How it’s New York: Julie Feeney is playing Joe’s Pub tonight; she’s done a residency at Irish Arts Center, and her performance-art theatrical, intelligent and emotional music is right at home here.
How it’s Irish: Julie is a Galway girl, and her new CD Clocks delves into her family’s history.
This review originally appeared in Irish Examiner USA, Tuesday, June 11/
Take off your watch when listening to Clocks.
Julie Feeney’s latest CD puts you into a place where time just doesn’t matter, regardless of the fact that time makes its way into several song titles, “Just a Few Hours;” “Moment;” even “If I Lose You Tonight.”
Her third CD, which came out in Ireland in the autumn, and officially debuts in the states on Monday, June 18, has a delicious, fantastical, melodic atmosphere in its 11 songs that resists the pressure of the second hand.
The album went to #1 on Irish Album charts, and was nominated for the Choice Music Prize – Irish Album of the Year.
Julie appears at Joe’s Pub on Wednesday, June 12.
For someone so strikingly original, she’s easy to “get.”
In our review of her show at the Irish Arts Center last year, a co-production with the theatre P.S. 122, we described how the
“poetic, tug-at-the-heart-strings mood pervades her affecting performance.”
In person, she wears elaborate costumes, talks to the audience, and combines a sweet shyness with her exhibitionism, as if some inner Julie was making outer Julie do it. It puts you on her side immediately.
Feeney recorded the songs’ vocals at Kylemore Abbey Gothic Church in County Galway, and layered the instruments on afterwards.
She wanted to connect to the spirit of place for an album that is based on her family history of, as she puts it, at least six generations of Galwegians.
In Clocks, the gorgeous, happy sound of “Dear John” puts you on her side, and in Galway with her.
It starts out pensive, a woman writing a letter to a man, “I wanted to make you shine,” and then has this unbelievably uplifting chorus, “What a fantastic day,” which repeats in a scale with Julie’s warm voice singing the melody and her voice doing angelic soprano harmonies.
If you get the wonderful anticipation and joy of lovers meeting in “Dear John,” that’s enough. But there is more to get: the storytelling in this CD is grounded in Julie’s own family history, specifically of her grandparents Edward and Julia, and Nora and John.
“Dear John” is Julie’s imagining of Nora eagerly waiting for a moonlit night to cycle with John.
And the sad “Julia” expresses her grandfather’s sadness after Julia died.
The simplicity evokes grief beautifully:
“Tonight, wading in the water, Julia, Julia/And I cry out to the river, Julia, Julia.”
Did we mention there are strings plucked on the chorus too? Not just heartstrings.Another thing that sets Julie’s work apart from other pop music is the degree of counterpoint and instrumental scoring.
This is not just a singer-songwriter with a string quartet for backup (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Julie plays many instruments herself, I discovered a few years ago (you can hear her on this podcast talking about her work).
Julie conducted the string orchestra herself, and layered on background vocals and miscellaneous instruments, including autoharp, melodica, harmonium, harp, floor stumps and trumpet later. She doesn’t boast about it, but she also has degrees in Psychoanalysis, Sonology, and Music and Media Technologies.
Julie is also preparing for a concert performance of her first opera BIRD at the Galway Arts Festival this Summer.
A lot of performers have aspirations to operas and symphonies, but in Julie’s case, it isn’t wild ambition but a natural outgrowth of a musical background that is both deep and broad. Songs without explanation still tug at the heart: see “Cold Water,” in which a loved one is not dead but unreachable:
“I wish that I could unblemish your great heart’s hurt, but you choose to wallow, you choose to wallow…”
In her notes, Julie says she feels she is channeling and reiterating the feelings of at least six generations of family from Galway.
See “Galway Boy,” a little hymn to a “slightly problematic or very tricky Galway Boy,” with its upbeat chorus about a woman who “ruled as easy as water off a little duck’s back,” in between verses of love. I suspect more than one Irish couple can relate.
But I write about the lyrics mostly because lyrics can be reproduced in print.
The trumpet in “Galway Boy” and then the a capella chorus, like a kind of Magical Mystery Tour-era Beatles, think “All You Need Is Love” are what send Julie’s words home.
And it’s masterful that after this witty, calm number, we’re thrown into the simplicity of a modern Irish folk song, “If I Lose You Tonight.” It shows Julie’s strong, warm mezzo off and the simple instrumentation (pedal steel, and cajon, and I think mandolin are all-one quibble with the CD’s design is that all the instruments are listed at the end, with numbers to show what track they are on, which makes it difficult to decipher what is on what).
Going back to the theme of Clocks, the song feels timeless:
“I won’t leave you tonight My Love, until the airy ray has broken in,”
The little dotted triplet of “broken in” gives the pieces the sound of something left from the 18th Century, if not earlier. It’s just gorgeous stuff.
And then her voice changes again, into an angry indie, emo singer, in “Moment,” with a song that begins,
“After the moment you’re shot down, like a haze-inducing drown, will you eat humble pie and turn a blind eye, Oh now…”
Then the anger is touched with forgiveness. It’s a different mode-easy to imagine this one going by at Starbucks.
“Every Inch a Woman,” about someone named “Catherina,” and “Happy Ever After,” a dreamy piece about a woman who marries a king, have a sweet whimsy without quite revealing how they connect to reality – there’s even whistling in “Happy Ever After.” They might be annoying if they weren’t catchy, but there is some subversiveness too in a lyric that says, “Happy ever after’s within me” and the dark line that “somewhere someone killed something inside my heart without a trace.”Despite its sounding like a ditty, there’s more going on here, no doubt.
“Imperfect Love,” w hich concludes the album, and which Julie performed last year at IAC, is a straightforward, beautiful song, as she wonders whether she will have “taken love and let it swell, will I have dwarfed love or let it dwell,” and its choruses that have different lyrics but repeat the phrase, in descending notes “down deep,” in a fine marriage of lyrics and melody.
Imperfect love is the only kind there is, after all, and Julie makes her case for it beautifully – and perfectly.
Five stars. Endless repeats.
Julie Feeney headlines Joe’s Pub, 425 Lafayette St, on Wednesday, June 12, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets at http://tickets.joespub.com/production/?perf=21239 or at 212-967-7555.