‘It always feels a bit like plugging in to an electrical socket: you get simultaneously charged, but also slightly frazzled‘ – Siobhán Kane spoke with Julia Kent, who plays Cork’s Triskel Arts Centre & Dublin’s Odessa Club this weekend
Julia Kent has been playing cello since she was a child, and over the years has been evolving and reimagining its capabilities. Her records Delay (2007), and Green and Grey (2011) have explored the themes of travel, and time, and the conflicts and harmony to be found within the natural and synthetic worlds, and her latest record Character, was released on The Leaf Label last year.
Some of her work for film includes scores for the documentaries The Boxing Girls of Kabul (2012) and Keepers of the Beat (2013) – which seem to reflect some of her own preoccupations, she is interested in the less-obvious, and the hidden stories. Ahead of her shows in Cork and Dublin, Siobhán Kane talks to her.
Why were you drawn to the cello? I really appreciate the melancholy tones in particular, and feel it is one of the most “human” of instruments.
Yes, I totally agree! The cello does have such a melancholy, elegiac quality. I love that about it–it seems very human somehow. And of course it has the range of the voice. For me, it can be such an expressive instrument. I’m not sure I appreciated all those qualities when I started playing as a child, but I was certainly drawn to the cello, for whatever reason.
Canada is such an interesting place, possessed of some epic landscape, how was it growing up there? Was it a good place to emerge as a musician? Was there a lot of support there?
Growing up in Vancouver, I was surrounded by a spectacular natural environment: it’s such a beautiful city. And it’s somehow special to live so close to the sea and the mountains. I left fairly young, though, to go to Indiana University, which has a huge music school. Moving from Vancouver to the Midwestern United States was definitely a bit of a shock-though Indiana of course has its own natural beauty. I can’t really speak to the grant system in Canada, as I’ve never availed myself of it-but I think it’s definitely contributed to creating an interesting Canadian music scene. I do feel really strongly that having subsidies for art and music is a really valuable thing for a national culture. I play a lot in Italy, and I’m seeing that the situation there is getting really dire for the arts because the culture budgets have been slashed. And, in America, the arts always seem so undervalued–there doesn’t seem to be much patience there for anything that isn’t immediately monetizable.
What precipitated your move to New York?
After graduating from Indiana University, I moved to New York to work for a classical music management company. I thought my future lay in arts administration-but I was very wrong!
It is a constantly inspiring landscape. Bjork has previously said her time in New York informed tone on some of her work, and its dark, heavy tone found its way into her work – what are your thoughts?
For me, working in New York is always an energy exchange-the city has its own energy, and I always find as though I’m either feeding off it, or being fed off of! I don’t find it dark, particularly. It always feels a bit like plugging in to an electrical socket: you get simultaneously charged, but also slightly frazzled.
How are you finding living there? Is it a place that breathes collaboration?
I’ve lived in New York for years and years and, as corny as it sounds, my heart still lifts when I see the skyline of Manhattan on the way home from the airport. But the city has changed a lot since I’ve been there, and not necessarily for the good. I feel as though, at least in Manhattan, many places that were important to the creative scene got priced out of existence, and have been replaced by chain stores and the dreaded coffee-place-that-shall-not-be-named. There is a certain homogeneity and genericism that seems to have taken over the city, both architecturally and culturally. But musicians and artists will always find places to flourish, I hope…
Delay was a beautiful meditation and exploration on the idea of travel – that there is much poetry to be found with the “inbetweeness” of things – do you think that you thrive best in this kind of atmosphere, neither here nor there, moving from one destination to another? And do you remember what the process was like for Delay, did it come to you very quickly?
It took me ages to make Delay – hence the title! I made it while I was touring a lot and spending a lot of time in airports. I became fascinated with them as liminal spaces: as you say, in the “inbetweeness” of them. Time in airports sometimes feels like time that doesn’t count towards life, because it really is a sort of limbo state. But, at the same time, airports can contain so much emotion: people are meeting, saying goodbye, moving from one world to another. I love traveling, even though it’s sometimes hard, because the process of moving from one destination to another can really create a totally different perspective on life.
Green and Grey was similarly interesting – the preoccupation with the natural and the synthetic world, so cleverly drawn and deeply rendered- I actually thought of it as something of a coda to Biophilia – and the idea of patterns and repetitions that are there to be seen in nature, to teach and guide us – and what it reflects about the human condition also.
The patterns of nature are endlessly fascinating to me: I think they are somehow built into our DNA, which of course is the ultimate example of pattern and repetition. Biophilia is a brilliant work of art, both conceptually and musically-I really think Bjork is a genius-so I am incredibly honoured that you’d mention Green and Grey in the same breath.
Do you think that we are getting increasingly fragmented because of technology? I genuinely worry about the far-reaching effect it is having on people’s psychological and emotional state.
After spending too much time on the internet I always feel as though my head is full of other people’s voices. It’s such a valuable resource, but I think it’s definitely creating fragmentation in the way we relate to information, in the way we read, in the way we listen to music, and in the way we relate to one another. And emotion is something that doesn’t at all translate into communication these days. I mean, emoticons? If you are over the age of five, and have to use little cartoon faces to express what you feel, I think we’re all in trouble.
Character was released by The Leaf Label last year- can you expand a little as to what the idea was behind this record, and the evolution and process behind the album?
Unlike Delay and Green and Grey, which were very much inspired by outside environments and atmospheres, Character is a record that is more focused on the interior. I started thinking about the idea that we all are characters in the narrative that is our life, but without the control that an author could bring to a narrative; most of the pieces were inspired by that concept. I feel as though it’s a bit darker-sounding than my previous records, and it definitely utilizes a broader sound palette.
You have worked as a composer for very interesting documentaries, instantly the Boxing Girls of Kabul come to mind, Birthplace, and Keepers of the Beat, which seems very attuned to your Green and Grey record. Your choice of projects in this vein, link so well into your own preoccupations and interests, and I wonder if you could explain a little more about these documentaries, how did working on them come about?
My film work has been really just a matter of people getting in touch with me, rather than my pursuing particular projects, so I’ve been lucky to have the chance to work on films that I really admired aesthetically and that reflect my own preoccupations. It seems so difficult to make a film, in terms of energy and time and resources, and I really admire the directors I’ve worked with who have been able to fulfill their visions in this way.
You are soon to play with Valgeir Sigursson – he is a musician I really admire, and I wonder how you came to work with him – I think that there must be a real kinship there between the two of you.
I love his work very much and I’m really excited to open for him and Liam Byrne. It’s actually in London, at the Village Underground, as part of the Arcadia in London series that is paying tribute to William Basinski and his wonderful space, Arcadia, which was an essential part of the New York cultural scene in the ’90s, and has remained a beautiful inspiration for all of us who frequented it.
Your work with Antony saw your cello almost acting like a vocal. Did you sense that it was very special at the time?
I was so lucky to get to play with Antony: he is really a special and beautiful artist. He has a very strong and personal musical vision, and it was incredible to get to be a tiny part of that.
Who are some of your dream collaborators? The people that you feel you really would love to work with, from the past and the present?
There are so many people with whom I would love to collaborate! And, if you open it up to the past, the list would be endless… but, I have to say, I’m also really happy with the autonomy and the independence that making my own music provides.
So much of your life is spent within the world of travel, and music becomes a soundtrack to those experiences, I have been wondering who you have been listening to of late, and if you can go back to certain times in your life when a certain piece of music has somehow distilled an experience you had – so that every time you hear that piece of music, you go back to that experience?
Music is definitely a really important part of traveling for me: but it’s also hard to find a perfect soundtrack-and sometimes I prefer not to be entirely insulated from the world around me. While traveling, I’ve been listening a lot recently to Thomas Tallis and Byrd and other composers of that era: it’s really transcendent music. For me, though, having a piece of music connected to an experience doesn’t happen so much, because the music I love I listen to all the time, so its power to evoke a particular experience is defused somewhat. Though, I suppose, there is probably something from the ’80s, that I’ve never listened to since, that might take me right back there-I’m not sure I want to go, though!
You spent some time last year playing with Teho Teardo – how did that come about, and how did you find the experience?
Teho is a marvelous and multifaceted composer, who has done some amazing collaborations, most recently a record with Blixa Bargeld. I’m a huge fan of his music, and I was thrilled to have the chance to contribute some cello to his album Music for Wilder Mann, which was inspired by the photographs of Charles Fréger. A few months ago we played a couple of shows together in Italy, which was really fun: he has a wonderful cello player named Martina Bertoni with whom he has worked a lot, and it was amazing to play with them both. They have a really special energy as a duo.
Music for me, seems like a passageway into the unknown, the lesser-obvious worlds, like going through a portal to another dimension -and that is only as a listener, but it must be amazing to feel like that as a musician, all the countries you see, cities, musicians, collaborations – I know that there are stresses, but it must be so heartening and inspiring?
Oh, I feel so lucky to get to make and play music! Although of course there are a lot of stresses. For me, it’s the ultimate way to communicate, and so I feel really fortunate that I get to travel and play and meet different people and have the chance to express myself through music. It is indeed a portal into the unknown; that’s a beautiful way of putting it.
You have talked about your special relationship to Italy, and great experiences there as a musician – I love it also – and think it goes back to their grasp on how to live, it is linked so heavily in with the sharing of food, drink, conversation – and there is a palpable sense of colour and passion – what are your thoughts?
Playing in Italy is wonderful: the audiences are really warm and enthusiastic. I’ve made so many friends there. I feel as though there is really a genuine interest in maintaining social relationships, and in those other important things in life that you mention. When I arrive wherever I’m playing I usually find that people want to show me the beauties of their town, and make sure I sample whatever food is the specialty, and learn a bit about their history-it’s lovely!
What you are reading, listening to, and watching?
I’ve been traveling so much recently that I haven’t managed to get to a lot of movies, but I recently saw The Act of Killing, which is really a mind-blowingly powerful documentary. And La Grande Bellezza by Paolo Sorrentino, which is sublime. I hope they both win the Oscars they’re up for! In terms of books, once every 10 years or so, I whip through Antony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time-I just completed that during a four-hour delay at JFK, so now I’ve started on Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, I find her writing incredibly immersive and evocative. Sorry not to have more obscure recommendations-I’m sure you know them all! And music-wise, I’m still trying to catch up with all the great records that have come out recently: I think my current fave is the new Leyland Kirby.
Julia Kent plays The Triskel Arts Centre in Cork tonight, March 1st, and the Odessa Club in Dublin on Sunday, March 2nd.