Julie Lee: A folk, jazz, blues, country, singer songwriter who'll make you cry

Wednesday 22nd October 2008

Tony Cummings reports on one of the most gifted singer/songwriters on the whole Nashville scene, JULIE LEE

Julie Lee (photo by Jonathan Watkins, Greenbelt '08)
Julie Lee (photo by Jonathan Watkins, Greenbelt '08)

Slowly but surely Nashville-based Julie Lee has become a singer/songwriter regularly praised by a myriad of critics. In Britain her appearances at the Greenbelt festival have built her a following amongst the new folk cognoscente while her songs have been recorded by such luminaries as Alison Krauss. The one thing critics find most difficult is putting Julie in a single musical category. In truth, Julie is a singer able to move from bluegrass to jazz, from down and dirty blues to heartfelt torch singing while her Christian faith continues to shine through in whatever style she is moving. Julie's latest CD, 'Will There Really Be A Morning', has received its usual share of critical plaudits. Journalists Tom Whitman and Tony Cummings quizzed the lady about her present and past. They began by asking her about her new album.

"I think it started out with some poetry by Emily Dickinson and Christina Rosetti, I've become familiar with their work, I wasn't necessarily a literature buff, you know, but sometimes when I get stuck musically I get inspired by other people's words, and putting them to music. It started like that. To go from the jazz thing to this kind of thing was a completely left turn but I enjoy that more than doing what's expected."

So what drew Julie to Emily Dickinson's poetry? "Her question - the title of the record 'Will There Really Be A Morning' - feeling like you're in the middle of a long dark night and a lot of people, Christians and non-Christians, feel like that. I think her poetry spoke to that in me, and the questions that I have with my faith from time to time. It might have been a really heavy record. But their words sort of have this weight about them but also this hope. There's light and hope in there as well. In my life I've struggled with melancholy - you know, go figure, being an artist - been on medication, not been on medication for it, wondered if that's right or wrong and struggled through the feelings like if I have Jesus I shouldn't have to have something else to take the edge off. But though I've been through several dark nights I think it never gets as low as it would be if I didn't have Christ."

Julie was born in Baltimore, Maryland in the North East of the USA. Neither of her parents were musicians but she grew up in a house full of music, where everything from Ella Fitzgerald to Joan Baez to Carol King to Tony Bennett was constantly on the hi-fi. She remembered, "Then of course I went through my own evolution. I fell in love with soul, R&B and rap and all that. Then I went off to school in Pennsylvania. I started writing songs when I became a Christian in college, when I was 20. I picked up the guitar on the way home from college one day. Initially my plan was to study voice. For me it was always only ever art or music, visual art or music. I was crap at everything else."

Julie might have been weak at many of her subjects but at painting she excelled and was soon being recognised as a gifted artist. "Surprisingly enough, when I was eight my teacher started me with oils. It was very unusual. She sort of went through this very brief drawing and some acrylics but then she took us right into oil painting and I learned watercolours later. So I think I learned how to add and then how to subtract. I think that's why I think like a painter with my music and I painted the cover for this record - not the face, that's a collage."

Painter Julie suddenly developed a new enthusiasm, for songwriting, when she bought a $20.00 guitar in a junk shop. She remembered ruefully, "The action was so high and it was painful but it was good. And I went back to my room and I'd write these little songs that were silly and then I'd write little worship songs to Scripture. I would take Scripture and paraphrase it and put it into music and it was more a between me and God thing in my room and more of a joke to me at first. But fortunately there wasn't any little voice in my head telling me I couldn't do that at the time. So I didn't think about I can't write songs, it just started to come. Because of my faith I finally had something to talk about, you know, something to say. I never took formal guitar or banjo lessons or anything, I just learnt by ear. It's a handicap, sometimes because I come here to Greenbelt and hire a couple of guys to play with mme and they want to know what chords, and I don't have a clue!"

Julie continued her story. "I finished up with an art degree. I went off to study voice but they wanted me to teach music. I knew I couldn't teach it for that very reason, that I can't explain this to other kids. But I knew I could teach art because I had learned it as a child. And I could grasp colour, form, texture, line - I could explain those things. So I changed my major to art and finished with an art degree, ended up getting certified to teach in Maryland. But just as I was finishing six years of college God called me to go to Budapest, Hungary. I did not think it was something I was supposed to do at first. I was praying about going to South America, maybe, to do some sort of a mission trip after school was out. I had been in a choir that had gone down to South America and I have cousins that are half Cuban and they all speak Spanish fluently and I thought that would be great, I would love that.

"I was part of a ministry in college called Intervarsity Christian Fellowship - it's real missions oriented - and they invited me out to this conference in the Mid-West called Urbana, all about missions worldwide. A good friend of mine at Intervarsity at that time said, 'I'm going to Budapest to teach English as a second language.' I was like, 'Where is Budapest?' I didn't even know. I was very ignorant about Europe at that time. So she just proceeded to believe that I was supposed to go. And I was like, 'That's YOUR calling, it's not mine.' She said they really needed somebody who could play and sing and I thought well, I'm certified to teach art, I'm not certified to teach English. I butcher the English language - my grammar is awful, my spelling's atrocious. So I didn't think I was called to do that at all. Little by little though God showed me that I should go. I was offered a teaching job in Maryland in a very good elementary school - it would have been ideal - the same day that I got the call about going to Budapest. I had to decide between the two. So I went to Hungary. This was 1991 to 1993."

Her two years in Hungary Julie described as "life transforming." Back in the USA Julie thought about going back into substitute teaching, taking art. But then she was offered a position as a youth director in a church. The minister who offered her the chance was Eugene Peterson, the writer who was to find international fame as the author of the Bible paraphrase The Message. Explained Julie, "We grew up going to the church that Eugene started in Maryland in the small town I lived in called Bel Air. It's a church called Christ Our King. My Mum had being going there and they had given me some money to get me to Budapest. So when I came back to speak about the experience and the youth work that I did - cos I was teaching Hungarian high school students English so it was a lot of youth ministry - they hired me as a youth minister for two years. So I worked with junior high in high school, led worship with them, taught Sunday school, did after school programs and work projects, mission things.

(photo by Stuart Keegan, Greenbelt '08)
(photo by Stuart Keegan, Greenbelt '08)

"Budapest was where I met up with two other people and formed a band. We called ourselves The Clay. Little did we know there was another band forming in America at the time called Jars Of Clay. I'm now friends with Steve Mason who's one of that band's members. I joked with him, 'You stole our band name' and he apologised from the depths of his soul! Eventually our band ended up calling ourselves The Rest, which was a bad name. We couldn't come up with a better name unfortunately. We made some recordings - the first record we made in a small Hungarian studio literally the size of somebody's closet. It was a very small pressing; it was called 'Through The Fire'. The second one that we made was back in Nashville and that was called 'The Waiting' - that was 1995. So we get back, we spend a couple of years in our own states and we decided we were going to go for it. One of us had moved to Nashville and said come on, it's the hub of Christian music and of country music and it's probably the most affordable place, more than LA and New York. So we all decided to gather there. Plus we had a free studio to record in! About three or four years later the band split up."

Disillusioned by some of the things she saw going on in the CCM industry, Julie took a step back and by the time she emerged as a solo artist her method of songwriting and her whole attitude towards her art had drastically changed. "I would say that I always felt like God freed me up - at one point he freed me up where I would write exclusively about my relationship with God, and about the Word and those kind of things. Then there was a point where you know in the Bible where he talks about Peter, he shows Peter the food on the blanket, he shows him all this food which to a Jewish person is called unclean and he says it's not unclean and it's ok to take and eat this. And Peter says 'No, I won't go against what you've told me.' And God says don't call it unclean, what I've made clean. It was like he made it clear to me you can sing about anything - pain and death and love and hurt and loss: all aspects of life. Don't feel that you have to wrap it all up with a platitude."

It was through songwriting that Julie began to move into the mainstream. "I live in a community in Nashville of artists and writers. I've lived there 13 years now, long enough to have made some good friends. I met Sarah Masen and she and I just hit it off like sisters. She had just met David Dark who was to become her husband. We all became great friends and I lived two streets down from her when the band broke up. They knew the band I was in, we all knew each other. Sarah had been in the Christian music industry and had been sort of sucked into it and been very grateful for that start. She always wanted to do everything to work with the people, to work within the industry. But they didn't always understand her poetic way with lyrics. She wouldn't put things the way they wanted her to put things. They said it's too vague, it's too unclear, it's too poetic and abstract. We need to hear it more straightforward and clear. To me Sarah's music is full of the Gospel but she wasn't mainline enough. They wanted meat and potatoes, no sauce. And she's not. She's like a fine prime rib with bacon wrapped around it and sautéed onions on top. I've always told her each phrase is like a little pool you could go swim in for an hour and just soak it in what she's trying to tell you and then you move on to the next phrase. David, her husband, is a lot like that as well. He's such a poet and he strings together these phrases you just want to chew on forever. So they became my dear friends and saw me through the change going on in my music.

"Sarah knew what I'd been through with the Christian music industry and had been through it herself and we were both left saying, 'Let's just write.' We started having these muffin mornings and writing songs together. I was working in an art gallery at the time, to pay the bills, and she was pregnant with her first child. I'd go over to her house and we'd make blueberry muffins and coffee and we'd try to write a song before I had to run off to work. She really helped me with the transition of finding my own voice outside of the band. In Nashville you're around all this music and I was sort of in this bubble of Christian music but then I got to hear people like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Emmylou Harris and Alison Krauss and other things too like indie rock bands. I was being drawn more towards this roots music, the history. I started going to this place called The Station in Nashville which is a great place to go for music - it's a bluegrass venue. It's kind of dyed-in-the-wool bluegrass but every now and they let a punter like me show up."

With a new direction in her songwriting, it was only a matter of time that Julie got to record a self-financed album. She explained, "I'm a member of this church called Downtown Presbyterian Church which is where David and Sarah go and a lot of people who are here at Greenbelt have come and visited the church. It's right down in the heart of the city; they have a ministry to homeless people and to artists in particular. To us Americans it's an old church: it's been around since before the Civil War and was used as a hospital in the Civil War and had all this unused space upstairs that was kind of unclaimed, full of old handbooks and old pews, great light. They started letting one of the artists in their church help out with the homeless lunch in exchange for art space. So now there's literally art studios upstairs there. I was one of the first three artists they invited to come and have a space there and make my art. I'm no longer really into oil painting but painting with objects and paper and all different kinds of found things and I needed space to do that.

"But I also needed space to record. Because it's an old church it has some wonderful acoustics, nooks and crannies where you can get great reverb sounds. So I started recording a record, kind of like a Cowboy's Junky thing. It was called 'Stones' and was recorded in 48 hours in the church with all my friends, straight to DAT tape. We talk between the songs and there's laughing and joking and then we go into the next song, so it's really raw. The next one I did after that was called 'Many Waters', that was in 2000. I'd come to Greenbelt in '98 and I think '99 and knew I wanted to come and live in Belfast for a year and I was preparing to do that when I made 'Many Waters'. I was just making this record to get some of these songs out but we took more time with that one. We moved into a different part of the church and there was a small chapel with a high-domed ceiling and great acoustics. I was suddenly surrounded by this bluegrass band, guys that I'd met at The Station. They helped me find some other musicians. I had been writing songs in that direction but didn't by any means consider myself a bluegrass writer. I just put on that hat for a while and I tried to write something that they would want to cover or sing. So 'Many Waters' was the beginning of moving in that direction and that record opened up doors. Right before I left for Belfast I met Alison Krauss - just before I was leaving the country. The next recording I did was 'Stillhouse Road', my first label release (for Compadre Records). That was 2004. After that was done it was another three years before I recorded again.

"I met these two young guys that I've brought with me to Greenbelt this time - Nathan Phillips and Aaron Roach - and I heard their music and helped them, sang some backup for them and did some art work for their CD and they said, 'Can we help you record some songs?' I hadn't any money to go into a major studio and spend thousands of dollars so they said, 'Julie, we'll just record you here.' I loved their energy and their youth and their fresh approach to music: it was inspiring to me. They're not at all sucked into the Nashville scene. They're very into indie melodic music. So it was refreshing to me and I felt from the spirit that it was right, it was time. Nathan and I gathered together some songs and he was really influenced by the blues, south, swing, jazz, black gospel stuff that we'd written. He said, 'Let's pull all those out of the closet, lay them on the bed and decide which ones we should wear for the record.' So that's what we did and we picked those 10 songs and recorded them all in my house in Nashville last year. We finished that before I came here. Aaron approached me and said he had known there was another batch of songs that was completely different from 'Take Me Out To Hear The Band' that he wanted to help me with because they were more up his alley and I knew that he could help me get at something entirely different and not make the same record."

'Will There Really Be A Morning' could hardly be more different to 'Take Me Out To Hear The Band'. With its lilting country, folk and bluegrass tinges the stripped down accompaniments bring out the full poignancy of the poetic lyrics. As well as the songs directly inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rosetti there is also "The Other Half", surely one of the finest and most moving songs about divorce ever written. Commented Julie, "I've never been married, I've never had kids but I have seen my friends split and I've never seen anything more painful. I've had hopes to be married, I've fallen in love and I've had it not work out and it's just this awful tearing. If that is what it feels like before you are even married, I can't imagine the anguish of divorce. 'The Other Half' is an effort to express something of that."

Some of the material on 'Will There Really Be A Morning' was written some time ago. She commented, "I'd actually written 'The Shepherd' and 'Precious' a few years back. 'Forgive Yourself' is also something that I'd written a while back on a friend's tenor banjo and then I had to give her her banjo back so I could never play it. Then I found my own mountain banjo and brought song one out of the closet again."

What became clear from Julie's luminous performances at Greenbelt '08 was that 'Will There Really Be A Morning' contains songs with a capacity to deeply touch people. Said Julie, "I remember last night we were singing 'Forgive Yourself' and there was a girl completely bawling her eyes out. Then I was that girl a few hours later when Aaron was playing, bawling my eyes out at his music cos it kills me. When I looked out and I saw that girl's tears I just looked into her eyes and felt I know and you're forgiven and it's done and you can let it go. If we keep repeating the same old platitudes, the same spiritual jargon and we don't really reach into our own experiences and be gut-wrenchingly honest, we won't minister to people. They'll just tune out if it's not real." Reality and compassion is what you get in Julie Lee's music. Long may it produce tears. CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


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