Jo Schornikow turns a beautiful, “messy” shrine into a gorgeous Altar

The name of WNXP’s Record of the Week is Altar. The title refers to a real-life shrine that sits on top of Jo Schorninkow’s piano. That collection features everything from concert tickets and family mementos to pictures of faraway friends. Now based in Nashville, Schornikow is originally from Australia, grew up in New York and has traveled the world playing music with her partner, Matthew Houck, aka Phosphorescent. Schornikow’s album was recorded between Nashville and Australia, and she told us that putting it together was a lot like assembling her real-life altar, with each song adding its own “little, special piece.” When she stopped by the Sonic Cathedral for a performance and conversation, she said the physical inspiration for the album isn’t exactly a tidy sight.

Jo Schornikow: Oh, it’s all a mess. It’s a total mess. [laughs] Yeah, but my favorite altars are kind of messy. You know, they look pieced together in such a way that it could have only been put together by that person and their collective experiences. When I think of what is actually on my little altar at home — little tickets from important concerts I’ve been to and my closest people and little moments from our lives — I see them when I hear the songs.

Jason Moon Wilkins: “Visions” was the first song we heard from Altar. And it struck me immediately as a driving song or a road song. Not only because of the beat, but obviously the references to exit signs and sunlight and mirrors. Was that a song a that was inspired on the road? There’s different kinds of road songs, is it a “car conversation” song?

JS: It’s very much a Nashville song, one of the first songs I wrote since moving to Nashville. Maybe based on my experience of driving, so much. And I think of it as a road song, too. It has a pulsing beat to it that I feel when I’m on the highways and on the roads around here.

It’s also based on two very strange dreams that my best friend in Melbourne and my best friend here in Nashville had within the same week about a raven. Make of that what you will. I don’t know.

JMW: So they both had the same dream around the same time?

JS: Yes. Involving a raven and involving highway signs. And they don’t know each other. So, I just thought, “Well, I’ll use it, then. Neither of them will ever find out about it.”

JMW: If the universe gives you ravens and exit signs, I think you have to use them.

JS: Yeah. You’ve got a driving song.

JMW: Well, there’s a song that we’ve had the opportunity to play a lot ,“Lose Your Love,” and you’ve talked about it as a song about the “real life nightmare” of losing someone. But there are lines in there I love when you’re referencing those who keep the dream alive and the shipwrights. And I’m wondering who you’re singing to when you when you say that.

JS: A shipwright is a person who builds boats, something I learned when writing the song.  [It’s for] the people who keep things afloat, you know, who keep us floating and moving along, keeping us going, keeping the dream alive.

JMW: We need those people right now.

JS: We need those people.

JMW: The most recent song you’ve released is “Plaster,” and there’s imagery of cops and violence. There’s also a reference to court. And immediately when I listen to it, I wonder who’s on trial in this song? Am I way off, or does it feel a bit like that?

JS: It does. Half of it is from the perspective of being the one prosecuting and half of it is from the perspective of being up there on trial. I think there are moments in our lives where we have been the offender and when we have been a victim. And I think what I was trying to say is I’ve done both those things. Neither are appear particularly pleasant. But that’s the experience that, at some point, we’re probably all going to go through.

JMW: The playlist you put together for the inspiration for Altar was wonderful. Lots of great stuff in there, from Stevie Nicks to Big Thief and all points in between. But I loved your inclusion of the Laura Branigan song “Gloria.”

JS: Yes! I love that song.

JMW: I was wondering what that song means to you in and what inspiration did it provide for this record?

JS: Oh, that song is just so good. It just ticks a lot of my boxes. It’s weird and it’s so dancey, and she’s such a great singer.  And I don’t know if you’ve heard the original in Italian, but it’s also well worth a listen and a YouTube, if you’re into seventies Italian music videos. That song is a powerhouse of a pop song and I wanted to channel some of that. Also I’m super fascinated with religion and spirituality and the fact it’s called “Gloria.” Also, my son is obsessed with Mario and he thought she was singing Mario. So that became a very important song in our house for a piece of time. And all these things come together to make the perfect song that is “Gloria” by Laura Branigan.

JMW: Well, thank you so much for being with us.

JS: Oh, thank you. And thank you for saying my name right. Nobody ever does.