Julia Johnson drops the F-Bomb
After last week reviewing Julia and the Deep Sea Sirens’ sophomore long-player, Jack Colwell has a conversation with Julia Johnson about the pros/cons of touring, getting advice from Gotye and dropping the F-bomb (F for Folk):
In Greek mythology, the Sirens were dangerous and beautiful creatures, portrayed as ‘femmes fatales’ who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. Julia is not wishing anyone to their death, in fact, she couldn’t be sweeter, but by no means does that mean her unique voice and sound as a songwriter aren’t packing a hidden punch behind her fay complexion.
Julia, what can we expect from Family Pets, and was there a different approach to writing this record as opposed to your debut?
Family Pets is a bigger beast in every way. My debut album was a collection of songs from a five-year period, which I had never expected to collect in to an album, let alone a successful one! Family Pets was written in only two-and-a-half years. I was writing, knowing this album was going to be made. I was dreaming about what it would say and how it would sound, and what it would feel like to perform. I had the entire picture already in my head – the process was a matter of getting it out of my head and on to the tape reels.
Little Surprises, the first single off Family Pets has had a fantastic response. What could you say about follow up, Adeleine ?
Adeleine was written right before we hit the studio. The Deep Sea Sirens were horrified when I threw another song in to the mix just a few days before recording. It’s the first time I made a conscious effort to stop being friends with someone. I still miss her a bit even now, she was so friendly, but she’d take advantage of my kindness at every turn and eventually I had to accept she was never going to change.
There are lots of great sounds and textures that feature on the record. Which sounds are you most drawn to on Family Pets?
It’s hard to separate how fun some instruments are to play with how they sound. I love the dark magical ring of the Autoharp, and I love the banjo for its joyful and sorrowful twang, the cello in Old Horse regularly reduces me to tears, but I can’t go past the drums as my favourite sound on this record. You wouldn’t think of JDSS as a drum-based band, but when you listen carefully to Nicholas Peddle’s drums, you realize they’re actually singing the song too. The drums ebb and flow with the softness and weight of the song, they dance and play with individual lyrics.
In the past you’ve spoken of admiring artists such as Steeleye Span (!!!), Sarah Blasko and Gareth Liddlard. How do you feel your song writing has been influenced by this broad spectrum of songwriters?
Most of my songwriting influences don’t come out in my songs, in my opinion. Gareth Liddiard’s raw performance style inspires mine, even though you’d never pick it by our very different presences on stage! Jack White’s simple, clear and catchy rock n roll and song topics have always carved a deep impression in me, as have PJ Harvey’s. But I take all that inspiration back to my guitar and it all comes out nothing like their music!
Your music carries so much bite and passion, is this something you think about when trying to set yourself apart from the ‘girl with the guitar’ image?
It’s interesting, the whole ‘girl with guitar’ stigma. Is it a stigma? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a girl with a guitar. It’s a darn site more unique than being a boy with a guitar, statistically. When it comes down to it, if you have captivating songs, you’ll transcend the other people with their guitars. I’ve had a few people say that they love the songs I play on banjo, and that looks-wise it sets me apart. But I’m only playing banjo because it suits those songs.
I’ve never made an effort to set myself apart from anything in particular. I just keep on trying to find my voice, in my songs and in my vocal chords. That’s as unique as I can hope for. When someone at a show says I sound like another artist, I can only be happy that the person likes my songs and hers. So lucky me, to be a new artist they’ve heard and enjoyed.
As for the ‘F’ word, these days you have to pick something from the drop-down menu! Since I’m singing about everyday things, and stories about the people around me, I’m comfortable under the folk umbrella. We don’t get in to many folk festivals, due to not actually being properly ‘Folk’. But we have way too many acoustic sounding instruments to be pop!
What’s the greatest challenge for you as an artist right now. What would you say is greatest accomplishment?
I’m writing a shadow-puppet live performance with live original score, all to be performed by the Deep Sea Sirens and I. It’s on in March in Canberra, as part of You Are Here festival, and it’s definitely quite a challenge! My greatest accomplishment is without doubt the album Family Pets. If there was a Show-and-Tell and the theme was ‘your best work’, or ‘yourself’ or ‘most proud of’ I would just bring a copy of the album.
Tell us about the ‘Deep Sea Mobile’, GO!
I love my band, they’re amazing. I want to fly them in a private jet to every show and pay ten sound techs to help them at shows. But I can only afford a station wagon, dubbed the ‘Deep Sea Siren Mobile’. Its special features include fitting a lot of instruments, and looking like a soccer mum car. It’s a real babe magnet… not!
Okay, okay, I have to ask… Earlier in 2012 you scored a masterclass with Gotye, the man himself. How did it come about and if there’s one thing you remember from it (advice or otherwise) what would it be?!
I won the masterclass through the Triple J Unearthed Songwriting Competition, and he had two really great pieces of advice. 1) When you’re finding it hard to feel inspired, shake things up. Try something new. 2) Quit your job and become a part time librarian assistant, the pay is good and you can day dream while you work.
At this point I must add the same sentence that everyone who has ever met Wally will add: He is without doubt, the friendliest, most wonderful person in the music industry. Or the universe. Seriously great guy.
Touring, what can we expect from the live show and who’re the support?
We’re going to have all local supports. In Sydney it’s Rosie Catalano, and in Melbourne it’s James Kenyon and Nigel Wearne. We’ve really struck lucky – such killer acts. We love playing with local bands because they always know the best places to eat dinner before the gig, and we like to invite them back to play in Canberra too. It’s like a foreign exchange student program.
Live, we’re going to have a five piece. Me, Ellie, Nick, Simon and Rosie = singing, guitars, cello, drums, keyboard, autoharp, banjo. So we’ll be able to play pretty faithfully to the album.
Finally, who is a great Australian act we should keep our eye on?
Recently I caught Post Paint at the local pub in Canberra – they stole the show. Bligh’s vocals were addictive, and when he mentioned the words ‘free CD’, people (including me) were clambering for them. We’re lucky enough to be playing with them on the Newcastle leg of our tour, which is very exciting indeed!
JULIA AND THE DEEP SEA SIRENS ‘FAMILY PETS’ AUSTRALIAN TOUR
Sydney: February 22 @ The Newsagency – $10
Melbourne: March 3 @ The Workers Club – $10 w/ Nigel Wearne and James Kenyon
Canberra: Easter long weekend, March 28-April 1 @ The National Folk Festival
Wollongong: April 5 @ Yours & Owls – $10
Newcastle: April 7 @ Lass O’ Gowrie
Brisbane: April 21 @ Ric’s Bar – Free
‘FAMILY PETS’ AND SINGLE ‘ADELEINE’ WILL BE RELEASED INDEPENDENTLY ON 22 FEBRUARY. READ THE ALBUM REVIEW HERE.
Words by Jack Colwell.