Making The Journey

by by Tom Gannaway, courtesy of %%Christian Musician%%

In 563 AD, an Irish monk by the name of Columba, or Colmcille (pronounced Kulm-kil), as he is known by the Irish, was purportedly involved in a dispute that caused the death of 3000 men. Vowing to win as many souls for Christ, Colmcille set sail for Scotland, a destination from which he would never again be able to gaze upon the shores of his beloved homeland. His journey, however, brought him to Iona, an island off the Scottish coast. There, he established a mission base/monastery from which much of Scotland and Northern Britain were converted to Christianity. This early community also became a haven for Christian art and literature.

Fast forward fourteen centuries. In July of 1997, in commemoration of Colmcille's death, and in an effort to promote peace between the present day communities of Ireland, a crew of fourteen rowed the Columcille (a reconstruction of Columba's boat) 150 miles from Derry, Ireland to Iona, retracing Columba's pilgrimage. The group was made up of people from all walks of Irish life. Among them was Joanne Hogg, the young lady whose ethereal voice has graced the albums of the English group, {Iona.} Embarking on life changing trips is nothing new for Joanne Hogg. Years ago, she weaned herself away from her medical preparation to seek the Lord and journey toward the less financially secure beacons of ministry and music. Lucky for us, she did.

{{Joanne Hogg}}, along with {{David Bainbridge}} (guitar/keyboards), {{Phil Barker}} (bass), {{Dave Fitzgerald}} (saxophones/flutes/whistles, no longer with the group), {{Mike Haughton}} (saxophones/flutes/whistles), {{Troy Donockley}} (uillean pipes/whistles/guitars), and {{Terl Bryant}} (drums and all manner of world percussion), came together to comprise what is now {{Iona}}. Though the group was initially formed by David Bainbridge and Dave Fitgerald, Joanne Hogg joined the band soon after, helping to shape their sound and provide thoughtful, poignant lyrics. In case you haven't heard them, {{Iona}} is, to my ears, a most refreshing and inspiring group on the ccm scene. They have taken from the threads of pop, folk, rock, new acoustic, and Celtic music, and woven an exciting tapestry that the rest of us can only marvel at. In so doing, they have made the journey from their homeland (both literally and figuratively) to give us a unique window into early Celtic Christian life. {{Iona}}'s cultural history, musicianship, and ministry are all painted into one extricable composition, as anyone who has attended one of their concerts can attest.

If you are interested to see how the Lord led Joanne Hogg to the group, read on. If you want to be inspired by the lives of early Celtic believers, read on. If you want a glimpse into the dynamics of one of the most exciting and creative bands that are making music, then find yourself a chair, a warm reading light, and open your window to take in the gentle roar of the ocean. But in case you don't live within earshot of the Irish Sea, a chair and a warm reading light will do just fine.

%%Christian Musician%%: Tell me about your rowing expedition.

Joanne Hogg: 1997, being the 1400th anniversary of Columba's death, there were a lot of commemorative events throughout Ireland. The voyage that I participated in July of '97 was a reenactment, rowing a traditional boat from Derry to Iona. We had a vessel built by a traditional boat-builder in the south of Ireland. After completing the journey in six days, we left the boat on Iona, returning on a charter fishing boat. The return trip only took a couple of hours. Thankfully, we didn't have to row back [laughs]. Looking back, it was hard to believe that it was over so quickly. It seemed like a dream.

%%Christian Musician%%: {Iona's} third album, ==Beyond These Shores== deals poignantly with St. Brendan's voyage. What was he searching for?

Joanne Hogg: St. Brendan's journey was a lot like Columba's, although it was much more epic. Like Columba, he really didn't know where he was going. He just had this belief that there was a promised land out there somewhere that God was calling him to. He felt led to venture out beyond the boundaries that were known to him, and to take the Gospel with him. His story, however, is surrounded by a lot of skepticism; it's hard to know how much of his journey was legend, and how much was historical. Record keeping and writing that far back [sixth century] is very scant. Supposedly, he traveled to north to the Faroe Islands, to Iceland, and then across the Atlantic. We reckon that Brendan actually got to America before Columbus [laughs]. In the '70s, a British fellow by the name of Tim Severin actually built a boat out of animal skins, tarred it, and made the complete journey to America. There are many descriptions that have been handed down from generation to generation about what Brendan saw: sea creatures, ice bergs, whales, etc. It really is an incredible story. I don't think I'll be rowing to America, though. Derry to Iona was enough for me [laughs].

%%Christian Musician%%: As a band, you are very unique. How did the concept for the group come about? And how did you come to be a part of it?

Joanne Hogg: Dave Fitzgerald, the group's founding member, left the band about five years ago, after being a part of it for about three years. He made the journey to the island of Lindisfarne, an island off the extreme north-eastern corner of England, only a few miles from the Scottish border, at a point in his life when he was feeling a bit burned-out and disillusioned. When he got there, he found it to be this haven of peace and tranquillity. He discovered that the Irish monk Aidan, who had established the first Christian presence on Lindisfarne, had come from Iona in order to share the gospel with the people of Northern Britain. He shared this with Dave Bainbridge, after which they went to the island together for the first time. They both came away inspired by the place, and began to write some music. They had already written half of the first album before they contacted me. They felt that if they were going to do anything with the concept, they needed some vocal input. Having met me a through a singer by the name of Adrian Snell (an English singer/songwriter), they told me about their vision for the group, and its need for a vocalist. Thinking that my voice would be a good fit, they asked me to join in 1989. At that time in my life, I was completing my medical training, but I had the feeling that medicine was not something I would be practicing for very long. When I heard from them, I could feel something stirring up inside my soul, but I tried to suppress it, because I was thinking more along the lines of solo singer/songwriter. After a few months, I came around to the idea.

%%Christian Musician%%: Tell me about the dream you had about the island.

{{Joanne Hogg}}: Three months after the two Daves initially contacted me, my husband and I went on vacation to the US. When we came back home, there was a postcard from Iona. After I read it, I dozed off and had this very vivid dream about being on the island. In the dream I was walking around on the island. After a while, I was raised up and saw it beneath me, with a mist about it. When the mist cleared, I saw the shape of a cross on the island. After I woke up, I went straight to the piano and wrote the song "Iona." For me, that experience clinched my conviction that this is where my path lay.

%%Christian Musician%%: Walk me through the compositional process. Taking "Lindisfarne" [from ==Journey Into The Morn==] as an example, what came first? Music, lyrics?

Joanne Hogg: I wrote the lyrics after the band spent a day on the island. We had been on tour in the UK, and were driving back from Scotland. We thought we would stop off at Lindisfarne. As I mentioned, it also has a rich Celtic history of monastic life. It was an absolutely beautiful, sunny winter day; we spent it walking around on the island. At dusk, when we were watching the sun go down, I just started to write down the things I saw on a napkin, and then tucked them away. Later on, during a writing session, while Dave was playing a rhythmic idea that Terl had recorded, I got inspired to sing a melody. Needing lyrics to work with, I took out the words that I had written down while on the island, and began to formulate the song. The melody seemed to suggest certain accompanying chords pretty strongly, so the whole song developed rather quickly.

Most typically, with me, song-writing is spontaneously done at the piano. Most naturally, I write music and lyrics together, singing the melody. After I got involved with {{Iona}}, though, things happened spontaneously that gave birth to songs in different ways. Because of that, I became more experimental with my writing. However, the best songs are the ones that come about spontaneously while sitting down at the piano. A half hour later, they're done; they stay in my head, and I don't forget them. But I'm not a prolific songwriter at all. There's not a lot that gets tucked away, because I don't write very much.

Recently, Dave and I got together to pool our ideas. We each brought a few things individually and recorded them. Dave then made copies of the tapes and sent them to everyone in the band so each person could add their input, or develop the idea.

%%Christian Musician%%: What acoustic guitars do you favor playing?

Joanne Hogg: I've got a big jumbo Lowden, which I love for its rich, full sound, particularly for strumming. I got it in 1990 from the Lowden factory, which is here in northern Ireland. It came off of the factory floor as a second, because it had some kind of little flaw. One of the guys that works there called me up, because he knew I had been looking for guitars. I told him I was looking for an instrument with a deep, full tone. He in turn suggested this one, which he actually thought sounded better than some of the guitars they had built to specification. Everywhere I go, I plug the instrument straight into a D.I. box - no effects. The engineers are always commenting on how great it sounds.

%%Christian Musician%%: Are you self-taught musically?

Joanne Hogg: I tried to study classical guitar back in grammar school, but I had a falling out with the teacher after a few lessons. The school system had music teachers that would come to the school once a week, but it was like an extra-curricular activity.

%%Christian Musician%%: As a Christian, how does your faith effect your songwriting? Do you write about what's going on with you spiritually at any given time?

Joanne Hogg: There are songs that I have written that have come about as the result of focusing on a spiritual issue. If we're doing a theme for a particular project, I'll meditate on it and really pray that God will give me lyrics or inspire me. When I look back at the songs that have arisen from that mindset, it seems that they came from somewhere beyond myself. On the other hand, some songs I've written have not come about through personal experience. People will say to me, "you must have been through this or that to be able to write that song," when actually, I haven't. I think God sometimes inspires me to write something that is not the result of my life experience. However, some songs have come about as the result of personal experiences. With {Iona,} my writing is spiritually focused. I like to think of myself as an open book. I try to open myself up to God's Spirit; I want Him to come and write something on this blank page of mine. But I don't put what I write or play on some higher level than what other people do. I just like to use the book analogy; I'm serious about trying to get inspiration from God. Otherwise, I'd just be writing and expressing my opinions and feelings, which may or may not be of use to anybody else. My faith is singularly the most influential thing in my life; it's bound to influence the way I perceive things. At the same time, we don't set about writing in a preachy sort of manner. I think that's why people have not felt pressured or intimidated by our music. Our writing is born out of a desire to reflect the beauty, the purity, and the goodness of God.