The great leap forward
Julie Christensen takes us to Where the Fireworks Are
By Brett Leigh Dicks 05/17/2007
For Julie Christensen, music is all about being heard. No matter if her voice is soaring passionately in complement to Leonard Cohen’s laconic rasp or brazenly recounting her disillusionment with the current state of the world on her latest album, Christensen’s musical desires all stem from a steadfast desire to communicate. It has been that way for as long as she can remember.
It is that simple objective that continues to fuel and propel the various undertakings the Ojai-based singer-songwriter so fervently embraces. Over the last few years, she has been touring the world with the likes of Nick Cave, Lou Reed and Beth Orton as part of Hal Willner’s Leonard Cohen tribute concerts; she also features prominently in Lian Lunsen’s Cohen documentary I’m Your Man. Last year, Christensen released a recording where she sauntered her way through a collection of old standards, and she is about to follow that up with Where the Fireworks Are, an album of her own evocative compositions.
“As an artist, I don’t think you ever lose the desire to get heard,” Christensen says. “That’s really what gave rise to this new album, and it’s what music has always been about for me. It doesn’t matter whether I was dueting with Leonard Cohen on ‘Joan of Arc’ while touring the world or singing ‘Wishing on a Star’ in an a cappella group for people who were waiting in line to visit the Queen Mary; for me, it all comes from the same place. It’s all music. It’s all about communicating. And it’s all part of the same incredible journey.”
The starting point for the most recent leg of that journey could not have been any more exacting. Christensen has long maintained a fertile and active social conscience, so much so that she decided to delve headlong into voter registration for the 2004 federal election. The reality of the outcome seemingly became too much of a burden for her to bear. Across the recent past, her songwriting had not been as prolific as she had wanted. But the prospect of more of the political same, and its accompanying social ramifications, soon provided the spark that would ultimately ignite a compositional firestorm.
“In the buildup to the last elections, I felt really strongly that the current administration shouldn’t be allowed to stay and do another four years worth of damage,” Christensen says. “Then the elections went the way they did, and all these songs just came out. I really hadn’t written all that much for a while. Normally I have to be depressed or have bad luck in love before the urge to express myself will override everything else. The last time I had been this creative was when I was dumped. And that’s how the election made me feel: I felt like a jilted lover.”
Her political rejection quickly led to musical salvation. Christensen turned to the Santa Barbara-based Headless Household collective to help guide her vision. Recorded in Tom Lackner’s mountainside studio, the album radiates in poignancy, yet shimmers in sublime beauty. From the heart-wrenching title track, which serves up an aching does of harsh reality, to the cascading piano that drives the plaintive “Something Pretty,” Where the Fireworks Are is a collection of songs spanning the emotional spectrum. It provides an evocative musical chariot for Christensen to weave her vocal magic.
In being swept along by Christensen’s current musical voyage, one could be forgiven for overlooking some of her former musical credits. She has fronted infectious swamp rockers Divine Horsemen; sung with musicians as diverse as Iggy Pop, Steve Wynn, Melissa Manchester, k.d. lang and Van Dyke Parks; and, of course, performed as a vocalist with Leonard Cohen on his last two world tours. So when she was engulfed by the urge to express herself in song again, she turned to the latter for some initial support and guidance.
“One of the first songs that came was the one that eventually became the title track,” Christensen recalls. “I started writing it a few years back around the time of Independence Day. I asked Leonard Cohen to help me write because he was the only person I knew who could give it the weight that it deserved. But when I told him the opening line, which goes ‘Between my thighs/Is all my country,’ he responded, ‘I can’t help you there, darling. You got yourself into this one, so you’re on your own.’ But, in the end, that one just propelled itself forward.”