Joe O’Connor

Old Bedalian 1987-92

Joe O’Connor is as judicious as he can possibly be in appraising his debt to Chichester Cathedral Choir School, the preparatory school that he attended in the early 1980s that is also known as Prebendal. “Music was always the love of my life and Prebendal always forced you to realise that there was no substitute for practice,” he acknowledges. Joe hesitates and then continues: “But it wasn’t the place for me. It was a very old-fashioned, strict institution with a heavy emphasis on the religious side of life.”

For an alternative, Joe and his parents first looked at Lancing College, the alma mater of Joe’s father. “That didn’t seem a lot different from Prebendal and then we looked at Bedales,” Joe remembers. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, fell in love with the place and couldn’t imagine what I would do if I didn’t get in there. It was such a welcome change from everything that I’d been used to for the previous few years.”

He needn’t have worried. Beginning in 1987, Joe naturally gravitated towards the school’s musical scene, so reinforcing an obsession that had been with him since his earliest days. “Nan had a pianola in her house, my stepfather was a cabaret singer and I’d loved the hymns and the concerts that I’d heard and seen in Chichester, so I was already steeped in a variety of musical styles by the time I arrived at Bedales,” he explains. “Playing different musical instruments was part of life for me. I’d started on the trumpet, which eventually gave way in a natural progression to the euphonium, and also studied the piano and the cello but it was at Bedales that I first really discovered musical theatre.”

It was such a welcome change from everything that I’d been used to for the previous few years

 

Joe’s time at Bedales spanned the eras of both Jonathan Willcocks and Nick Gleed. “Jonathan was a huge figure at Bedales, who left the school a couple of years after I got there and made an incredibly tough act to follow,” Joe reflects. “Before he left, the school staged a production of 'Matchgirls' and Jonathan gave me the job as musical director, working with the singers, conducting the band and playing the piano. It was the first time that I had done this and a great opportunity, which stood me in good stead for when I started doing it professionally later on. There was a lot of concern about who might succeed him but when the potential recruits were put through their paces it was obvious that Nick stood out a mile. I hit it off with him straight away; he almost personified the Bedales tradition of informality with an underlying layer of discipline and respect and I still meet up with him for a coffee from time to time. Throughout my time at Bedales I was in a permanent jazz quartet called ‘In Full Swing’ with me on piano, Will Wollen on sax, Nicky Stokes on bass & Adam Hunter on drums. We were regularly playing in assembly and various concert events through the year, which was more vital training for playing in show bands.”

If music was at the top of Joe’s list of preoccupations at Bedales, design was not far behind. “I loved the workshop and making things,” he admits. “I took extra woodwork, putting together stuff like trailers for bikes and wooden chairs; working with David Butcher and Martin Box remains a very comforting memory. There were so many other encouraging teachers – people like Alastair Langlands, Alison Willcocks and Pete Murray, my fantastic second piano teacher – who would show you a lot of possible paths and allow you to understand that if one didn’t work out, there would always be something else for you to try.”

All the while, Joe was putting his holidays to exceptional use, assembling the equipment to create a fair-sized studio at home and mixing with people who would give him the experience to understand how to make the most of it: “My Dad gave me a keyboard when I was ten, then a drum machine & sequencer, and I started to learn a bit about studio life by accompanying my stepfather to recordings and watching his producer putting together the backing tracks. I got to know him pretty well and he started giving me work during weekends and holidays, producing backing tracks of my own when he was too busy elsewhere. By the age of 15, I was basically producing music professionally.”

Having known his professional destiny for some time, Joe admits that the academic side of school life did not see him at his strongest. “I got by,” he says. “Most of my time at Bedales was spent in the studio or music school and I wouldn’t have been the most brilliant pupil at school. On the other hand, I was developing my skills across the musical spectrum – I produced the music for the school production of Grease in my last term, creating a really big sound, which was a complete blast. Having made so many lasting friendships at Bedales, I was pretty miserable when the time came for me to leave.”

The truth was that Bedales had already taught me so much, in an atmosphere that was virtually the same as you find at a university, that I felt I’d seen it all before

 

A place at Kingston University to study music turned out not to be the experience for which Joe had hoped. “I felt slightly conned,” he admits. “The prospectus had talked about Kingston’s partnership with Gateway Recording Studios and the access to studio time that we would get as a result, which sounded ideal, but I soon discovered that this applied only to final-year students! The truth was that Bedales had already taught me so much, in an atmosphere that was virtually the same as you find at a university, that I felt I’d seen it all before. I’d started working with artists like Bonnie Langford and Ron Moody as well, I was earning my own money and I started to feel that I didn’t have the time for university. When one of my tutors told me that I had to make a choice between my studies and my producing, it was an easy one.”

Almost at once, Joe propelled himself further down the career path by landing a job as an assistant producer with Tailormade Shows. Based in Petersfield, Tailormade was contracted to record the music for the Rank Organisation, who owned all five Butlins holiday resorts, and now struck a deal with Joe for him to move his flourishing studio into the nearest Butlins facility in Bognor Regis. “I learned so much,” he enthuses. “It gave me the chance to immerse myself in every aspect of the industry while I was still just 21 years old. I also got to know more and more people and, being on the front line as an assistant producer, I almost became the face of the company.”

Within two years, Joe had made the decision to strike out on his own as a producer, setting up Music 2000 in 1997, moving his studio to the Witterings and continuing his relationship with Butlins as a contractor. “It was partly the confidence that I had gained at Bedales that made me sure in my own mind that I could make it independently,” Joe believes. “I already had a contract to produce music for Fred Olsen Cruise Lines, I met other people, added more contracts and I was away. One thing about working in the theatre and music industries is that you get introduced to so many contacts – LinkedIn has nothing on it!”

As the new millennium dawned, Joe changed his company’s name to JMusic Ltd and, deciding that the costs of moving the operation to London were prohibitive, chose instead to build a new studio in Witley, Surrey. The company flourished, employing a range of people exclusively on a freelance basis, with one notable exception. “I took on a PA and the result of that was that she became my wife!” Joe says.

All the while, Joe was racking up a remarkable track record in a number of different musical disciplines and building a client base within the UK leisure industry. As a musical director he worked on shows including Little Shop of Horrors, Charlotte’s Web, The Adventures of Mr Toad and Peter Pan at the Watermill Theatre Newbury, Pinocchio and Jack & The Beanstalk at the Paul Robeson Theatre and the UK-wide tour of Wizard of Oz – Beyond the Rainbow. As a writer, he produced original scores for shows such as the Circ Ballet Eclipse, Forbidden, the Russian production of Mirage, Peter Pan, Dick Whittington and Cinderella. Meanwhile, he has continued to produce a vast number of shows destined for cruise ships such as the Cunard brand and all seven ships in the P & O fleets, as well as leisure parks such as Alton Towers, Chessington World of Adventures & Blackpool Pleasure Beach. He also regularly works with household names such as Brian Conley, Basil Brush & Sooty!!

It was partly the confidence that I had gained at Bedales that made me sure in my own mind that I could make it independently

 

Joe recently celebrated 25 years in the industry and has won awards for his work. Of all his accomplishments, however, Joe remains proudest of his self-penned orchestral work and stage event, Avalon, which premiered at Guildford Cathedral in June 2012 with Richard E. Grant in the role of the narrator. “That’s something that I would like to tour the country with,” he says. “We’ve proved that it works but the difficulty is always getting impresarios interested in new products. So often, audiences only want to listen to what they already know. We’ve got two dates lined up for Avalon in 2018, one in Camberley and one in Gloucester Cathedral, but I really believe that it’s visually spectacular enough to get off the ground in a national sense. It’s tough, though – the market is so saturated with productions that putting on a new show is always a risk.”

Joe is keenly aware of his own good fortune in being introduced to his industry at such a comparatively early stage of his life. “I get so many people phoning me for hints about how to break into the business and it’s so difficult to know what to say to them,” he sighs. “No-one takes on apprentices any longer and by the time these keen people have left university it’s almost too late for them to take a chance on a career in musical theatre. You end up with a lot of untapped potential that is forced away into other areas.”

Despite these observations, Joe is clearly a man who revels in his chosen field. “I’m sure that the boy I was at Bedales would have approved of the fact that I still love creating things in a studio, as I did back then,” he says. “To be honest, the composing that I’ve done since was a bit of an accident. I never set out to be a composer and composing still constitutes only about 10% of my time. Again, it might well have been Bedales, which was in every way a great education for me, that gave me the belief to have a go at it.”

Joe’s belief in the value of a Bedales education is underlined by the fact that his two sons, Jack and Charlie, are currently at Dunhurst and Dunannie respectively. “I do a lot of the drop-offs, so I’m at Bedales quite a bit, and I always take the chance to wander around the place,” he says. “It still has the same feel, still maintains the old ethos and I still feel a lot of affection for the school. Jack wants to be a drummer and Charlie a guitarist but for the moment, I’ve got them slightly unwillingly learning the piano, mainly because I think it provides a vital musical grounding for young people. I have to admit to getting seriously emotional when Jack performed in the Quad recently. Brought back a lot of lovely memories!”

More information on Joe and his work can be found via the following links: 

www.jmusic.co.uk
www.facebook.com/jmusicltd
www.avalonlive.co.uk

Joe O'Connor was interviewed by James Fairweather in December 2016