Julia Blair photo credit Billy Hintz
Julia Blair Finds Some Things Are ‘Better Out Than In’
Julia Blair is multi-faceted, both musically and in other art forms, and that has spanned her membership in the collective Holy Sheboygan! and in the band Dusk, as well as operating as one of the founding members of the label Crutch of Memory. Now, after work spanning a few years, she’s set to release her debut solo album, Better Out Than In, on February 24th, 2022. In the spirit of the Crutch of Memory collective, the album also features several of her fellow artists at the label.
Each song on Better Out Than In brings its own soundscape, influences, and themes, but Blair’s perspective, directly engaging with some of the less talked about aspects of human life, forms a punchy through-line. From dealing with the end of a relationship in “Waste Away,” to addressing crossed boundaries with “Relax,” and people on the fringe of society with “Barbara,” Blair suggests that all subjects are relevant to songwriting and that conveying emotion to an audience can be a significant experience. I spoke with Julia Blair about the context of her various artistic projects and how making a solo album has impacted her creative life.
Americana Highways: I understand that this album has had a fairly long road to completion. Were you thinking of it more on a song-by-song basis or were you planning on a collection all along?
Julia Blair: I think the writing was song-by-song but I kind of had this idea hovering in my head that I wanted to do a solo record. Slowly the songs came together and around that same time, I was forming this label, Crutch of Memory, with some other people. We had this concept for a more collaborative approach to putting out records, where the Crutch of Memory team comes in on the writing, producing, and playing of the record, but it’s focused on one particular artist. Everything I’ve done before this has been extremely collaborative and in my bands we all write and sing together. It seemed like a comfortable segue for me into a more solo realm, where there’s that collaboration. So I collected these songs around a basic idea, then we recorded all the basic tracks in a big session. The overdubbing was done slowly after that.
AH: The idea of a collaborative label that supports solo work within that community is fabulous. When did the label officially go public?
JB: We put out our first record in 2019. It was with Tim Buchanan and this one is actually only the second record in the collaborative model. We’ve put out some other records under another imprint that are just things we like, but don’t follow the collaborative model.
AH: I see that you have multiple projects and seem to have things boiling at all times. Would you usually have been out playing much more in the past couple of years?
JB: Yes, this the least amount of touring I’ve done in the past seven years or so. It had been about four years of heavy touring when Covid happened. I was finishing up my record, and my most active band, Dusk, was right in the end process of writing and recording a record. We just shifted our focus to that after quarantine. It was kind of a more convenient time because we had things to work on.
AH: Another related project would have been making the videos for Better Out Than In. Were those made last summer?
JB: Yes, the first video for “Relax” took three or four days between planning and getting all the shots. “Waste Away” required a little more planning because I really wanted there to be dance and a friend of mine took about a month to choreograph and learn the dance with another dancer. Then the shooting was over three or four days.
AH: Had you been involved with making videos for your other projects before?
JB: Yes, I feel like I’ve done a lot of videos. I love videos. I do puppetry stuff, too, and I’ve made puppet videos and lots of music videos for Dusk. That’s the fun part, when all the recording is done and we get to make a video.
AH: Thank you for mentioning the puppets, because that explains something I saw on social media about you going to Prague and doing something puppet related. What’s the story there?
JB: That was great. I studied with a marionette maker there and we made marionettes. It was great since I was able to book a few shows in Germany afterwards, so I spent a month learning about puppet making too. It was a very good trip.
AH: That sounds incredible. Was it a workshop that you went to in order to make puppets?
JB: Yes, it was a workshop. They have this class every summer where you design a marionette, make the whole thing, and learn how to manipulate it and put on a little puppet show.
AH: Did the way that they made marionettes and the tradition of puppeteering in the Czech Republic differ from the traditions you were familiar with?
JB: Yes, it was totally different. In my head, before that, puppetry was this untouchable magic realm that needed to be really separate from the puppeteer because you were creating this world. But in Czech puppetry, they are not precious about that at all, and the puppeteer will just grab the puppet’s hand and make it move. I thought I wouldn’t like that, but I loved it. It was a really cool realization.
AH: Well, your puppet looks great, so I hope it stars in some new videos.
JB: Thank you! I just got some chisels, so I’m going to make another one.
AH: I’m sure everyone is asking you about the song “Relax” because it’s so outspoken. I’m so happy that you wrote this song because I have so many feelings about how the word “relax” is used in society towards women, particularly, and often by men. It’s so fraught. I gather that this was inspired by personal experiences.
JB: Yes, it was a string of a few incidents with a few different men that kind of happened around the same time. Then I was driving in my car on a long trip and got thinking about it, which made me mad. Then the concept for the song spilled out while I was driving.
AH: There are some interesting twists and turns in the song. I was most surprised that later in the song, you have a father and a son speaking, and the son actually corrects the father for using phrases like that. That was a relief to hear that example because it suggested there is some progress being made.
JB: I work with kids sometimes, and especially now that I haven’t been touring as much. Seeing people learning and our society slowly growing is something that I wanted to add as a note of optimism. The old generation is on its way out and the new generation is on its way in.
AH: It’s interesting because the music in the song is very high-energy, so it’s not a downer of a song, but suggests some forward momentum.
JB: I wanted it to have a groove and feel more like a jam. Not quite an anthem, but a little more upbeat. I don’t know if I realized, when I wrote it, that I would want this to be a single. But it just really clicked when we were recording it and it really fell into place. I am glad that it resonates with people, because almost everyone has had an experience like this in their life where they’ve said something, and it hasn’t been validated by the people around them. It’s a universal feeling.
AH: There’s an amusing connection between “Relax” and the song “Fantasize.” There’s a little bit of a twist to that song that could be seen as a mild critique on how a woman can also view someone else as an object, and yet be self-aware about that.
JB: Definitely! It’s a dichotomy that I wasn’t planning, but it came out, and it is the other end of the spectrum. I had gotten the chorus with “I fantasize about you.”, stuck in my head and I wanted to write something light-weight, bubblegum-level song, because a lot of the record is me pouring my heart out. I wanted there to a lighter song that you can bop you’re head to, but it’s funny that it became this hyper-sexualized thing. It’s supposed to be in a consensual and fun way, though.
AH: A lot of these songs have very specific sound directions. “Fantasize” seems to have more of a Soul sound to it. Cool guitars, too!
JB: I love Soul music. It’s one of my favorite types of music and all my favorite singers are Soul singers. That one just ended up being in that kind of world. I love the guitar solo on that, too, which was Andy Harris, who was part of our label for a few years. That solo was perfect for that song.
AH: I saw some descriptions of the album that suggested the goal in creating it was to be kind of uplifting to people. Was that on your mind?
JB: My general persona is more of a comforting persona. I like to listen to people. That’s my personality and general approach to music. It’s also about trying to be genuine. I think some of the songs in this collection are totally uplifting, like “Relax” where people can just go, “Fuck yeah!” But there are songs that are sad, too. I’m one of those kinds of people who loves listening to sad songs when I’m sad. I think of them as a blanket, but that depends on one’s personality.
AH: That’s a good distinction to make because music can be therapeutic without being directly uplifting. Is that a philosophical position for you, though, that you want to make music that reaches people in this way?
JB: Partly, I am just the way that I am, but especially when it comes to my approach to music and the way in which I put myself out there, my highest form of expression is being the most genuine that I can possibly be to convey the feeling that the song is trying to convey. If I can express it in a way that means that the audience can then feel it, too, I think that’s the highest form of performance.
It’s wrapped up in my personality, but it’s also what I value in my artistic expression. I can only think of my own perspective, of when I’ve been at a show, and been all in, absorbing what is being performed. It’s such a special place that you can get into. I think it helps other people. For some people, that emoting isn’t their vibe, but I think for some people, it can be an important experience.
AH: One of the heavier songs on the album is “Barbara.” Is that something that was inspired by the experience of the pandemic at all? I’m wondering because it speaks about isolation and people not having funerals to mourn them.
JB: That is a song that I wrote before the pandemic, actually. It was one of the first songs where I thought, “I’m writing this song for my solo record.” It is very directly about the death of a family member, my Aunt Barb. My grandma had polio when she was pregnant with Barb, so Barb was cognitively disabled. Growing up, she was always on my level, so we were very close throughout my childhood. She spent every Christmas together. In my 20s, I got a little more distant, and she got sick. I drove down, but by the time I got there, I didn’t really get to say goodbye to her.
After she passed away, her siblings made the decision not to hold a funeral for her. It just felt like this very quiet tragedy to me. It felt very poignant and I feel the need to write a song about it. Then the second verse opens up, so that it’s not specifically just about Barbara, but about people who are on the fringe of society, like homeless folks, or people who you don’t look at when you walk down the street.
AH: Thank you for sharing that story and writing a song about her. I think for a lot of people, if we don’t create an event like a funeral to express those emotions, they really stay with you. Did creating this song become part of the drive to work on a solo record?
JB: I think when I wrote this song, it just didn’t feel like a song that I would bring to one of my other bands. It really felt like it existed in my world, I guess.
AH: Did having a solo project in mind mean that you could go further into more personal themes as a songwriter?
JB: It wasn’t always about personal themes like with “Barbara,” but I could also dig into whatever style I wanted, too. I love writing for the bands that I’m in, but you are kind of sculpting to fit the people that you’re working with. To have that removed opened things up, sometimes on a lyrical level, but sometimes on a musical level.
AH: Has the experience of making this album impacted you in a way that would make you work on solo music in future?
JB: It totally has. It’s been a crazy experience. It was a long experience because before the pandemic, I also had a head injury from riding my bike and getting hit by a car, so the story of this record has been about persevering through these things that have happened. That extended the timeline and affected the experience of recording. There were times when it was very difficult to work on the album, but there were also times when it was the best thing for me to be doing. I’m actually really excited to make another record, taking everything I’ve learned from this, and, fingers crossed, not having so many life events happening at the same time. I definitely want to make another one.
Find more music by Julia Blair, here: https://crutchofmemory.bandcamp.com/album/relax
Enjoy previous interview of another interesting artist, here: Interview: Rigby Summer Seeks and Finds Her Heart With;Geography