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