Julia Biel is a rare talent, moving effortlessly through classic jazz tones, psychedelia, the softest electro-acoustic moments and sweeping cinematic landscapes.
Already tipped by The Independent as “the best British vocalist to emerge in an age”, the arrival of her stunning second album Love Letters and Other Missiles and a recent MOBO nomination have shifted her out onto ever bigger stages. At the turn of 2015/16, Julia talks to us about writing, making videos and geeks.
Hi, how are you?
Great thanks :). Hope you’re good.
Where are you and what are you up to?
I’m on a train going home.
Your new album ‘Love Letters and Other Missiles’ has had an incredible response! How have your existing fans found it?
Do you know, I’m not sure. The last time I released anything social media didn’t exist. Even though it wasn’t that long ago, it’s a different world now and back then most of my touring was in the UK, whereas this time round most of my touring has been abroad. So, so far I haven’t been back to any of the same places where people who knew the first album might have come out to see me again. Amongst friends and industry people that I know, the changed sound has been fully embraced as part of my unfolding artistic story, so hopefully that’s the general vibe about it.
How does this album differ from your début, 'Not Alone’?
The essential difference comes from the writing itself - 'Not Alone’ was an album that featured my songwriting partnership with the guitarist, Jonny Phillips, and artistically represents the place where we met in the middle.
'Love Letters and Other Missiles’ (my new album) is an album of self-penned songs and so is more unadulterated 'me’ if you like! Also, I graduated to being a self-accompanying singer and songwriter with this album, playing piano and guitar. Musically, the free reign I had has resulted in an album that at times is quite dark but also cinematic. It’s an album that I hope casts my love of old school jazz harmony into a contemporary context lyrically and sonically.
You just produced a remix EP 'Licence to be Cruel’ as well. How did that come about?
It feels like I’ve been collecting remixes kinda like a child collects pretty pebbles for some time! It seemed only right and proper to find a way of putting them on display. All these producers have created something wholly different and convincing as separate pieces of music from the original songs they were working with and it’s always a real thrill to hear my voice in totally different sound worlds. I worked with all the producers tweaking structures and other details and the EP took shape.
You were recently nominated for a MOBO award, how did it feel?
I saw the news announced on Twitter and it was so out of the blue and unexpected it took a while to sink in!
You know, as an artist you’re constantly working to pull your version of reality out of your own mind and into a form you can behold. It’s such an all-consuming enterprise that when you get recognition of that kind that says other people are listening to, appreciating and enjoying your work, it’s a fantastically world-broadening experience and it was really exciting news to share with friends and fans.
Who were your earliest musical influences?
My first song crush was 'Sweet Dreams’ by Eurythmics.
When did you write your first song and what was it called?
Ha ha, my first song was called 'Enough is Enough’. No one has ever heard it but I still occasionally find myself humming its chorus.
What do you prefer most, live performance or studio work and why?
I love both for different reasons. The experience of making music in the moment with my band is unparalleled by anything else I know, it’s such a liberating, otherworldly and magical kind of experience that is greater than the sum of its parts and never the same twice.
Producing music for posterity on albums has some of that joy but is ultimately like working out what outfit you’d most like to be pictured in - the clothes don’t change the essence of the wearer but they do change how the wearer feels about themselves and how they’re coming across. There’s an inevitable 'looking in the mirror’ process you have to go through, and you can’t avoid it.
If you could duet with anyone, from anytime, who would it be and which song?
Ooh I think it would have to be Nat King Cole - but I wouldn’t go ahead and choose the song without consulting him 😉
How does the creative process of writing and producing work for you? Where do you find inspiration for your music?
Everything goes in and comes out refracted through the lens of my angle on the world. Anything can inspire you and there are no limits, so you have to be open-hearted and take everything, the bad along with the good. Sometimes it’s overwhelming but you can’t control that.
How much artistic involvement do you have in your music videos? And which one is your favourite?
In the case of all my music videos so far, they’ve been a collaborative process between me and the team involved. I don’t think you can ever fully hand over creative responsibility to someone else and still be expressing yourself in a way that is going to be true to yourself, and you definitely can’t expect it to turn out how you want it to if you do.
Ultimately all aspects of my artistic identity need to work in harmony according to my artistic vision and be the best they can be in that timeframe, within the natural limitations of their creative circumstances.
Each one has a story to tell in terms of how it came about, but I’d say my favourite video so far is the one I made with Rebekah Dobbins for We Watch the Stars. I explained my vision to her and she ran with it and brought so much more than I could have dreamt of to the table.
It was a really cold day and we were all absolutely freezing, but everyone involved was in high spirits all day and threw themselves into it. On the day of the shoot, despite best-laid plans, there were things that went wrong that turned out to be blessings in disguise, as the improvised solutions were much better for the mood of the video than some of the things we’d planned. Sometimes that’s the way it goes, you have to stay flexible and positive and that video is testament to that. Yeah, I’m proud of that one.
What’s the best thing about being you?
Is that a trick question? Erm.. I will say I feel blessed to be mixed race.
Who would you most like to collaborate with in the future?
I’m having a big alt-J phase at the moment - it’d be amazing to collaborate with them for sure if the stars aligned to make it happen.
In 10 years time, what would you like to be doing, what would you like to have achieved?
I’d like to still be making music and have been able to make a continuous living from doing it - I’d love to just keep doing what I’m doing, touring it around and hopefully performing music that connects with people. That’s what it’s all about.
What’s on your iPod?
Truthfully? I don’t have an iPod. When the whole digital revolution took place I was some way behind and haven’t caught up on that one yet. (See below re geeky things I don’t know!)
You’ve had a busy year, what are your plans and projects for the future?
At the moment, in-between tour dates, I’m busy producing album number 3!
Sushi or Pizza?
Pizza all the way.
Trains or planes?
Trains no question.
What’s the most geeky thing you know?
Hmm, well I muddle through at best - I just don’t have the head for retaining that kind of info and so invariably the next time I need to know the same thing, I’m starting from scratch all over again. I’d say the most geeky things I can definitely say I know are the names of the geeky people I call on to help me figure all the geeky stuff out.
Love Letters and Other Missiles is out now via iTunes here.
Images by Jenna Foxton.