Acclaimed singer, multi-instrumentalist and member of south London afrobeat band Soothsayers, Julia Biel, talks to The London Word ahead of her gig at the Pizza Express Jazz Club about the challenges of communicating musical ideas verbally and why she’d love to work with Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich.
Where do you get the inspiration from for your songs?
‘I’ve found you kind of have to let the song come to you in a funny way. Mostly the songs I write inform me of my state of mind rather than me consciously taking inspiration from something to ‘put’ into a song. But ultimately everything you experience in life is going to colour your sound.’
What are your favourite parts of London?
‘Musically I spend a lot of time in either Brixton or Dalston and love both these areas. Aside from that, I love anywhere with open space and good vintage shops – Crystal Palace is a winner, for example.’
What would you change?
‘I’m still praying for a Victoria Line extension – like most south Londoners, I think!’
Describe the perfect night out?
‘I don’t tend to get loads of nights out as I am often working in the evenings gigging but I’m a sucker for anything artsy and of course good food. Mmm!’
What do you do when you’re not performing?
‘When I am not performing I am generally thinking about performing, planning, organising, practicing and writing. Honestly!’
How did winning the Perrier Vocalist of the Year award in 2000 change things for you?
‘The award came at the very start of my professional life as a singer. It was amazing to get outside affirmation and that my instincts to pursue a career as a musician were on track. Aside from that, awards in general seem to function as some kind of official rubber-stamping, certifying you as fit for purpose among non-creatives in the industry, which is definitely no bad thing.’
What was it like self-producing your debut album, sounds like a bold decision?
‘It was a little daunting at first but it was either that or face the prospect of asking someone to flesh out a sketch which I was going to have to describe in words, which to me was much more of a long shot.
‘A lot gets lost in translation when you try to describe what you want musically in words as everybody has their own frames of reference, so when you say something airy fairy like “it needs to be more trippy here” for example, what exactly do you mean? You could achieve that effect in literally a million different ways.
‘I had a really strong idea of what I wanted my album to sound like and no money to pay for production anyway so producing the album myself was the logical next step and an experience I found really liberating and learnt a lot from so I would definitely recommend it.’
Tell us about your established working relationship with Ben Watt of Everything But the Girl fame
‘Ben had come across my voice when he signed a band I used to be in. That project was pretty short-lived but then a couple of years later I got an email from him out of the blue asking if I would collaborate on a track. I love collaborating with other people on stuff and Ben’s track came through and inspired me instantly so it was a real pleasure.’
If you could have collaborated with any of the musical greats in history, who would you pick?
‘That’s a very tough question, all manner of dead people! Top of my wish list in the land of the living is to produce an album with Nigel Godrich, Radiohead’s producer. I’m not sure that counts but hey just putting that out there!’
Do you think jazz has become a more accessible genre to people?
‘Jazz is a many and varied art form these days and some of it is a pretty challenging listen so it depends on what you’re talking about! Personally speaking I love the voices from the golden age of jazz and I don’t think that classic style which was once the pop music of its time has ever been inaccessible.’
What’s next for you?
‘More of the same hopefully. And releasing my new album please, that would be nice!’
Julia performs live on Tuesday 5 March at:
Pizza Express Jazz Club Soho
Jazz Club Soho
10 Dean Street
Tickets £15 available from here.