For singer/songwriter/musician Julie Lavender, "Never Felt the Sun" may be the defining moment of just that, her epiphany. Released by Covenant Records, this project is a mirror into the mind, soul and talents of one very fresh, but insightful talent.
In spinning the disk, I encountered an open door to an emotionally motivated siren. Small snippets of her life’s passages and outcomes, easily relate to any one of our existences. I was taken by the precise scripting of verse in each cut, talking to the listener as a seasoned storyteller. That ingredient, along with angelic tones and reverberation, makes for a delightfully, refreshing spin into life’s experiences in song.
Hubert Laws (flute) and Hugh Martin (piano) joined with Ms. Lavender in this second venture, adding a special sound, which bonded with her vocals.
As always, when someone special hits the scene, I feel the need to dissect him/her. As Ms. Lavender travels worldwide with her music, I caught her between sets and began my dialogue, delving into her music, moods and memories, all wonderfully injected into "Never Felt the Sun."
JazzReview: Julie, during my research, I can’t help feeling that in many ways you’re speaking for all of us as to emotions. Do you feel that many of the heartfelt lyrics mirror those lives in your audience? Do you pull from them, as well, when creating new lyrical experiences?
Julie Lavender: I guess what comes out in my songwriting is the kind of honesty that forbids me to hide behind clichés. I think people resonate with that. Sometimes we need the voice of another person, and his or her expression to help us own what we may be feeling, but don’t know how to access or express ourselves. Sometimes I am that vehicles for a listener just because I dared to sing something deeply personal. Intuitively, I sense that I am free to be that vulnerable, because we are all vulnerable.
JazzReview: You paint numerous emotive palettes in "Never Felt the Sun." Please touch upon those listed and what cut best relates to those aspects of life and emotion?
A.) Deepening Intimacy
B.) Call to Stillness
C.) Passion of The Young
D.) Vibrancy in a Spiritual and Physical Relationship
Deepening intimacy - There was a time when I used to emotionally "leave the room" when things seemed threatening to me. I was a master at keeping a calm exterior and finding "away" to be insular. Somehow through the glorious process of being loved and learning to love, I have become more "present" with those around me, able to "stay," able to be near and connect. Singing about intimacy and the yearning for intimacy, even before I could experience it, has also been a way that I learned to open up my heart when my instinct was to run away.
The call to stillness - When you are busy running away, being still is almost impossible. In fact, I found it terrifying. I sing about stepping into a place where it is safe to be still, where one can "linger in a pure simple grace." This is the fruit of having excavated the dry, hardened defenses of the soul to unearth the tender places and allow oneself to be touched there.
Passion for and of the young - Play! What a joy to learn to play so many of us have forgotten how. I love how my children continue to draw me to themselves and keep me engaged in the world around me. What a gift!
Vibrancy in spiritual and physical relationships - Well, the truth is, that the love that has awakened and healed me, has first and foremost been that of my heavenly Father. It is He who has revived my soul and healed my calloused, brittle heart. In His artful hand, the sounds of my children or my husband’s touch, or the sheer wonder of creation, or even the searing experience of rejection and loss, have all become the tools of a Master shaping my life into something more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. Ultimately, I can truly love others and be loved because He has made me spiritually alive. Every note I sing is impressed with that reality.
JazzReview: Many artists state that their craft explores their inner most thoughts, however to the listener, it seldom seems that way. You accomplish that on many levels. What is your gift for bleeding heartfelt passionate ballads?
Julie Lavender: It always amazes me when something so very real to me in a song ignites something heartfelt in a listener. I am awed by how significantly people can touch each other through music and art. I am not even sure how it happens. I do know that in those moments when someone else "sings my heart," they have given me the gift of knowing that I am not alone.
JazzReview: Your style seems to have many branches of influence. One has to presume that your classical guitar days were one of those. Please touch upon those times that shaped your career to this point.
Julie Lavender: My mother profoundly shaped me. She was an operatic singer and always exposed our family to classical music of all sorts, insisting that all of her children become students of the piano. I branched out from there to the classical guitar and had the joy of discovering how those open strings created possibilities for such interesting harmonies. I also had a blast playing with all sorts of weird guitar tunings. I migrated to steel string guitar, exploring some folk ideas, but always with a decidedly intricate and often complex bend probably from all of that classical music exposure.
That lead me to jazz and I fell in love with the music of "musical landscape painters," like Pat Metheny. I was captivated by the complex and surprising harmonies of various jazz pianists and guitarists, and the interpretations of jazz singers. Somehow along the way, I rediscovered my voice, which seems to be the unifying thread that always grounds what I write. The melodies that come out of me somehow enable me to explore and express my inner world in an accessible way.
JazzReview: Your vocal talents have such a range of resonance to them. How do you practice your craft and in what ways do you try to enhance your delivery? Are there any routines you follow vocally?
Julie Lavender: Well, as a mother of three, I think I practice nagging more than singing! That’s the truth. When I sit down to sing it is such a treat and a release that I don’t really practice in a regimented way any more. I just sing for the sheer joy of it most of the time. I think a singer learns to produce a range of sounds by really developing an "ear" for hearing the unique expressions of other singers, learning to appreciate and enjoy the myriad of subtle nuances the voice is capable of, and then just jumping off the deep end and experimenting.
JazzReview: At what point did you create and know that "Never Felt the Sun" was here to be recorded and released?
Julie Lavender: "Never Felt the Sun" was completed several years ago and sort of left to mellow . you know, the "we will serve no wine before its time" sort of thing. Actually, it was as if I had to mellow, to become ready, before this CD could be released nationally. You see, for me, music comes out of revelation and life change. I can’t write about it or share it, if it isn’t really where I live. Writing, producing and living "Never Felt the Sun" has been a transformational process. Perhaps that is why people who are ready for transformation themselves seem to resonate with it more. Others just seem to hear it as "easy listening" music. Nothing could be further from the truth. It may be subtle, but nothing about this album is meant to maintain the emotional "status quo." But, one must have ears capable of hearing that.
JazzReview: What influences do you attribute to the composition and arrangements of this specific project?
Julie Lavender: Well, I tend to gravitate to the guitar or to the piano for seasons of writing. I write very differently on these instruments. Somehow there is a unity that ties the writing together, probably because of the vocals and because it is all flowing from the same life experience. I wrote both piano and guitar inspired songs for this album. As far as influences go, I am really blessed to have an arranger who seems to take what I have written and finish the thought for me. Kamau Kenyatta is a brilliant musician and arranger, and when I hear what he has done with a song of mine, I always jump up and down inside my head, and think, "that’s exactly right!" His influence is tremendous, but he never overpowers the essence of what I have written. He always stays true to the feeling and the harmonies and melodic lines I give him, while adding a certain sparkle and sophistication.
My late mother’s influence is particularly felt in this project. My mom played this piece. With my choice of the Bachianas Brasileras No. 5 aria by Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos (also a favorite composer of classical guitarists everywhere), we gave it a unique jazz interpretation that would have delighted her.
I had this idea of taking a classical Brazilian vocalese piece scored for cellos and soprano and giving it new wings with a jazz feel and a rhythm section. When I approached Kamau Kenyatta, my arranger, his wheels started turning. Legendary Broadway songwriter and dear friend, Hugh Martin, lent his influence by arranging one of his songs just for me and playing piano on track. You couldn’t have any more diverse influences than music by Villa Lobos, Hugh Martin and Julie Lavender but each song ties into the "coming to life" theme of this album. In addition, a number of fabulous jazz musicians, including flutist Hubert Laws, add their magic to the mix. I think the blend of all these influences is scrumptious.
JazzReview: Talk about the musicians on this track.
Julie Lavender: Well, the Aria from the Bachianas Barsileras No 5. Was a great adventure and quite a challenge. He was dealing with orchestral scoring and how to integrate drums and percussion into a work that had various sections of rubato along with changing meters. Kamau came up with some great ideas, and our drummer, Richard Sellers, did a fantastic job playing on this cut. We had a marvelous cellist, Marci Brown; fly in from San Francisco for the session. Marci is also featured on "Tree", and she plays jazz and classical cello. She recorded multiple cello tracks and we added string Bass (Rob Thorsen) and percussion (Tommy Aros).
The vocal required a lot of thought. I sang, or rather hummed, the first verse an octave lower than originally written, to give it a smoother, smokier feel vs. the heavy sound of the classical soprano sound one normally associates with this aria. For the last verse, I sang the "hum" as written, up high and worked a lot at getting a lilting, airy, almost other worldly sound. We were shooting for an interpretation of this piece that would fit in with our eclectic jazz mix for the CD while being true to its essence. I was also into the sense of luminescence that is inherent in this work it fit right into the "awakening" theme of the project. We are all immensely proud of this arrangement.
JazzReview: Most of the project encompasses originals however you finish the disc with three covers. Please let us in on the thought behind this.
Julie Lavender: For me the CD tells a story from beginning to end. It takes the listener through a journey of sorts, one song flowing to the next. In the end, all of the music culminates in a sense of new beginning. I don’t see the last 3 songs as "covers" in the conventional sense, because each of these became uniquely "mine" somehow. We took the Bachianas in a very different direction. "When I Fall in Love" became brand new to me when I wrote my own verse and arrangement for it, which totally changed and deepened my interpretation of this song. Another treat for me was that Hugh Martin prepared his arrangement of "Here Come the Dreamers" just for this project. So the story starts with an invitation to come to life in the song "Never Felt the Sun" and ends up with "Dreamers," which is like this open door to future promise.
JazzReview: How has the response so far affected you and changed or stabilized your thoughts for future projects?
Julie Lavender: I am encouraged by the response I receive from people who have really listened to the music and let it sink in. That is the greatest gift a musician can receive people who truly listen and allow them to be moved. This encourages me to write more, and affirming my hope that by writing and singing what comes out of my heart, others will be touched and uplifted.
JazzReview: So Julie, where does your heart and craft take you and us next?
Julie Lavender: I have just finished a couple of songs that I am particularly excited about and can’t wait to record, along with a number of things that have been on the back burner for a while. The sense I have at this point is that my next CD will blend diverse instrumental elements, be very acoustic-- almost organic.
Jazzreview: If you were able to duet with another male and female artist, past or present, and it was to be a tribute disc, which would that be?
Julie Lavender: Wow, what a question. Gosh, I would love to sing with Sting and collaborate with Dave Grusin and Lee Ritenour. As far as female artists go, oh, I would love to sing with Shirley Horn, and Joni . and we would pay tribute to? Let’s see Stephen Sondheim. How’s that for eclectic!
JazzReview: Eclectic? Very much so, but with a focus that never digresses. Her music is and always will be from the inner sanctums of her spirit. Ms. Lavender looks for new roads to travel lyrically and musically, genuinely open to all avenues.
With her first project "Good Women," and "Never Felt the Sun" behind her, where she branches off to next is an eagerly anticipated event for any fan of vocal jazz. That project can only be dictated as to where her heart cares to open up next. For as the verse exclaims in Tin Man-- "Tin man, tin man, where, oh, where did your heart go?" The answer is most likely inside this jewel box, along with others to follow!