Blame Sting. He was the one who gave Jo Lawry the guitar that added “songwriter” to a CV previously dominated by “jazz singer” and “Sting’s backing vocalist”. The resultant folk-pop album, Taking Pictures, follows the Adelaide-born Lawry’s appearance in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom (about backing singers), and comes in the midst of her touring with both Sting and Paul Simon.
Having spent the first decade of her career focused on jazz Lawry realised that the fact she was mainly listening to singer-songwriters might be telling her something. Enter the guitar.
“I started playing guitar when I started writing these songs,” she says, “So I quite literally cannot play any song that I didn’t write. Not Kumbaya, nothing.”
She took up guitar partly to escape the sophisticated jazzy harmonies that flowed too easily when composing at the piano. “Whereas you put a guitar in my hands and I’m completely innocent of any of that stuff,” she says. “I’m like a child, really, and I would just put my fingers down and see what happened.”
So the first time she played guitar in public was terrifying. “I actually threw up right before, I was so scared,” she recalls. “I blagged my way into this gig opening for Suzanne Vega, and I didn’t tell the promoter that I had never played guitar in public before.”
Singing for herself and for Sting place quite different demands on her craft. “My job as a backing singer is to focus on Sting’s sound more than my own,” she explains. “My goal is to become part of his sound; to make – if it’s possible! – him sound better; to support him… And I love that feeling of being part of this musical team.”
By contrast Lawry experiences both more pressure and more freedom when singing by herself, as she did for the first six years after arriving in New York in 2003 on a Fulbright Scholarship. She expected to complete her Masters degree “and hop on a plane straight back to Adelaide”. In fact she immediately found herself invited to sing at gigs by her teachers, and her reputation and career blossomed. In 2009 she was recommended when Sting needed a singer with a specific and eclectic skill set: choral experience, sight reading, familiarity with North Country folk and improvising ability. Lawry ticked all the boxes. “Sting and I just had a really great connection vocally and blend-wise,” she says, “and I’ve been with him ever since.”
The Sting/Paul Simon double bill presents a new challenge. “Paul and Sting have very different processes,” she says. “Paul is incredibly detail-oriented, and he is always looking to work out how to get the most music out of the least number of instruments, whereas Sting sometimes is much more playful.” The show even offers her opportunities to sing three-part harmonies with Sting and Simon. “To be sandwiched between those two incredible voices is an unbelievable thrill,” she says.
Jo Lawry: Camelot, February 15.
Taking Pictures is out now.