Words by Tommy Johnson
Attempting to describe what the world feels like the minute you become a mother or father is, without question, one of the most challenging things to do. The world suddenly takes a vastly uncharted direction that you must navigate without guidance. As you take that initial inhale of air and release it, you instantaneously begin your journey with excitement you never assumed was within you until now. And you are bursting with excitement because you are also going to venture into something natural.
Julie Odell had been accustomed to packing up everything she owned and uprooting herself from place to place. This would, in turn, give her a profoundly unsettling feeling; in her own words, she was “too reckless with my life.” When her beautiful baby girl arrived, Odell took stock of what she needed to do – have a better appreciation of others and, even more critically, advocate for her needs to become fulfilled. More decisively, Odell wanted to cement herself in one spot so she and her daughter could have the opportunity to have a fruitful life.
The now New Orleans-based singer/songwriter took this long and winding chapter and created her debut album, Autumn Eve, out now via Frenchkiss Records. Showcasing a range of folksy and wistful within her vocals, Odell also integrated detailed textures and complex lyrics to Autumn Eve. In its entirety, Autumn Eve is a fascinating excursion full of richness and growth with a balance of tranquility and brashness. “Internally, I always feel either really chaotic or really calm,” Odell says about the album. “So, it’s a lot of really loud, fast-paced stuff, and then it’ll shrink down to really quiet, delicate things. I’m obsessed with dynamics.”
Off Shelf: Growing up, you and your parents worked on farms in various places. What was that experience like for you?
Julie Odell: The majority of the farm work I’ve done has been out in the field on my own. To be covered in dirt on the top of a hill in the sun, rain, and snow helped calm down all the chaos in my brain. From working with horses as a kid to pruning apple trees in my mid 20’s while pregnant to running a small oyster mushroom farm with my partner, that kind of work and nurturing is so therapeutic. I’ve got plans to one day own a small plot of land somewhere and create a food forest environment over time and keep the growing/learning process going til I die.
OS: I read that you would chase tornados with your friends because you were interested in meteorology. Having done it myself a few times, how much of a rush was it for you? What did your parents feel about it?
JO: I never actually got to chase any tornadoes; I was always on the lookout for them, though. I saw Twister as a kid and became obsessed with Helen Hunt’s storm chaser crew, so that made me believe for half of my life that I was going to be a speeding pickup truck driving, radio blasting, cussing, passionate tornado lovin’ meteorologist one day. That seemed like the most romantic, exciting way to live.
Growing up in southern Louisiana, experiencing multiple eye-of-the-hurricanes… I’ve had plenty of meteorology at this point.
OS: You discovered your passion for music when the family moved to New Orleans. Did channeling your thoughts and feelings into songwriting help ease the transition?
JO: Oh yes, very much. I was the new girl in town and painfully shy so it took a long time to get the nerve to talk to people and make friends. I’d always come home from school and write songs on an old, slightly out-of-tune upright piano until it was time to go to sleep. For years it truly became my most trusted companion.
OS: What were some artists/bands that you have looked to model your approach with lyrics and music?
JO: I’ve always loved Erik Satie and the breath in the way he composed. Rufus Wainwright was a huge inspiration to me by making things feel ever-expanding and dynamic. Beverly-Glenn Copeland, with the trance arpeggios leading into soft surprise with an extremely thoughtful expression and integrity, has been a big one. And music by Sharon Van Etton, Cate Le Bon, Aldous Harding, Nina Simone, Bill Callahan, Michael Kiwanuka, Bedouine, Broadcast, SAULT, Alice Phoebe Lou, and Deerhoof are a few that I instinctively play while I’m driving around.
Also, all my favorite bands in and around New Orleans have been highly influential alongside the traditional jazz that exists there. Ocean Boyfriend, Hemlock, Pope, The Deslondes, People Museum, Bruisey Peets, Scenic World, Tuba Skinny, and Lost Bayou Ramblers to name a few.
OS: What is something about New Orleans that you wished people would know more about?
JO: The first one that comes to mind is Mardi Gras. It’s an open art gallery for the whole community to witness your vision of magic. There’s the tourist Mardi Gras, and then there’s the local Mardi Gras where small DIY parades go through the neighborhood and everyone’s creativity gets to shine. The costumes people create are far beyond anything I could even try to explain… but it leaves you feeling like you just partied through a month-long fever dream of hugs and kisses and glitter for centuries to come. It’s exhausting and exhilarating. And once you get bit by the costume-making bug, you’ll never go back. Each year you have to top what you did the year before and all the stores run out of hot glue for weeks. This past year I painted tons of eyeballs and stitched them individually onto a pink hand-dyed silk dress, green fringe for eyelashes, and filled all the irises with chunky rhinestones. A purple wig, eyeball headpiece, and lots of glitter, and you were good to go sing and dance by the Mississippi River with everyone. The community is completely magical.
All that to say, I’m glad not many people know about those because they’re supposed to be secret, small, and so mysterious.
OS: I read in your bio that you thought you were being too reckless before your child’s birth. What were some things you were doing that made you believe this?
JO: Just typical teenage-mid 20’s stuff. You can imagine. [laughs]
OS: How much emphasis do you want to put on music and art with your child?
JO: My parents are both artists and there was no choice but to create on a daily basis. If we were bored, we were encouraged to go make something. My daughter has entered into the same type of life. There are several art projects of hers and mine around my house at all times. Growing up around so many instruments and records, she has her own musical taste and her own tiny personal vinyl collection – she loves to DJ a tiny dance party – plus a bottomless pit of art supplies. She wakes up before me most days, and almost every morning she makes puppets or paintings or wall hangings or whatever and puts them next to my pillow to wake up to. It’s the sweetest thing. I can tell it gives her confidence and joy, so it’s like a sacred practice in our house.
OS: Half of the songs of Autumn Eve were written years before you became a mother. When writing the second half, how vital was it for you that the first half had to be included?
JO: It was important to tell both sides of the story. There was definitely a significant shift and growth that happened but also a whole new level of uncertainty. I have found love for the person I was prior to this huge transition, so I wanted to honor that side and those stories. The way my band helped me rehabilitate the older songs and have new life was even more of a reason to put them on this pedestal.
OS: Did the second half of the writing process feel easier or harder than the first batch of songs?
JO: It didn’t feel much different. I just had a new set of material to draw inspiration from being a new mama. Postpartum was unlike anything I ever expected it to be, and writing was something I leaned on to try and understand what exactly was going on. My whole body and brain had been moved around and the process of going through labor/delivery was so intense it had to have altered the makeup of my entire being. I definitely have less quiet time these days to sit down and write, so most of the songs now bubble under the surface for a while and then come into being in one go.
OS: Did you alter any of the first batch of songs when you picked up writing Autumn Eve?
JO: The main alterations were just discovering how dynamic I could be with my band. I had been playing solo for years before this record and each musician who contributed to this just dove straight into making everything fit the emotion. I knew I wanted it to be chaotic and driving in some moments and tender and dreamy in others. My drummer, Jonathan Arceneaux, is a wizard when it comes to making those moments happen. It’s so natural for him. My bass player, Kenny Murphy, finds the rhythm and a groove and puts it straight into the pocket almost instantaneously when I bring in a new song. Chad Viator, who engineered and played lead guitar on the record, filled in all the gaps with his ear for soundscape and sparkle. Carolina Chauffe, aka Hemlock sang seamless harmonies on a few songs and that was like the gravy on the potatoes. Then voila – we had a record.
OS: The beauty of Autumn Eve is that your connection with creating art amalgamates within the compositions. The dynamics are intense and profoundly moving. Do you find yourself having both worlds come crashing into one another?
JO: Oh yea, they’re the same for me. I sew tapestries in a fabric collage style to make landscapes with symbols floating above or I’ll be abstract in a Matisse-inspired way. I try to focus on textures and beautiful color palettes with an emphasis on how light reflects from it all, and the more I make those, the more I realize that songwriting is so much like this collage work. It’s just a sound collage. You need the base layer, color, texture, a basic rule of thirds for the ear to draw to different sections to feel satiated, and the final touches that make it hang on the [sound] wall just right. All that work for the purpose of making a feeling happen for at least a couple of minutes.
OS: I have to say that out of all the songs from Autumn Eve, the one that stands out for me is “Caterpillar.” What are some of your favorite tracks?
JO: Caterpillar is one of my favorites too! It feels like one of the hardest to play live because of the big explosion that happens in the middle. I’m anticipating it the entire time, but once it gets to that point, it feels like riding a galloping horse through a thunderstorm or something ridiculous.
I also love “People Cheering” because of its imagery and movement. “Autumn Eve” is one of the longest – almost nine minutes – songs we play and that kind of squeezes all of my songwriting styles into one. It’s the slowest build to build into another build and another, and then it breaks into a whole new feeling and almost completely different song, but one half wouldn’t make sense without the other. It’s my birth story song about being in labor and then seeing my daughter for the first time during a blizzard while all the power was out, and then the first walk I took her on in the snow after I healed enough to move around.
OS: What were some of the biggest takeaways from the recordings with Autumn Eve?
JO: I’m a highly sensitive person. So recording these songs and putting my heart and mind under a microscope, and then turning around to find each life story be encapsulated in basically a Petri dish for anyone interested in listening/exploring has been extremely validating and terrifying at the same time. It really is all about connection, and I’m so relieved not to be hoarding songs to myself anymore. It’s freeing and I’m grateful to all the people who have encouraged me to continue.