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Richard Julian

A Conversation with Richard Julian

Puremusic: Although we're friends, I really don't know anything at all of your early days, since we rarely get time to hang at length. So for my benefit, as well as that of our readers who we're sure are about to become fans, let's talk a little about your roots, and from whence you come.

Richard Julian: Wow. Starting back where? Starting back in childhood or--

PM: Yeah, start in high school.

RJ: Okay.

PM: Like because that's when your brain started cooking with who you are, I think.

RJ: Naturally. Hold on. Let me turn off this cell phone or put it somewhere else. I've got something else coming in here. Oh, it's Arthur, okay.

PM: Arthur which?

RJ: Oh, Arthur my guy here out at the building. I'm out at this building that I bought with a bunch of friends, and we're renovating it.

PM: Oh, cool.

RJ: Yes. It's cool. It's a lot of work.

PM: Where did you buy a building?

RJ: Out in Bed Stuy in Brooklyn. [a section known as Bedford Stuyvesant]

PM: Wow!

RJ: Yeah. It's pretty beautiful. It's the only affordable real estate in New York.

PM: Right. How many friends did you go in with?

RJ: Three.

PM: Three. Oh, that's exciting.

RJ: Yeah, a big old five-story brownstone. We're turning it into condos, actually. Anyway, so back in high school--I mean, for me the roots are even back further.

PM: Okay.

RJ: Like when I'm five years old. Because my mom listened to and had great taste in country music, listening to Hank Williams or the Louvins or people who were old school.

PM: Wow.

RJ: And then in the '70s, she also liked Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, any of that. So I grew up on a very steady diet of that stuff, kind of combined with like Loggins & Messina or any kind of '70s easy acoustic listening that was available at the time, from good to bad.

PM: Right.

RJ: Or should I say highbrow to lowbrow sort of music.

PM: [laughs] That covers it.

RJ: And so I think I formed a lot of structural ideas about what tunes are supposed to be like by listening to that stuff with my mom, quite frankly. And I probably learned more from that than I ever did from any formal lessons, which I did take on piano, and even took a few on guitar in high school.

PM: Uh-huh.

RJ: But it's kind of funny, I was actually thinking about this today because a writer from Frets magazine was asking me about my style. And I was realizing that a large portion of what I'm doing when I'm writing tunes is actually trying to shed my education as opposed to use it. It's almost like I'm trying to ignore it as opposed to employing it.

PM: Absolutely.

RJ: Although that, too, is subject to anything. It's subject to the moment, basically, and whatever it needs.

PM: Yeah.

RJ: But yeah, I grew up on a steady diet of that stuff. And high school, I pretty much listened to whatever was on the radio at the time. MTV had just started, so there was Adam and the Ants, there was Devo, there was The Stones.

PM: It was so exciting, the early days of MTV.

RJ: Yeah, it was all that kind of stuff, The Cars--I remember really digging The Cars a lot, or Tom Petty. I didn't--I wasn't one of those guys that had a big eclectic thing going on. There were friends of mine that liked the Ramones or the Sex Pistols. And I was even in a band that covered The Clash for a while. There were people with more hipster attitudes, even in Delaware--not many of them, but they were around, but I wasn't one of them.

PM: [laughs] Now, where in Delaware were you?

RJ: North of Wilmington, in a kind of Bohemian neighborhood called Arden.

PM: Right. So not far from Philly, really.

RJ: Yeah. I did like, however, like Paul Simon. Like I had Hearts And Bones right when it first came out.

PM: Right.

RJ: And I liked Dave Brubeck, and I liked Joao Gilberto who I had gotten turned onto by someone who taught me a few things on guitar at the time, this woman, Judith Kay, that lived up in my neighborhood. And she got me turned onto some jazz, and so did this piano teacher that I was working with. So I was getting hip to kind of richer harmony and stuff like that through lessons, and not through my mom or not through the radio, obviously.

PM: Oh, that's interesting.

RJ: Yeah. That was kind of where the more formal training comes into play, just kind of thinking about harmony a little more expansively than G, C, D.

PM: Right. Because that mentality became such a huge part of who you are today.

RJ: It did. It did. And it's funny, it's a struggle, though, sometimes, because a lot of my favorite songwriters are people who don't do that kind of stuff. I mean, I love Lucinda Williams or--and sometimes I think the less you've got to work with in that department, the more you can really focus on the message of the song, and really just focus on the simplicity of the melody, which sometimes makes a better song than a song that's trying to go places, than having too much creative ambition. When creative ambition works, then you've really developed something amazing, like Brian Wilson, or Billy Strayhorn, something like that.

PM: Right.

RJ: But when it flops, it can really just sound pretentious and--I don't know.

PM: Yeah, if it's not integrated and coming from a real soulful place, yeah, it can really be empty.

RJ: Definitely, definitely. And there's not anything very soulful anyway about math, which is basically what you're doing.

PM: [laughs]

RJ: So if you go too far in that direction, you can do it at the peril of your heart and soul, of the heart and soul of what you're really trying to say. And so, yeah, I mean, that would be kind of a basic background, I guess. Mom, '70s easy listening, country, and then '80s Top 40 radio, and then kind of formal training with expansive harmony and getting turned on to jazz. That would be kind of a conglomerate of all those things early on.

PM: So then there were a few bands in there, as well. When did a singer/songwriter thing begin and take root in your life?

RJ: Well, I started writing tunes when I was fourteen.

PM: I see.

RJ: And it just seemed like something to do. Actually, I was writing tunes without an instrument since I was about five years old. I mean, I used to write songs all the time.

PM: Wow.

RJ: So yeah, all that was in place. What would I say? Who inspired me to do that? I don't even really know. It just seemed like once I had a guitar I was just going to write tunes, and I started writing tunes. But I don't know if I heard Bob Dylan before that or after that, to be honest with you. I know that there was a piano tuner that we had one time, and I came in and saw him tuning the piano. And when he got done tuning it he just started playing "Hey Jude" without any music. And I'd never seen anyone play without music before--

PM: [laughs]

RJ: --because I'm a blue-collar kid living in Delaware. And I said, "How do you play without music?" Because all of my training had been learning Scott Joplin, or something, reading notation.

PM: Right.

RJ: And he said, "Hey, I follow my ears." And something hit me.

PM: God bless that guy.

RJ: That was a major moment for me, just from this piano tuner. And I started writing tunes after that. Whether I'd heard Bob Dylan before then or not, I'm not sure. But there was a point where I dug out my mom's eight-track that someone had given her that she never listened to, Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits. And I thought, "Who is this guy?" And I put it on and heard like "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues." And this was around when I was thirteen or fourteen, too. And I was really, really blown away, hardcore knocked out by that.

PM: Big time, yeah.

RJ: Yeah. And then put that away, actually, and didn't really discover Dylan again until I was in New York and somebody brought me a copy of Blonde on Blonde, in my early twenties. And that was like discovering Dylan for the first time all over again.

PM: Right. It was like a whole different guy.

RJ: Oh, definitely. It wasn't greatest hits, it was all of that imagery, and all the B-tracks, all the non-radio tracks, "Stuck Inside of Mobile"--

PM: Right.

RJ: It was blowing my mind, the poetry of that stuff.   continue

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