In Conversation – Julia Kent


Was worried that this would get lost after the closing of the mini50 website.  Fortunately I still have a copy in word.  So for those that missed it.  enjoy

After years spent performing and recording with other artists including Antony and the Johnsons, Canadian-born, New York City-based cellist Julia Kent found her own voice. She has released 3 solo records to date, has composed a number of original film scores, as well as music for theatre and dance performances. She has toured throughout Europe and North America, including appearances at Primavera Sound in Barcelona, the Donau festival in Austria, Meltdown in London, and the Unsound festival in New York City.  Having met her at Zemlika Festival, Latvia in 2014, Julia kindly agreed to take part in the first conversation piece for mini50 records. Her new record ‘Asperities’ is released via Leaf Label on 30 October 2015.

TSP: What first attracted you to the cello, is it the only instrument you play and when did you make the decision to produce your own solo work rather than only compliment the work of others?

JK: I’ve played cello forever, and it is the only instrument I play…sometimes I wish I had other instruments at my disposal, and of course I wish I’d learned to sing…but I really love playing cello; it always feels as though it’s my voice, somehow…it has such a range and such a variety of timbres.

I’m so happy that I made the decision to focus on making music on my own…I’ve been so lucky to have the chance to play with some amazing artists, and I’ve learned so much from them. But making my own music has been an incredibly rewarding journey…it took me a long time to get around to it, but I’ve learned a lot through it as well. I feel as though being able to connect to people emotionally is the primary reason to make music, and it’s amazing to get a sense of that.

Especially with instrumental music…I feel as though when people connect to that, emotionally, it’s really special because it’s a nonverbal, very unmediated kind of emotional connection. What are your feelings about purely instrumental music versus music that’s expressed through voice and/or words?

TSP: I was totally captivated by your performance because I love the cello as an instrument. I find cellos and pianos to be similar in their versatility. I am not sure there are many instruments that can capture simplistic beauty the way they can? The combination of your music and that venue just seemed to complement each other perfectly. How important is setting to your music/performances? I suppose both in terms of when you are writing and performing. I often find I have to have the right environment to work in.

Have you ever thought about adding voice in to your work? You say you wish you had learned to sing but you have worked with some tremendous vocalists… have you ever been tempted to have a track with a voice in the mix? Not necessarily vocals with lyrics, but a voice or voices (choral)?

You say that emotional connection is the primary reason for you making music and I agree with you. I think connecting with people, through music, is an experience not replicated in other walks of life and such a wonderful thing. I once heard Jeff Tweedy say that a music concert is what church, in its purest form, should be…a coming together of people in an emotional and almost spiritual way. But the whole vocal versus instrumental thing is interesting. As somebody who creates both it’s a fascinating question about how people connect with music. I guess that having a vocal in a track gives the listener something to grab hold of instantly. Instrumental music to me has always been more of an investment time wise. I think that much is often clear at performances. Most instrumental shows I have been to are filled with people attentatively listening to the performance. Not talking, just listening and absorbing. I suppose the same is true of listening to instrumental music on a stereo. You have to engage with what you are listening to or the music can pass you by. There is so much to soak up and understand. And I guess it’s easy to let it pass by if you don’t invest time. A vocal sucks people in immediately because they want to hear it, know the words, sing along. I don’t imagine many people walk along whistling a Julia Kent tune (no offence) but they might walk along singing Karma Police or something. I don’t know. Personally, I am as moved by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as I am by ‘By The Throat.’ I think you get out of music what you put in as both a performer and a listener. But with instrumental music you sometimes have to put in more because it’s not always designed to be easy for you. What are your thoughts?

JK: The setting is so important for me for performance, in terms of a sense of atmosphere and the way places can create their own energy. I play a lot in Italy, and often the performance venues are so beautiful, especially the gorgeous old theatres that contain so much history. in the summer, sometimes i play outside in small towns, which can be really special, because everyone in the town comes to the concert: the boundaries between audience and inhabitants, and public space and performance space become totally blurred.

For me, making music really is about connecting. I feel lucky to have the sense of being able to make a connection when I play, maybe because of the cello, which is an instrument that seems to speak to people. It resonates, somehow…

And it’s true what you say about piano and cello: with piano, it’s wonderful to have that whole harmonic range under your fingers, and of course you never have to worry about pitch (!) but it seems like the hardest thing in the world to make a piano sing.

And that carries to your next question, about voice vs. instrumental music: having been fortunate enough to have worked with some incredible vocalists, I would never attempt to sing, myself.

For me, singing is the most immediate form of expression, but, when you sing, I think you have to be totally unselfconscious about the way you’re expressing yourself. Or you have to have an amazing vocal technique. Or perhaps both.

Personally, I’m always happy to have an instrument mediating for me! I do feel as though I’m missing that instantaneous connection you can make with an audience through your voice. But, playing cello, you are in a way making music that’s within the range of the human voice: that’s why I love it as an instrument.

When I’m writing music, I often find the melody and the harmonies first, vocally, and then figure them out on the instrument. I’d love to write for voice someday…but not for my own…

TSP: Having been in bands most of my life all I was ever used to was small venues, pubs, clubs etc. I guess in a band situation, with the lights down that’s ok. However, playing in the church in Latvia, for me, was special. I don’t play live often now and that was such an eerie setting, which worked perfectly for graveyard tapes. in terms of my own piano compositions, I don’t feel confident enough as a pianist to sit and play in front of an audience really. So I have avoided performing as glacis to date. I love the idea of playing live but it’s hard enough to get people interested in what I do, let alone secure places to play!

Perhaps there is a connection between instruments and place? I don’t know how to explain this but cello and Italy seem to have some deep historic connection that perhaps makes performing there different to performing in Brooklyn? Perhaps the rich history of Italy and cello connects with people on a level that it doesn’t in other places? Is where you perform affected in this manner? Do you feel people are more receptive to your work in certain parts of the world? it certainly seems to me that the music I create resonates with those outside of the UK and in mainland Europe more than elsewhere. Italy in particular as it happens.

Piano is a truly wonderful instrument. But, like I said, I know my limitations as a pianist. Listening to truly wonderful pianists really is an incredible experience. I suppose that is true of the most technically gifted performers. What interests me most though is creation, not necessarily performance of others work. I am guessing you have experienced both. Are you drawn more towards your own work and creations as opposed to forming part of somebody else’s compositions or do you find both equally rewarding?

I have always found voice to be an instrument in its own way and actually the key thing is finding how to use it best to suit what you do. I am most drawn to those artists whose vocal is part of a sound rather than technically beautiful. I do wonder if it’s why I find most female voices a bit dull. I don’t mean to sound negative on this front but I tend to find that female vocalists usually have such beautiful voices and perfect deliveries. I am drawn more to the less beautiful. Wayne Coyne, Jeff Tweedy, Neil Young, Dylan, Martha Wainwright, Tom Waits, Beth Orton, Bjork. For me, these are all performers who have learned how to use their voice. I don’t think they necessarily have amazing vocal techniques – or perhaps they do – perhaps by developing their own style that works within the context of their work and as an instrument within the work, they have developed an amazing vocal technique? Anyways, from my own perspective, I often look to use the voice as another texture. It’s interesting to find melodies with the voice first. I get that. I often just sit down and play. See what happens. Sometimes it’s nothing. Sometimes it’s lots. How do you approach writing?

JK: I really can’t believe had to leave Latvia without seeing your show…I’m sure it was amazing!

That church was an incredible environment…it’s so special to play in places like that that where the history and the acoustics and the atmosphere really influence the performance. It’s also a bit like that with recording, for me. Recording studios, although of course they’re acoustically optimal, can often feel so sterile. When you get to record in a place that’s maybe not sonically pristine but really has a vibe it makes for something special, I think…

I’ve got to say that sometimes playing my carbon fibre cello in certain places I feel a bit incongruous. I played recently in Cremona in a beautiful theatre and of course made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Stradivarius museum. after that, when I took out my cello I felt as though I had to apologize a bit for sullying their glorious tradition with this high-tech instrument! But, in a way, everything evolves…even the Cremonese instruments were modified to suit modern playing style. For me, the carbon fibre cello is just another evolution. And seeing those beautiful instruments preserved behind glass in the Cremona museum (even though I think they are played regularly) is a bit sad. They are simultaneously fragile and so powerful, because of their history and the way they bear the traces of everyone who’s played them: they really have souls.

But, honestly, I don’t really consider myself a classical musician in any way, even though I play an instrument that’s associated with classical music. At least, with cello, there’s sort of a newish tradition of people like Arthur Russell and Tom Cora and Oscar Pettiford and David Baker stretching the expressive boundaries of the instrument. And I am so happy to have the chance to make my own music. It’s amazing to collaborate, of course, but I find working alone to be really freeing.

I totally agree with you about voices! The “imperfect” voice is for me so much more expressive, always, than something that has been auto tuned and compressed and polished into something that is supposed to approach perfection but really just can sound totally soulless.

My writing process is very much…a process. Sounds as though I work the same way you do. Sometimes I have something specific in mind, but often I just see where I go. That’s why, for me, working with looping is a great tool. I’m always interested in textures and layering and unexpected harmonic results. The only trouble with looping is that it’s so additive…I’m always trying to subtract…

TSP: What I loved most about the church was the lack of heating! My main love of the festival was how people came together to make it special. This tiny place in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere and yet the church was packed and all the events were packed. It was just something truly special to see and be a part of.

I completely agree with you on the recording front. The graveyard tapes records were kind of a mix of working in studios at the university and then at matt’s flat. I always feel I perform better in a relaxed/familiar environment so the sessions at matt’s felt great. The vocals to white rooms were recorded in his kitchen! How does place affect your records? Does even the recording environment seep in to your work/change your work?

It’s a bit like using a digital piano versus an acoustic one. How does the sound change with a cello? I am not sure there is a digital piano that truly captures the sound or feel of an acoustic one. You can add all the effects you like but that natural reverb and feel just cannot really be replicated – in my opinion. Is this an issue with cello or do you feel your carbon fibre cello is close enough? Do you have acoustic cellos back home that you play?

One cellist I find truly inspiring is Richard Skelton. I am not sure if you have heard of him? If not then you should check out Landings as a starting point. I am sure you will have heard of him though, so just ignore this if you have!

The idea of subtraction versus addition is interesting. I guess the loop does make that whole thing tricky. I often find the spaces in tracks to be the most interesting. The moments of silence and pause. What is it that is being said. Often those silences have the biggest impact on me. Do you record as you perform – with the loop – or is the recording process more about layers and allowing yourself the freedom to subtract and not be dictated to by your loop pedal?

JK: Yes, the Latvia festival was really special! I feel as though I play in a lot of places where people, both promoters and audience, come together in these really amazing environments, and there’s always a beautiful synergy between the energy of the people and the energy of the place. I just played last weekend at Topolo, which is a tiny village close to Udine, in Italy, with only 20 or so inhabitants. A small group of dedicated and lovely people have been doing this amazing festival there for 22 years. People come from all over to play and to listen, and the people of the village are really involved as well. I played in the woods, with the crickets…

I do love recording at home; it just feels really comfortable and really intimate and I think for sure that’s reflected in the music. I feel as though I can take more time and more risks, in a way, because I’m in control of the process.

My carbon fibre cello is totally a conventional acoustic cello…just made out of carbon fibre. It’s got its own sound, of course, like any string instrument. I use it for touring mostly because it is just too nerve-wracking to check a wood cello, which is what I do when I travel. I can’t afford to buy a seat, which is the safer option. Travelling with a cello is always an adventure…

I do know and love Richard Skelton’s music…I think I have “landings”…but please let me know if you have other recommendations!

I actually don’t record using looping, because it’s hard to make it work as a plug-in in protools. Basically I write using looping (I use software, not a pedal), then, to record, I recreate the looping process, so things change a bit, then to play live I have to recreate the recorded recreation! So it’s sort of a circular process. But the way things evolve is always interesting. And, yes, it’s so true what you say about silence. Silence is the most important part of sound, sometimes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s