An interview with Chinwe D John, a medical doctor and author, whose first EP “Within a Certain Time and Place” was released in March 2022.
Tell me a little about your background. Have you always written poetry?
Firstly, let me say thank you for hosting an interview with me. I was born in California to Nigerian parents, and had lived on four continents by the time I was a teenager. Due to my younger siblings schooling in the UK, I came to spend a modest amount of time in England. I ended up pursuing my post medical school training in the States, where I practice my medical vocation as a Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation specialist. I did not start out writing poetry, though my first published work “Tales of Fantasy and Reality”, was a poetry book.
For as long as I have had memory of myself, I have written stories, and made up simple melodies. Growing up during my time in Nigeria, the school system sharply separated art and science courses, once one got into the higher secondary school years. I always wanted to be in the medical field, but also had a passion for literature. There were no options available for me to pursue a combined training in both fields, so I became a partially self-taught student of literature, sitting in formal lectures during class breaks, and devouring as many books as I could get my hands on. It helped that my parents, both professionals in the field of science, encouraged reading in all of us siblings.
How did you come to write your song “Now as Before” and what motivated you to approach a British composer rather than one based in the US to write the music?
In October of 2020, there was growing tension in the air here in the States, and I turned, as I often do, to classical music for solace. Serendipity led me to discover the work of tenor Andy Staples, and I was enchanted by his wonderful singing voice and versatility. Around the same time, there were numerous news reports in UK news outlets, on the unique plight of its classical musicians due to a combination of the pandemic, and EU work restrictions. This led me to take a closer look into the classical music industry, and my conclusion was unless a new audience was brought in, once the core supporting demographic passed on, there would be no way for the industry to exist as we know it.
Added to this, was the trend to decrease funding for the arts in UK schools. I decided to do my small bit to support an industry that had given me a lot. In my mind, one way to increase classical music’s listening audience, was to commission contemporary composers, and have them set music to lyrics which are reflective and relevant to our current times.
As to why the UK? Many reasons, some of which I have already mentioned. For me, if the UK, which had been a major influence when it came to orchestral music/choirs/literature, was investing less in the arts, it signified a global shift in perspective. A reduction of value in the arts, to me signifies a reduction of value in matters of humanity, at a time when technological advancements do not appear to be matched by an advancement in our expression of humanity.
I wrote the lyrics to “Now as Before” in January 2021, and it was the first time I was writing in four years. The line which gave birth to the song, came from a line I had written about eight years ago for a never published poem. I knew that I wanted to write a song whose main theme was Hope. I wanted the song to touch on some of the internal conflicts and challenges we face today as individuals, show how these challenges have always existed, and perhaps give some suggestion as to how to address them.
It was a really challenging time – it still is – and I felt a prayer would help ease people’s minds. Mid-February of 2021, I was invited to a live Zoom event by La Nuova Musica. A question I posed (regarding the need to commission contemporary classic composers to set music to lyrics reflective of our present time), got the attention of Andy Staples, who was a guest artist at the event. This for me was a sign to continue with my search for a UK based composer, with the hope that he, Andy, would agree to collaborate on the song once it was completed.
How did you meet composer Geoff Hannan?
In January of 2021, serendipity at play once again, led me to a recommendation, which in turn led me to the London Sinfonietta’s website. On this website was a list of composers whom they had commissioned through the years. I listened to works from many composers, including those on a BBC “postcards from composers” feature, and made a list of six composers whose use of melody worked with what I had in mind for the lyrics. Geoff was amongst the composers on the list, and I contacted him at the end of February to enquire if he would accept a commission to write music for a piece whose theme would be Hope. He asked if I had any lyrics, and after I sent over the lyrics for “Now as Before”, he composed the music for the chorus that very day.
How do you feel Geoff Hannan has responded to your lyrics in his music?
Honestly, and with great attention to the meaning of the lyrics. The music compliments the lyrics beautifully. He is a fantastic musical interpreter of emotion, and it shows in these songs.
What are the main themes explored in your songs on the EP?
“Now as Before”: Hope. The repetition of history. The importance of interpersonal interaction. Our interconnectedness with nature.
“Changing Fate”: Predetermined versus Undetermined fate. The Judas and Job questions. Nihilism and apathy versus Optimism and action.
“Oriented”: Perception of reality. Mental status. Time travel. Everlasting love.
Who are your favourite writers/poets?
I will list a few favourites:
Writers: Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Roald Dahl, Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen, E.M Foster, P.G. Wodehouse, George Orwell, Cyprian Ekwensi, Chinua Achebe, James Clavell, Milan Kundera, Umberto Eco, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Poets: Khalil Gibran, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Dana Gioia, Sahir Ludhianvi, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, David Olney, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, and Maya Angelou.
And who are your favourite composers/musicians? Did your musical taste influence how you approached writing these songs?
Old time favourites are: Purcell, Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, R.D. Burman, Ennio Morricone, Claude-Michel Schönberg and John Williams.
Currently, I am paying closer attention to, and discovering works by Schubert, Mahler, Schumann, and the contemporary composers with whom I am collaborating.
Musicians: Stevie Wonder, Van Cliburn, Glenn Gould, Arthur Rubinstein, Abner Jay, Jeff Buckley, The Smiths, Bob Marley, Jacques Brel and too many others to list here.
Yes, my musical taste did influence how I wrote these songs. Additionally, when I am trying to write a poem or a song lyric, my lines come accompanied by simple melodies. This helps both in ensuring a smooth rhythm, and coaxing the words to come along.
How does it feel to have your lyrics represented in songs written by Geoff and performed by Andy Staples and Alisdair Hogarth? What do you feel these musicians bring to the project?
It feels wonderful! This EP project is one of the most unique and successful projects I have ever initiated. Working with people you know is challenging enough, working successfully with strangers during a global pandemic, is nothing short of a miracle. All three brought their musical genius and experience, but genius alone would not have brought about a successful collaboration. All three artists brought dedication, work ethic, and a commitment to the goal. They also made sacrifices. Andy and Alisdair had the additional task of finding a distributor for the work, which they handled with great aplomb, getting the EP released by the great Voces8 label. I am very thankful to Geoff, Andy and Alisdair, for collaborating with me. I hope listeners connect with our music, and the goal of our EP “Within a Certain Time and Place”, is achieved.
“Within a Certain Time and Place” is available now on the Voces8 label and via streaming. Listen here
Chinwe D. John is a medical doctor and author, who was born in the U.S to Nigerian parents. In 2012 she published a book of narrative poetry Tales of Fantasy and Reality. This was followed by a novel The Boy in the Painting, Book 1 of The Time Shield Series, in 2016. Within a Certain Time and Place, released in 2022, is her first EP