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Julie DoironCanadian Julie Doiron has been making music for the better part of ten years now. Over the course of three records with her previous band Eric’s Trip and five full-length solo albums - including the recent pairing of the French sung ‘Desormais’ and its English follow-up ‘Heart and Crime’ - Julie has managed to develop her unique hushed singing style, and a reputation as one of indie-rock’s best and most intimate songwriters. Impressive stuff really, when you consider that along with her prolific musical career, Julie has also had time to not only get married and set up a record label (the sadly now defunct Sappy), but also raise two kids. There's a third one on the way too as was immediately apparent when I met with Julie in an East End pub, an hour or so before her breathtaking solo show at Toynbee Hall. We discussed music, art and ballet lessons...
Have you been wanting to do an album in French for some time?
by James William Hindle / pictures by Paul Heartfield
Yeah, actually I decided a few years ago that I wanted to do that. Because a few times I’d decided to put French songs on the records and I don’t even know why, just sometimes I’d write them in French. And one day I said ‘I’m going to do a French EP’ and a lot of fans got really excited about that idea and so I decided to turn it into a full album. I think I’d have liked to have had a couple more songs, but I think the length is perfect.
I read that you wanted to read every French novel ever written. Is that a Franco-Canadian or strictly French culture obsession?
I’m still reading them [laughs]. It’s weird, because I grew up doing everything in French. I only learned it when I was six, but once I was in school then it’s what I would do everything in. Except for at home when we’d speak both. And so I didn’t used to enjoy reading French, but then I didn’t used to enjoy reading at all until I was eighteen. At that time I did start to read a few French books but I didn’t really find any good ones. Years went by and I was reading tonnes of English books that I was trying to catch up on, so basically, last year I started reading French ones and I keep on discovering better and better ones. I can’t stop reading them.
When you’re writing a song in French do you approach it in a different way?
I don’t take as many liberties with the slang. In English I’ll say whatever feels cool but in French I don’t want people saying ‘she doesn’t know how to speak’. I guess I was a little more concerned about that. Maybe being picked on, or if I took any poetic liberties people might think it was out of ignorance. Because French is not my first language, but…
It’s odd listening to the record because, as a whole, it feels very intimate but, for me, not knowing a word of French, I don’t actually know what it is you’re singing about.
I should have put the lyrics in there but I didn’t have time. Essentially it’s all the same thing as the English stuff, y’know? The same subjects generally. And I think that probably comes across, and a lot of people who do speak French were quite relieved when they heard the record, that it was still as intimate as my English stuff. They were worried that I’d start doing typically French, y’know, stories and stuff, which is not really…it’s very personal.
Is it true that Eric’s Trip broke up due to different objectives, a split in the camp about ‘breaking’ America etc?
Well, what happened was, we had mutually decided to break up. In January we had a meeting with a Sub-Pop representative and said ‘We want to break up in July. But we realise this record’s coming out in January.’ So we agreed to do an American tour and a Canadian tour in support of the record. We weren’t supposed to break up in the middle of the tour, we were supposed to finish and that’s where the conflict was. I was the only one who wanted to keep the tour going but the rest… We toured the States quite a lot, it’s just the guys didn’t like crossing borders and they were afraid of the States. I was too, were all kinda homebodies and so we were really comfortable in Canada. There’s not many cities in Canada that are scary. You know when you come out of a club, for the most part, no-one’s going to hassle you.
It’s unusual for a musician to have such a close, big family and now you have a third on the way.
We’re trying for four, actually! Ben just turned seven in December and Charlotte will be five in April. This one will be born in June and I’d like to have one more, because the age difference will be so big, close together.
How do you manage?
I have a very supportive husband and he’s getting worn out. ‘Cause I said I wanted to have another baby and he said ‘Okay, but I don’t think you can go on tour for as long as you do sometimes and leave me at home with the baby.’ Ben and Charlotte are easy because they’re older but he said ‘You have to commit to staying home for a year,’ which was fine because I want to so much. But the timing’s really weird because, it seems, people are finally knowing who I am after five or six years of doing this. It seems people are coming out, like tonight, it’s a huge turnout.
There seems to be a lot of songs, appropriately enough, about motherhood in your repertoire.
There definitely were a lot on the Sub-Pop record [‘Loneliest in the Morning’] and I think that’s because Ben was born around that time and I was writing… having to deal with being a mum and how to have a baby.
You seemed pessimistic, like you weren’t going to be a good mother…
I think those were just anxieties coming out because that was what I was feeling. When Ben would go to bed I’d just sit down and that would come out of me. I’d just sit on my bed with my guitar and suddenly I had these songs. And I think I felt it was important to record them. I hope Ben never listens to it and goes ‘Oh my God!’ Ben’s a great kid and he knows how much I love him. When I go away he listens to my records. They both like ‘em.
Are Ben and Charlotte musically inclined?
They pretty much sing all the time and Ben’s learning piano at school. I’ve been sitting with him five minutes a day and I get him to play stuff out of his book. So he reads music, both hands… but I sit with him five minutes a day ‘cause I don’t want him to hate it. He’s moving ahead really quickly and at school they’re doing xylophone, that’s their ‘instrument for the year’. He likes doing it. And Charlotte sings all the time, they both do. She’s more like a [ballet] dancer, that’s what she wants to do. I wanted to put her in dance school this year but I think it’ll have to be the Fall because we didn’t quite have the money. She’s still four and a half so, if we get her in next year, I don’t think she’ll be mad at us for missing that ‘key’ age [laughs]. But, yeah, I guess they’re musically inclined and they know that’s what their mom does for a living. Not everybody’s parents do what I do.
Are they likely to follow yours or [husband, artist] Jon’s career choices?
Well Ben really loves to design things, and invent things, so he’s very much inclined to go the engineering route I think - which I hope, I don’t want either of them trying to make a career off of art [laughs].
It’s a personal question but are you making enough money to live off music, because I know your husband is a professional artist…
Yeah this is what we do. I don’t make money if I’m not on tour, so that’s the reason I have to tour quite a bit. And he sells paintings [he’s also responsible for Julie’s album artwork]. He just started being represented by an art gallery in the Fall, in Toronto, and they’re doing very well and they ask for a lot more money than we ever asked for. He’s working towards a big solo exhibit in the Fall, so hopefully that’ll go really well. I haven’t had a job in eight years and he hasn’t had one in about five years. So, yeah, we’re desperate all the time and sometimes it’s really hard but we have very supportive parents that, if one month we’re waiting to be paid for records, then Jon’s dad will lend us the money until we get it. That’s really fortunate but we’re doing pretty good. And we work so hard.
What made you leave Sub-Pop?
Sub-Pop dropped me! It wasn’t my decision. They put out the record and then, four months later, they dropped me. What can you do? I wasn’t that upset about it, I was more upset that they weren’t returning my phone calls! But it meant that I was able to make a record that I enjoyed making, I worked with people I wanted to work with, and so that record was a good experience and they gave me a lot of money to do it and so, I had a good experience. I was able to move on and I got a grant and we made the Wooden Stars record which I thought was a great record. So it all worked out well.
When you first started doing solo material it was under the Broken Girl name, why did you choose to do that and then why did you stop?
When I started using it it seemed to make sense. I thought it was kind of a ‘cute’ name and I guess when I was putting out my record with Sub-Pop I thought ‘Okay, more people might get to hear this record, do I wanna be known as Broken Girl?’ It got the point where I couldn’t stand hearing the sound of it anymore. Occasionally I would play the type of show where, if somebody was introducing me on stage, it would be like ‘now, put your hands together for Broken Girrrrl!’ I’d just get on stage and feel devastated! Hearing it sound like that… so I thought I’d just go with my own name, even though no-one can pronounce it!
Is there a ‘scene’ in Canada right now, as far as you can tell and is there a sense of ‘playing second fiddle’ to America?
Things seem to be picking up again, yeah. Things got a little stagnant, maybe, for a while as we started to lose music venues. But I’d say things are picking up. And even now when American bands play Canada they get a better turn-out than most Canadians. But I think things are slowly changing and Canadian bands are getting a higher profile among Canadians, yeah. Especially if they do better in other places, then Canadians think ‘oh they must be cool.’ I shouldn’t say that, I’ll get my hands slapped for that. But that’s typical, if someone becomes big somewhere else then ‘hey, maybe we should check them out.’
CWAS #10 - Spring 2002