On the music video for ‘breathe’, the latest single from Julia-Sophie’s debut EP, a bouquet of flowers is set on fire. It’s a potent metaphor for the Oxford-based singer-songwriter’s music, which unfolds much like a luscious flower – a thing of beauty that has grown out of pain, constantly in search of its own roots. On y?, Julia-Sophie digs into the deepest parts of her psyche to try to find a sense of resolution, which also involves confronting those buried emotions and setting them alight. The result is nothing short of hypnotic, a mystical fusion of light and darkness propelled by ominous synths, ethereal vocals, and inventive production that project strength through vulnerability. What remains is a flicker of hope: “With your heart in my hand/ I feel safe,” she sings on the stand-out opener ‘breathe’, and that sense of peaceful resolve emanates throughout. y? might be about letting things go, but these kinds of humane sentiments – and the songs in which they find a home – are worth holding onto.
We caught up with Julia-Sophie for this edition of our Artist Spotlight series, where we showcase up-and-coming artists and give them a chance to talk a bit about their music.
What inspired you to start making music?
I’ve never been good at talking about how I feel, and I’ve always been in awe of people who know exactly how they feel and are comfortable with who they are. When I started making music, feelings that had sat inside me started to emerge. Since then I’ve always used music to try to express and understand myself. The desire to stop playing a part, focus my emotion and be myself, telling people about how I feel, has been my absolute focus and was my sole inspiration for making y?.
What are some of your influences?
My biggest influence is my urge to just exist. Life can sometimes feel like a wrenching dance, and writing and making music is my attempt to synchronise with the world around me. Life experiences, observations, hopes, dreams, heartaches, and conversations I have with other people are all part of it. I’m also inspired by watching and listening to other artists whom I respect and admire; I aspire to be as good an artist as I can be; within that, I hope to find a place where I can accept myself for who I am.
Musically, I’ve been influenced by all sorts of artists. I grew up in a household where my parents listened to mostly classic French artists such as Brassens, Brel, Aznavour, Barbara and blues artists like Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and BB King, so I was never immersed in pop culture. Growing up in Oxford, UK, I was never sure how to fully relate to my parents’ music, but the one thing I took from all of it was the power of their voices and the guttural emotion that existed within it all. There was passion. That’s what music became for me – it’s never been about being technically good, it’s always been about the emotion it evokes, and how the music makes me feel.
Having missed out on a lot of popular culture, I always felt like an outsider and had to find my own way into discovering music. Friends helped me, and over the years I’ve listened to all kinds of music and tried to find myself within it. I don’t know if I will ever feel part of a musical tribe; I guess we pick up and lose parts of various artists we relate to for different reasons as we navigate life – some bits stick and some bits don’t and we become a collage of all those experiences. As an artist, maybe I’m edging closer to finding my ultimate love in the kind of music that has certainly influenced me during the making of y?. I’m digging deeper into the world of electronic music, like Art School Girlfriend, James Blake, Thom Yorke, Caribou and TT. But whatever I listen to I have to be able to connect to the singer’s heart and instinctively feel their intention.
You’ve said that your songs are about “finding comfort in emotions buried deep for years”. What sort of emotions do you try to evoke in your music?
All of the songs on my EP come from feelings of truths that I had not accepted about myself until this point, and some that I’m still working through and even discovering for the first time: waking up to them and trying my best to understand and face all kinds of feelings; new feelings of love, of living, life, contradictions and pain. It’s ironic that sometimes the most beautiful things grow out of the deepest pain; acceptance and vulnerability; learning to be soft instead of letting it all harden you; waking up to traumas, to a lot of the deepest fears and starting to embrace them. I guess my biggest quest is to try to evoke a true feeling. Not to skirt around it but to tap into the gut as much as I possibly can. I would like my music to say to people “hey, let’s take down the walls we built and connect with ourselves; in weakness there is strength. It’s okay to stop running away from it all”. I mean, it’s easier said than done and y? is my first attempt at achieving this. I’m still not ready to talk explicitly about my personal life experiences, for so many reasons, but I’m guessing that one day I will be. That’s the aim, right? Goodness knows, I’m trying.
How was the experience of writing and recording y??
I always start by recording demos on my phone at my home in Oxford, as I don’t like anyone else watching me when I write. Sometimes songs start on a keyboard but mostly on the guitar. I always outline a song with at least a verse, sometimes two, always a chorus and if I’m attentive, a bridge. My life is pretty hectic so I’m used to having to write under pressure. Some songs can be fully formed before recording them, but sometimes I’m happy to leave them open, so that they can take on a different life in the studio. I’m happy to then write additional lyrics and even change melodies.
After I’d written a bunch of songs, I took them to my friend B’s studio in Brighton where we recorded them together. Brighton is a couple of hours drive from Oxford and leaving my home town to record felt very symbolic as to where I was at in my life. I was feeling change and I wanted to record somewhere where I could start to explore myself as an artist and a person differently to how I had done in the past; a fresh start, so to speak.
I was very private about this whole experience and I only spoke about it to a few friends. Before actually recording the songs, B and I would spend lots of time talking, catching up and listening to music that we had both been enjoying. After listening to the demos, we decided which songs we would record and where we envisioned the sound of them to be. The recordings went through several rounds of back and forth, where we would take long breaks from recording, maybe a month or so, so that we could develop a cold ear with which to listen back when we met up again. The most important thing for me over this whole process was never to lose track of the original intention of the song and to let the music to find its voice.
What was the inspiration for the title?
I didn’t know where I was heading; I’ve got a lot of different sides to me and I struggle with aligning them all. With y? I found myself writing about things that people close to me would not even know that I was feeling. The last two years, I’ve been trying to understand myself and had to ask myself so many questions, why have I done what I’ve done and why have I become the person that I am? Why do we fall in love? Why do we fall apart? I’ve tried to get to the most honest version of me. Asking myself y? has been very important to me.
What are you currently working on, and what are your plans for the future?
I’m currently spending time with my own thoughts and pretty distressed at the state of the world, but with all that in mind, I’m slowly carving out a second EP. I guess nobody quite knows what the world is going to look like for artists in the coming years as the landscape is rapidly changing. I hope one day that I can get on the road, tour, travel, meet people, perform my music live, and keep creating. That is my dream right now. To feel alive. To live life fully. One day, I plan to make a full record, and who knows, maybe even a second and then a third.