Interview: Diana Jones on channelling Appalachian culture and refugees

Diana Jones is a well-respected singer-songwriter with admirers on both sides of the Atlantic. Steve Earle is on record as saying “Diana Jones is one of the best songwriters I have heard in a long, long time” and she is able to bring the true spirit of her family’s Appalachian culture to her modern-day recordings. She has played numerous festivals in the US and UK, won multiple songwriting awards and her songs have been covered by various artists, including Joan Baez and Gretchen Peters. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with her in her New York apartment over Zoom to discuss her new album, ‘Song To A Refugee’, which is produced by ex-Dylan side-man, writer of films scores and musician extraordinaire David Mansfield, with guest appearances by Steve Earle, Richard Thompson and Peggy Seeger. In this revealing interview,  Diana Jones explains how she has turned her songwriting from being deeply personal to looking outwards to the injustices in the world. She explains she is not content to simply write about injustice but is seeking new COVID secure ways of raising funds for refugees.  Living in New York she is ideally placed to share her views on the Trump Presidency and the state of race relations in America and gives an insight from Martin Luther King’s PR man.

How are you? I hope you and your family and friends are all OK and coping with the challenges of coronavirus?
It has been rough, especially in the entertainment world with touring and all that stuff. I must say, it has really lifted my spirits to have ‘Song To A Refugee’ coming out, getting a response to it and making that connection again with our audience which wasn’t really there anymore.

It is very difficult at the moment. Does an artist put a new record out or not? On the one hand,  you get the connections, you get some income and you maintain some form of career momentum, on the other hand,  it is difficult to promote which means it may not reach its full potential paying audience.
This record is special to me and it is also about social justice. We are putting it out for my career but also because we need to talk about the issues.

You have certainly packed a lot into it in terms of the issues. How did you sift the issues that you wanted to highlight through your songwriting?
That is a good question. The way the songs happened was like in real-time as a response and reaction to what was happening in the press and media. What was happening on our Mexico border with our government and what other governments were doing throughout the world, and their response to refugees. The news here was just so upsetting every day, the images of children being separated from their parents. I think what I was doing was just writing songs because that is how I make sense of the world and I wasn’t actually trying to make a record, as it happened over time and I realised that I had enough tracks to make a record. I never really thought about the issues I was just writing as a response.

So you simply commented on the world as you saw it in real-time.
Yes, and so much was happening. every day I felt I was getting up to just more horrible news about how people were being treated and what the current administration was getting up to.  It still is, it just got worse and worse and worse, but I think that one summer for me was about the Mexican border and the separation of children from their parents just hit me the hardest. It was unbelievable what was happening and it was just like we hadn’t learnt anything from the past. We have human beings, children even, in cages with numbers on their chests, separated from people who love them for no valid reason except it was punitive. It was like our government wanted to punish people for coming into America and seek asylum, which is completely legal. Also, they turned it all around by making the refugees the enemy.

In Europe we have our own refugee crisis, it may be different in detail, but the same fundament challenges are facing refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean and the English Channel. When you were responding to the refugee crisis did you have any idea what was causing the problems, which are world-wide and not just limited to America?
I think there are a lot of ways the world is having to come to terms with the actions of certain countries over the last few hundred years. The western world has destabilised other places, in America, the vestiges of slavery are still being dealt with and I think, especially in America, what we did to destabilise South and Central America has a direct effect, right now, on why people are seeking asylum. It is kind of like we are having to pay to recognise our mistakes, or at the very least acknowledge them, instead of just taking care of one another. I don’t have any real answers myself, I was just trying to reflect on what was happening.

As you say it is very, very current. Just to get your view on your President, and as you say everyday nobody is surprised anymore with what he says or does, but how real do you think the risk is that if he loses the election he will resist handing over power?
I think it is a real concern and for America, we think of ourselves as a first-world country and those sorts of things only happen in South America and not here. I really do think it could happen and I think the things that are happening, like there was something in the press about women being given hysterectomies on the border in a detention camp, by a doctor who wasn’t even board certified, against their will. It was a reputable news source and the things that are coming out and it has just blown up so much that we don’t know what to expect because we have never experienced anything like this before. There are lots of elements in it that are moving towards real fascism and it is like we are getting numb, there is so much to deal with in this barrage of news, and with this Ginsburgh thing where he is just going to try and shove somebody in there. It is all so punitive and horrible, and he has all these people who believe the lies.

Your music has echoes of Appalachia, your family came from there, and one thing that puzzles me is that in terms of The South there is that sense of community, great pride in family values but the South now is also one of the biggest supporters of Trump. How do you reconcile that, do you know how it has come about?
I was born and raised on the East Coast and then I found out about my family and I was like an outsider looking in. Also, I majored in American history and therefore I had more knowledge on some level about what happened in the Civil War and Reconstruction afterwards and I really do think it goes back to that on some levels. This is just me and what I have read, but I think if Lincoln hadn’t died, or been murdered, Reconstruction would have been different. I think Reconstruction became punitive towards The South, and when we say The South lost the war, they did, but The North took everything and the way government was established just punished the people. Appalachia is way down there and had been involved in the war and people were so poor and things didn’t start getting better until 1971, which is over a hundred years after the Civil War. The North had the industrial revolution which was like enslaving people in another way, we don’t really treat people very well and we are greedy, and that is what has happened. The people who support Trump in some ways mirror what happened in Nazi Germany after the First World War. People were dispossessed, they were hungry and felt punished for the war. There was an American woman I met on the street in New York one time and she said “Well Honey, the crazies have their king” and thought, yeah. If anyone wants to latch onto making America Great Again, it is white supremacy, it is all veiled in that, which is like Nazi Germany. They have this pride in their genetic heritage and it is just so destructive. There are also wealthy people who are afraid to lose their money and they vote for him even though they don’t really agree with him. Then there are the very poor who I don’t think really understand that he doesn’t care about them and would crush them like a bug if it suited him. Despite this, he is their idol. It is just insane how much volatility it is bringing out, and it is scary, the riots were scary, the Black Lives Matter protests were great and necessary but there is a lot of tension even here in New York.

David Mansfield produced your new album. How did you hook up with him?
I have a friend who is a writer and she is actually his sister-in-law, and I met him through her. There is a film, ‘Songcatcher’, which was directed by David’s wife, Maggie Greenwald, and he did the score and it was one of my favourite movies and I had the movie’s score on my phone, that is how much I liked it.  It was all about Appalachian music and I was just this fan though I didn’t know much about him in life. When I finally met him he said he was familiar with my first record and he liked it and I said I was such a fan of his, and a few years later when I wrote the songs, it was in the fall and it just occurred to me that I had enough for a record and wouldn’t it be cool to work with David. I was walking in my neighbourhood a few days s later, and David was right there on the street. I told him I was interested in working with him and he said send me some songs so I sent him Song To A Refugee’. He came straight back saying I would love to do this and two weeks later we were working on it.

David Mansfield

As easy as that, wow.
As easy as walking my dog.  He was great because he plays so many instruments. Then, Richard, Richard Thompson, who was living literally a couple of towns over, came by and it all just came together, sometimes things happen like that and this time it really did.

Richard Thompson doesn’t play many sessions, does he?
No, he doesn’t. We were on the road together, I was like on his tour bus, and he was really so generous and kind and he was willing to share me with his audience at a time when I was just really starting out. I was a little nervous and shy to ask him, but he is great and did so much, in the end when we recorded ‘I believe You’ he showed up about 2:00 in the studio and we recorded his parts.

He is pretty big in americana despite being English and playing English folk-rock, isn’t he?
We are all kind of influenced by English, Irish and Scottish music if we listen to the roots of it. That’s why I think coming to the UK with music that had a traditional feel to it, people got it, particularly with the knowledge you guys have. Having learnt so much from Irish, Scottish Welsh and English bands and people come up to me about a certain song, something that connects.

I mentioned americana, do you see yourself as americana or do you have a different view of yourself?
I used to think of americana as being like Steve Earle, being country but in a good way. He has drums on his records and he is rocking and being cool, but he is also telling stories. So I don’t know, at first, a part of me thought americana was bad boy country with drums but then I guess I am americana, it is roots music, it is old-time modern storytelling and what have you, so maybe this record is the most americana I have put out.  It is like a homage to my grandfather, the people and culture I was trying to experience as an outsider coming in even though I felt it in myself. I guess if you can feel something genetically it means something, when I heard my grandfather’s voice I said that is me, that is who I am. There was a similarity between our voices and this record is infused with all that, and so it should be because that is where I came from. I think if I had been around in the ‘60s this would have been the type of stuff I would have been writing. That was what people were writing, they were writing social justice. And because of what was happening I couldn’t help but write about it. I remember when I first came into this scene I wished there was more social commentary now they are doing it because we all have to.

Quite a few artists are clearly responding to the challenges in various ways but there doesn’t seem to be a movement like there was in the ‘60s?
They had the Vietnam War, so it was the students and their friends and then you had Martin Luther King, and it all came together in a way that was really beautiful, but there was a way to organise through the schools, the Universities and the Churches. Now everything is so much more universal, we know what is going on in other parts of the world and I think the issues have been pushed to a different level as well. Also, if you think of the 1960s, how long ago that was learning those lessons, and now it is 2020 and we have American people being murdered in their homes and no one being held accountable.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t such a big racial breakthrough in the ‘60s that everyone at the time thought there was.
I have been very shocked because every one of my generation was thinking we know what is going on now and we can do something about these things because it has all been uncovered. But boy, there are so many layers. I have a friend in Holland, Harcourt Klinefelter, he was Martin Luther King’s PR person and he was a minister in the Dutch Reform Church and he was studying at Yale, and he went to Selma and he met King and he marched with him and then joined his staff. This guy has become a friend because of the music and that and whenever I go to Holland I catch up. I just love him because he is still a minister, and gosh I think he is nearly 90 now, and he is caring and always has something kind to say. When Trump first got in I was over there and I was just in tears, you know, and I said what do you think and he said “Sometimes we have to shine a light in the dark corners in the world to see what is wrong, and then we can do something about it”. So he was saying it is all just part of the process.  It is still as scary as hell though.

This is your protest album. Did you change your songwriting style to fit the new approach, as your new songs seem to be more direct than your earlier compositions?
I think it is. It was something I found out after the fact because when I listened back to the songs after we recorded them, and they were very new when we recorded them and I had no perspective on them, they were a very clear reaction to what I was hearing. Also, when I was recording them, I was reading from the book as I didn’t know them yet and hadn’t had the opportunity to play them for an audience. Usually, songs come over a period and I will go to the audience I’m going to play you a new song and some songs don’t get played again. Also, these songs were very private and personal and there is a vulnerability in terms of how I sing them that is different and I was writing them without thinking about anything such as the style. It was just like a channel opened up and these songs just came and then the next one and next one. I was writing a song every couple of days. It was almost like a full-on body experience where I was just like trying to catch the songs. I never tried to write one of them, I had never done that before not thinking about the experience before writing the song.

Is there a difference between the Diana Jones before you reconnected with your grandfather, and your family, and the Diana Jones of today?
Absolutely. That is a great question. It is like the ultimate adoption question, when people ask me why did I need to know and about two years ago I found my birth father’s family, and he passed away in 2005, and I have cousins in New York who are first cousins and it is really nice. I have a cousin who plays the banjo and I tapped into that. Before I found my birth family I just didn’t know, I don’t even know how to describe what it feels like to not know. For most people when you grow up with your family whether you know about their heritage, your heritage, or not you know your family. You know you look like your dad or your mom, or your cousin or something, someone has a way they move their hands or they do something when they talk and so do you, so there are all those things people grow up with that you don’t have. I never saw myself in anyone and now I have found this huge extended family I can see we all talk with our hands, and there were things I saw in them that I thought it must just be genetic. It took me time to really know my grandfather, to know his music and once that happened it gave me a feeling my career felt right to me. Everyone was saying, like my first manager, to me when I get up in the morning my job is to write songs, so I don’t wonder why I am here anymore, it just feels right. I think part of that was finding out where I came from. Obviously, the music came from there and I was in Nashville and it was just steeped in it. Then when I found my father he had left a stack of notebooks and I was like reading his notebooks, his short stories and poems, and he wrote like I do on some level. There are some things that I recognise in the way that he thought and getting to know him and his mother, my dog’s name is Bernie and so was my grandmother’s, and I didn’t know that when I named the dog. There is just a lot of stuff, I don’t know, I feel more settled now that I know who my father’s family are. I feel now I can just move on in a different way.

So where are you moving on to?
That is another good question. I am still working on a memoir that was almost finished when I found my birth father’s family, and so it is now how can I integrate that and do a rewrite. I have another book I am working on about a story I want to tell. I don’t know whether I will pull it off because the long-form is really different from the song and I need a long time to do it. It is hard to make plans right now for any of us, especially for those of us in the music industry. I am just trying to take it a day at a time, and do what I can on that day. I am obviously focusing on the record right now, and I am grateful to have these songs to put out into the world, having a project right now feels good. It will then be do the next thing. I have also written a new record and David and I are talking about maybe doing another record together.

Diana Jones

How are you going to promote ‘Song To A Refugee’?  You can’t tour it?
I was going to do this thing where every city that I was in, or every town that I was in, I was going to invite the local refugee spokesperson to speak in the intro, I would do a set and then have that person speak to the audience and once the audience was inspired and moved we would have someone for them to give money to or offer help to. I think a lot of people, even when they are moved, think  O my god what can I do?  So these local contacts would help the little things people did in their community which would be a good thing. So I tried it out in New York and it worked beautifully with this organisation call Hearts and Homes, it is for refugees, and then the pandemic hit. They then called me and said will you do an online benefit and I said sure, we did it with Richard Thompson and he recorded his song ‘A Heart Needs A Home’. We made $10,000 in an hour which was unbelievable and something I could never make at a show. What I am now thinking and what we are trying to pull off is doing this in the future, because the beauty of home recording is you can do it anywhere in the world. In theory, I could record something for an organisation in Australia or anywhere, and there are places that know my music that I have never been to, like Australia, and that would be really cool too. That is the idea and to use the record as a service not just about the songs I wrote. It is really freeing, and I started writing about other people because I don’t really have a lot more to say about me.

You have played in the UK various times over the years. What do you like and dislike about the UK?
In terms of the audiences and my friends and family and the folks I work within the UK, I love it all. Since 2006 I’ve been performing in the UK every year, and with each record release. I think it was 2008 that I flew to the UK eight times in that one year. I’ve done a variety of radio and television, gigs and festivals and shared the stage with some amazing artists. In a way, it’s become my second home.

Who are your major musical influences and why?
The first songs I listened to with my grandfather, driving through the Appalachian mountains were the Alan Lomax collection, ‘Breakdowns and Ballads from the American South’, I believe it was. After that, I listened to a lot of music that was recorded from people who would never play on stage, people who were writing and sharing songs because they were part of living. Other influences include Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, etc. Peggy Seeger, Steve Earle and Richard Thompson have always been at the top of my list and I’m so grateful that they could join me on this record.

At AUK, we like to share new music with our readers, so can you share who is currently on the top three on your current playlist?
I’ve been listening to Caroline Herring’s record ‘Fireflies’, her song ‘Camilla’ speaks to the American South right now. David Mansfield’s score to the movie  ‘Songcatcher’ is wonderful and includes great artists such as Hazel Dickens and Iris Dement. June Carter Cash’s voice has been breaking my heart lately from her last record, ‘Wildwood Flower’.

Finally, do you want to say anything to your UK fans?
Only that I love and miss everyone and I hope you are keeping safe and I look forward with all my heart to seeing you again soon.

Diana Jones’ ‘Song To A Refugee’ is out now on Proper Records

About Martin Johnson 378 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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