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Escape Velocity

Once And Again: An Interview With Julia-Sophie
Patrick Clarke , April 22nd, 2021 08:39

On the release of her second solo EP of hypnotic avant-pop, Oxford-via-Lyon musician Julia-Sophie speaks to Patrick Clarke about a storied career that's taken her from major label decadence to DIY brilliance

Julia-Sophie Walker has forged two very different music careers in her time. Last year, she released her first EP under her birth name, the elegant and smoky electronic pop piece y?, which is followed by the darker, more expansive and more hypnotic < / 3 , released via her own label Beanie Tapes this week. Recorded with a friend in Brighton who wishes to remain completely anonymous, it’s music that feels widescreen and ambitious, embodying both the freedom that comes with independent musicianship and Walker's long-honed nous as a songwriter. It’s quite different to her initial career as a major label recording artist at the end of the noughties, where her garage rock duo Little Fish were signed to Island under Universal Music Group and were championed by the likes of Courtney Love, who they supported on Hole’s 2010 UK tour dates, and Linda Perry, who produced their sole album Baffled And Beat.

There’s only a decade or so between the two, but the way the landscape has changed in that time is dramatic. “I feel like I fumbled my way along in a very old school way,” Walker says of Little Fish, speaking via Zoom from her home studio set-up. “Like, ‘I’m gonna write some songs, I’m gonna go busking, I’m gonna make a demo, and someone from a record label’s gonna spot me.’ It was as clichéd as you can get.” Looking back, she was at the end of an era. “I think we were the last ones who got flown to America, like ‘here’s a credit card and a limo, go buy yourselves some clothes downtown.’ It all feels like a big blur. I know it happened, but ultimately there’s not much to show for it.” They were the final generation for whom social media wasn’t a big tool. “We toured with Blondie and Courtney Love and played onstage with Placebo, these amazing things that these days you’d put on Instagram, but back then no one really knew about it. I look at younger kids these days and I think ‘God, you seem to really know who you are’. They seem to know everything!”

By the time Little Fish announced their split at the end of 2012, Walker was left sapped. “I think I was totally heartbroken after my major label experience,” she says. “It was quite devastating. It ended quite traumatically in some ways, so I stopped music for a while, beat around the bush a bit creating DIY collectives and attempting not to go near the industry again.” Her band morphed into Candy Says, a poppier, psychedelia-tinged project. “I was dipping in and out of that project,” she says. “There were some years where I just stopped music altogether and tried to become a sensible person. I started an organic soap company. I thought I should try and grow up a bit.”

Then, however, came the Brexit referendum of 2016. Walker is half-French, she spent her childhood between Oxford and Lyon. The result struck a nerve that spurred her back into songwriting. “If everything falls apart and everything you believe in is broken, then what is left? What part of you is most important? Not having written songs for a few years, that part of me which I’d suppressed because I wanted to fit in reared its head.” By 2019 she was working on library work, and writing “classic French style songs to get used on TV,” when she met the anonymous producer she would go on to work with for her two newest EPs. “The catalyst was meeting a like-minded person who wanted to make music for the sake of making music.”

She toyed about what name to adopt for her latest project. For Little Fish she was known as ‘Juju’. “That was my ‘rock identity’,” she says, “It was my record label at the time and the management, I don’t know how it happened, almost like it wasn’t really me from the start. [They said] ‘You’re gonna be rock’, OK, well I guess I’m rock.” Some people still call her Juju now, others call her Jules, old schoolfriends call her Julia. “I’d never used my actual birthname before. I toyed with the idea, because ‘Julia-Sophie’ is kind of a mouthful, it doesn’t roll off the tongue, it’s not catchy, it’s a long Twitter handle, but I thought ‘this is about me.’ It’s about being personal, and I wanted people to know it was about being personal.”

y? was written in the aftermath of intense personal upheaval. She’s reluctant to go into exact details. “I’ll probably start crying,” she says hesitantly. “I guess what I’ve learnt is that I’m really cautious to give out personal details, I don’t know if I’m quite in a place to make things public. But I certainly have been through a lot…” Although the specifics remain obfuscated, the depth of feeling is a big part of what makes Walker's music so captivating. The videos she produced with filmmaker Siobhan Cox for three of the EP’s four tracks, were bewitching too, doused in a hazy filter and simmering with emotional tension. All three form part of one narrative, Walker in the same red outfit amid a frantic collage of dramatic images. “I like it when there’s something to link it together, where a bigger picture hopefully starts coming together,” she says. The old-fashioned analogue TVs she’s been using in the videos for her new EP – darker and more expressive still – can be seen stacked on a shelf behind her left shoulder as we speak.

It’s heartening, and perhaps telling, that Walker's freest and most personal work, created with a focus purely on self-expression rather than cultivating any kind of clout, has ended up connecting on a level far deeper than any of her previous projects. “I wasn’t expecting anything, just making,” she says. “It was about just being as honest as I could be with how I was feeling. Maybe that’s what people connected to…” Partly thanks to being featured by Bandcamp on its homepage, y? ended up outstripping her expectations, and when it came to follow-up < / 3 , she was buoyed enough to extend her scope even further. “I thought ‘shit, there’s just so many things I want to explore before I settle on a sound.’ I purposely made it a little bit different. I was really interested in song structure and breaking free.” She cites < / 3 track ‘CCTV’ as an example, a sublime seven-minute cut of drifting downtempo. “I love listening to music when I feel like it’s been a creative process in the studio. I feel like Thom Yorke is often just feeling his way through music,” she says.

It’s a spirit she tried to embody on the sessions for her second EP. The success of its predecessor did come with pressure, however. “Even though I had that idea part of me was saying people want beats!’ I kept changing songs because I thought ‘people aren’t gonna like that,’ but then on the eleventh version of the song I was like ‘what are you doing? You’re falling into this trap. I had this conscious awakening moment where I thought ‘this is where you need to let go of it.’ It was all part of the process.”

The work Walker is creating right now might be the most DIY of her career, and is certainly the most personal, but it is also by far the most ambitious. She's living proof that a lack of resources doesn't have to mean a lack of scope. Free from the restraints of a staid mainstream rock industry, but backed with the refinement of experience, there’s a sense that these days she’s always revelling in the possibilities for what’s next. “I certainly don’t feel trapped by any genre at the moment. On the contrary I feel like I’ve got so much more to explore,” she says. She’s eager to get started on a third, “warmer” EP – “I feel like it’s been pretty intense listening to Julia-Sophie so far” – and hopes to find a third-party record label with whom she can work on a full-length album.

“With every release I think, ‘If I can just get a little bit further, I’m going to take that as a victory,’” the musician says. Viewed that way, you can take Walker's career thus far, for all its dramatic rises and falls, to have been a tale of ultimate victory. She might have had two very different rises to prominence in her time as a musician, but they’re both part of the same journey, one in which her craft is only set to strengthen even further.

Julia-Sophie’s new EP < / 3 is out now via Beanie Tapes