Jo Schornikow is an Australian-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter, who also performs with her partner Matthew Houck in Phosphorescent. Her latest record, ALTAR, is out now on Keeled Scales.
Jo Schornikow is an Australian-born, Nashville-based singer-songwriter, who also performs with her partner Matthew Houck in Phosphorescent; Dana Falconberry is an artist and musician based in Northern Michigan. Jo’s new record ALTAR is out tomorrow on Keeled Scales, so to celebrate, the two old friends sat down to catch up about it and life-at-large.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Jo Schornikow: So what I know about you to be true is that you are a beautiful singer, songwriter, printmaker, chainstitcher, dancer, and person. Are there any other mediums that I don’t know about yet?
Dana Falconberry: [Laughs.] The main thing that has been going on in my life since the pandemic hit has actually been this little food business that I started for fun on the side with my husband.
Jo: Oh my goodness! [Laughs.]
Dana: [Laughs.] I don’t know… I don’t understand life at all and now I am the owner, operator of a small boutique spring roll business and it has totally taken over my life. It’s not a world I knew anything about until the pandemic hit. Everything else kind of fell apart and then the business we just were doing on the side for fun with our friends sort of kinda took off!
Jo: Wait, what’s it called?
Dana: It’s called Roll Model. We don’t have to talk a lot about spring rolls, cause that’s what I do all day, but I do try to make the spring rolls themselves like little pieces of art that people can eat. It’s not the creative life that I envisioned for myself, but it is creative nonetheless
Jo: So you’re a chef as well!
Dana: Well I only know how to make one thing, but I am a chef of spring rolls I guess.[Laughs.]
Jo: Incredible! That started in Texas?
Dana: It did! We were just doing it on the weekends for fun, and then when the pandemic hit and everything else was lost, we started doing it more, expanded it. Then we moved to Michigan.
Jo: What was the reason for the move? Pandemic, or?
Dana: You know, it had been a long time coming. I think that artistically this is my place. These specific woods actually are my place. I do a lot of art based on the desert too, but I always come back creatively here. I’ve always felt like I needed to live here in these woods. So I had been trying to do that for a while, a few years. But it was hard to move across the country, it’s crazy!
Jo: I know that!
Dana: Yeah, you know! So we just did it. I think the pandemic helped us make an insane decision to just — “Whatever, let’s go!”
Jo: Well, yeah, when little tiny daily routine things are taken away from you, then maybe bigger change becomes possible.
Dana: Yeah, totally. Was there anything that you feel like became more possible, in a big way because of that?
Jo: In many ways no. My world became extremely small. When there’s kids, there’s needs that need to be met every five minutes. There was no alone time, which is something that I struggled with. For most of it, it was having to find those tiny spaces within yourself to try and regain sanity or maintain the small part of it in the midst of just…
Jo: And i know so many people had actual problems and real things that were so difficult and I was just hanging out with my family. I made it sound bad, but it wasn’t in many ways. I’m glad we had all that time together, but creatively things felt, you know… There were not a lot of options for a bit. But whatever your boundaries are, after a while, you adapt to them. Then, little weeds start coming up through the cracks and you think OK, even within this there’s ways, with a lot of discipline and acceptance of “what is,” that things can happen. So there were certainly no grand developments, but I also think it’s very beneficial to be able to always find little pockets of creativity and joy and solitude in the midst of the chaos of day-to-day life.
Dana: Oh, that’s so inspiring to me! I struggle with that so much. What are your tricks?
Jo: Well, I’ll be perfectly honest… My friend got me into micro-dosing LSD. [Laughs.]
Jo: Yeah and just going for a walk and making sure I had a little time to myself each week to just sit and remember that the veil is thin and there are many worlds within worlds. So that’s been an interesting little journey! I’m glad the excess of my youth is behind me. [Laughs.]
Dana: Me too.
Jo: It’s a very grandparent-like exploration. [Laughs.] But it’s been really comforting. I also really got into reading again.
Dana: When do you have time for the output? I struggle with that. Actually sitting down to write a song when I’m running this food business, waking up at four in the morning to go roll 400 spring rolls… How do I sit down and then come up with something that rhymes after that? [Laughs.] You wrote an album, right?
Jo: Yes, I had written it pre-, but then I finished it during the pandemic.
Dana: It’s gorgeous by the way. Jo, I love it so much! I especially love the song “Patient.” Oh, my god, it’s so good.
Jo: Thanks, Dana! Well, having a project to chip away at — you know, having someone like Tony [Presley] from Keeled Scales calling, reminding me that there was a world beyond this situation that we’re currently in and one day that album will come out and I should not just do nothing for the entire pandemic.
Dana: So you had already talked with Keeled Scales about the album coming out and had the songs already written?
Jo: The songs were written and we assembled it together with my buddy in Australia. Given that the world of Zoom became normal — Zoom-working on it together, Zoom-mixing it together was in some ways fortuitous, because I don’t think that it would have gone that path and ended up coming out as cohesive and good as I think it sounds if it wasn’t for the pandemic. It’s coming out way later than I wanted it to. What is time anyway ,Dana?
Dana: [Laughs.] Yeah, I mean every album that I’ve ever done has come out way later than I wanted it to.
Jo: I just have to say a time and know it’s gonna be years later than that, because otherwise, it will be years after those years and that’s not on! But the idea of input and output is a fascinating one to me. I think that there are tricks to accessing output — not that I’m an expert, I fail at it daily. I had a piano teacher once say that you just have to make that time for yourself, make 20 minutes a day dedicated to writing. I also find that whatever form of meditation you practice — for me, practicing piano and scales and exercises and things like that — you can hit a point some days where the brain goes really still.
Dana: How is that related to output for you? Or is that input?
Jo: For me, output happens when there is a clear space. It’s about finding that stillness. Maybe something comes and maybe it doesn’t. I think there’s ways to work on at least clearing the space for something to come. But it’s very hard to do that, very difficult when there’s so much that needs to be done everyday. And so much constant input from all the places at all times.
Dana: Yeah, I used to go on writing retreats where I would go away for two months into a cabin in the woods. That was possible in my life then because I had zero commitments or obligations or relationships or anything. It was glorious! Now, I can’t leave for two months, at this point in my life. It would take a lot. So it is trying to find pockets of space.
Jo: I wondered if your mediums kind of balance themselves out? Like if working on printmaking or painting lets the music part of your brain rest and sparks new ideas in that department, and if they all work together in some way?
Dana: Yeah, I’m fascinated by that as well. I feel like the visual art and the songwriting I do are very different parts of my brain. I don’t know if that’s true for everybody, but for me, it feels like when I’m making visual art, it’s physical. Maybe it can be frustrating at times and it can be in my head when I’m designing, but there’s a large part of making visual art the way that I do it where I conceptualize it first and then I design it, and then it’s just constructing it however that may be. That’s just like doing scales, it’s this physical…
Jo: The technical component.
Dana: Yeah, the technical part and it can be pretty meditative, especially linocut printmaking. I do a lot of super tiny intricate lines. It can be super meditative to just be carving away. Whereas, songwriting for me is more like sitting in a silent room wondering what’s happening to me, you know? Like, what demon is gonna come up next? Or which ghost is coming through this way? I feel much less in control, but it is also the most fulfilling to me. It’s definitely way deeper to me than visual art is. Sometimes I have to hide from it, you know?
Dana: And then I guess just make a bunch of spring rolls [Laughs.] Or, I’ve been really into making circles recently, like making multiple formats. That kinda started with the pandemic where it has just been my way to cope with all the stress and anxiety of it. It’s like okay, time to make my circles! I just draw circles or paint them or stitch them or whatever!
Jo : Oh, awesome! I wanna do that!
Dana: It’s fun! But yeah, I do think a lot of deep things can end up being excavated through that process, but it’s much less conscious or I’m much less aware of it. But when I’m songwriting, I’m like, OK, let’s open it all up and go in real deep. So you have to be ready for that.
Jo: Yes, and some days you just simply don’t want to. Some days it’s easier not to know!
Dana: Yeah and I’ve had a hard time… I kind of broke up with music for a while. Writing songs was super painful because it was like, I’m gonna love this like it’s my baby and what am I going to do with it. I was just so burnt out on the industry and had some rough experiences and was pretty heartbroken by it all. I was like, I don’t even wanna sit down with a guitar because I know I’m gonna fall in love and I don’t want to.
Jo: Yeah I was going to ask you about that. You and I have both been doing this thing for a piece of time. I was trying to remember when I met you and I think it was 2006 at SXSW, which is embarrassing!
Dana: Oh, my god, you’re right!
Jo: You were like a Southern vision, Dana! A summer dress and cowboy boots and I was just visiting from Australia and I had never seen anything so Southern or beautiful. I was captivated! But the question was, knowing that we’ve been doing it for a piece of time, what does the ideal balance look like to you? And are you there yet or have you ever been? And how do you get there? Please tell me! [Laughs.]
Dana: The balance between what?
Jo: I would like to know what your ideal career balance is. What do you want from all of this? Do you want things? Or do you do it just to do it now?
Dana: I think that’s a great question we should all be asking ourselves. I’m glad you’re asking it of me, because it’s something I need to think about. I think that what I would do ideally is be able to move through these different mediums freely and be able to lean on one when it is too hard. I do think I can fall into a trap that way too. I can run from one when it is too hard. And be like I’m breaking up with that one and now I’m with this one! Then it’s like, Well, I kind of miss that one.
Jo: [Laughs.] That sounds like my 20s!
Dana: [Laughs.] Yeah, right! I’m a stupid 20 year old girl when it comes to art forms. I’ve got too many boyfriends. But I do think that the ultimate goal for me would be to be able to have all of them peacefully in my life together. But then you put money in there, and that’s hard. Some things make more money than others, you know? It’s been interesting running this food business because it does make money. Sometimes I’m like, I’m done with this, I’m quitting, I can’t make another spring roll, oh my god! But I’ve spent a year doing this, so much time. What I really, really want to do is walk in the woods and listen to the trees for about four months and then write one song. But that doesn’t make me very much money at all, so I don’t know!
Jo: That’s a delightful idea though, gosh!
Dana: Like you said, I certainly at other points in my life was trying to monetize music and trying to “make it,” and I think my ideas of “making it” and monetizing it were pretty off. [Laughs.]
Jo: It’s a very weird concept.
Dana: It’s a weird concept. You have a very interesting perspective on it I think. I think we all do, but being in a band that is a bigger band and then doing your own stuff too. I guess being a musician and running a band, I was constantly trying to make things work all the time, and then, when I started working for this chain stitching company in Austin, they were getting really popular and I was like, Oh, this is what it looks like when it’s working. I was grasping onto things with my band like, Oh, it’s working, it’s working, it’s working. But nothing was ever really working.
Jo: Well, it was working in the sense that you made great albums!
Dana: Yes and that’s true! We had so much fun. But it wasn’t sustainable because there was no money. It wasn’t working that way. I didn’t really realize that until I was involved in something that was working. So it was an interesting perspective to get on with my own career. There was a lot of heartbreak with that realization. But now I feel like that’s not what I want anyway. I don’t care about all the stuff I used to care about.
Jo: I’ve come around to that same place. It’s very freeing and it’s very fun! It’s such a relief honestly.
Dana: A huge relief!
Jo: There’s probably a little part to play in it as well that our world as we knew it of touring and album cycles and what not just looks so different, and it can look so different and it should look so different. That is an exciting place. Well, I only really have music and I do have a bunch of weird side music things, but…
Dana: Like what? Things I don’t know about? Oh, my god! I have to know about all your projects all the time!
Jo: No, it’s not like that! I like to play weddings. I love to play the pipe organ. I have a beautiful church gig here in Nashville.
Dana: Oh, my god! Jo, I’ve been meaning to tell you that the church show that I played… you were playing these gorgeous songs that you had recorded, right? I don’t know anything about church, so what are they called? Hymns?
Jo: [Laughs.] Yes, yeah, yeah!
Dana: I was just like, what! Oh, my god, when did she do this?! This is insane! It’s so beautiful. It was probably two weeks later I realized I had this song in my head and I loved it. I was carrying it around with me through my days. I loved it so much, but I had no idea what it was. Finally it hit me that it was one of those songs!
Jo: Hymns are so pretty, some of them! Yeah, that was my very first job when I was 16 — I became a church organist. My grandma got me the job at her church. [Laughs.]
Dana: Oh, my god, I didn’t know that!
Jo: Yeah, then there was a time I was a church organist in New York when I was there for 10 years. I had a weird Lutheran church situation in New York and now I have a good thing going in Nashville. it’s definitely a unique perspective, getting paid to go to church. [Laughs.] But I love it and now that my world is kind of opening up again and the kids are back doing in-person school, I’m grateful for the space to practice in too. I got the gig at this church because I do yoga above — there’s also a yoga studio in the church. It’s like I’m living in a simulation that I created of my dreams! [Laughs.]
Dana: Oh, my god, that’s so great!
Jo: Yeah, my friend Scott says life’s just a simulation and I feel like if it is, I’m doing a really good job in mine right now. From going to yoga to playing piano and practicing pipe organ for a few hours every day, then I’m home and sit in the quiet for a bit — it’s a lovely moment and I hope it keeps going for a bit. It’s creating that opening that we were talking about. I mean, these things happen in cycles for me. It feels like there’s a large input time and then things start trickling out from that. For me, the pandemic was this huge amount of stuff going on and now all of a sudden there’s this calmness starting to appear. It’s so welcome!
Dana: Yeah, I can imagine! So is doing the church stuff similar to what I was talking about with the visual art? Where it’s less soul excavating and more technical?
Jo: Well, yeah, it has elements of both. It’s a lovely, progressive, inspiring community.
Dana: I don’t mean that in a bad way, I mean that in any sort of value way. I think the visual art that I make could speak to somebody more than the songs that I write. I don’t think it has anything to do with the product that you’re making. It’s just the way that you make it. Is it wrenching out of you or is it easier?
Jo: It’s like, I have been trained to do this and I know I can do it well. But doing it well means including love and heart and all the things you put into anything. That’s how I feel when I go there. It feels meditative, just a different form of meditation. And not the only one I think of as being valid. Also, I’ve got dreams to make an ambient pipe organ album — my yoga music album is what I think of it as. [Laughs.] I’m gonna get you involved!
I have another question! It’s about where you are now, and if it’s where you’re from and if not, where are you from.
Dana: So, I am from Dearborn, Michigan. That’s where I grew up. It’s right outside of Detroit.
Jo: OK, and Michigan is where you are now!
Dana: I am right by Lake Michigan, in this little town called Empire. Apparently, I don’t totally remember this, but when I was a kid I told my parents that I was going to live in Empire, Michigan, because we used to come up here in the summers. So here I am now, living here!
Jo: You are living the dream then! Good for you, Dana!
Dana: Yeah it’s great! It feels like my home. It’s so interesting, much like you, I’ve always lived very far from my home. I don’t mean that home is where you were born or whatever necessarily. I’m not in the place I was born, but I’ve always felt like this place was my home. It just feels completely different where you feel like your home is. The land, you know? These are my trees and this is my sky. This is where I’m supposed to be, whatever that means. I never really felt that anywhere else. It took a long time for me to notice that, I think. But when I did notice it, it was really hard to be in Texas, where I did not feel like it was my home. Now that I’m here, it feels so good!
Jo: Yeah, that was gonna be the next part, whether the concept of home is important to you. This is not my home, you know, here.
Dana: Where do you feel like is your home?
Jo: Well, I don’t know! That’s what I’m not quite sure of. But, I will say, moving from New York to here… I never questioned home as being where I grew up, but it never felt particularly important to me. It just was where it was, you know? And then I moved to New York and that felt also like home because I had chosen it and I loved it there. This is the first place that doesn’t feel like home, but with having a family, it is home and it’s not a bad thing either to live in that space. The landscape and that stuff does make a difference and only in moving here did I realize that this is not like other places! To notice it is fine, it is what it is! There’s something nice about the disconnect too. Matthew and I talk about changing locations a lot and come up with wild plans of what the next move might be, cause I think we both have that feeling and we’re not quite sure what to do with it.
Dana: Yeah, well, one of the questions that I wanted to ask you was — I don’t know how often you go back to Australia normally, but certainly you haven’t been recently, right?
Jo: Yeah and that has made me realize that, going back every year pre-COVID, it felt often enough so that I never actually missed it.
Dana: So you did usually go back every year?
Jo: Yeah, and not having gone for a bit, I feel that calling to go and at least see my family. And I like the light there. The light is different, it smells different, the landscape is different, and it definitely feels like a home. I think you can have more than one.
Dana: Yeah, for sure! I think that, obviously there are many different definitions of it. My friend-home is in Austin, Texas.
Jo: Yes! When I met you, I wondered how you ended up there. I had just assumed you were from there because of the cowboy boots you were wearing!
Dana: [Laughs.] I got those early on! I moved there for music. I was going to move to New York, actually at some point. But then there was a break up and blah, blah, blah… and I ended up in Austin. Musically, it still feels like home, it was home. All of my music contacts are there. My beautiful friends are there and my community is there. That’s my home too. And everything I built artistically is there, pretty much, although I’m starting to build that up here. But yeah, it does feel like I ripped myself out of that kind of home for the sake of being in my physical landscape-home. Which was a hard decision to make — leaving one kind of home for another. Eventually, the calling of these trees was deafening in my ears and I just had to go. And the friends are coming to visit so I’m like, Psh, I should’ve done this a long time ago!
Jo: Yeah, bring the people to you, Dana! How did you come into all these things? How did you find yourself into music and art and dance? You’re an actual singer, so I can only assume that there was some sort of training involved.
Dana: Well, no, not really! Oh, my god Jo, your voice is so gorgeous, I love it so much. Especially when you double your vocals, phew! It’s so dreamy!
Jo: Hardly! I was listening to you do it properly this morning! [Laughs.]
Dana: [Laughs.] I think that that’s a really interesting question. The first thing I did was dancing. I grew up dancing and I was very trained as a dancer — classical, Russian, ballet, and then modern, too. Training as a modern dancer was the first time I ever felt that creative feeling. Like, I’m hooked. From there, I think I knew I had that relationship there in my life and the different forms it takes. In some regards it doesn’t even matter. Like I said, I have a different relationship to each one. I feel like I’ll just see something and it sparks my interest and then I start learning that thing. Sometimes it’s really accidental. The way that chain stitching became a part of my life was, I was in between tours and I needed a job. Kathy, my boss, was looking to teach somebody to do this thing to help her and I was like, Sounds cool! You’re going to pay me a little bit of money, great!
Jo: Oh, yes! your chain stitching work is so impressive!
Dana: I didn’t go searching for a new medium at all. With linocut, the way that I got into it was because I was trying to make my own album covers. I wanted to make album pallets. I wanted to do it completely on my own. I wanted to burn the CDs on my own. I wanted to create the packaging myself. It was ridiculous! Each CD probably took me four hours to make. But that was how I got into linocut printmaking because that was a way that I learned from a friend that I could make my own album covers. I will just come across these different mediums and then fall in love with them and take them to their extremes.
Jo: Yes, absolutely! But I am curious about dance. That discipline of learning how to learn something, then sets you off into whatever! Like, OK, I wanna make an album cover so I have to do this. But to learn how to learn creatively is a real thing. I always feel there is some core of it in people like you who are so talented and prolific. You did some hard yards somewhere along the line when you were doing your pliés and whatnot over and over!
Dana: Oh, that’s really interesting! Yeah I’ve never thought of it that way, but I think that you’re totally right. And dance is super musical too.
Jo: Of course, that comes with it! And if you get into modern dance and you’re exposed to, I’m sure, a lot of different kinds of music, that kicks it off into that whole world.
Dana: The first time I ever heard Lucinda WIlliams was through my modern dance teacher. She choreographed a song to “Pineola” and I was like, What’s happening!
Jo: It’s so exciting! When I was, you know what, it was Harry Connik Jr. When I heard Harry Connik Jr., I was like, This is out there in the world? I could be doing this?
Dana: Yeah, totally!
Jo: It’s so exciting, those moments!
Dana: Yeah, so I guess it was piano for you? In the church setting?
Jo: It just started out with piano lessons and then just more and more and more! It was the only thing I ever showed any aptitude at, basically. [Laughs.]
Dana: I doubt that!
Jo: And I thankfully decided I wanted to do it! I remember in high school I got to switch teachers from the classical teacher to the jazz teacher and that was like, Oh, well, I’m in!
Dana: Yeah, that was the turning point for me too. When I learned that I could take those skills that I had learned and use them in this completely different world. I’ve been training my body to do this stuff for so long and then like, Oh, my god, I can do it to Lucinda Williams! [Laughs.]
Jo: [Laughs.] Lucinda Williams is a cooler one than Harry Connick Jr.!
Dana: [Laughs.] I don’t know, both are pretty cool! So what is the plan for the album?
Jo: I mean, it’s gonna come out and I’m just gonna do the thing! I feel really excited just having finished it.
Dana: Yeah, it’s so incredible! Thank you for sending it to me, I love it so much.
Jo: Goodness! Thanks for listening! Yeah I don’t know, beyond that, the plan is to just do whatever comes up from it.
Dana: Is Phosphorescent doing another album and another tour and all of that?
Jo: At some point, yeah. Matthew [Houck] has a studio here that he goes to, and every now and then something emerges from it. I don’t think there’s a real timeline or schedule and I’ve adopted that approach. I’ve just decided I’ll just make stuff too and put it out, because what else are you gonna do in this world!
Dana: Yeah and I love that approach to it, opposed to when it’s like a business model. But if you have to do it that way, you have to do it that way! Like, “OK, we need the next album” — I’ve never been able to write songs like that.
Jo: No, no, no, no!
Dana: Yeah so, I love that you’re able to do that.
Jo: No, look, it’s a very lucky and great position to be in! And I’m just happy!
Dana: Do you think that you will tour for this record?
Jo: I mean, who knows what the world will look like next year. I don’t know, I hope to play some shows. If I do, Empire, Michigan is going to be number one on my list!