Truly a rising star, Julie Moffitt has all the elements of a seasoned professional. She was brought to my attention when she sent me a message on MySpace. I get a lot of friend requests from musicians and usually accept them after giving their profile a peek and a listen. What was unique about Julie was she sent me a message that in really down to earth words, just simply said that we were both fans of a particular musician and that I should check her stuff out. I’m sure she sent similar messages to lots of people, but it seemed much more personal than the typical request from a band or a musician, so I checked out the profile and listened to her stuff. It’s been quite a while since I’ve been captivated with a singer on first listen. She’s a self-described “chick singer”; and not only is she amazingly talented but to go with her mesmerizing voice, she’s also adorable and accessible. Her song “Let Him Be” is featured in Paste Magazine alongside works from Lucinda Williams, The Shins, and Of Montreal; a huge step for any musician and exposure to a national audience.
I had a chance to conduct an email interview with Julie where she discusses her history, her songwriting, making the Paste Magazine Sampler, and the power of the internet for today’s artists. This is part one of the interview and part two will follow shortly.
MK: Where does this music come from? Did you grow up playing music and singing? Did your parents get you started? Who are some of your musical heroes? In your videos you’re playing piano, do you play any other instruments?
Julie Moffitt: My parents are not musicians, though they do both have some musical skill. Mom sang me lullabies when I was very little, and she taught me how to harmonize along with them before I knew what harmony was. I took piano lessons for a few years in elementary school, but was never consistent about it and ended up teaching myself for the most part. Then there were the years in children’s theater, classical voice lessons, and school band, choir and orchestra. I pretty much lived music growing up. I play piano and guitar, and I used to play the French horn. As far as musical heroes, singer/songwriters like Jonatha Brooke and Sheryl Crow, the ones I grew up listening to, are definitely in there.
MK: A lot of musicians leave the small towns to head to New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Nashville, but from what I read you left LA to end up in Milwaukee, WI, is there something I missed, is there a thriving music scene in Wisconsin?
Julie Moffitt: No, there isn’t really a thriving music scene in Wisconsin. There are people who are really putting forth a great effort to bring the musical talent there out into the public eye, like Daniel Holter in Milwaukee and Brian Sauer in Marshfield; but honestly, it’s a tough crowd and not generally someplace I’d recommend going to start a music career.
I ended up there on accident, honestly. I grew up in northwestern Wisconsin and, at the time, hated it. I bailed and went to Los Angeles for 5 years, which was wonderful and, in a lot of ways, still feels like home; I went to college there (USC), performed in a few different cover bands and groups, and spent a lot of time roller blading in Santa Monica and Hermosa Beach. But a year after I graduated, I started to feel restless and knew that it was time to try something new.
My intention was to move to Hawaii for a few months – I had a reserved hut at a yoga retreat on the Big Island, and I’d gone to visit and spent a week falling in love with the entire place. So I sold most of what I owned, packed up what was left, and drove across the country to Milwaukee to leave my car and possessions with my family, who had moved there when I left for college. Except that once I got to Milwaukee, I kind of got stuck. I started singing the blues a bit, got nervous about the idea of being removed from civilization for an extended period of time, and a year later I realized that I was still in Milwaukee, waitressing and spending a lot of time in blues clubs and bars. I wasn’t happy, except for two things: my family, who have been endlessly supportive of me, and performing.
Because it was a small pond, it was relatively easy to meet people who had some connections and wanted to help me out in Milwaukee. Five months after landing there, I was performing at Summerfest; less than a year later, I’d recorded and released my first album. I still didn’t want to commit to Wisconsin, but everything kept falling into place there – Burst Records, based in Wauwatosa (just west of Milwaukee) signed me, we started recording my second album, I went on tour, etc.
I’m currently living in Chicago, which has a far more thriving music scene than Milwaukee. I will have been back in the Midwest for three years in March. I still miss the west coast, and this cold snap we’re enjoying isn’t very fun, but I’m pretty sure that if I’d stayed in LA, or gone to Hawaii, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. It was the right choice.
MK: I’m fascinated with the art of songwriting. How does the writing process start for you? Do you write songs perpetually or do you set aside times/days to focus on writing?
Julie Moffitt: I know people who write intentionally, with a set time and place. I’ve tried that method and failed miserably – it just felt horribly contrived and I wound up with songs that sounded like high school extra credit projects. In all honesty, I do most of my writing when I’m driving. My mind wanders, I get the idea for a melody or a lyric that catches my attention, and I just play with it from there. I love words and am a voracious reader, and I was actually accepted to Sarah Lawrence’s Nonfiction Writing program before I decided to become a full-time musician, so I really enjoy trying out different combinations of words, different approaches to whatever emotion I’m feeling, and matching the words to a rhythm and a melody. Most of the time I hear a melody in my head at the same time as the lyrics, so I go from there using the original idea as a base.
Subject matter has always been actual events in my life. A large portion of my music is about relationships and my difficulties in making them work, because it’s when I’m frustrated or upset that I’m most inspired. Lately, I’ve been more interested in writing playful songs, approaching the same ideas (insecurity, love, fighting, fear) from a new perspective. There are an infinite number of ways to say any one thing, and I don’t ever want to repeat myself.
The other aspect of the songwriting is, of course, the instrument. I play both piano and guitar, so when I start writing a song, I can generally determine immediately which instrument will suit it best. When it comes time to sit down in my room and flesh out the music, sometimes I’ll just mess around for a couple of hours improvising until I hear something that not just fits the song, but adds another unique quality to it. Other times I’ve got the background clear in my head and I know exactly what to play.
I am totally rambling. Sorry for all the editing you’ll have to do…
Well, no apology necessary Julie, I only made one edit so far. The rest of my interview with Julie Moffitt will be coming to you soon, and will cover the Paste Magazine Sampler, the future, and the internet…but in the meantime check out and buy her music with the links below.