studio. So, once I’ve written a song, I’ve generated a basic backing track, I open it and Real Band and I make changes and I generate a set, oh that would be nice if a mandolin played those eight bars and then you just generate a mandolin and you put it in those eight bars. And you do your arranging then, so that you make it completely your own.

Christopher: Fantastic. How did your-

Joanne: Does that make any sense?

Christopher: I think it does, yeah. I obviously have a bit of knowledge of the program, but I think even someone who didn’t would follow what we’re talking about there and the usefulness of it. And it sounds like it was something that let you express your creativity in a new way, into a greater extent than you’d been able to just with you in the guitar.

Joanne: Completely. I think it did more than that for me. It actually changed my musical life completely. It really did, it changed my musical life.

Christopher: And so talk a little bit about that. How did your songwriting continue after that first CD you were working on?

Joanne: Oh wow. So yeah, the first, it’s got a very active community, Band In A Box. So what I did was I went onto the forum and I got inspiration from people who had been busy with the program for years. There’s a lot of people on there who know the program inside and out. I listened to these things and I was like, “Wow, can’t believe what these people are able to do with this tool, it’s completely amazing.” After I’d spent a lot of time that I eventually dived in and bought the product and then started out just writing. I had written a song, I think on the guitar, so a few songs. I’d been on some songwriting course or something, so I’d written a song and I just went into Band In A Box and I made a backing track. I remembered it had a violin in some part, and some guitars.

Joanne: And then I very, very self-consciously posted it onto this user forum in the Band In A Box community just to say, this is my first song ever, my first recording ever. And the encouragement that I got from the folks there was unbelievable, it really, really was, it just set me on the path. Because what I’d been doing before that as I’d been … because I come from a technology background, I started out as a programmer and I’ve always been in computers. I had been mucking about with trying to record my voice and my guitar using Mixcraft, I think it was, and I just had a mixer and I just plugged the mixer straight into my laptop and I’d been making these terrible recordings. So I’d been mucking about with that for quite a while before I discovered Band In A Box.

Joanne: Then when I discovered Band In A Box and I discovered that I could just sing and the rest was all taken care of, I literally, ran down the road crying for joy. I was so happy because I didn’t have to muck about with trying to record the guitar and trying to get the top arch to sound nice and it was … just changed my life. So then I started writing regularly, I take part in February Album Writing Month. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that, Christopher.

Christopher: No.

Joanne: No? It’s an internet forum where songwriters from all over the world get together for the month of February and everybody attempts to write and record 14 songs in the month of February. So it’s a very collaborative environment. I’m not going to make it this time because I’m going skiing tomorrow, but I’m up to nine songs, so far in February. And so I take part in that I write throughout the years. I write for people if they want me to write songs for them. Yeah. So that’s where it’s taken me. Where Band In A Box has literally taken me with my songwriting.

Christopher: Terrific. And did that just lead naturally to being comfortable performing? Or you mentioned you are getting out and performing now. How did that work?

Joanne: Definitely. I have always being on the fringe in performing. I’ve always performed at the folk club, but never really, really been comfortable. I went to my first National Arts Festival four years ago and I went on my own. And at that National Arts Festival, I took … I made backing tracks and I took backing tracks and I performed quite a lot of original stuff and a few covers with backing tracks. Because I wasn’t confident enough to play my guitar, just me and my guitar. And that was okay, but it was a start.

Joanne: And then the next year, I took my guitarist, Libs, with me. So I had him to back me up on the guitar and he also sings harmony. But I was singing the main lead vocals and he was singing harmony and playing guitar. So he came the first year and in the second year he also came with me. In the fourth year I decided this is crazy, I can actually do this on my own. I can pull it off, I can play the guitar, I can sing folk music and just keep my guitar playing quite simple. That’s what I did last year, I just went down and it was my best year actually. I enjoyed it the most, because you are completely free, it’s just you, you don’t have to worry about anybody else. And I performed 10 to 15 folk songs in the space of three quarters of an hour, and everybody loved it. So yeah, it’s been a long journey, but I think I am at it now.

Joanne: At the last National Arts Festival I said to my daughter, who always comes with me, I said, “You know, for the first time the stage fright has gone, for the first time ever.” And since then the stage fright seems to have gone. So yeah.

Christopher: Wonderful.

Joanne: That’s definitely helped me.

Christopher: Were there any tips or techniques that helped you get to that point? Or do you think it was just a matter of repeat practice and putting yourself out there?

Joanne: Repeating, repeating, repeating. And also knowing, it’s not … nothing’s going to happen to you, you’re not going to die. You just get up and sing and you only can put across what you can do. You can’t be any better, you can’t perform like somebody else. And if you forget your lyrics or you forget your chords, it’s not the end of the world. People don’t mind, they’re grateful that somebody who’s got the guts to get up and perform. So I kind of just forced myself to carry on. Carry on going to open mics without my backing tracks, because I think from the singing lessons I could get up and perform in front of 200 people with a backing track. I was quite fine, there would be no problems with that, but take my backing track away and give me a guitar and my nerves were just completely shot.

Joanne: And since then, I have been working on it, but I think I’m finally at a level where I’ve kind of just accept the type of guitar player that I am and the type of guitar player that I’ve become and appreciated it really. Just appreciated the gifts that I’ve been given and I’ve been able to do, and I get up and I perform and I sing. I just sing, loudly to overcome my bad guitar playing.

Christopher: Wonderful. And you were sharing with me earlier, another performing context at a local music shop that sounded like it was a really great opportunity to kind of get comfortable expressing yourself. Tell us a little bit about that.

Joanne: Yes. That’s so interesting. My friend Libs, works at the local music connection, so I’ve become really good friends with him. And they have open mics to two nights a month, and then on a Saturday morning they set up a PA system outside the shop, just on the porch, just right outside the shop and with a big sign saying, “Just come and jam.” And what’s tended to happen over the last few months, is that I’ve tended to be hosting those sessions. Because the people who work in the shop are busy serving everybody in the inside, so they can’t devote four hours to sitting and encouraging people. So I go there, I plug my guitar in and I just encourage people that are walking in and out to come and jam, in whatever form that takes. If it’s a song that they want to sing or play around with a guitar, or play the bongo drums or the tambourine or whatever they want to do, just come.

Joanne: There’s nobody really even watching, because it’s outside the guitar shop, so nobody’s really paying attention, and people absolutely love it. Most people will say, “Oh no, I can’t sing or whatever.” So I say, “Oh well, what songs do you like?” And try and find some common ground between what I can play on the guitar and what they can sing. And they’ll come up and they’ll sing into the microphone and we’ll have a little session there and then they’ll play the mic … play the tambourine and some people will come along and pick up the bass and start just playing the bass, and it’s been absolutely amazing. It’s really been amazing, because people need to be encouraged. There shouldn’t be any snobbery around music, people should be encouraged. For many years, there’s absolutely no ways I would play a guitar in a guitar shop, I would just be too embarrassed to pick up a guitar and play. And there’s no way, people shouldn’t feel like that, they should just pick up a guitar and play, you know? Nobody cares, just play.

Christopher: Absolutely. It’s funny, people ask fairly often whether we’re planning to do like live events at Musical U, like are we going to get out there and do things in person like workshops or events or like, what’s the word? Evangelizing, I guess. And the answer is no, we’re firmly focused online, for now at least. And I just … I love what you said so much. I think if we were out there with Musical U ambassadors, they would be doing exactly what you just described. I can’t applaud that highly enough, because as you say that there’s no need and no value in the snobbery and it causes such reticence in people to share the musicality they do have. So I think that’s tremendous that you’re out there encouraging people to just pick up something and make a musical noise.

Joanne: Pick up … Yeah, just pick up … And kids, will love to come along and to sing something into the microphone. And even if I just play a couple of chords with them and help them sing or whatever, genuinely I can look up the chords on my iPad and just put something together very quickly, it doesn’t have to be great. But they love it, they absolutely love it.

Christopher: Wonderful. Well we’ve mentioned several of your projects already and we’ll have links in the show notes. I believe your main website is joannecooper.co.za, is that right?

Joanne: That’s right, yes.

Christopher: And so that’s where you’ll find Joanne’s music, her songs that she’s written, as well as the play along videos. And tell us a little bit actually about your Band In A Box course and book you mentioned briefly earlier, but if someone’s listening to this being like, “Oh, that sounds amazing, that’s exactly what I needed. Let me go run and buy it now.” Tell them about the training you offer there.

Joanne: The course, I made a couple of years ago, I think two years ago, it’s called First Song With Band In A Box. So it’s a video course, it’s got 12 or 13 videos and it takes you step-by-step through recording your first song with Band In A Box. So whether that’s an original song or whether it’s a cover song, it doesn’t matter. It takes you all the way through from tapping in the chords to generating a backing, arranging your song, tuning the vocals, if that’s what you want to do, all the way through to releasing it on YouTube or on iTunes and that kind of thing.

Joanne: I think a lot of people do battle with Band In A Box and they’re a little bit overwhelmed because there’s a lot in there. You open this interface and you go, “Oh, there’s so much, and I don’t know what to do.” But actually, if you just start out and you just try and make a simple backing track, and then record yourself singing over that simple backing track, you can get up and running within the hour. Leave off the complicated stuff till later, that’ll come, just start recording with what you’ve got. Don’t worry too much if you haven’t got an excellent microphone, you just need a USB $100 microphone plugged into a laptop.

Joanne: It takes people step-by-step through the process of recording their song, using Band In A Box. And then I wrote an ebook a while back, which is just a beginner’s guide, just to sit using Band In A Box to make a backing track. So as I mentioned, these two products with the Windows Band In A Box, this Band In A Box software named Real Band. So when I’m recording a song from start to finish, I rely heavily on Real Band. But actually, you can do a lot of the functionality just in Band In A Box. The ebook just focuses just on Band In A Box itself, and in the course is Band In A Box and Real Band.

Christopher: Terrific. Well, we’ll definitely have links to all of those in the show notes for this episode. Before we say goodbye, Joanne, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask, since you’re so experienced with songwriting, do you have any tips for those in our audience who want to get into songwriting or have been doing it a while? Are there any things you’ve picked up along the way that particularly helped with that creative outlet?

Joanne: Just start. Just start and write. Just start, really just start. Just write a story, try and make it rhyme or put some sort of cadence to it so that it reads nicely like a book, and then just start putting it to music. What I’ve found is quite an easy way to do, is just start with the one, four, five, the major chords, and just start singing over your chords, until you’ve got a melody, and then start going back and changing the chords and re-harmonizing it a little bit so that you can put some variety. And so, just even changing the major chord for its relative minor, will give it a different feel. But when you’re just starting out, just write a story and just put chords to it to start. Use the one, four, five and just start writing.

Christopher: Terrific. Great advice. Thank you so much Joanne, for joining us on the show today. It’s been really a pleasure to get to hear a bit more about your musical background and your journey and I know that listeners and viewers will have picked up a lot from hearing your story. Thank you again.

Joanne: Thank you so much, Christopher.

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