Julia Weldon walks out of Rockwood Music Hall with her heart on her sleeve and a guitar on her back. After her solo performance, she wants a hamburger. I followed her through the Lower East Side of Manhattan to interview her about her upcoming post album, set to be released late winter/early spring. Hanging out and talking with this intriguing lyrical folk rock artist seemed an appropriate end to my exploration of good music in 2011.
Meanwhile, Santacon had begun its spontaneous and nonsensical dispersion of hundreds of flash mobs in Santa costumes, for no particular reason. By evening, inebriated St. Nicks had officially taken over the neighborhood. As flowing red and white costumed revelers spilled from the doorways of bars, we discussed the essential NYC venues of the year—the Knitting Factory, Mercury Lounge, and the Bitter End (Weldon has performed at all three). City Winery is Weldon's favorite venue—she performed there for the first time this year. And, of course, Rockwood Music Hall.
“Rockwood does make me skittish for some reason,” Weldon admits. “I don't know why. My first big show was there. I had maybe 80 people there when I was just starting out. And Rockwood is one of those places, that if you're going to really do it, and really play music in New York, you have to get booked there”
The set that night at Rockwood presented a gentler Julia Weldon, though she does curse and sing about Bloody Marys filled with tears. Weldon plays with a soft intensity, manipulating strings to either wail or weep. “I got this guitar when I was 15 years old. Does it sound okay?” she asks the audience. A response of whistles confirms it.
She explains briefly to the audience the problem with buying guitars—there is no such thing as a moderately priced good quality guitar. “You either buy a guitar that's a cheap piece of crap, or you have to spend $2000.” Weldon has accidentally stumbled across another metaphor for what people think of the New York music scene—you're either one of the many starving artists running around like cockroaches, or you actually become successful because you hop in and out of limos with a $2000 guitar.
I first heard about Julia Weldon in the summer of 2010, when she was advertised performing with her full band and horn player at the Mercury Lounge as “Julia Fucking Weldon.” I had been interviewing another band that summer (Community Gun, who have recently broken up) and was confronted with a guitarist, Josh Bass, who maintained, “I don't like any other bands in this city.” Finally, he admitted, “Julia Weldon.”
Rightfully compared to Elliot Smith, Ani DiFranco, and, yes, a little bit of Bob Dylan, Weldon says, “You can't play folk rhythm guitar—and I don't like to pigeonhole myself—but you can't play folk rhythm guitar and not channel Dylan.”
However, she hesitates to allow me to categorize her as a singer/songwriter, at least not in the first paragraph. People might stop reading. “I think that singer/songwriter has come to mean 'bad.' Don't you agree? It's like I always have to explain, well, yes, I'm a singer/songwriter, but I'm not bad.”
While waiting for her medium rare BLT burger at the counter of Mikey's (which turned out to be an excellent recommendation for a late night carnivore), among the sounds of hissing and sizzling in a busy grill, she talks about what it would be like to break out of New York—something many musicians in New York talk about all the time—to get on the road for a full-time tour. She has only recently returned from a couple gigs in San Francisco and LA. Slightly joking, I ask whether they know good music in California as well as we do in New York.
“Yeah, I think they do,” she laughs. “They do proselytize though. They're like, 'So, you're moving here.' I love it, I think it's hilarious.”
She brings us next door to one of her favorite Manhattan bars, the Local 138, with her burger and fries in a cardboard box, which she shares with her brother, Dan Weldon. He accompanies her as a friend and a sort of bodyguard.
While she was having a tequila at the bar among a group dressed in Santa costumes, a soldier in full camo gear tried to pick her up. Her brother intervened by quietly explaining, “Um, no, she likes girls.”
Weldon laughs, “I think this is the first time I was hit on by a man in uniform. I told him that I didn't support this government, but I did support him. And then he was asking for my name and said I was cute.”
I ask, “Is it possible to release this record or a great single that is recognized just for the quality of the music, and not have the label 'gay artist' attached to it?”
Weldon isn't worried about that, because she doesn't mind being labeled as a gay artist. Turns out, it was kind of a stupid question. “The point of this new album, it's that, yeah, this is who I am, and that's part of my music. And I'm definitely not into hiding that I'm interested in women at all.”
She does agree that not many chart topper songs are love songs with lyrics from one woman to another. Weldon's lyrics are revealing, poetic, and sincere. “Marian,” from her first album, is a tragic love ballad about two strangers colliding. Julia feels like this song was given to her through the generosity of Marian's heartbreaking experiences and her lust for life despite struggle. Weldon admits,“Definitely, Marian would have to be changed for radio, but maybe only because there is a lyric about shooting coke . . .”
“Marian” will appear on the new album. “It's a different version. On the first album, it's a little bare bones. This version is going to be much better. I still love the song.”
Our conversation is interrupted by a bartender who wants Julia Weldon to present her photo I.D. Although she's 28, she gets carded a lot because, with a small frame, swoop hair cut, and a pale child-like face, she appears a bit adolescent. In an interview with Inside New York, Weldon said she had won a Bieber lookalike contest; she sung “Never Say Never” and won $300.
Her first self-titled album (available on ITunes and cdbaby) was, as she described, a “DIY style” with songs written on Brooklyn rooftops. This time, she wants her music to be accessible. “I'm not interested in making some gritty album that sounds like shit. I want to move places. I want to do something that I'll feel proud of, and I feel like I have a lot of momentum right now.”
The conceptualization for the 12 track album began this summer, with producer Saul Simon MacWilliams. “Saul and I went up to a cabin in Maine and recorded the foundation of the album, drums by Adam Christgau [drummer for Sia], my acoustic guitar tracks, and really just spent the week absorbing the energy of Maine's landscape in June so that we would have that feeling with us when we tracked the album back in bustling Brooklyn.”
The studio process has introduced Weldon to some new ideas for her songs that she wouldn't have otherwise considered. “For instance, I would never have considered putting synthetic sounds on my album, but it actually sounds great. And now I'm really into ambient sounds. Adding keys, and some synthetic effect that I was really adverse to—well, they told me, 'Radiohead uses this.' If you have the right person mixing it, the right person executing it, they can really add a lot to the album.”
The disarming honesty in Weldon's lyrics and her intimate, folksy guitar style are partly what define her music. “I do think that's why people like it . . . What this album is really doing is taking my music and making it radio-friendly.”
When her current manager first approached her, it was on that pretense, saying, “I want that to be on the radio. Marian should be on the radio.”
Weldon was approached by yet another manager after her performance at the Rockwood. She says it happens regularly. Later that night, she explains, “I'm not trying to be a pop star. I'm not trying to be like Lady GaGa. I'm not trying to toot my own horn, but I do really feel like people relate to my music. I don't know exactly why. I think it's because it's so honest, it's so accessible. Music is a combination of ideas and lyrics and sounds. If you have the right combination of sounds and words that hit people in a certain way, it may sound cliché, but it's really true, that it's an amazing thing and people will recognize it. That's exactly what good songs are—form and content.”
Growing up as an actor, Weldon acquired an invincible confidence. You may have seen her in Law and Order (and SVU) a couple times, or in any of the many shorts and independent films on her long filmography. “Acting really taught me to write and play songs, because it is so personal. In acting, you're always playing all these other characters . . . it started to become entrenched in my personality. And I kind of hit the point in my life where I felt it was so much more natural to be honest about who I am. It had been like that for so long that playing guitar and writing songs became an outlet for expressing myself.”
Weldon still obtains acting gigs. “I actually just had an audition on Friday,” she said. “I guess it went pretty well . . . it's an indie film. The part is for this very sexy lesbian character.”
I ask the question at the end of the night, before she disappears into the West Village. “How are you?”
“I feel like I'm really intense, no matter what. I'm always trying to feel that, in a good way. Just being honest. My music and who I am is really about interpersonal relationships. These are all important times in my life. And just trying to be awesome, as much as possible. There's too much darkness in life, and that's why you have to be so light. I'm all about the interplay between dark and light. Moving toward death always.”
Julia Weldon performs Boston College on February 16th. Visit www.juliaweldon.com for more info.
(Photographs exclusive to VZ by Brian Chance)