Julia Douglass’ wacky Minnesota-centric video for her tune “My Boyfriend’s a Genius” may serve as the Hopkins native’s official return to her home state, but the quirky and wise tunesmith is still flying criminally low under the radar. Douglass took time out from her newly busy gigging schedule (she performs Saturday at the Ginkgo Coffehouse with Frank Randall and Chris Lynch) to chat about her return to the tundra and the plight of the performing indie-folk songwriter.
MinnPost: You’ve recently relocated to Minneapolis, after two decades in New York. How does it feel, personally and musically?
Julia Douglass: Yes, I’m back after 22 years. Two years were at the Yale School of Music and then 20 years were in New York City. It feels weird; I cannot lie. I have been back exactly one year. The first year was a lot harder than I thought it would be, but the Minnesota Orchestra saved me. Osmo Vänskä is a genius, and that orchestra is probably the best in the world right now when he’s conducting. They blow me away.
I went every other week or so, and it just knocked me out. And they’re only 10 minutes from my apartment. In New York I would go to Carnegie Hall but it’d take me an hour and half to get there, then an hour and a half to get home. I mean, everything there was such an ordeal I ended up just staying in my apartment for a couple of years.
Then about six months ago here in Minneapolis I started performing and writing songs again, and I met some wonderful musicians, and a bunch of other people who were just terrific and really welcoming, and that has made all the difference in the world. I also took harmony classes at MacPhail. I love MacPhail. They were also sort of lifeline. I’m really glad I’m here now. But it took a while. Minnesotans are tough. They don’t like outsiders, and after 22 years away I was definitely an outsider. But it’s getting a lot better now. And I was always complaining about it to everyone and then they felt bad and started inviting me to things.
MP: You‘re writing songs again for the first time in a while, right?
JD: After my last record, “Poor People on TV,” which came out in 2007, I was so burned out living in New York that it was hard for me to be very creative. I felt irresponsible living there and being a musician. I felt like I should work on Wall Street and be really high-powered or something since it’s so expensive to live there.
I really like it here in Minneapolis; it’s a really creative city and I think it’s because the show-business industry is not here. You can just do whatever you want. Nobody really cares, there’s not so much industry pressure to make it, so folks are pretty original and develop their own voices, which I think doesn’t happen as much in big music-industry cities. But at the same time the songwriting community is fiercely proud of the hometown legendary heroes, so there is a standard here among the songwriters, and they really care and appreciate good songwriting, so it’s inspiring.
MP: The video for “My Boyfriend Is a Genius” is terrific. Your husband (the author Martin Kihn) worked for VH1 Pop-Up, right? Tell me about the genesis of the song and the making of the video.
JD: I wrote that song when I was at graduate school at the Yale School of Music. When I was there I “dated” a brilliant cad who basically said in so many words he was a genius, and I was not smart enough for him. (Although I doubt he was really after brains at the time). So I wrote “My Boyfriend Is a Genius” as an affectionate rebuke to the phenomenon of male overconfidence, which is in abundance at Yale. That was the first song I ever wrote. And it’s still the one everyone likes the most.
Marty was head writer for VH-1 Pop-Up Video for a while, and I auditioned as a writer for that show, but he didn’t hire me, even though we were married. I tell you, New York’s a tough town. Even my husband wouldn’t hire me.
Since I’ve always wanted to write a Pop-Up Video, this was my chance. I had to make a music video, because for some reason every singer/songwriter has to have one, so I thought of doing one about geniuses, and then the pop-up thing would just be a perfect opportunity, because music videos can be pretty hard to make interesting. I was originally going to make it in New York, but then we moved here, and I thought, Minnesota would be such a great place to make it, and just have it be Minnesota geniuses, because it would be so odd and quirky, and yet pretty cool.
Which in a nutshell is Minnesota. New York would have been so clichéd and tired and boring, and so obvious. But, Minnesota. Who are these quirky Minnesota geniuses anyway? So my sister Kathy and I made the video; she shot it, she was the director, and did the pop-ups, and we wrote them together. Look out Coen Brothers! Marty was a consultant to our project. He said we should have the pop-ups be seven seconds apart. My sister and I had a blast making it. All we did was laugh.
MP: Where was your last gig? You told me earlier it was loud and no one was listening. That’s a common refrain among songwriters these days. What would your advice be to those hardy souls, young and old, who find themselves singing to pretty much no one, or over-under indifferent crowds?
JD: My last gig was a few weeks ago at the Acadia. It was pretty rowdy and loud, and the only people there to hear me play were my parents and my realtor. Yes, that was tough. Although if you can’t beat ’em join ’em: I may have to get a Stratocaster and be a bar band.
The advice I would give to folks is to find the right audience and the right venue. So look for places that are more listening-type rooms, and publicize your show. Also, even “pretty much no one,” is still someone. You never know who is listening. I played once at a rowdy bar in NYC and thought, “Boy, this sure is a waste of time,” but there was someone in the audience who bought a CD and also wanted to use my tune on some documentary he was making. So there you go.
Also, I myself have been in the audience in rowdy bars, and I have listened to the singer, and I really appreciated what they were doing, even though they probably thought no one cared. So these gigs are just a part of it. But I would say, try to be organized about where you’re playing, and get the word out. Get in MinnPost, play on KFAI, play at the Ginkgo Coffeehouse, and play at the Guthrie! I am doing all of those things this week!
MP: Cool. If you keep at it, the rewards can sometimes surprise you.
JD: Yes. My voice teacher told me this story, about how the choir he was directing went on tour to a rural town to perform a concert there.
They got to the church and it was terrible weather and no one came to their concert. The choir looked around, and saw completely empty pews — not even their parents came to hear them. The choir was disappointed of course, but my voice teacher said, “Let’s make some music. This is a beautiful church with great acoustics, we are all friends, and we’ve worked hard to learn this wonderful music.”
The choir performed and sang their concert of sacred music to nobody. Except in the middle of the concert a door opened and a gentleman walked in and sat in the back row by himself. He listened to the rest of the entire program and then left.
A week later in the mail my voice teacher received a letter with a check for $10,000 made out to the choir. The letter said, “Thank you so much for the beautiful music. I had gotten stranded in the storm, and went into the church because I saw the lights were on. The concert was incredibly beautiful, I can’t thank you enough.”
So. Wow. Right? I completely believe this story, because my voice teacher would not make this up. This is in fact one of my favorite stories.
So I guess we as musicians just play. And even if it seems like a terrible concert, we gotta do it anyway. Because our job is to play for whoever may be listening.