Monday 20 July 2015

"I write songs and sing them": Julia Biel [Interview]

“I write songs and sing them...”.  The brief bio on Julia Biel’s Twitter profile displays the charming nonchalance of someone who may very well have no idea how good she actually is.  Her immeasurable talent has been bubbling away for many years now and the brand new release of her sophomore album, ‘Love Letters and Other Missiles’, is the perfect by-product of a distinct and unique musical vision.

Having won the Perrier Vocalist of the Year Award in 2000, the singer, songwriter, producer and musician, Julia Biel, debuted in 2005 with her album, ‘Not Alone’ (co-written with Jonny Philips), and subsequently went on to see Julia nominated for the ‘Rising Star’ award in the BBC Jazz Awards in 2006.  The long gap in between solo albums was filled with musical collaborations with Everything But The Girl’s Ben Watts, Stimming and as a long-standing vocalist with the reggae/afrobeat collective, Soothsayers.

‘Love Letters and Other Missiles’ serves as an incredible musical opus and testament to Biel’s abilities.  The music is dreamy, mesmerising and at times even haunting – perfectly demonstrated by the extraordinary  ‘We Watch The Stars’ – but there are also more assertive and versatile musical stylings to be found here as in ‘Playing You’ which with its sharp, stabbing, soulful horns and guitar licks, displays all the swagger of a gritty funk record.

While the music expertly sways and dances amongst different genres, with acknowledgements openly made to artists like Radiohead and Portishead, Biel’s voice in many ways roots the sound within jazz and it’s very much her unmistakable vocal which really shines throughout the whole album.  Much like legendary jazz vocalists, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, it’s Julia’s voice that makes that biggest connection with the listener and will build her an army of life-long devoted fans as a result. 

It was our sincere pleasure to have caught up with Julia to talk music and the new release...

Who were some of your earliest musical influences?
I had my first massive song crush on 'Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)' by Eurhythmics which blew my young little mind but I was also really excited by the music of The Police, Neneh Cherry and Michael Jackson among others.  I was having my very first piano lessons at that time so I was probably equally influenced by the Grade 1 piano ABRSM arrangements of classical music on a subconscious level, it all goes in after all.

You must be thrilled with the incredible response to 'Love Letters and Other Missiles'?
Myself, Idris Rahman and all the amazing musicians I worked with on 'Love Letters...' put in so much love and hard work to make the album a reality that it makes it all the more special that audiences and critics alike have taken in the way that they have to what we created.  It's truly wonderful to be getting out and about all over the place performing these songs, I am always pinching myself.

What made you settle on 'Love Letters and Other Missiles' as the album title?
Of all the titles I came up with, "Love Letters and Other Missiles" seemed to best bring together the overall impetus for writing the songs – all these songs are inspired by feelings arising from every day occurrences that hit hard.  Things that hit harder often than they should and harder than the people responsible can ever imagine most of the time.  I wanted a title that reflected that everyday emotional violence that we do to each other.

How would you say this album differs from your debut, 'Not Alone'?
In a way, for me ‘Love Letters and Other Missiles’ feels more like my debut as it is the first album to feature my fully self-penned material. Because of that, musically and thematically I had total freedom and it truly represents my own musical voice in the fullest possible way andthat was a hugely important step for me.  I'd say it turned out to be a lot less folky in its instrumentation and subject matter than ‘Not Alone’.  ‘Not Alone’ featured songs I wrote in collaboration with folk/jazz guitarist Jonny Phillips and so the challenge on that album was to find the place where we met in the middle musically and thematically at that time and represent that.

How does the process of writing and producing new music work for you and your collaborator Idris Rahman?
Mostly I write the songs on my own at the piano or on the guitar and then play them to Idris who is extremely open about saying what he thinks about them at that stage.  He has a highly attuned radar for anything that isn't working about a song and an opinion that I trust as much as my own almost, so his angle is always invaluable to me – if there's any corners that need a little extra work, he'll give it to me straight. We generally agree completely but he pulls me up if I am being lazy.  At that point we'll play the songs together and he'll put bass to what I am doing until we're both happy with the outcome.  By that stage, the mood and structures of the songs are set and so when we get together with Saleem Raman, who is just the most fantastically intuitive drummer, things can just flow.  We can record these 3-piece band versions and embellish them with overdubs in the studio afterwards adding what we think will help enhance the vibe so at that point you can start to experiment and have a whole lot of fun.  We'll talk about what the overall feeling of the particular song is supposed to be and Idris is brilliant at coming up with things to add into the arrangement so that I can't hardly imagine how the song existed without his input afterwards.

YouTube boasts such a great collection of your live performances: how do you enjoy transferring your music from the studio to the stage?
I love performing live and musically, it's like completing the circle for me – there might be some parts we came up with during the production phase that became absolutely essential to the song as a whole so we need to include them somehow in our live performances even though they weren't present when I originally wrote the song.  Also when I'm thinking about live performances it's all about energy that you're giving to the audience – it needs to be carefully distributed throughout so you can create the overall dynamic you need and that's not the same dynamic you need necessarily for an album so you have to think afresh.

Who would be a dream person for you to collaborate with?
Wow, I'm already really happy musically but... I would love to work with Nigel Godrich (Radiohead's producer) someday and see what would come about.

Which one song from your catalogue would you play to introduce a prospective new fan to your music?
That's so hard to answer – it feels like being asked to say which of your children you love the most! 'We Watch the Stars' is the song I put up on Soundcloud so I guess at one time I thought that was the most representative but as I've learnt many times over, you can't really judge an artist on just one song – so sorry if it's a cop-out but I'd have to say give the whole album a listen and see what you think then.

Is there a song (by another artist) you wish you'd written?
Oh my... There are too, too many songs I wish I could have written.  Right now the first one that comes to mind is one I am doing at the moment with a student of mine – ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley.  So lyrically and sonically fresh and addictive when it came out, it certainly hit me like a steam train when I first heard it and it really caught the zeitgeist.

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