Julia Kent – Q&A
Photo: Pedro Anguila
It’s just over a week until solo cellist Julia Kent’s first Irish shows, taking in Cork and Dublin. She took some time out of her touring schedule to tell us about her time playing with Antony & the Johnsons, writing soundtrack music and feeling distant from the classical music world…
Conor O’Toole put the questions…
N: Hi Julia, thanks very much for taking the time. Can I ask you first about your work with Antony & the Johnsons. Many people will have heard your playing on record but maybe not registered your name at the time. How did you hook up with Antony?
I met Antony via William Basinski, who had a spectacular space in Williamsburg called Arcadia, a sort of magical salon. I played there with Rasputina and saw a lot of amazing concerts as well, including Antony. I was thrilled when he asked me to play on his record and I was lucky enough to tour with him quite a lot subsequently.
N: From reading interviews, I get the impression that you took a lot of confidence and encouragement from that work, in a way to enable you to begin your solo recording?
Playing with Antony was an incredible inspiration: He is truly a great artist, and I learned a lot about music and about life from him.
N: I also read where you said that you “fled” classical music after music school because of the level of competitiveness and ambition involved in that environment. Have you found a more fraternal atmosphere in a non-classical setting?
Yes, I feel as though I have really found my niche playing improvised music with other people, and making my own solo music. It definitely feels more creative, and more open.
N: I often wonder too about classically trained artists who place themselves outside of the classical realm (neo- or post-classical is a tag we can’t get away from it seems). Do you ever get the feeling of being caught between two stools, so to speak, or of being an outsider in both worlds? I suppose what I’m getting at is, is there an element of security in the classical performing sphere that you give up when you leave it behind?
I have to say that I feel quite distant from the classical world…and even the so-called “post-classical” world! I’m never really sure how to define my music, genre-wise. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, there never really is an element of security in any musical world, classical or non-classical! But I feel as though the creative environment that I have found myself in recently is truly porous, working as I do with music, and with film, dance, and theatre. There is a wonderful cross-pollination that happens when you work with different forms, and I feel as though I’m learning a lot in the process.
N: I hadn’t heard of Rasputina until a few years ago. Can you tell me a little about the kind of band that was, what level of audience you played to etc.?
Rasputina was a band of three cellos, voice, and drums. Melora Creager, its founder, writes fascinating songs, often based on historical narrative, and her work also has a strong visual aesthetic: she is a truly unique and visionary artist. We toured all over North America, and played to a wide variety of audiences. I recently reconnected with Melora after many years, and we are talking about doing some new projects together: it’s a beautiful turn of the wheel of time.
N: I found it interesting that you mentioned somewhere the size of the instrument, the fact that you can’t but be physically aware of a cello as you play it. Do you think this specifically has an effect on the nature of the music you make and compose?
Yes, very much so! I travel so much with the cello, so it always feels like a sort of companion: it’s always present wherever I am. And, musically, it is my voice. The cello has such a wonderful range and presents so many sonic possibilities: I’m always discovering new dimensions to it.
N: Character is your first album on the Leaf label and it strikes me that it has quite a different sound spectrum, if you will, to your previous album Green and grey – it seems to have a heavier, more dense kind of atmosphere compared to the lightness, airiness of Green and grey. Can you tell me about your plans in advance of the current album, what change in approach, if any, you were considering?
Character definitely feels like the darkest, and perhaps the most dense, record I have made so far. It’s also probably the most personal and interior. Rather than being inspired by an external environment I went inside myself and explored some thoughts about the trajectory of life and some very inward emotional states.
N: In terms of your composition process, do you have a vision of a piece in advance (on paper) or is it a case of laying down parts and working them into an arrangement as you go along?
Because my compositional process is very much based on looping, which is inherently additive, I often end up with a lot of musical material and it’s a question of paring things away. Mostly I develop music in sort of a process-based way: I don’t really notate the music before I play it, though I do notate it in order to have some record of it. I find that working by ear is very different than reading music by eye, and for me it’s a better approach: more immediate and intuitive.
N: You’ve done a variety of soundtrack work as well over the years, as you mentioned, taking in film, theatre and dance. Do those compositions involve the same musical process for you, just working to different plans/criteria/brief?
I find writing soundtracks, or making music for theatre or dance, quite different from writing music that is meant to stand alone. It needs to serve the emotional atmosphere of the work and often be almost subliminal. It’s very inspiring for me to write music to an image, or to movement or text. And I’ve learned a lot through working with people who come from the worlds of film, dance, and theatre: that kind of work can often be very much a process, and it’s really interesting to see how something can evolve, and how music becomes a dimension of another work.
N: Outside of the cello, what soundtrack composers are you a fan of, or do you feel an affinity with?
I love Teho Teardo’s soundtrack work – and his solo work – he is a marvellous composer, and Johann Johannsson’s. Also the utterly brilliant work of Nathan Larson, which, for me, always adds the perfect dimension to whatever film it accompanies.
N: Italy is a country you regularly visit. I didn’t realise until recently that you had played with the band Larsen. Has that connection opened up some new doors for you?
I love playing with Larsen, and I’ve become involved in a number of projects with the various members. In general, I really enjoy playing in Italy, and I’m lucky to get to do it often: the audiences are really warm and enthusiastic and also very knowledgeable.
N: Having had three solo albums now, could you ever picture yourself back in a band format in the future? Could you ever picture having a backing band, other musicians on stage with you performing your compositions? And instruments other than cello?
I honestly find it really hard to incorporate other musicians into my solo music: it really is my own world. I’ve spent so much time playing in other people’s projects, and I’ve been lucky to have been able to play with some incredible artists and learn from them, but for me, at this moment, I’m really happy to be autonomous and to have the freedom that creating work on my own provides. In terms of other instruments, I’m increasingly using electronic sounds, and exploring processing to expand my sound palette.
N: Outside of the cello, what other music, recent releases, have taken your fancy?
There have been so many great records recently…or more-or-less recently: I love The Necks’ Open, Son Lux’s We Are Rising. The new Juana Molina is brilliant…as is the new Actress record…. And I hadn’t heard Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh before finding out I was going to play with him in Cork, but now I am a total fan! I’m really excited to hear him live…
Julia Kent plays TDC, Triskel Arts Centre, Cork on March 1st, w/ Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh
(presented by Fractured Air/Plugd Records)
also, The Odessa Club, Dublin, on March 2nd, w/ Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & David Donohue