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Richard Julian

A Conversation with Richard Julian

Puremusic: How you doing?

Richard Julian: Doing all right, man. Working my ass off.

PM: Right. Well, that's just what it takes. Luckily you have the goods. But that's something we'll get into, I'm sure, in the course of this conversation. I love the new record, Sunday Morning in Saturday's Shoes.

RJ: Oh, thanks.

PM: Sounds like a broken record, but I think it's the best one for sure.

RJ: Wow. Well, thanks, Frank. That really means a lot coming from you. You've been down for a lot of them. It's a tall order, usually, trying to impress the same people. [laughs] I get like this anyway. I get hooked on people's shit and I sometimes create a sentimental attachment.

PM: The old one was better--sure. No, you actually keep on going. When I first opened it up, I realized that I was thinking even out loud--okay, well at least you know this is gonna be good.

RJ: Cool.

PM: Multiple blade wit, great melodies and playing--just satisfying. What song is AAA radio playing, "If You Stay"?

RJ: [laughs] If they're playing anything, they're playing "If You Stay." XM's hit some stuff, which has been nice. Some people hit "Spring is Just Around the Corner," too. That seems to kind of do its own thing. People get up with it. I've sequenced the record wrong and should have put some of the harder hitting songwriter stuff up front, like "Syndicated"--even though that's kind of a classically counterintuitive way to go.

PM: [laughs]

RJ: I think for what I do, it might help it. It might help more people listen to it, because that stuff is more--what would you say--different.

PM: Well, I would say that you couldn't hardly go wrong with "If You Stay" up front, and it's close enough to up front. I mean, "Spring Is Just Around the Corner" is quintessentially Julian-esque. I love that feel. But to me, you've gotten into some deeper stories and some different grooves. "Syndicated"--that's a very quick kind of Lovett-esque swing groove, and I think you're doing different grooves in different stories very well on this record, and that's why it's further on. That's why it's evolved.

RJ: I finally bought a Lyle Lovett record. I caught a lot of comparison press to him when I did The Little Willies.

PM: Oh, really? That's where you caught it?

RJ: I'm not that hip. I saw Lyle Lovett once in 1988, and I bought a record of his in '94 that I barely listened to. [laughs] Then I just get this all the time. It's like, Lyle Lovett, Lyle Lovett, Lyle Lovett, and I finally checked it out. I downloaded his first one on iTunes just a couple of weeks ago.

PM: Yeah, you're not gonna escape some of those, just because you're some of the only guys that are really writing good witty songs. The combination is kind of lazily apparent.

RJ: I see what you mean. I think I was reading that as well--that people were comparing it 'cause of the humor. I think there's also a vocal thing going on. But it's funny. When I play shows, if people haven't heard me before and they've come up at the CD table or something, it's always--you sound like Lyle Lovett, you sound like Bruce Coburn.

PM: Bruce Coburn?

RJ: I don't know either artist's music, really. It's just funny. It's like, all right--well, I better check this out.

PM: I don't get the Bruce Coburn thing. [laughs]

RJ: I think it's a guitar styles thing, maybe. I don't know. There's something kind of edgy about his guitar. I've been trying to figure it out, too. Finally this year, it was like, I can't keep going--gee, I don't know those artists. I thought it was making me look catty or jealous or something, or like I was hiding something. I ought to know what I'm talking about.

PM: As amazing as it is, there aren't that many guys or women that both write great songs and play the guitar very well. It's like, well, which do you want? Well, I want them both. Excuse me. Your guitar playing keeps getting better, too, which a lot of songwriters--for some reason their guitar playing doesn't keep getting better. I've never understood that.

RJ: Well, New York provides a lot of opportunities to hear people and to ask questions. I would think a lot of my guitar style has developed less from listening to records than it has from just practicing and checking people out in New York. It's almost like a mutated version of something. I don't really know.

PM: That's exactly what I mean. The only way it really gets better is--come on, people. You gotta practice. [laughs]

RJ: Practice. [laughs] How do you get to Carnegie Hall--you know, the old joke.

PM: Exactly. But yeah, you're still playing for fun. You're still practicing. I can hear it--there are new chords, there's new progressions, there's new voicing for chords, there's new right hand stuff. It's all a product of still liking to play your guitar.

RJ: It's a funny thing you're saying about the songwriters, though, and the guitar playing. I heard this Jackson Browne cut recently. He did this record with just himself, solo acoustic live. I always liked his first record, and a couple other ones--Late For the Sky--

PM: That's about where I jumped off.

RJ: A lot of people jumped off there, I think. I think he got kind of political after that. He went really hyper-pop and then hyper-political after that, and he lost some people.

PM: Right.

RJ: But I heard these live tracks that were just from the last couple years. He was playing some songs and playing them just alone on the guitar, and I was expecting to just hear kind of a strummer, like what you're talking about. Sounds fine, but they're just going to do the bare minimum requirement to get it across. It wasn't like that at all. The dude is a killer guitarist. I was having that same thought about songwriters and guitar, because I heard Jackson and he was great on guitar. I was thinking to myself--wow, it is really not often--usually you're picking one or the other. Usually you're going to hear musicians or you're going to hear songwriters. They don't meet in the middle that often.

PM: And that's where the Coburn thing comes from, for sure, because that man can really play.

RJ: He's good. Richard Thompson is another one.

PM: Oh, yeah.

RJ: He's just a stone cold guitar man.

PM: I met a cool woman coming back from Thailand recently who was a folk promoter in Boston. She said she just had to cancel a Richard Thompson show because he got bit by a scorpion in Mexico and cancelled the whole tour.

RJ: Holy shit.

PM: [laughs] Bit by a scorpion. That sucks.

Hey, getting back to that song "If You Stay" seeming to have the single treatment production-wise. How about that bitchin solo? Who's making that beautiful noise there?

RJ: That's me playing guitar, and [producer] Mitchell Froom is mimicking it on top on the--I don't remember what keyboards he uses. He has about 75 crazy keyboards.

PM: No doubt.

RJ: It's funny--he's not as scientific as I had presumed from hearing his records. He produces the same way that I write tunes, which is kind of hunting and pecking. He'll just pull out a keyboard and it won't work--he'll throw it out and just keep trying out things 'til it's good. [laughs]

PM: Really?

RJ: It's not like he's the genius with the perfect keyboard at the chosen moment--he just tools at it 'til it sounds right, and that's it. Flailing around in the dark, looking for a spark of something.  [laughs]

PM: Part of the new epic depth that I think's being plumbed on this record comes across most assuredly in "The Man in the Hole." What inspired that song, and where did it go down?

RJ: It's a new thing that I started doing on this record. I started trying to follow through with ideas that I would have for songs, and try to follow them all the way through, as opposed to starting them and then letting them kind of do what they wanted.

PM: Wow.

RJ: For better or for worse. Paul Simon always says, "Don't worry about the meaning, worry about the sound of the words." That's the philosophy I've lived by for a really long time, up until some of the tunes that you mentioned on this record. "Man In the Hole" started as just a weird little inspiration. I was sitting outside in my car on 28th Street waiting for Sasha [Dobson, his s/s girlfriend] to come down when we first started dating. I just had the idea of this guy that would dig for treasure. He wouldn't fail at it--he would find it, but he'd be too far gone by the time he got there.

PM: Right.

RJ: I called and I left it on my answering machine, and it stayed there for probably about a year and a half. Finally one morning, I said--I'm just gonna do it, I'm just gonna write the tune, and I did. As usual, as soon as you start, the X marks the spot, or wherever I started--I don't even remember what--it started carrying away with itself. It wanted to say something else, or just go into these kind of wackier places that were just more stream of consciousness. It's really hard for me to resist following those things, but I wanted to write the tune the way I'd conceived of it and try to make it flow. It was almost like a project, like a school project or something for me--just to see if I could focus on one idea and not be led astray by folly. So that was it. I just stuck with the inspiration. What it's about or who it's about, I don't really know. All of your songs are ultimately about yourself, so that would be the easiest answer, although that's not too flattering.

PM: [laughs] Or a possible outcome of oneself--not necessarily the only self you're going to be, but a self that you could be.

RJ: Exactly. Yeah, that's true. Sometimes you're just writing inside a little--you're just making a chapter.

PM: Yeah, you pick a probability and run it down.

RJ: Yeah. It's funny, man--every time we got done mixing that tune or running it down, playing an overdub on it or whatever we did, Mitchell would burst into this sort of confused laughter and ask me why I wrote it. [laughs] I knew he must have liked it because I sent him other songs that he didn't like, ones he didn't wanna work on.

PM: Really?

RJ: He had picked that one. He wanted me to cut it down to five verses. He thought it would be more musical that way, and he was right, and I did it. I actually did an edit on the tune where I cut the girl out of it--the girl that brings the cinnamon buns--I cut her out and kind of blended the top half of that verse with the next verse to try to speed things along. But I really missed her human presence in the song. Without her, it just became almost like this kind of cold biblical myth, as opposed to kind of a modern--I don't know. There was just something about not having her in the tune, so we just had to figure it out musically how we were gonna make it build. That was the trick. If it was gonna be six verses, well how do you arrange it? It still has enough disjointedness where you have to arrange it. It's not like a Dylan tune or a Leonard Cohen song where it just picks a one-verse format and you just keep circulating it--it's got all these little turns and shit.

PM: Good point, because yeah, it couldn't have survived that treatment.

RJ: Yeah. It's not "Isis."

PM: [laughs]

RJ: You don't just sit down and let the drummer show up in the middle of the tune.     continue

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