Interview with Julie Lee about Till and Mule
It’s funny that I should have come across Julie Lee only recently, and only through hearing her sing backup for other artists. First for Robby Hecht on YouTube, then behind Rose Cousins at the AMA festival, Lee delivered backing harmonies that were surprising, creative, and woefully heartbreaking. Grante,d both Hecht and Cousins write songs that aren’t exactly a barrel of monkeys, but there was something about what Lee was doing in the background that took the songs somewhere remarkably, sadly transcendent. It was a neighbor, about a week after the AMAs, who out of the blue suggested I look up this singer he stumbled upon, named Julie Lee. A couple weeks after that, Lee’s new album appeared in the mail. Enough already, I figured, and dove in.
Come to find out Lee was responsible for two of my favorite Alison Krauss songs (my love for most of Krauss’s entire catalog is well-documented) – “Jacob’s Dream” and “Away Down the River”. She also plays in a band with Sarah Siskind and has collaborated with the likes of Tim O’Brien and Vince Gill, to drop a couple of names.
Needless to say, in my line of work, it’s a rare treat to stumble upon someone the likes of Julie Lee, with a catalog of nine albums under her belt, the latest of which is just absolutely stunning,. (Kelly McCartney reviewed it here last week.) I jumped at the chance to chat with her about writing for Krauss, being under the radar, and the wonderful music on Till and Mule.
Kim Ruehl: I’m curious if you can talk a bit about your records, especially Till and Mule and how this one is different from the others for you.
Julie Lee: I was in a band when I first moved to Nashville. After that band split up, I made this one independent record. I had an art studio at Downtown Presbyterian Church, and it started with me just trying to record myself. I was doing it in a makeshift way because I was really into raw recordings like the Cowboy Junkies’ church recording and [records by] the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, which was Victoria Williams and Mark Olson. They were recording the essence of the place they were in. My first attempts at making records were like that. I made a bunch of my own recordings straight to DAT or to a four track. Pick the best version, go! That’s how it got started for me. The first record a lot of people think of as mine was Stillhouse Road because it was my first label release. That was really a Greatest Hits of Julie Lee [record], from the three independent records I made on my own.
Did you re-record those songs for Stillhouse Road?
Yes, we re-recorded them. [The folks at Compadre Records] liked the demos. They listened to those as my back catalog and [chose songs they liked]. That was really … the first and last time I ever let somebody choose for me what songs would be on a record. On the one hand, it was good to have someone outside myself say “this is strong, that’s strong”. I worked with two producers because I didn’t have the confidence that I could produce myself yet. But, being in the studio gave me confidence, because I was the one who was there for the whole process – mixing and mastering, and everything. The other producers weren’t really there 24/7, through the whole process. The engineer encouraged me and said, “Julie you can trust your gut. You know what you want. Every time you’ve spoken from your gut and said what you wanted, you were right in my opinion.” Working with him gave me the confidence to make my own records. I never had another label, not because I didn’t want one, but it wasn’t my path. It wasn’t how it was going to work out for me. I’ve only had one experience where I was sort of in the machine, as it were.
So what is Till and Mule about?
To me, it’s a collection of visual landscapes. It’s different because of the way I made it. My last record was called Julie Lee & the Baby Daddies. We did a Kickstarter campaign to make that record. I’d made my last few records on a shoestring budget, [but] we raised $17,000. I could make so many records from that. That’s a lot of money for me to spend on one record. I thought, I can get more than one record out of this. What if I put $4,000 aside and go to the studio before I change my mind, and record the other songs I’ve written more recently.
I made The Baby Daddies because I had a band I really liked. Then I chose from my songs that hadn’t been recorded yet, the ones I wanted to do with that band. It was all about the band, these guys I’d babysat for. With Till and Mule, though, I went into the studio with a completely different intention and my friend and producer Aaron Roche. We [recorded] songs I’d been working on for the last year or two. We limited it to a certain number of instruments – piano, guitar, drums, bass, a little bit of vibes and some strings. That was the palette… [Then,] I set Till and Mule on the back burner and focused on releasing The Baby Daddies, fulfilling all those Kickstarter rewards, telling [my backers] that there would be another album that would come out and they’d all get a free download.
This was the first time I’d ever recorded something and then stepped away from the painting for that long – for a year. I listened to it, thought about it… mixed it a couple more times. It took some time, stepping back from the painting like that, to give the songs some space. There was a lot of rest and life that happened in making it. That record reflects that feeling.
It’s interesting to hear you describe the recording process. A lot of the artists I speak to in the folk and Americana realm aren’t super comfortable with recording. They see their songs as being in a more natural habitat on stage. But, you liken it to painting…it sounds more like you see these songs in their natural habitat on a record.
I think so, yeah. They all fit together to me, really well. I guess I talk about painting a lot. I studied art. I’ve gone away from that and done more found object art. I don’t teach, but my degree is in art education. I started painting very young, at about 8 years old… Sometimes my work is my visual art, sometimes it’s working with kids, sometimes it’s creating records or making music. I talk about it as a painting analogy because to me that’s how I come at it. Writing is a very visual to me. I wish sometimes that it wasn’t. I wish I didn’t have to have the vision in my head.
I was excited to learn you wrote “Jacob’s Dream,” which is one of my favorite Alison Krauss songs. Can you talk about that song a little bit, and what moved you to write it?
Well, my mother grew up in Pennsylvania, near where that happened, in Bedford County. It happened back in 1856. We were related to people who lived in a town called Pavia, which sits at the bottom of this mountain, called Blue Knob, that has a ski resort on the top of it. A lot of people go mountain biking and skiing on Blue Knob. Between Pavia and this other little town, Lovely, is where the boys were lost. If you go to Fort Bedford, there are books about the Lost Children of the Alleghenies, or the Lost Cox Children. There’s a monument where they were found. When we were little, our parents took us there in the car, and they told us the story of what happened.
When I was an adult, I told my mom I’d love a copy of that book. When I wrote Stillhouse Road, I did a lot of research about my family history. My mother’s thing was genealogy. She was the one who preserved a sense of story in our family. She was always passing down information about where I come from. My dad is more of a ham and a performer, so I’m a weird mix of the two.
Alison introduced [me to John Pennell] and thought we’d be good cowriters. I loved John’s song that he wrote for Dan Tyminski – “Carry Me across the Mountain,” about the life of Hazel Dickens. He also wrote “Every Time You Say Goodbye.” I thought he was a powerhouse. I was intimidated and didn’t know what I was going to write with him. But, I really liked his ability to paint a picture and tell a story, so I called my mom and said, “Will you send me that book about the lost Cox children, because I think I want to write a song about it with this guy.”
When we met the first time, I read him this small pamphlet-sized book [about that story]. He said “Yeah, I think we can write that song.”
We really took it slow. We wrote the chorus first. He was the one who suggested writing what we didn’t know, what we couldn’t know: What were the children crying out? What were they thinking and feeling? What would they have been asking for? He taught me about coming at songs from a different angle, from what you don’t know, first.
We took four writing sessions to get it done. Then he gave it to Alison at a party, at her house. Most of her band was there that day. I was also at the party but I was so nervous I just sat out on the front porch. John gave them [the demo] and then he had to leave. Later, we were all sitting around and they said, “Julie, sing us a song.” I said, “Do you want to hear the one John and I wrote?” They said yes, so I started singing it. I just had to close my eyes because in front of me was Ron Block, Alison Krauss, and Dan Tyminski. I was terrified. I closed my eyes and sang. I opened my eyes for one second and Alison was looking at Dan and they were saying “Yes.”
It was another six years before they put it on a record. They put it on the collection. She picked the two songs – “Jacob’s Dream” and “Away Down the River” – that were the most personal to me. “Away Down the River” is about my grandparents and “Jacob’s Dream” was such a personal story that I grew up with. I don’t know if I would’ve wanted anybody else to sing those songs but her. That sounds cocky but I don’t mean it that way. It was such an honor.
What’s different when you’re writing for someone else as opposed to yourself? Obviously the answer for you is not that you try not to be too personal…
The tricky thing is I don’t write for other people. I write for my own voice a lot of the time. I’ve tried thinking of someone else and what they would cut, and I can’t do it. For me, the songs people have recorded of mine have been… part of my own story, from a really broken place or a really honest place in me. That’s what my strength is. I need to not think about writing a hit song for this person, this week, whoever’s cutting. I didn’t come to town to be that kind of writer. I saw myself as coming to town to be a singer-songwriter. I thought if I had any success it would be from my voice. I never saw this coming. It took some getting used to. Just being around other [writers] who think of songwriting as a business… I’ve found the best thing I can do is put out of my head the idea of [making] any money, and just tell a story and write from a true place. It doesn’t mean that, after I write something, someone doesn’t come to mind or that I can’t imagine someone else recording it. But that usually comes after the fact.
Is there anything else you want people to know?
Well, I’m touring and doing house concerts in promotion of Till and Mule. I released it in my front yard, at a house concert. That might be interesting. I’ve done alot of CD releases at the Station Inn and Downtown Presbyterian where I had my art studio. But, this record started with me in my garden, digging in the dirt and thinking about what was growing in my own soil. What’s deep down inside of me that needs to come out, that’s getting in the way of me growing … I was thinking about where to have the release party and I looked out my front window and [said], “How about my front yard?” My co-producer Aaron Roche, who I love, just said, “YES!” So, we had this big, wonderful, yummy fall night with bonfires up and down the driveway. I have this huge front yard, like Little House on the Prairie, there’s this tiny 600 square-foot cabin with a huge front yard. Everybody sat on lawn chairs. We had my art for sale out there, other friends’ art for sale. We had a non-profit come and talk about their work. It was a really home-based thing. So, it feels like, with this record, that’s how we’re going to tour it.
More info about Julie Lee, including Tour Dates and a free download of Till and Mule is available at her website.