Pedal Playhouse’s joyous animated pedal demos are like nothing you’ve ever seen
We chat to Jo Braga the mind behind the wildly inventive Pedal Playhouse YouTube series about how she’s injecting childlike curiosity back into guitar videos.
Jo Braga – AKA Joan Of Hearts – doesn’t make your run-of-the-mill pedal demos over on her channel Pedal Playhouse. Instead, each one is a lovingly-crafted animated film, during which the pedal’s artwork comes to life, and explains to Jo how they work. The videos are a joyous watch – if you’ve ever felt like pedal demos are infomercials in disguise, Pedal Playhouse is the antidote.
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Our interview begins with an unsurprising revelation: “When I was a kid, of course, I watched a lot of cartoons,” Jo tells us. “I was part of the generation that had Saturday morning cartoons, I was always quoting them and doing the voices with my dad.”
The path to animation and music for Jo, like it is for so many, was a complex one. “As I got older I started playing sports – I played ice hockey, and I got into college, because I played the sport. But they didn’t have an animation programme.
“So I kind of had to fall back on, well something else to, you know, feed myself. I got a degree in media arts – so I’m kind of like a… Joan of all trades,” she says, with a wry smile.
All trades in this case means, among other things, “sound design, graphic design, some fine art stuff.” Having graduated, she “joined corporate America”, doing video editing “for a big computer company, their commercials and so on.”
What moved Jo to create the Pedal Playhouse project, however, is something she’s only recently been open in public about. “How it started wasn’t: ‘Hey, I have a great idea, this is awesome, let’s start this thing!’ – It’s a little darker: in the middle of 2021, I got very, very sick. I could only eat about five things. Essentially my oesophagus stopped working, but no one knew that at the time. I was losing weight, I couldn’t eat anything, things started to not function as well.
“So several times I had these thoughts about my mortality. And if this was something that was actually happening to me, I always wanted to do something in animation. I was always disheartened that I wasn’t able to get into that.
“I thought: if this was the last thing I ever created. Why don’t I actually, in my pain and suffering, use those times to learn animation as a distraction. Let me learn a creative project so that if I was to die, I would actually put that time towards a passion project that puts my personality forward. It is me that’s there, that you see. For my friends and family, anybody who’s left behind – that’s me.”
This, ultimately, is part of the reason for the joyous, childlike tone of Jo’s videos. “We’re looking at a pedal, that’s part of it,” she says. “But really, it’s approaching things with the curiosity of a child again. The idea that, despite whatever else is going on in the world, there’s this thing with a sense of wonder and whimsy, and that anything is possible.”
When it comes to capturing a childlike sense of wonder and whimsy, Jo points to one specific point of inspiration. The “Playhouse” in her channel’s name might have already given you a clue what it is. “If you think about Pee Wee’s Playhouse – it’s this world where all this is literally happening, all this craziness – and that world is being built up over time..”
That worldbuilding has been going since her first demo, which looked at the Old Blood Noise Endeavors Sunlight. The character Jo created for the Sunlight is as warm and ethereal as the pedal itself. “I so enjoyed every aspect of creating this character, becoming them, this nurturing presence that guides you through the pedal. The whole thing is – finding a way to not only explain the pedal, but also to capture the personality of it. And doing it in a way which, for a time, let’s you forget the things that are not so bright out there.”
With each demo, it’s like I’m picking away at the next step in the world-building. I have so many ideas I want to get to. It’s that childlike curiosity of like, what’s possible? What can we do? Where can we go? Like, that’s mostly what’s driving me.”
There’s also a healthy groundwork laid for Jo in terms of creative spins on the pedal demo format – she’s got a lot of praise for her contemporaries. “I’ve always loved Knobs’ work. And the other person that deeply inspired me and I always tell him again and again is De’von Blue Whitaker, and his demo channel. The way he presents guitar pedals: it’s not only like the music that you hear, but it’s the visual art that he does in crafting. It’s also the props that he uses. It’s a really pleasing aesthetic – watching those pedal demos, its art in motion. The attention to detail is something I really appreciate so much – if the devil’s in the details, I’ve definitely lost my soul, because I am a sucker for details.”
“And Anne Sulikowski, how she does her drone music, and all the visuals are tied into what you’re hearing. It’s its own art form – you’re seeing in motion and movement, not only with visuals, but sound.”
“I also love love love Working Class Music – Jason, Tia, Lance, all of them: the way they inject their pop culture humour is the same way I do at times. The animation, the anime, the pop culture reference, like in the middle of demos, even like in the sarcasm, and the editing is just great. Sorry, you’re seeing me gush in real time!”
“We’re all different when it comes to demo channels, but I think that is so essential. It’s so lovely to see. I want to be inspired. I want to see what everybody brings to the table. And it’s not just videos – I have a lot of friends who are pedal builders. With them, there’s this exchange of creativity. Sure, we use different vehicles for our art. But what they do inspires me, and what inspires me can inspire other people to pick up a guitar and start playing.”
Unsurprisingly, Jo’s release schedule is a little less frequent than the rest of the YouTube demo world’s. That’s not to say she’s slacking – far from it. “It takes time, she says. It’s just me doing, like, the work of an entire creative department. I still have a life apart from this, too, and I have my health to deal with. This is a passion project.”
Jo does make sure her audience knows why she can’t pump out weekly videos. “On Instagram and Tik Tok, I always make sure that I show the behind-the-scenes with time-lapses and so on. So you see all the work. Having started to show that process, I get less pressure now – there’s more of an understanding that it’s not possible for me to release on that schedule.”
“If I could do it faster, you know, I really would, because I do really enjoy the reaction people have to it. But for another demo I set myself a deadline – and failed. After that I decided I was not going to compromise quality for quantity. I am going to make sure that I do the best work that I do. My goal at the end of the day isn’t to meet a quota. I’m not doing the rat race. This is more a passion project. And this is about having fun.”
“Every pedal makes me have to rethink how I film and record. I’ve never done anything the same way. And as much as that is frustrating, a challenge can really be an opportunity in disguise. And so I’m so grateful I’m still alive, to be honest – I have this joke, which is that after that first demo, they kind of figured the illness out, and I stabilised. So it’s like: ‘Well, I guess I have to keep doing this!” So it’s like, maybe I am supposed to do this. Maybe the good ripple is important.”
So Jo’s demos express a particular childlike wonder and curiosity – but why pedal demos at all? What was it that meant music, and pedals in particular, would be the outlet for her animation, and for her ‘good ripple?’
“It’s actually not what you might think,” Jo says. “What got me playing instruments was Amanda Palmer and the Dresden Dolls. That’s what had me pick up a ukulele – and I started to put it through effects pedals. And that’s what got me into exploring what effects pedals sound like, not a guitar!
“I eventually got to guitar from the Ukulele –but it took several years. I went to an octave mandolin, and then to a 12-string guitar. I’ve always said I moved in sets of four – I just kept adding another set of strings. And then after a while, I thought, you know, maybe let’s stick to six.”
If you’re familiar with Amanda Palmer’s music and writing, you’ll know the underlying philosophy that glues it together is an ‘Art for Art’s sake’ kind of approach. It values sheer unbridled creation (no matter how unprepared you think you might be) above all else. “She’s the person that inspired me to just be an artist, to pick up a ukulele and to sing my songs. My biggest problem for the longest time was perfectionism. I wouldn’t put things out, because I was afraid that I wouldn’t meet my own perceived bar. I mean, even now, there’s that hyper-critical voice, 24/7. It’s very vivid. And it’s very mean. So I am pushing through that, to create. I’m having courage and persevering, but the fear is there in the passenger seat the whole time.”
Jo’s first electric guitar was the wonderfully versatile St Vincent model by music man, but, it didn’t take long for her to succumb to the countercultural pull of the Jazzmaster. “The one I gravitated towards was an American Pro II . It really does inspire me to pick it up – in a way, we are a team. That’s the way I look at it. It’s like, we’re going to work today, or no, we’re just going to mess around with the Chase Bliss Habit and turn knobs. Today we’re just going to turn knobs.”
“I like just fucking around around and finding out. I wasn’t really a person that would read manuals – I’ve only recently started because of the demos, I have to know what I’m talking about. But I do love the way that manuals are being written right now – like the Chase Bliss Field Guides that they’re starting to make.”
Those Field Guides, incidentally, helped Jo conquer a common condition: preset paralysis. “I was deathly afraid of Chase Bliss pedals. I rented one once, the Mood, and it scared the living shit out of me! Every time I went somewhere, I got lost, I couldn’t get that sound again, it was frustrating. I know everyone’s different. Some people love the fact that they have that much control. But yeah, once I had the Habit book, and I read through it, and now the Habit is my favourite pedal of all time.
“I can be absolutely free to make something for three minutes. The way that I found a foundation of stability with the Habit is in Collect mode, playing the same kind of melody or riff with a slight variation in the same key. And then by the time you’re done with it, you put the guitar down, you start turning knobs and the rest of everything on your pedalboard, you never really can go wrong. You have a really good foundation for a song that keeps evolving, whether I put the guitar down, or if I was to add more!”
The Habit, then, requires that sort of approach – the curious, the ‘fucking around and finding out’ that Jo evokes with her unique demos. “When musicians make things, sometimes we hold onto them like they’re too precious. Sometimes you just need to make sounds in that moment. For me, the Habit allows me to be present and to make music just for me. It doesn’t have to turn into something. Every time we create a riff, we don’t have to add this level of preciousness: if we do, we’re not allowing it to grow. We’re already attaching these beliefs and feelings to it. It is important to create, even if it doesn’t go anywhere – it doesn’t have to!”
That, just about, sums up both the joy of Pedal Playhouse – and of pedals in general. Abandoning your loops, spending hours dicking around with a delay pedal – these are radical actions when there’s pressure to turn every minute of every day into content. We joke that this attitude isn’t one that gets you in Mark Zuckerberg’s good books. “Yeah, that’s fine,” Jo says. “Me and Mark don’t get along!”
For more information about Jo Braga, click here.
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