Julia Kent: I am working increasingly with electronic sounds and I think that would be where I would turn if the cello suddenly vanished
Julia Kent is a Vancouver-born, New York City-based cellist and composer. She has written music for film, theatre, and dance, has released three solo records, and has toured throughout North America and Europe, including appearances at Primavera Sound in Barcelona, the Meltdown Festival in London, and the Unsound Festival in New York City. Her most recent solo record ‘Character‘ was released by The Leaf Label in March 2013. These days she is extensively touring around Europe – especially Italy –, so if you are lucky enough, you might be able to witness one of her magical performances soon enough. We’ve talked to Julia about the beginnings, the long way that eventually lead to finding her own individual voice, influences and inspirations, Paolo Sorrentino, the seductive Italy and her future plans.
You’ve been playing cello from a very young age. Did you choose this instrument or someone has chosen it for you? How do you remember the home where you grew up, what kind of music was surrounding you back then?
I grew up in a household that was very oriented towards classical music: my mother played violin, and my sister is a wonderful violinist who continues to pursue a distinguished career in the classical world. I suspect there was a bit of parental persuasion in the fact that I started playing cello at an early age… but I am so happy to have it as my primary instrument and to have found my own way of making music with it.
Although you’ve been performing with Antony and the Johnsons before starting your own career, it took you quite a while until you’ve released your first solo album. What made you linger for such a long time? If you look back now after having released three albums, how do you perceive these last seven years?
It did take me a while to start my solo project, but I feel that it is a distillation of the years I spent making music with other people. I’ve learned a lot from those years and I think it’s reflected in the music that I make on my own. It took some time, as well, for me to understand what I wanted to convey musically, and how to convey it.
Even though your music is quite dense and multi-layered, it is more or less a one-woman show, you don’t have a whole ensemble backing you up when you are recording your solo material. How should we imagine a recording session?
After years of working as a session musician, in the sometimes sterile environment of recording studios, it was incredibly empowering for me to learn how to record myself, in my own studio. I feel as though the music I create in that environment is completely intimate: there is nothing and no one else mediating between the way I’m trying to express myself musically and the recorded result. For me, music is a really direct expression of emotion, and I hope that I am able to convey that through the way I perform and create recordings.
You’ve been touring intensively and also working abroad quite often, composing music for various dance and theatre performances, which involves lots of travelling. The track titles of your first album are also named after different airport names from all around the world, which means that moving around definitely has a deep impact on you. Has the feeling of travelling changed throughout the years, do you feel more tired or hesitant if you need to leave New York for another continent or the thought of an exciting journey refills you with energy every single time?
It’s true, I really love to travel, and I’m always excited at the idea of setting off somewhere, even though air travel these days, especially with a cello and the amount of electronic gear I carry, is an increasingly difficult proposition. I always hate to leave New York, because it’s home, but I am also invariably interested to get on a plane and end up somewhere else. And definitely my first album was really influenced by the idea of airports as liminal spaces: where you find yourself between worlds. I think that idea of travel as transition will always be fascinating to me.
What is your favourite place in Europe?
I play a lot in Italy and I have to say that it might be my favourite place to be. I have had some amazing and beautiful experiences there; there are so many spectacular places to play, and people do seem to make an emotional connection to the music that is really special. But I always feel lucky to play anywhere, and to have the chance to meet people and try to create that communication that you can through music.
Three years ago Paolo Sorrentino (who now won the Best Foreign Language Film at the 86th Academy Awards with ‘La Grande Bellezza’) used one of your songs (‘Gardermoen’) in his film ‘This Must Be The Place’. How did they get in touch with you back then and how does it feel now that you’ve practically ‘worked’ with an Oscar winner director?
I was so incredibly honoured that Sorrentino used a piece of mine in ‘This Must Be the Place’ because, along with the rest of the world, I am a huge admirer of his work. That wonderful conjunction came about through the graciousness of Teho Teardo, an amazing composer and performer, who has worked with Sorrentino, and I think passed along my record to him. I feel so grateful to know Teho: he is a person of enormous talent, energy, and generosity.
In the last few years you’ve also worked quite intensively on original film scores. Compared to working on your own material, how do you feel about composing for someone else? How were your experiences related to this so far? Is there any film director in particular that you would love to work together with?
I love working with film: composing music that can fit with the images and emotional atmosphere of a film is always interesting and inspiring. Every director has different exigencies and film is such an all-consuming process. I am always happy to have the chance to work with anyone who has a vision and a passion about what they are creating.
If all of a sudden string instruments would not exist anymore starting with tomorrow… what instrument would you choose to start playing and why?
I am working increasingly with electronic sounds and I think that would be where I would turn if the cello suddenly vanished. The electronic world seems to have infinite possibilities in terms of sound palette.
Do you have a cellist role model, someone who inspired you the most?
There are so many inspiring cello role models… but Arthur Russell will always be my hero. He made incredible music: intimate and personal, fearless, and utterly catchy. His voice and his approach to the cello were unique and his work always touches me deeply.
What are your future plans regarding your solo career? Can we expect a new album anytime soon?
I have so much material ready for a new record! But I need to be home for a bit of time to make it, which doesn’t seem as though it is going to happen for a while. I think making a new record this time will be especially interesting, because everything has had the chance to percolate. I’ve been playing some new material recently, and I’m excited to see how it evolves once I start recording it.
Coming up, I’m about to leave for Italy to play live music that I composed for a theatre production in Torino which will premiere at the end of September. I’m also going to play in two different productions with the Italian dance company Balletto Civile in November. And I’m excited about collaborating with the amazing pianist and composer Rachel Grimes for the closing of the artist Peter Liversidge’s exhibit ‘Doppelgänger‘ in Belfast. As well, I have a solo show coming up at a festival in Latvia. So I’m not going to be home for a while!
What kind of music do you listen to at home? Could you give us some examples of your favourite albums?
At home, I listen to quite a lot of classical music…when I travel I tend to gravitate toward instrumental music from many different genres and eras. Recently I have been loving Lori Goldston’s new solo cello record, Mica Levi’s ‘Under the Skin’ score… and a few fun dance records get me through the days (and nights). It’s amazing how music can provide a soundtrack to life.
What is your favourite album cover?
I am such a digital person that I have to say I haven’t paid much attention to a physical album cover perhaps for years. Though I miss the concept, and the beauty of album artwork, I am always happy to free myself of objects, and try to travel lightly through the world.
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