Not the Usual Folk Music: Julia Weldon

Julia Weldon has been touring cities across the country promoting her 2013 indie-folk-rock album Light is a Ghost, thinking about some new songs as she drives back to New York.

Weldon is a New York City indie rock act who performs frequently at the popular venues. Some argue she’s one of the city’s best acoustic acts. She began writing her soulful, introspective, folk-inspired songs on Brooklyn rooftops and, at first, tirelessly performed with just a heartfelt, smoky voice and an acoustic guitar.

In 2012 she began recording with producer Saul Simon MacWilliams, who polished up her raw talent with a pop perspective, creating the more mature, refined Julia Weldon, and a record that smoothed out the creases yet preserves her confessional style. Press attention followed her well-received hit indie album. She now performs in the city with a full band and a new spiked-up pompadour hairstyle.

It’s a grassroots tour; from New Orleans and back, she performs solo. There’s no big bus, and she doesn’t hide within the hive of an entourage. She wears her heart on her sleeve and talks casually to her audiences. She drives her own car, and sleeps on the couches of friends and takes photos of herself with their cute dogs, which she uploads to Instagram.

I was warned to not categorize her immediately as a singer/songwriter. “Singer/songwriter often means ‘bad.’ People might stop reading,” she said. “I’m a singer/songwriter, but I’m not bad, you know?”

Weldon and I talked on the phone about popular music, and how the success of her recent album has led her to think about navigating the mainstream music scene. No matter how pop her music can get, I don’t expect her to ever “sell out,” or sacrifice her raw and uncensored identity for an industry that is far from perfect, especially on gender issues.

So have you been writing new songs? Is there going to be a new album?

It’s exciting to think about where I can go next.  Light is a Ghost was a huge, two-and-a-half year process, and now I’ve got about seven new songs that I want to put on an EP.  I went through a break-up and wrote a slew of heartbreak songs. So I think this will be like the “Heartbreak EP.” A different side of me will come back on this thing I’m calling the “Heartbreak EP.” So it might be a couple ukelele songs, but also a bunch of songs I wrote on guitar that are a little quieter. Light is a Ghost was a very polished, highly-produced, comprehensive album and so it’s tempting to go further in that direction. But I think I might just choose five of the softer songs, something low-fi, and wait to do a highproduction thing for the indie rock songs I’ve written.

I’d never categorize your music as purely folk. You’ve said the folk “just sort of happens.” But what is it about folk and singer/songwriters that has created your folkphobia? Is it, in NYC especially, the flash flood of young kids gathering in bars to share their first raw songs without really practicing? I get the impression that your departure from folk has more to do with concerns about misconceptions of the genre. I assure you I’m not trying to get you to dump on the folk scene in NY. I would never do that.

I am hesitant to go back to folk. But I don’t have any problems with the genre. I’ll see folk singer/songwriters and still be blown away by them, but I think it’s pretty rare? I think it’s like you said, more a perception that people have of that genre, that label. So I try to stay away from it personally because I feel there are a lot of misconceptions, especially the female musicians. I mean, I don’t feel uberidentified as a female in the music world.

I agree about gender identity not defining a person’s work. I personally hate when bands are called “female musicians” or “girl bands”–musicians are musicians.

Yeah, I know. I’m really into that band Haim right now, and I’m kind of obsessed with them, and people are like, “Oh, it’s a chick rock band that’s actually good.” They’re just amazing; they’re not, you know, a “chick” band.

I know you primarily just want to be considered a good musician. But, especially outside of NYC, outside the bubble of liberal artists, cis-gendered men are still succeeding in the music industry disproportionately. So there’s this conundrum of wanting to stand up, but on the other hand you don’t want to have your music identified by gender.

Yeah. The way I approach it is that I play for specialty groups. I perform for women’s groups, feminist groups, genderqueer groups, but I like to approach my music as something that speaks for itself. The music should be outside of those boxes. We’re all constantly fighting against these boxes, or identifying with boxes in order to enact the change that we want. A little bit of a catch-22. But I think it’s not that I don’t honor where we come from and what we’re facing. I definitely am honored any time I’m invited to speak on behalf of or be a representative for a group.

I can’t help but draw parallels between your intimate style and that of Cris Williamson or Maxine Feldman, and Sarah Bettens and Ani. I mean, if we looked back from the future as music historians, I’d say Julia Weldon would be on the list of artists who perform the “women’s music” of this decade. Because you do carry that torch.

Yeah, definitely. I come from a long history of women artists battling against stereotypes. I identify very strongly with that. There have been some really hard moments on tour. But it’s been really rejuvenating and encouraging when people of all varieties come up to me afterward and say “Wow, I really liked this and I didn’t expect to.”

 

Julia Weldon’s comments on “You Never Know” video, which premiered on Bitch magazine:

This song is super intense. I’m staring at the camera in such a deliberate and intense way, even though there’s this beautiful imagery surrounding me. Charlotte Royer is a female director who is such a genius and that crew of people did such an amazing job painting these beautiful pictures with iconic imagery, but also [left]a lot of room just for the song and its intensity. My new music video is going to be “Meadow” from the album. Less narrative, more of a music video, where I’m angsty and screaming my lyrics.

Who are your favorite current musicians? You once said Elliott Smith and Ani Difranco were like your parents when you were in high school. What are you into right now?

I’m usually into Bon Iver and the Elliott Smith tradition, but lately I’ve also really been kind of obsessed with pop music, like Ellie Goulding, and Lorde, a lot of female bad-ass pop acts. So I don’t know what that . . . means? I just know that I’m finding some really great stuff in the mainstream lately. Maybe that’s because I have a deep appreciation for the pop formula, the way to work within it. Because I love making catchy music, and I want people to latch on to my music. I remember when I first heard that “Royals” song—which I now kind of hate because it’s so overplayed, although I like the rest of the album. I drive around in a car in Brooklyn sometimes, so I listen to the radio. The first two times it came on, I thought, “This is interesting.”  The next time I heard it, I was like, “Damn, there’s some really good shit happening in mainstream radio right now!”

So you’re ready to leave indie and go mainstream; that’s what people are saying. But you’re also very open about being genderqueer in your songs and videos. I’m leading up to—would you consider yourself a feminist or a queer activist? And would you be ready to join the mainstream, given that you’re not the typical musician in the industry?

Definitely, yes.  I got an interview question recently, “Would you ever want to perform at the Grammy’s?” And I was like, “YEAH?” It’s nice to know that what I’m doing, and the music I put out into the world, is something that people relate to, and that they want to see me make it that far. I’m at a point where I’m ready to quit my day job and really take a pretty big leap. And I think that my music is definitely in a place where it could go mainstream. I’ve had people say, “This is a hit record.” A straight guy who is a friend of mine said, “If you were not a lesbian, this would be Top 40 shit.”

There are genuinely people who will roll their eyes if they feel this is  “genderqueer music.”

I’m trying to fight back against that a little bit. What I’m really trying to do in my next move with my career is make sure that I’m opening for the right kinds of acts. Ironically, I think my entryway into the mainstream might be opening for an indie band or for even a sensitive dude singer/songwriter. The Knitting Factory is a huge venue and I have a very good relationship with them, and they keep throwing me gigs like that. So, it’s interesting, because they get it. They get that, yeah, I could be categorized as girl rock or a girl act, a female-based act, but the music goes beyond that and I think that’s the goal—that people recognize that I don’t need to be boxed because the music is really strong.

I do struggle against labels, and even when I play live down South, people definitely turn their heads, like, “Who is this person on stage that’s singing these jams about meeting a woman in a bar?” It’s important to me, maybe not to every artist but to me, that I’m not the kind of person who is going to go back in the closet. I don’t know what would happen if a management team or a record label picked me up and said, “You might want to tone down the gay thing a little bit.” I have no idea how that would work.  

www.juliaweldon.com

 

Rebecca Chance
Rebecca Chance is a writer and editor living in New York, often referred to as the "dour voice of gloom." Email rebecca@theflounce.com (for a good time) or for more appropriate reasons, like pitching an article, whether it's about irreverent pop culture or a damn serious social issue.