Like many artists, Electra Day, the alias of singer-songwriter Julie Hampton, gains inspiration from her surroundings. Her latest album, Quiet Hours, draws from her travels of the past 11 years to places ranging from Berlin to the Mojave Desert. Her sound reflects this solemn contemplation, the wonder of new territory, and the sheer joy of discovery.
Here, in her own words, she explains the genesis of her music along with the songs gleaned from particular landscapes and moments frozen in time. Digging inside her mind is pure poetry, and she paints vivid pictures that complement her folk-tinged sounds.
Upstate New York
Of my travels — or rather the telling of them in regards to my songs — let me say, to quote Ralph Ellison in the opening of his first novel The Invisible Man, “The beginning is in the end and lies far beyond.” So this rendition does not exactly follow sequential travel time so very neatly as impressions do tend to become memories stored until needed, leading to creative expressions at any time along the way.
My travels started in upstate New York where I was born and lived til the age of 10. My experiences there were indelibly marked by its natural beauty and open vistas along the Niagara Frontier in the days before Lyme disease, when children were free to run and romp outdoors at will and fall deliriously to the ground until the world became steady again, and luxuriate there under God’s delicious great big blue and white canopy, losing themselves in the endless transmutations of cloud shapes, while being held securely by the earth in her soft summer bed of thick grasses.
My family was to move a lot through my time with them, but the one common denominator significant to me was always the big sky overhead and the warm supporting and welcoming earth underneath as I continued my atmospheric observations in West Virginia along the banks of the Ohio River and then more interior to the center of the state in the Appalachian mountains.
This was followed four years later by another move to tidewater Maryland, a place profoundly etched and shaped by the Chesapeake Bay with its continuous supply of opulently stacked cloud formations moving in from the Atlantic Ocean. However, it was much later in my life in 2006, while living in the Gulf Islands off the coast of mainland British Columbia, a place dominated by it’s sweeping and cloud-burgeoning skyscapes, and there reading and watching a lot of books and DVDs by Eckhardt Tolle marked by his precise and revolutionary conceptualization of form and formlessness, that all that led me like a homing pigeon through all the there-to-fore witnessed skyscapes back to my upstate New York original childhood impression of the sky, so inextricably tied from first inception on with my natural sense of my own true self as something no different and as spacious and infinite as the very blue of the sky I was so immersed in.
During a portion of my years in Berlin, Germany, from 1999–2001, I traveled off and on to Joshua Tree, California, to a Vipassana Meditation Centre out in the Mohave Desert. I wasn’t a very dutiful student of meditation. Often rather than going promptly to the zendo and listening to the evening Dharma talks, I preferred to linger outside, watching the evening sunset displays unfold, as dusk tinged the by-comparison bland sun-drenched desert scenery of the day into evening’s multitudinously varied and deepeningly rich colorful expressions replete with the ominous silhouettes of the odd-shaped Joshua Tree rising up to the sky like outstretched hands out of the desert floor, and the swift-moving dark shapes of hungry swooping birds of prey whose wings were heard to clearly slice through the air as they flew close in overhead.
But sometimes I did make it to the zendo on time, forgoing the display, the soft mutations of the pastel desert’s evening palate coupled with the slow crescendo of coyotes yipping out on the desert, to listen in to what my meditation teacher might have to say. It was on one such evening that I arrived at the zendo in time to hear her particular phrasing of the words ‘not against it or for’ in the context of her main teaching — that of “impermanence.” Much later, back home in Berlin, plucking my guitar strings and sifting through my desert impressions gave rise to the song inspired by those Mojave Desert sunsets, “Not Against It or For.”
The Gulf Islands
Jumping ahead now in my travels, I want to talk about the “Falcon’s Gaze,” which is a shamanistic “tool” used to cause a shift in consciousness into an awakened state. I first heard about this while living, on and off for eight years, in a cabin in a wooded setting on the Gulf Islands off the coast of British Colombia. The cabin had many windows through which to peer into the woods and watch the light changing on the trees and the many busy creatures that made their home there.
It was in this setting around 2012 that I was listening to a recorded talk called “The Falcon’s Gaze,” which refers to the ability of some falcons to be able to stare into the sun without averting their eyes. In the talk, the listener is asked to go through an exercise whereby they bring their attention to some visual seen through a window and then to be aware of that which is aware of the visual, and then to bring their attention to something closer indoors and to be aware of what is aware of that and then to continue this exercise with some distant sound that brings itself to awareness, and then some sound closer at hand, and then the feeling of where they are sitting as their bodies make contact with the couch and their feet with the floor, all the time referring back to what is quietly aware of that which is aware of what is being perceived.
Thus in the quiet shadowed and slanting sun-shafted vibratory atmosphere of the late afternoon light permeating my cabin, and the rising dominance of the present moment in my field of awareness, the first few stanzas of “Falcon’s Gaze” made themselves known to me.
Before moving to the Gulf Islands, I had been living in Berlin for 12 years. It was a place I landed after leaving Seattle in 1994, at odds with the pervading impoverishment of a sad and vacant culture glutted to saturation with materialism. So many many things were gifted to me in Berlin that I cannot begin to go into here, so let me just say that my time there and how it led to my personal growth and later shaped my songwriting is something in heart I am eternally grateful to Germany and its people for.
It was in Berlin that I first got a steel-string guitar just because I felt like I wanted to sing and had lost touch with a part of myself that in more formative years had been so easily given to song. I got some songbooks of my favorite songwriters of the past out of a library there but quickly found myself frustrated with the lyrics of others in that they really didn’t speak for me anymore and I wanted to write my own songs.
I wasn’t sure how to go about that, although I did sometimes write poems, but did get some insight into that one evening when a friend and I went to see a film about Johnny Cash which had just came out called Walk the Line. We arrived early and sat for some time in the auditorium listening to a mix of Johnny Cash that the theater owner had put together. They weren’t his greatest hits; they seemed to be more obscure stuff that highlighted Cash’s ability to create something very, very beautiful out of utmost simplicity and sparsity of instrumentation.
I was, needless to say, very awestruck by that experience, and that coupled with a scene from the film, whereby his prospective producer explained to Cash, after having heard without much interest his band go through one of their songs for him, that the kind of music he wanted from Cash was the kind of thing Cash would say about his life if he were at the point of, say, lying in the gutter and someone saw him and bent down to ask him what it was about his life that he could say that would really speak for the essence of it.
All this encouraged me shortly thereafter, thinking about my life and it’s challenges and my early days leaving home after college and heading out to Boulder and the vast rich sweeping emptiness of the western slopes of Colorado, to write “From Boulder to Oblivia” (“Oblivia” here meaning forgiveness).
The German reverence for stillness and nature, pouring out of the pages of Geothe and 19th-Century German romantic literature, is ancient and is still notable in the Germany of today and was played out for me time and time again during my stay there in varied and beautiful ways that I would love to have more space to elucidate. But for now, let me just say that in this respect I found a kindred spirit in the Germans and felt lucky to be in Berlin, the greenest city in Europe, filled with trees and many big parks and lakes.
In autumn, it’s an experience of enchanting splendor to be there in the thick of the turning gold and orange falling leaves. From my apartment in Kreuzberg, the lovely wooded outlying lakes were only a 20-minute train ride away. I often went out there any time of the year to be among either the light-filled and uninhibited impressionist scenes of summer bathing by the lake, or the budding and new growth of spring, the skating in winter, or her never-disappointing autumn display.
It was after returning home from the train station on my bike one evening, still enlivened from having witnessed for the majority of the afternoon the graceful ballet of falling leaves at a lovely wooded lake setting, that I saw a rather old blind couple, canes in hand, so obviously still in love with one another, making their way down my street with the rush-hour pedestrian traffic, but yet, in a timeless warp all their own.
Also out of my Berlin days, and with the theme of looking back and “telling my own true story” came the song “Endlessly Rocking,” which, though not intentional at the time, became a kind of tribute to some of the people and forces that had shaped my development in life, beginning firstly of course with the poetry of Walt Whitman (also born like myself in New York state in the last week of May), to which the line “out of the cradle endlessly rocking” refers back to.
Back to the Gulf Islands
The Gulf Islands, stretching out north to south in the Straits of Georgia between the coast of mainland British Columbia and the extensive breadth of Vancouver Island to the west, affords much beautiful natural scenery, including lone stretches of delicately curved white sand and driftwood beaches, quiet Douglas fir and cedar-forested mountainous and rocky terrain, snow-capped mountains, and distant clustered glacier peaks, the obelisk of the earth’s curve seemingly floating for hundreds of miles panoramically on an expansive blue ocean vista dotted at closer hand with the intriguing presence of differently sized and shaped green-treed islands, each imbued with their own seemingly alive character.
The watery disk mirroring the blue and perpetually changing cloud-bedecked dome of sky above is enough in itself to remodel anybody’s sensibilities. If you are out on a boat or take ferries a lot, which you have to do if you live there, it really gets into your blood, and in my case, found its way back out again in the form of the “Ferry Song.”
The seascaped watery world of the Gulf Islands and the Great Northwest in general, with climate change really making itself undeniably known around 2007, became very prone to intensive wind storms which I would get through at night by throwing my mattress over the railing of the loft in my cabin to the floor below to get some distance and imagined shelter from the intense bombardment of pine cones and branches and all manner of fearfully visualized natural weaponry on my roof while the wind whipped around my cabin for hours at end at times toppling tall trees with loud thuds and crashing, though none thankfully hit my roof, although there were others who were not so lucky.
During this time, I wrote “October Nights,” which relates, in my mind, to a scene from the book Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston where a group of sharecroppers is huddled fearfully together at night during a hurricane in their flimsy cabin of which she says, and I paraphrase, “Though they seemed to be staring intently at the dark, their eyes were watching God.”
Northern New Mexico
It rains a lot in the Gulf Islands during the winters, especially during the winter of 2010 when it seemed there was no blue sky to be seen for months on end. Thus, my last two years in the Gulf Islands were broken up by two long, six-month stretches in northern New Mexico in the High Sierra Desert outside the Santa Fe area.
The house where I stayed was ruralish with so many windows that I began to see it as a small observatory out on the desert in the night. The windows and the thin atmosphere of the desert at such a high elevation made for a staggering nighttime starscape whereby the stars seemed to burn more completely through and there were so infinitely more of them to behold that it was intoxicating to watch and it was in this magical desert atmosphere that “Romance of the Stars” seemed to write itself.
There were other songs that I wrote there on the desert, in Berlin and on the Gulf Islands that I have not recorded as yet but plan to hopefully this year here in this quiet southeast corner of Iowa, land of the rolling prairies and woodlands, but unfortunately more cornfields these days, especially as you move more centrally away from the borders.
Iowa, in the language of the early indigenous people here, means place of big yawns as in contentment and for us today it is known as the Heartlands. So a restful and pleasant place to be, to integrate my travels and so to refine and bring this ongoing project of 11-plus years to more of a completion.
Electra Day hopes to release the second album of the Quiet Hours project later this year. For more information, visit her website.