Julia Biel on identity, intimacy and expression

You could nev­er say that the music of Julia Biel lacks feel­ing. With every song she sings, she wears her heart out on her sleeve. And express­ing feel­ings is what she is all about.

Biel is a singer-song­writer and jazz vocal­ist. Her first two albums – Not Alone and Love Let­ters and Oth­er Mis­siles – have seen her cel­e­brat­ed by the BBC Jazz Awards, MOBO Awards, and the Urban Jazz Awards, as well as acclaimed by fel­low musi­cian and tastemak­er, Jamie Cullum.

Even with her tal­ent and tenac­i­ty, the singer says she has often felt dif­fer­ent, because of her mixed-race back­ground (Biel was born in Britain; her father is from South Africa and her moth­er is from Germany).

Com­ing to terms with her iden­ti­ty, with who she tru­ly is, is one of the main themes of Biel’s self-titled third album. And what an album. From moments of joy and inde­pen­dence (‘Wast­ing Breath’), love and soli­tude (‘Crit­i­cal Con­di­tion’), ‘Eleanor Rigby’-esque dra­ma (‘Emi­ly’) and melod­ic calls for under­stand­ing (‘Say It Out Loud’), the beau­ty of these songs sweep you off your feet.

Keen to learn more about the mak­ing of the album, Fringe Fre­quen­cy spoke to Biel at length. She told us the secrets of inti­mate stu­dio record­ings, com­ing to terms with her iden­ti­ty, why the busi­ness-side of being a musi­cian is espe­cial­ly tough, and why she likes to think of her­self as an “expres­sion­ist singer-songwriter”.

On you new album you’ve played mul­ti­ple instru­ments and pre­pared arrange­ments for your lat­est album – some­thing you seem to have done more of this time round. Can you tell us some more about that?
Julia Biel: I’m not a singer-song­writer that would par­tic­u­lar­ly enjoy going round play­ing my songs solo. And I think that’s because I would just miss all the oth­er colours that the oth­er instru­ments bring too much. Also, I think when songs are wordy they stand up much bet­ter to being done in a solo, stripped down format.

My songs… not that they’re not wordy, but I’m quite par­tic­u­lar about my lyrics – but the words were always meant as part of the big­ger pic­ture from the out­set. Because when you’re pro­duc­ing an album, and you have all the colours of the rain­bow avail­able to you to use if you like, it’s seems like, why would you not [have oth­er instru­ments involved?].

But the core ele­ment on this album has been me accom­pa­ny­ing myself on one instru­ment. We didn’t go quite as far to town this time in terms of adding in extra things. It wasn’t per­haps need­ed as much.

And then, for live, I’ve added a gui­tarist. I’m main­ly tour­ing as a four-piece now. That’s real­ly great because, as well as play­ing lots of the gui­tar lines that are on the album, he [Rob Upde­graff] can also some­times hint at the string lines which is great plus he adds in so much more in atmospheres.

Where does song­writ­ing begin for you?
I’m just a bit chaot­ic when it comes to that. I always start out with good inten­tions with note­books that I car­ry around – I’ve got so many half-filled note­books. I’ve got loads of half-filled TextE­d­it files on my com­put­er. I’ve got bits of chord pro­gres­sions on my phone. And then, when I’ve got time, I just grab some­thing [one of my notes] to refresh my mem­o­ry, and go, “oh, yeah, what was that about?” I’ll expand upon it.

Gen­er­al­ly, when I come with a melody, some words come at the same time. That sort of gives a direc­tion of what the song’s about, and then I go from there.

“My journey in music has been about defining a sonic identity to reflect my own identity”
– Julia Biel

For this album, we under­stand you built your own stu­dio at home. Tell us a bit about why now was right time for that.
We [my part­ner, Idris Rah­man, who’s a musi­cian him­self, and I] just realised what was required for the music and that we could do it at home, if we fol­lowed that instinct. We’ve always had a home stu­dio, but this stage was about tak­ing it from being a use­ful space for doing one-at-a-time over­dubs and a writ­ing room kin­da thing to turn­ing it into a prop­er sound­ing pro­fes­sion­al stu­dio, where we could play togeth­er. And that wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble with­out hav­ing learned a lot from the less pro setups that we’d had in the past.

So, in a way it was the nat­ur­al next step, espe­cial­ly since when you go to a com­mer­cial stu­dio, it can be frus­trat­ing. I’ve had some great expe­ri­ences, but at the same time it can be quite frus­trat­ing when you go in if you’re feel­ing the clock tick­ing, and the mon­ey going at the same time. It doesn’t cre­ate a very relaxed atmos­phere. Of course you want to go to a good stu­dio, so that costs a lot of mon­ey. It’s hard to feel, in my posi­tion, that I can sit in the stu­dio for as long as it takes with that vibe.

Where­as, if your studio’s at home then you can do that. You know you’re decid­ing on some­thing because you’re def­i­nite­ly hap­py with it musi­cal­ly – not because the clock is tick­ing and the money’s going. So, it was real­ly incred­i­ble to have this luxury.

A friend of ours had a dif­fi­cult stu­dio expe­ri­ence them­selves last year. They left with only a half-fin­ished song.
Well, this is the thing, when you’re a jazz act – a pure jazz act, which I don’t con­sid­er myself to be – the instru­men­tal­ist and vocal­ist will often just go in and record it [an album] as-live, and that would be it.

I know lots of jazz acts who record an album in a day, because, once you’ve done the set­up, which might take half a day, the rest of the day you might still have five hours, and, if you’ve got the chops, you can eas­i­ly record 12 tunes. And then, they may take anoth­er day to just do a mix of the whole lot.

But, I know that’s not the kind of artist I am. Because I want to add the extra ele­ments: the over­dubs, and the atmos­pheres and the mix stage is real­ly key for me as well, so I def­i­nite­ly don’t like to rush that.

So, we record­ed the core three-piece over two days in my house. We had the drum­mer come over, and we had a friend round to come and help us engi­neer and press record. We set up and record­ed, so we got the sound how we want­ed it. We record­ed all of the core ele­ments of the 12 songs over two days. And then added over­dubs as and when peo­ple were available.

But it was all done pret­ty quick­ly. But, yeah, it’s very easy – espe­cial­ly if you don’t have a sense of exact­ly what you’re doing – to go into stu­dios and be car­ried away, or just think some mag­ic is going to occur. You real­ly need to know what you’re going to do before you go. We tried to keep that spir­it even though we were record­ing at home. As well as know­ing what you’re going to do musi­cal­ly, you also need to know what you’re going to do in terms of the record­ing angle you’re going to take.

What I learned from the last record is how you record the drums is real­ly, real­ly impor­tant in terms of the over­all pos­si­bil­i­ties of what you can do. So, you set the direc­tion of the album, and what mix is pos­si­ble, from the way the drums are recorded.

Can you describe what you mean by that?
Well, for exam­ple, in this new album, I realised from the process of my the pre­vi­ous album what I real­ly need is a very close-mic drum sound, so it sounds very inti­mate – so that the drums sound inti­mate. When the drums sound inti­mate, you can do an inti­mate-sound­ing vocal much more fea­si­bly, in terms of the mix.

Because you can record vocals sep­a­rate­ly in an inti­mate way, but it won’t mix with a drum sound that’s been done with too much room on it. Because once the room’s on it [the mix], you can’t take the room off it. So, it becomes a much hard­er thing to bal­ance if you’ve got a roomy drum sound and an inti­mate vocal.

So, it was just the process of under­stand­ing my voice and my direc­tion in music. And the kind of atmos­phere that I was try­ing to cre­ate, and how to achieve that in terms of how I approach the recording.

There’s lots of dif­fer­ent aspects to mak­ing an album, and that’s an impor­tant part of it, if you’re work­ing with live instru­men­ta­tion: under­stand­ing how it behaves in the mix.

In my first album, I did a lot of the mix­ing myself. So, I’m quite into that. But I’ve bare­ly scratched the sur­face. I feel as if I’ve learned a bit more now. But, yeah, I felt like I’ve arrived some­where – at a mile­stone – with this album in terms of all these things.

So, you’ve built up more life and artis­tic expe­ri­ence. Is that why you felt now was the time to make this your self-titled album?
Yeah, I guess so. In fact, I just wrote a blog on my web­site, about why I called the album after myself.

I kind of thought, peo­ple will think: either she didn’t know who she was before­hand or she’s real­ly nar­cis­sis­tic [laughs]. I just thought I bet­ter explain it, so I wrote a blog about it. There’s lots of rea­son for it, but part of it is, because I realise, in between these two albums – Love Let­ters and Oth­er Mis­siles and my new album – that my jour­ney in music has been real­ly about defin­ing and bring­ing into being a son­ic iden­ti­ty to reflect my own identity.

And I think my music-mak­ing is very much tied into iden­ti­ty issues of being a mixed race per­son. That’s been a sub­con­scious response to the expe­ri­ences that I’ve had: to cre­ate some­thing that I can then under­stand myself bet­ter through, and that I can present to the world, or to whoever’s inter­est­ed, as a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of myself.

I think I’ve felt quite often mis­un­der­stood or pre­judged. So, in a way, I want­ed to go deep­er than skin deep, and deep­er than cul­tur­al labels, like: “Oh, your father is from there, your moth­er from there, there­fore, you should make music that is X, Y, what­ev­er”. That wasn’t real­ly for me. I didn’t real­ly feel it had any bear­ing on the life that I had led for lots of reasons.

So, I kind of felt, well, you know… And I’m quite an emo­tion­al per­son and I think prob­a­bly far too deeply about things and am far too affect­ed by things, so for lots of rea­sons I’ve been led into music as a means of expres­sion. And it sort of gives you a han­dle on yourself…

What I was going to say was I want­ed to go deep­er than just cul­tur­al tags, and to talk about human emo­tion and to con­nect with peo­ple in that realm. Because we all are emo­tion­al beings, and although we have dif­fer­ent life expe­ri­ences, we have sim­i­lar emo­tion­al states.

So, I think there’s a con­nec­tion that’s pos­si­ble through emo­tion, and through music. I think that’s why, gen­er­al­ly, peo­ple are attract­ed to music, because it speaks to their emo­tion­al selves. So, I’m doing that lyri­cal­ly as well, and I’m feel­ing that’s a place where we can all con­nect, and we can all realise that we’re all the same, we’re all human. So, part of the rea­son I’ve called it Julia Biel, is that I am just a per­son, I am just me. This is me – don’t pre­judge me. This is music that I feel reflects the per­son that I am. And I’m just like you.

“I sometimes refer to myself as an expressionist singer-songwriter… Because the means of expression and the sound that I’m making are important to me” – Julia Biel

Won­der­ful. Let’s talk about some of the tracks on the album. ‘Feel­ing Good’, that’s a Nina Simone cov­er, is it?
Yes, it is. But I’ve twist­ed it up quite a bit. It’s got a fresh take on it.

We under­stand ‘Hymn to the Unknown’ was writ­ten about your sis­ter after she was diag­nosed with can­cer. What are some of the sub­jects you touch on in the album: fam­i­ly, adult­hood, moments in life beyond our control?
All of the songs are just moments in time that crys­tal­lize. Every song means quite a lot to me.

‘Always’: That one is just about some­body dis­ap­pear­ing from your life, and just nev­er being emo­tion­al­ly avail­able to you for rea­sons you don’t understand.

Say It Out Loud’: That’s quite an inter­est­ing one. I kind of com­bined a cou­ple of things in there – prob­a­bly slight­ly more con­scious­ly than some of the oth­er songs. That one is basi­cal­ly about my iden­ti­ty… or my tem­pera­ment – because I’m basi­cal­ly only a quar­ter Eng­lish. And I’ve often found my tem­pera­ment is at odds with the tem­pera­ment of most Eng­lish peo­ple [Laughs]. And I’ve been quite frus­trat­ed at the ret­i­cence of quite a lot of Eng­lish peo­ple to say what on earth they mean. So, it’s part­ly in ref­er­ence to that. And, part­ly, I’ve kind of pro­ject­ed that onto a rela­tion­ship – well, that ret­i­cence has also occurred in that con­text [laughs] – you know, sort of being frozen out for rea­sons you don’t know. So, in actu­al fact, that song prob­a­bly has more to do with my inse­cu­ri­ty at being on the receiv­ing end of those two things.

You’ve got ‘Wast­ing Breath’. Then, you’ve got ‘Some­thing Beau­ti­ful’. This was inspired by look­ing at a pho­to on my man­tel­piece as a phys­i­cal object that is a crys­tal­lized moment in time. And going for­ward from that moment, and think­ing about how things evolved. But, there’s some­thing beau­ti­ful in look­ing at the pho­to still – even if things didn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly go the way that you might have wished after that.

Great. There’s plen­ty more on the album, but let’s move on for now. What was the tough­est moment in the cre­ation of your lat­est album? The time between your sec­ond and third album has been short­er, but it’s still been quite a while.
Yeah, you know, peo­ple always say this [that’s been “a long time”]… You know, you make the music, I actu­al­ly record­ed the album, and it’s been sat there, mixed and mas­tered, for a while. It can take a while to get every­thing else in order.

The music is one thing, but it doesn’t just go, “oh you made the music, you mixed it, you mas­tered it, you put it out”. If it were that sim­ple, it wouldn’t be three years! I mean, the pre­vi­ous album was ready for about four years before it came out, because you have to get every­thing else in order. Oth­er­wise you’re going to put it out, and no one’s going to hear it. So, the music’s only part of the process: you have to get all the oth­er ele­ments in place. It’s like lin­ing up a load of domi­nos – and if you’ve got one miss­ing, you’re going to have to wait until you’ve got that domi­no in place if you want to have a chance of things going right.

The hard part is, gen­er­al­ly, get­ting all the oth­er things in place [laughs]. It’s all the busi­ness side. Like, if you wan­na have some shows, you’ve got to have some peo­ple who are around to book you some shows. And in this day and age – or maybe it’s just my music – I need to be able to tour in a few dif­fer­ent coun­tries in order to have an enter­prise that can continue.

Is it hard for you to get book­ings for yourself?
No, I don’t do the book­ings myself. I mean, there’s a lot I do do myself – I cov­er a lot of bases, but I’m still one per­son. If I need­ed to book all the shows myself, we could add on anoth­er two or three years at least! [Laughs]

I’d end up keel­ing over and tear­ing my hair out with exhaus­tion. So, that would be the end of that.

There some peo­ple who man­age to do it, but peo­ple cut cor­ners in dif­fer­ent places, or they work out where their strengths are, I guess, and do those things. So, for me, I don’t tend to book the shows myself, because those con­nec­tions take a long time to make and, when you have those con­nec­tions, it’s like a well-oiled machine.

Do you have a cou­ple favourite venues or places that you like to play in London?
Mmmm, you know, Lon­don is a tricky one. A lot of great small- and medi­um-sized venues have closed down since I start­ed mak­ing music. Though, recent­ly, there’s been some new spots open­ing up in east Lon­don, like Shapes, Oval Space and TRC. I haven’t played any of those yet. Gen­er­al­ly, I just play wher­ev­er the music takes me.

Would you ever want to play large venues?
I’ve found: if you’re mak­ing inti­mate music, you’ll always make the space that you’re in sound inti­mate, how­ev­er big the space is. In fact, the big­ger the venue the more inti­mate the inti­mate bits seem as there is more focussed ener­gy com­ing from the audi­ence due to the sheer num­bers. The biggest room I’ve played so far was a 1,000 seater in Amer­i­ca and that was the impres­sion I had – I mean, all the nuances count­ed for more. I loved it.

I’ve played to big­ger audi­ences than that out­doors and that has a total­ly dif­fer­ent feel again. The silences count for less in day­light weird­ly – yeah… I think it’s all about focussed ener­gy – out­door night-time shows are bet­ter as peo­ple are more alert in the dark.

How do you describe your music to peo­ple who’ve not heard it before?
I say I’m a jazz vocal­ist, but I’m also a singer-song­writer. And I com­bine the two using influ­ences from hav­ing grown up in Britain. So, there’s all kinds of influ­ences in there: Pink Floyd, The Bea­t­les, Radio­head, Por­tishead… know what I mean? But, I have a deep love of jazz. So, I com­bine the two. So, I’m sort of in between that kind of alter­na­tive, indie pop-rock and jazz vocals mixed with heart­felt songwriting.

I know it’s not a very catchy phrase, is it? But that is what it is. I some­times refer to myself as an expres­sion­ist singer-song­writer with jazzy vocals, which is per­haps a lit­tle bit snap­pi­er… Because the means of expres­sion and the sound that I’m mak­ing, those things are quite impor­tant to me. The way that I’m express­ing is as impor­tant as what I’m expressing.

It’s just came to me one morn­ing: “yeah, the expres­sion­ism”. So, I just came up with “expres­sion­ist singer-song­writer”. I mean in way, any­one writ­ing any song is express­ing some­thing, so it’s slight­ly mean­ing­less real­ly. But, it seemed to ring true on that par­tic­u­lar day, so I’m stick­ing with it! [Laughs]

“I think there’s a connection that’s possible through emotion, and through music… that’s why people are attracted to music, because it speaks to their emotional selves” – Julia Biel

What’s your favourite song to per­form live at the moment?
Mmmm. I’m always grav­i­tat­ing towards my lat­est, because it’s the one that I haven’t played out as much. You know, test­ing out where you can extrap­o­late a bit more from it and stretch­ing it and see­ing what you can do with it. So, at the moment I’m enjoy­ing play­ing a song that’s not on the new album – it’s been writ­ten since then.

But it’s always the lat­est songs, gen­er­al­ly. And each song puts me back in a moment in time, so depend­ing on how that moment was, you kind of feel a dif­fer­ent way.

Because I always try to be in the moment of the song, I want to express the song fresh­ly in that moment. So, you have to inhab­it those feel­ings every time you come to sing it. Oth­er­wise, you can’t real­ly sing it. And some feel­ings are hard­er to inhab­it than others.

What can peo­ple expect when they see you live?
Well, a mix­ture of things. You could prob­a­bly describe me as a fair­ly moody per­son: some­times I’m real­ly up, some­times I’m real­ly down and so the songs reflect that! [Laughs] So, you go on a bit of a roller­coast­er ride, but you come out feel­ing like you’ve gone on a jour­ney. I get a lot of feed­back from peo­ple say­ing, “you real­ly trans­port­ed me”, and that’s great. That’s what it’s all about.

We hear that. It’s been ter­rif­ic to speak you, Julia. Tell us, then, how are you feel­ing now that the album is done?
Every part of the process has always got its own sto­ry to tell – as long as I come out proud of the result then I’m hap­py and I am. Yeah, it’s been deeply sat­is­fy­ing to see it come together.

Julia Biel’s self-titled album is out now. She plays The Slaugh­tered Lamb on April 6, and the Streatham Space Project on June 7, 2018. More tour dates can be found on juliabiel.com.

Images: Jen­na Fox­ton; cour­tesy of Julia Biel