Artist Spotlight: Julien Chang

    Julien Chang is a singer-songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist from Baltimore, Maryland. While studying classical and jazz music throughout high school, he built a home studio in his parents’ basement from the money he earned from his grocery shop job, where he recorded his first album, 2018’s Jules. Along with its 2022 follow-up, The Sale, it saw Chang developing a sound that was both dreamlike and eclectic, playful yet mature in its musical exploration. Shortly after The Sale came out, and six months after leaving Princeton and returning to Baltimore, Chang made the just-released Home for the Moment EP, a collection of four introspective tracks that dwell on this in-between stage in the musician’s life, harnessing feelings of stuckness and confusion as an opportunity for pause and further experimentation. The EP doesn’t exactly resolve itself, but it has a strange way of turning opaque memories and observations into something tangible and intriguing, making peace – something like home – with their lack of cohesion.

    We caught up with Julien Chang for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight series to talk about his relationship with home, learning patience, the process behind his new EP, and more.

    Listening to Home for the Moment and then revisiting The Sale, I was struck by that line on the album’s opening track, ‘Heart Holiday’: “Home/ Your complex relationship.” Seeing as that theme carries onto the EP, I was wondering if you could talk about what comes to mind when you think about Baltimore and growing up there.

    In a way, it’s the only place I’ve really lived. I went to school in the suburbs of New Jersey, but even that was during the COVID years, right in the middle of that, so I was in Baltimore for a lot of that time as well. Baltimore – it’s like the David Foster Wallace about the two younger fish swimming past the older fish, and the older fish is like, “How’s the water?” And the younger fish are like, “What is water?” It’s hard to know what about my experience is proper to Baltimore specifically, because Baltimore, in a way, has been my whole life. But I do think even the brief time that I’ve spent in other places has almost been more illuminating for what it’s really like to be in Baltimore than the time I’ve spent living in Baltimore itself. One of the things that is so inspiring about Baltimore is that it’s a good place to be serious about art because it’s so cheap to live. Obviously that didn’t affect me as much when I was growing up, living with my parents, but it did affect the culture that I was surrounded by, which were working adult artists, and also young aspiring artists – I went to Baltimore School for the Arts, a public arts high school. I think there’s a willingness to take risks and experiment in that way because the financial stakes are not as high aas they are in some other places. But I think you really feel that spirit of experimentation at the shows a lot.

    How did being away from Baltimore make you see it in a different light?

    I studied German literature and philosophy in college, and Freud has this piece about the uncanny; the root is unheimlich, and heim is the root from which we get our word home. But heim, in German, signifies both familiarity and obscurity, so heim could be like heimlish, which is comfortable, homely, but it’s also the root of geheim, which means secret. And then, of course, unheimlish is this double negation – what is familiar becomes strange, and what is strange becomes familiar suddenly. Leaving home kind of induces that double negation. Home is like a site of familiarity, but then you don’t really regard that familiarity as strange until you leave it and come back. I definitely feel that, but the feeling of strangenes is not aversion. It’s kind of a reappreciation.

    You studied classical and jazz music in school, which coincided with you delving into other genres while making your own songs. What was inspiring to you about straddling those worlds?

    At the time, it seemed very natural that I would move between all those worlds. At this high school, it was a classical music program, but then there were jazz classes as well. I was in a small jazz group, and we played a lot. But also, it’s just like any other high school, so people are listening to pop music, indie music, rap, whatever, so all those things seemed very related. The first music that I made were beats for rappers – high school classmates, a bunch of them were rappers – so it felt kind of natural to traverse those things. I remember when I was making beats, I guess this is when I was 14 or 15, I would hear rock and roll – Pink Floyd and Tame Impala were the first more rock-focused things that I really got into – I would listen to music that I liked that wasn’t rap music, and I’d think, “Maybe I can sample these things.” And then one day it was like, “Wait, I don’t have to sample it, I could just make it.” And then I remember thinking, “If I like this other kind of music, why don’t just make that other kind of music?” And then that opened up a lot of things.

    When it came to making full bodies of work, were there points were you had to conceptualize that kind of fluidity and eclecticism in a different way?

    I think definitely for The Sale. My first record was very much just play. It would have these ideas that I would get from anything, classical music or jazz music or pop music, it could be a rhythmic pattern or a bass line – I’d hear that in somebody else’s song and I’d be like, “I wanna try that out with my own stuff.” That was how I did my first album, and then the second album was definitely the first time that I felt like I had to hold myself to a kind of standard of conceptual rigor, and that also coincided with my time studying in college. It definitely became complicated in that way for the second record.

    Assuming that rigidity was also very much present in an academic context, was it still important for you to retain that element of playfulness in some way?

    Yeah, I would say retaining the play was vital. To be totally candid, I didn’t do that enough on the last record. It’s something that I’m trying to get back to. But that’s totally vital. I mean, that’s the lifeblood of music, which is something to be felt – and thought about, but to be felt, really.

    What is the feeling you get from those albums now? Are you more aware of how things shifted from one record to the next?

    Looking back on making those two records, I have the advantage from the position I am now of knowing how things turned out; knowing how whatever I was developing musically, conceptually, in Jules, developed into The Sale, and how it developed into where I am now. I have that kind of oversight, but also, it’s almost like the further you get from a memory, you have a clearer historical idea of what these moments meant in the progression of your life, but also, you have a murkier feeling of those actual moments. Especially for this EP, I wrote it after returning from college and and moving back to Baltimore, so I think lot of it was about slackening up the authoritative oversight of my past, and instead trying to embody the other kind of memory, which is actually remembering what it felt like to live in this or that time of my life. Being back in Baltimore after having grown up there, you can’t help but really feel it, feel those memories, because they’re attached to places and people.

    Were there specific feelings related to your past or present that you were unpacking at the time, even if they didn’t make it onto the EP in a tangible way, that were important in making it?

    I think one of the prevailing feelings of the EP is a kind of restlessness, a restlessness of being in a place to which my childhood and early adulthood belongs, but being presently at a point in my life where I’m ready to start something new – that restlessness of being in between.

    It’s interesting that restlessness is a key part of it, because I feel like it’s also musically a patient EP, and there’s this theme of taking things slow. One of my favorite lines is from ‘Looking at People’: “Loving is slowness and slowest is care.” Why was that idea on your mind, and was it something that extended to your musical process in any way?

    Yeah, learning patience was huge. The past almost two years since I left school, taking things slow – you’re right, it’s everywhere on the EP, even more than I realized. I’m thinking of another line on ‘Imago’, which is, “Hesitation is a weapon of the weak.” I’ve played that for other people and they’re like, “Yeah, hesitation is bad because it’s weak.” But that’s not what I’m saying – what I’m saying is that if you’re in a position of vulnerability, in a position of weakness, then actually hesitation is something that you can use to your advantage, something that can protect you. That was the main point, learning to be okay with hesitation or indecision. I mean, if you live this middle-class, American upbringing – you go to elementary school, middle school, high school, and then college – the first 22 years of your life, it’s all set out. You might even have some success in those 22 years, but it doesn’t really matter, because once you finish, it’s the first time that you actually have to confront yourself seriously.

    There’s this great essay by Siegfried Kracauer that’s called ‘Those Who Wait’. In the midst of confusion and waywardness, there’s this desire and instinct to latch onto something, to have some closure and some resolution. I think a lot of times, doing that actually ends up being a self-deception, and actually the authentic path would be to endure the discomfort of not having a resolute path, just being patient with that. Waiting, taking things slowly, hesitating – I think all these things are really looked down upon these days, but they’re kind of necessary. Until a year ago, my attitude towards everything was full steam ahead, but the most important things really take time. Music takes time – music literally takes time, it’s a temporal art – but being patient is necessary to have any relationship with music.

    Do you see Home for the Moment as a kind of transitional project, and was there a freedom in it not having to completely define what your next musical chapter will be?

    It was the result of a feeling of freedom, and in consequence, I think it allowed for some freedom. The way you put it was really close to how it was – I didn’t make these things under the self-impression that I would be like redefining myself or determining the new path. I made this just because I wanted to kind of gauge where I was. I remember when I was studying jazz, all these famous jazz records during the twentieth century, a lot of times the record would be made in like a week – the group would get together in the studio and they would perform a set, and then the record would just be a statement of where they were at that point in their life. I liked that idea, and I and I made this EP in a week. A certain feeling of freedom is required for that, but it also opens up the kind of freedom that you’re talking about, which comes afterwards.

    On the whole, the EP is quite intimate and roomy, but I love how at the end of the final song, the arrangement opens up and there’s this swirling conclusion. How did you envision that as the EP’s conclusion?

    It’s funny, because when I made the EP, ‘Home for the Moment’, which is the first song on the EP, was recorded last. The first song that I wrote and recorded for the EP was ‘Looking at People’, which is maybe the most structured and expansive. And then as I was writing and recording, it gradually became smaller, more focused, and more intimate, until you get to ‘Home for the Moment’, which is really the kernel of the whole thing. But the way it’s organized now for the release is kind of the opposite – it starts at this essence and then grows outward. I like the idea of that as an indication of where things are going.

    You mentioned just having moved to New York. Could you share something that excites you about the new environment you’re in?

    The apartment that I’m staying in is just a couple blocks away from Times Square, which is crazy and chaotic and loud. I’ve been in a couple of situations where I will have just eaten lunch and I’ll be completely at peace, and then I’ll go for a walk and will inevitably at some point have to walk through Times Square, which is just chaos. But I will have the distinct sensation of being completely almost invisible, anonymous, just moving through this landscape of all these things, tourists with selfie sticks and stuff, and being able to just look around and be an almost disinterested but fascinated observer of the world – when you’re expected to be someone, you can’t have this disinterested, fascinated, wonderful kind of like feeling.

    I played a show here in New York at Webster Hall for my tour in November 2022. The venue is huge, it was the biggest show I had ever played – the show wasn’t sold out or anything, but there were a lot of people. After the show, we packed up the van, and instead of going back to where I was staying, I just went on a walk, and I ended up  going into this dollar pizza place, and it was really crowded. Everybody was drunk, gossiping or whatever, and I was just trying to get a slice of pizza. The transition of going from being on stage in front of however many, 500 people, to then being in this small dollar pizza place, but being completely invisible, was so amazing. There’s a kind of freedom with that. I’ve been feeling that in New York, and that’s exciting to me.

    This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

    Julien Chang’s Home for the Moment is out now via Transgressive.

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