The advent of affordable home recording technology and the rise of digital distribution have led to a massive explosion of music at the indie level. It’s a subject I’ve discussed at length, but I think it bears mentioning here again, because it framed my experience of Julian Velard‘s new album, Mr. Saturday Night, pretty cleanly. The overwhelming influx of music to my mailbox meant that I let it sit for weeks in the teetering stack of to-be-ripped CDs on my desk, but — and more importantly — in the old days, an independently released record never would have sounded like this.
Mr. Saturday Night is a brilliant record — not only in terms of the songs, which are, yes, very well-written, but also in terms of the sound. Hell, even major-label albums don’t really sound like this anymore: bright and warm, with clever, intricate arrangements, thematic depth, and lyrics that toe the line between smart, funny, and emotionally affecting. It’s one of the best albums I’ve listened to all year, and I had to steal half an hour of Julian’s time to talk about it.
I have to admit, this is my first experience with your music. The album came from a publicist I trust, it has a great title and eye-catching artwork — and it still sat on my desk for a couple of weeks before I got around to listening to it. We’re all in this constant deluge of music now. As an independent artist, how do you cut through that? And to what extent do you think it’s your responsibility to even try?
Well, that’s a question that’s changing the way I make music. I’ve put out albums on my own, and I’ve been signed to a major label, so I’ve run the gamut, you know? I started out about 10 years ago, when CD sales were at their peak, so I’ve been able to watch the industry change from the inside. Really, the one thing I do to try and make myself stand out comes down to my live show, which I try to make as unique as possible. Following that path is what’s leading me on to the next step, which may not even be an album.
If you want to cut through the noise, you have to find different ways of doing things. People forget that the music business, at least as we understand it, isn’t much more than 40 years old. Before then, an LP was something you did for, you know, the soundtrack of a movie. The medium changes, and we have to change with it. That doesn’t mean you stop making music, but you can’t just expect to put a record out there and expect everything to come to you.
When I signed with EMI, I thought I’d hit paydirt. I was accumulating this massive credit card debt and just living like a total bum, and I learned that it’s often more difficult to operate in that world, because for all the advantages it brings, you’re moving as part of this big machine. Your fate is tied to the ship, no matter what. And music’s role in the culture is changing; we have to be able to adapt to that. It isn’t that I wanted to be a businessman — I just wanted to write songs. But that’s life, man. There are parts of any job you aren’t going to want to deal with. You can hope that your career turns out like, say, Justin Vernon’s, but that’s the same as trying to win the lottery.
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It’s funny that you started releasing albums at the cusp of this industry-altering moment, but you signed with one of the oldest record labels.
Oh, totally. I started playing clubs in New York around the time I graduated college, in 2001, and that was the peak year for industry revenue. It was like everything they put out was going diamond. I signed with EMI thinking “God, it’s the Beatles, it’s Abbey Road, this is amazing” — and then two months later, they were bought and restructured. And now they’re owned by the bank.
I think it’s also worth noting that, for all this discussion of new paradigms in the music business, your songs are very deeply rooted in classic pop songcraft.
That’s what I love. That’s what brought me here. I’m just a huge fan of songs, from Dylan and Springsteen to guys like Harry Nilsson, Tom Waits, and Randy Newman. And I also love musicals — Gershwin, Cole Porter. I’ve been noticing this vibe. When I started out, I used to make more of an effort to try and fit in to what was going on in terms of trends, and I’ve given up on that. It’s kind of central to the idea for this one-man-show project I’ve been thinking about — the idea that you can be hooked into technology and still be stuck in the past.
There was a real industry for music in the ’60s and ’70s, and the pop culture was such that people got together and there was a need for these things — there was a real audience for an album. It was a way of expressing yourself and getting ideas of some scope across. It produced a lot of great music that was meant for people to really experience, instead of just giving it a few minutes to fit in with everything else that’s going on.
The album hearkens back to that era in a number of ways. Most importantly, you really don’t hear arrangements like these anymore.
Oh, I’m always trying to get the kitchen sink in. [Laughs] It’s funny, because my early records are just me and a piano and maybe a trumpet, and I built a fanbase around those. So now people who have been listening for awhile hear the new songs and they say, “Can’t you just, you know, play the piano?”
I love those records. This one I wanted to really push into overdrive and add everything I could think of. Rip off a Sly Stone tune, make a weird Leo Sayer song…I set out to do every nerdy thing I’d ever dreamed of. And the concept came, basically, off the back of getting dropped by EMI. I was so angry, so frustrated by the situation. I created an album I really believed in, which was The Planeteer, and it got shelved and messed with, and then I got it back, which is the type of thing that goes on with almost everyone who ever signs to a major.
So to cope, I invented this weird Catskills comedian, Lenny Bruce-type personality who’s a complete asshole, but he’s always smiling. The only way I could get through was to make a joke of it. I think the reason the album comes at you with all that stuff is that there’s a lot of anger in there.
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I think that kind of dissonance is crucial to a lot of really great pop music.
I agree, and I miss that. The idea that there’s any additional level to a song is totally lost. It’s too nuanced for this market.
What’s your writing method for all this? Do you go out to the shed and clock in every morning, or do you just wait for it?
There was a time when all I did was write. I went through that. It’s changed over the years. The songs on this record really came out in a blast — it was three months of writing when it all came out. Now, I feel like it isn’t so much that I’m waiting for inspiration; it’s more that I’m waiting for a project. I’ve written every type of song I want to write. I’m not into just sitting around and writing a song because I think it’s nice — it needs to have a purpose. I want to tell a larger narrative. If I know why a song has to exist, I can write one right now; that’s part of the skill set I’ve acquired over the years.
But without direction, I feel like it starts to get watered down. I went through a period where I did a fair amount of writing for other people, and going through that process of coming in every day and working with these artists, I started to feel like I was rubbing my muse in the dirt. There are guys who can do it, and they’re amazing at it. I don’t take anything away from it at all, but I started to feel a little bit numb, and my sense of taste started to feel a little bit off. I love the act of creation so much, I really want to feel like I’m sitting down for a purpose — I’m writing an album, or a musical, or a song cycle. Whatever. Otherwise, after awhile, it starts to become self-indulgent.
It’s funny that you say all this, because on Mr. Saturday Night, you come across as very much a craftsman. For example, the first time I listened to “Sentimental,” I thought “Oh wow, that’s a lost Hall & Oates song” — right down to those stuttering vocal pads between the chorus and the verse. That’s the type of song Daryl Hall forgot how to write sometime around 1990.
Yeah, totally. Exactly.
So using that song as a specific example, what’s your approach? Are you just a conduit for the stuff you’ve loved, or are you purposely assembling something to fit that ideal?
Right, right. This album does have elements that are one step removed, where I’m presenting this character and the sort of songs he’d write. There are emotional tunes on the record, and more straight-up singer/songwriter tunes. My last album is all that stuff — it’s very much me. Doing it this way…I don’t know if it’s me becoming more of a craftsman or just setting aside a part of myself to write these things. It gives you freedom to create, but there is a tradeoff. Raw honesty and craft don’t usually go together; sometimes you just have to go through something and make it.
Sometimes I think if I had achieved major worldwide success with my first few albums, I might still be making those kinds of records. I may make more of them down the road. I don’t know. I wonder what might have happened with Dylan if Freewheelin’ hadn’t been a hit, he might have changed his approach entirely.
“Sentimental,” especially, is so…I really wanted to make a song that I could hear over the speakers in CVS and not know if it was recorded in 1982. I love that shit. I have such a sweet tooth for Dr. Hook and the Little River Band, all that stuff.
Yeah! I’m on a weird Christmas compilation record with David Pack. I was totally buzzing on that. But yeah, that’s the kind of album I wanted to make, that had room for all these things I loved, and what I’m enjoying now is hearing people’s reactions to it. People hear “Sentimental” and wonder, “is he for real?” It was actually a hit on smooth radio in the UK. It lived in that Kenny G zone for a second, which I thought was awesome. There are three layers to it — there are people who love the song, there are people who don’t get it at all, and then there are people who understand what I’m trying to do as a songwriter and recording artist.
Has gaining the ability to exert that level of control over your songcraft changed your relationship with the music that made you want to be a songwriter in the first place?
I don’t know. It’s interesting. It’s like…for example, the other day I heard “The Fool on the Hill,” and the really analytic part of my writer’s brain thought, “Hey, this isn’t that good.” [Laughs] And I had to check myself. But I think with some of those guys, like Lennon, the meat of what they did was so strong that the stylistic way it moves is sort of irrelevant. The hook is in there. There are McCartney tunes you can dismiss and say they’re fluffy garbage, where he’s just striking a pose. I think that’s the kind of thing I’ve become more aware of, is affectations.
You even hear it in someone like Springsteen, where half his catalog is amazing, and the other half is just him talking about his own bullshit. Or Randy Newman — there’s a lot of his stuff that I love, but in a lot of ways, you could say he doesn’t take many chances. That’s why, for me, in a lot of ways, it always comes back to Dylan. He just doesn’t care. He’ll make something totally terrible, then turn around and make something unbelievably brilliant. I admire that level of fearlessness.