Julia Kent Interview

I had the great pleasure to meet Julia Kent last month, having been a fan of her solo work for a few years. She was in Cork (and Dublin the following day) to play her first ever Irish show.

Unfortunately, this occasion was marked by her cello being waylaid at the airport in Paris. Luckily the resourceful people at Fractured Air and Plugd (who co-promoted the Cork show) were able to locate a replacement instrument in Cork (her own cello was re-routed to Dublin and she got it back the next day). When I arrived at the venue, Julia was getting acquainted with this unfamiliar cello and understandably a little bit put off by the turn of events. Despite the hitch, she was very gracious with her time and we spoke in the Triskel Arts Centre foyer as the sizeable crowd gathered for the show.

One of the most interesting things about the chat for me was her description of her classical music studies as "traumatic...super competitive", something she fled from to New York. There, she spent a couple of years working for a classical music management agency, before answering a "cello wanted" ad in the Village Voice. This lead to her joining the cello rock band Rasputina, spending about 10 years recording and touring with them. Not your average, by-the-numbers artist career arc, that's for sure.

New York cropped up again later in the conversation, almost another character in her career backstory, as a deep source of inspiration. She talked about warehouse parties in Williamsburg in the 1980s and 1990s ("under the radar spaces") - it was at one such event that she was introduced to Antony Hegarty, leading to several years touring with Antony & the Johnsons. (These experiences touring in turn lead to her first solo album, Delay, a meditation on travelling and transitional spaces, each track named after a different airport.)

She came across as a relaxed, confident character, although without a trace of self-satisfaction, as she spoke about expanding her sound on her next album. As well as a creator of stirring, emotional compositions, she was also a thoroughly interesting person to have a chat with.

Julia Kent Interview at Triskel Arts Centre in Cork on Mar 1 2014 by Theundergroundofhappiness on Mixcloud

That interview was actually just the culmination of a series of correspondences I had with Julia going back a month or two prior to the Cork show. First she picked her Top 5 Cello Pieces for WeAreNoise, featuring some fascinating choices including Arthur Russell, Hildur Gudnadottir and Helen Money, as well as pithy and insightful comments by herself.


She also answered some questions for me over e-mail, again for WeAreNoise.


It's funny to read her comment from that piece now about the cello as a (physical) companion, in light of her Paris luggage forwarding difficulties.

N: I found it interesting that you mentioned somewhere the size of the instrument, the fact that you can’t but be physically aware of a cello as you play it. Do you think this specifically has an effect on the nature of the music you make and compose?

Yes, very much so! I travel so much with the cello, so it always feels like a sort of companion: it’s always present wherever I am. And, musically, it is my voice. The cello has such a wonderful range and presents so many sonic possibilities: I’m always discovering new dimensions to it.

Fascinating also to read her remarks here about being a solo artist. You could read it as a fierce independence, maybe, although I tend to view it more as a kind of devotion to her muse, following her "apprenticeship" playing with other people.

N: Having had three solo albums now, could you ever picture yourself back in a band format in the future? Could you ever picture having a backing band, other musicians on stage with you performing your compositions? And instruments other than cello?

I honestly find it really hard to incorporate other musicians into my solo music: it really is my own world. I’ve spent so much time playing in other people’s projects, and I’ve been lucky to have been able to play with some incredible artists and learn from them, but for me, at this moment, I’m really happy to be autonomous and to have the freedom that creating work on my own provides. In terms of other instruments, I’m increasingly using electronic sounds, and exploring processing to expand my sound palette.

And illuminating comments here too about her composing process (best read in conjunction with the audio interview, in which she also touched on the topic).

N: In terms of your composition process, do you have a vision of a piece in advance (on paper) or is it a case of laying down parts and working them into an arrangement as you go along?

Because my compositional process is very much based on looping, which is inherently additive, I often end up with a lot of musical material and it’s a question of paring things away. Mostly I develop music in sort of a process-based way: I don’t really notate the music before I play it, though I do notate it in order to have some record of it. I find that working by ear is very different than reading music by eye, and for me it’s a better approach: more immediate and intuitive.

N: You’ve done a variety of soundtrack work as well over the years, as you mentioned, taking in film, theatre and dance. Do those compositions involve the same musical process for you, just working to different plans/criteria/brief?

I find writing soundtracks, or making music for theatre or dance, quite different from writing music that is meant to stand alone. It needs to serve the emotional atmosphere of the work and often be almost subliminal. It’s very inspiring for me to write music to an image, or to movement or text. And I’ve learned a lot through working with people who come from the worlds of film, dance, and theatre: that kind of work can often be very much a process, and it’s really interesting to see how something can evolve, and how music becomes a dimension of another work.

And the gig, well it was wonderful despite the logistical problems. Here's an excerpt from my review for WeAreNoise which captures something of the tone of proceedings.


Julia Kent took the stage in front of the packed room, explaining about her cello travails while setting up. She proceeded to weave together layers of cellos – sounding for all the world like a sizeable ensemble – demonstrating the full range of the instrument. In that respect – her spotlighting of the unique characteristics of the cello – she showed something in common with a group like Seti The First; there was bow-slapping, barely-there harmonics, plucking, and percussive tapping on the body to go with a more conventional fully-bowed sound.

The atmosphere swung between the pastoral romanticism of her second album Green and grey and the denser, more intense tone of current album Character. Both carry something of the concert hall, of the rigour of classical music, while at the same time taking issue with it via a certain playfulness, you could even say soul.

As on the albums, the arrangements were a dream, melodies intertwining and texture undercutting each other to superb effect. Over the course of an hour or more, there was the chance (or obligation) to swoon, to be sombre, to be uplifted, to be transported, as Kent conducted the orchestra by tapping on the loop pedals with her bare right foot. Backing tracks were used sparingly, triggered from a laptop – minimal piano and drum machine pulses here and there – although for me these tracks were less effective. I preferred the solo cello pieces, those wonderfully focused, internal conversations between the instrument and itself, bringing a world of pathos and drama to entirely instrumental music.


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