Julia Biel has a great voice. That is possibly the understatement of the year so far. Julia has been described as ‘the best British vocalist to emerge in an age’ by The Independent newspaper and they are right.
There have been comparisons with other vocalists including Amy Winehouse and Norah Jones but I disagree. I think this is a singer who has already established her own individuality and style. With this album she builds on these foundations with great effect, consolidating her rightful place as a musician of note with clever and strong arrangements and compositions which offer both a place for the vocals to shine and a vehicle for other musicians to share the road.
Julia is the daughter of a Cape Town man who came to the UK after the apartheid regime destroyed his dreams of becoming a teacher away. Soon after coming to England he met Julia’s mother, who had grown up in the war-torn remains and poverty of post-World War II Germany. Julia took up the piano when she was 5 years old and says, ‘Whenever I would feel lost, I would find myself in the music and it has gradually become the touchstone of my existence.’
Later, she met Idris Rahman (who would later become her life partner, producer and bass player) at Oxford and found amongst her musical loves, jazz. Moving to London she put together a home studio and found her own route through music. A member of the F-IRE Collective she made her first album with fellow members of the collective and co-wrote with guitarist Jonny Phillips. That album ‘Not Alone’ won her a rising star nomination in the BBC Jazz awards in 2006. Her next album ‘Love Letters & Other Missiles’ came in 2015 and was nominated in the MOBO and Urban Jazz Awards.
Of her music Julia says, “I really feel music bonds us all in a shared experience of what it means to be a human being and so when I’m writing songs I’m not trying to place myself in a particular genre or cultural setting – for me it’s always been about the emotional triggers and the kitchen sink dramas that we all experience and trying to present these in a universal way. But the creative process whatever the art-form challenges the maker to confront themselves, to explore their nature and express it and, being from a mixed-race background growing up in suburban London with no cultural input from my racial heritage, I realise now that’s probably been a big factor in my urge to create at all – I needed to work myself out and set myself in some kind of a context. I went for the self-titled album name now as a celebration of having reached a milestone on that journey and as a way of saying the process of making my music is to be thankful for having reached it.’
This third album is a place in time as much as a physical album for it is here, now that Julia Biel’s true voice is beginning to be and feel heard. Julia is found, she is here and she is amazing. Accompanying herself on either piano or guitar and contributing string arrangements, backing vocals and percussion, she also wrote 11 of the 12 songs presented on the album. The album covers many themes from loneliness, love, uncertainty to anger and she weaves her vocals in and around the themes to fill the gaps, add the emphasis and punctuate where necessary. There is that ability to be at different times intense, ethereal, beautiful and even ugly and the voice is used so well.
‘Always’ opens the CD and this is one of those relax, close your eyes and just listen tracks. ‘Always’ is sensual, laid back, totally engaging and Julia’s voice soars like a siren over the backing rolling rhythm. Emotive, heartfelt and completely beautiful, this song is built for a vocalist with a wide range and because every note is heard crystal clear, there is no allowance for error and Julia delivers a rich and wonderful performance. ‘Say It Out Loud’ brings another dimension to the music and voice too. The conversational vocals are nigh on perfect and so listenable here. The picture painted is one of working out a relationship and the vocals weaves around the complimentary musical back-drop very well.
‘Wasting Breath’ is yet another mode and mood, the gorgeous story-telling continues and this Winehouse-esque song is perfect for Julia. Here there are some of the characteristics which give Julia’s voice distinction and individuality. There is that slight down turn at the end of a note, the less emphasised final syllable and the slight slur on some of the intonation and it is all very engaging yet hard to pinpoint. Julia Biel, as I said, has very much her own style and delivery and style and whilst you cannot help but hear some Winehouse-esqe motes and Tzuke-like essences Julia’s interpretive and poetic style in her own compositions ( 11 of the 12 tracks here) is wondrous. Soon any comparisons will stop because Biel is…Biel. The perfect tone holding while sounding relaxed and almost sleepy is not easy yet Julia does it with ease.
‘Something Beautiful’ begins with soft keys before the voice enters, painting a picture of love and the growing apart of two people. Julie uses her vocal range to the full in this number, countering the depth of her chest notes with soaring high upper register melodies.
‘Critical Condition’ opens with a moody atmosphere set by drums and keys and this is continued in the melody and the tale of conflicting emotions and physicality. The number builds with layers of instrumentation and the development of the underpinning lines, over which the voice rises and falls. ‘Diamond Dust’ is a gentle, sashaying number which is lilting and rhythmic. One of the highlights is the piano solo which is pretty and merges into a lovely backdrop line over which again, the voice soars. ‘The Wilderness’ starts as a more poppy/rocky opening but develops into a low-slung ballad with words, sometimes not so clear but the lines are and that is enough here. The ending is gorgeous. ‘Feeling Good’ begins with guitar and then keys and is soft, light and delicate, the vocals painting a picture of summer. It is a great interpretation of the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse song, freshly arranged by Julia Biel with an upbeat, jazzy overtone which suits well, though it loses some of the characteristics of the original and these are replaced with Julia’s own delivery style. It provides a chance for Julia to take the notes higher and she does this whilst remaining pin-point accurate pitch-wise.
‘Dead Slept Rough’ is a cleverly structured number, opening with an instrumental section and then a change of tempo when the vocals enter to give us a tale of the dark side of life leading to wanting revenge. ‘Just like I hope you did, the dead slept rough last night’ go the words. Mean and dark but lovely and there is an anger simmering throughout this song and the backing is strong.
‘Hymn To The Unknown’ is full of emotion and power and the ups and downs of life are narrated throughout the song, bouncing back from sadness and pain, seeing pain in others and wishing for better things but feeling it is beyond our control. The simple backing arrangement contrasts well with the complexity in the vocal lines. A lovely song and one that makes you stop and think with its humanity in the lyrics and feelings conveyed.
‘Emily’ is a happy number about a girl and her different moods and expectations. Very easy on the ears and a happy number. There is a pretty musical interlude which lifts the song even more, adding a sense of frippery and lightness but ends with superb vocals, adding a slight sense of seriousness. Great number. ‘You Could Turn A Rainbow Grey’ is about relationships and how sometimes, there is nothing you can do to bring someone up from despair, ‘you could drain the colour from a summer’s day’ we are told. An interesting number to end the album and full of different moods and musical parts, slightly tongue in cheek perhaps, though I was not sure. The violin line is lovely.
In Julia’s voice, there is a resonance and depth which is rare. There is also a slight huskiness which is effective where emotional singing is concerned. It is not often a single listen is captivating, engaging and so, so more-ish but here on this album, the only thing to be done is to re-play it again once you have heard it. A quality of Julia’s voice is how her notes grow, often starting almost tentatively and then the power comes through. This is an engaging and evocative style of singing.
There is much contained, a well-structured delivery and the voice is gorgeous on so many levels. From deep -throated chest notes in ‘Something Beautiful’ and ‘Dead Slept Rough’ to high octane emotion and high octaves, in ‘Always’ and ‘Wasting Breath’ the pitch is great and there is quality here. Many of the melodies are memorable and the structure is always honed to prove a complete finish to every piece.
One final thing Julia told me was, “Much as I love performing, I’m quite an introvert really and someone probably overly tuned in to the internal world but as an album I think this is a collection of songs that presents my most outward looking collection of songs to date. Looking forward to getting the album out there and getting everyone else’s reactions! ‘I think the reactions to this album will be very positive. Simply great.
Produced and arranged by Idris Rahman and Julia Biel at Rokit Studios, London UK
Album photography by Jenna Foxton and graphic design by Klor. Sidebar Images source - and (c) info: all rights go to original recording artist/owner/photographer(s)
Pre-orders of Julia’s new album & more information go to: www.JuliaBiel.com