Linda Bernhard, a local artist specialising in collage that I interviewed previously on Masters of Many, introduced me to Johanna Bramli. Also a local resident, Johanna has a fabulously eclectic working life, which includes teaching, installation work, session musician work, and writing and performing her own material. All alongside being a mum! I caught up with her in Brighton to find out more about what she does now, and how she got here.
Tell us about what you're doing now and how you got here..
I came to England from Belgium, where I was born and grew up, although I have a bit of an international background, as my father is Israeli and my mother is Swedish. I wanted to study music, and originally went to The Royal Conservatory in Brussels, but I found that it was very square, so I came to London to study. I did lots of different things, freelancing as a session musician, working as a music therapy assistant. I came to Brighton to study a music technology course. If I wanted to be in the music industry I needed to know how to use a studio, understand all of the jargon, and not to be spoken down to, which often happens, particularly when you're a woman.
Then, randomly when I was studying at Northbrook College, they offered me a job. It wasn't something I was looking for at the time, but it was a good way to keep doing my freelancing, writing and recording on the side. I realised I actually quite liked teaching, and gradually was given more responsibility, becoming a course leader and completing my PGCE.
However I felt that the education side of things was starting to take over from all of the other things that I wanted to do. This was in 2008 and in the meantime I'd started a company called 'The Metahub'. It was an interdisciplinary platform for collaborative arts. Our first show was at The Shunt, near London Bridge Station. It's a huge space that artists can take over. We did an event where the idea was to bring lots of different artists together from different countries, and give them a few days to work with each other on an improvised basis. That created a really interesting network and we did lots of events. That company started to grow and made up a big part of my freelancing and curating work.
I also started putting on events here and in London with more of an artistic edge. I do a lot of installation work and wanted to find a way to bring more of that into a gig environment. For example we did a performance where we converted the cloakroom into an installation that people went through, and the toilets into an arts space.
At the same time I was gigging and writing. I got a deal with MTV publishing two years ago, giving them publishing rights to a lot of my work (with a band called 'The Wooworth!').
I've been teaching throughout, and then the other work or bands changed over time. At one point I had 4 or 5 bands going on at the same time. I'm a vocalist mainly, but I also play keys, and I do computer-based writing.
I was saying yes to everything, and then in 2009 I decided to do a masters degree. I felt like I needed to have a kick up the ass to do something that was really about me. I did that and felt encouraged to do more installation based art pieces. Right after finishing my masters I became pregnant. During that time I did a lot more writing, as I was gigging less, and I wrote for other groups commercially. When I was 8 months pregnant, I decided that I could no longer say yes to everything, and that I needed to prioritise the things that really matter, have longevity and that I could see myself doing whilst being a Mum. The urge to be on stage had died out a bit by that time, and I wanted to be in the studio more, and do something that was a little bit more 9 to 5.
I now have a few key projects. The first is my solo work of original material. I work on contemporary dance, working with production companies round the world, and I feel that is my calling in a way. The second is teaching. I kept one band called Fröst as I still wanted to do a bit of performing, so I work with another guy called Steve. It's just the two of us, writing, producing and performing. We do a little bit of gigging, but it's not like when we were in our 20's. Both of us have got to the point in our career where we've made contacts and we're in the position to be a little bit pickier. It's still in the early stages. Another big part is my installation work. I had a piece last year at Brighton Festival, and I'm working on a few for this year. A lot of my time is spent applying for grants, and festivals, whilst trying to keep my teaching and writing going.
Do you find that you're getting a good balance now?
I think so. I spend my Monday with my daughter. I teach Tuesday to Thursday. One year in, I've allowed myself to have my daughter in childcare for the day, so I can dedicate it to my freelance and creative process. I was trying to do it at weekends and evenings and it was so difficult. One day might be working on an installation or collaborating with someone, or in the studio working on something. On those days I work from 9 - midnight or 1am to get things done, I find it easier that way. My goal is that next year I have two days of teaching, and two days of my own work, and keep the day with my daughter.
What is that made you want to do things differently?
I always knew that I wanted to be a freelance musician, but I didn't know whether that meant being in the studio, or being in a band, but I knew it wasn't going to be a 9 to 5 existence. I thought however that I could get a 9 to 5 job and then fit other things around it, but I realised quickly that it wasn't for me. The teaching job has provided much more flexibility, and it isn't in a typical environment. They're aware that the people there need to be active in their field, so if I need to go on tour for a week they're ok with that. The flexibility and support is a big reason I've stayed there.
What do you find difficult about managing all of your different projects?
Making sure that family time isn't affected by it all. The calendar app in my iPhone is a lifesaver in many ways. I share it with my husband, who I work with at university, and we work on projects together. When we moved in together we stopped being in a band together, as we decided it was too much. Our common family calendar is very useful, and we book in family time, which is really important. It might sound prescribed, but it works.
Do you get the fear, and when you do, how do you deal with it?
Taking a step back from everything can be very useful, as sometimes you can get so sucked into your work that you lose your sense of perspective. Having a rest from it for a few days can make you a little less self-critical. Also, asking a few trusted people for their honest and constructive feedback helps me to move forward.
What or who do you find intimidating?
I think the main thing that makes me anxious is spreading myself too thin, and the fear of not being as holistic as other artists. I look at what I'm doing and feel it's very disparate, but I guess it's all about perspective. Sometimes you can feel like you're not having any output whatsoever, but then it all comes out at once.
What makes you feel good or powerful?
I always tell my students that for me the thing that makes me the happiest is being able to wake up in the morning and do what I want to do. That sense of never waking up in the morning and thinking 'oh my gosh'. Every day is different, there isn't the 'daily grind', and that makes me happy.
What drives you, your legacy, or living in the moment?
I think it's a mixture of both ultimately, but for me it's more about living in the moment. From a creative point of view, I'm much more interested in the process than the final product, it's more about the creativity along the way. So, that drives me - to start something new, and enjoy the moment of creativity.
How do you define success?
It's being on the path of achieving what you set out to do. It's about the journey and the trajectory, because there is no final outcome. I consider myself successful for being on that path.
How do you start your day?
I'm more of a night owl really, but I'm more efficient during the day. My daughter goes to nursery so I start my day early, doing something like getting rid of emails or paperwork. However, I could be on emails all day long, so I give myself an hour for those boring things, and then wherever I am with it, I stop and turn off the internet, so I don't have any distractions, and try to get the creative juices flowing. So I might try to record something, to get to some product by the end of it.
Do you work to deadlines for your creative projects?
Absolutely - I'm a real pen and paper kind of person so I have little notebooks and lists. I like to draw out grids for each day; and work to how many days I think it will take to finish a piece in order to meet deadlines.
Where do you most like working?
Because some of my work is installation based, I have to work in the space wherever it is, and I really like that. I do like working at home in my studio, but I get cabin fever terribly, so if I have a day that I know is just going to be at home in the studio, I allow myself some time to come to a cafe to do a little bit of creative work, or go to a meeting. I need at some point to get out of the studio or I go stir crazy. I like working on site too, working collaboratively with people.
Biggest thing about your way of working that has changed your life?
I'm more efficient. In my 20's I was doing all of these different things, but I think I was spending a lot of time questioning things. I think I work more impulsively now - but maybe it's having had all of that time where I thought it through more that's made me more efficient and focused. I do more of the things I actually want to do now. When people tell me that they're worried about having a child and how it will affect their work - I think it can be a positive thing.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I probably imagined that it would be more social and psychological, which I guess relates to my teaching. I thought at one point I'd be a journalist, but that's absolutely not happened.
What are you going to tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
If my kids decide to go to university, I'd tell them to use that time to meet people. You can spend a lot of your early 20's not focusing at all on what it is that you want to do - and I'd recommend networking from early on. You never know what you might want to do or start a business in, so investing in relationships is important.
What's the best single piece of advice you've had along your journey?
'What's the worst that can happen?' That's something that I always come back to.