My Songlines – Julia Messenger

If Julia Messenger‘s voice was a drink, it would probably be a gin & tonic – or rather, the first sip of a gin and tonic, the moment you meet with your friends at a bar, after a long day at work. Cool, refreshing, and with the just perfect amount of bitterness, it’s a balance of aromas and tastes that is as complicated as it seems simple. Pretty much the way the singer blends styles to create her signature sound – dominated, of course by her deceptively adolescent-nuanced tone and feline stage presence. With one foot firmly set in Melbourne and the other in Europe, she never hesitates to dip her toes into different musical waters, but it’s her forays into jazz that best showcase her talent, as it is obvious to anyone who listened to her album, ‘Live at Bennetts Lane‘. A couple of months ago, Julia Messenger displayed all that at a sold-out concert at the Melbourne Recital Centre. If you missed out, don’t worry. She’s already booked to perfom in September, which is the first certainty we have for 2018 at this stage. Here, she shares with us some of the music that matters to her – we can think of no better way to start off the new year.

What was the first album or single that you ever acquired?

I was actually a late comer to the buying of albums, but when I did, it was a second hand copy of ‘Getz/Gilberto’ in my late teens.

Before this time, my older sisters were the ones buying the albums and I was totally into Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’.

I also used to play Sade’s ‘Promise’ album over and over.

From my mum’s collection, I remember being really young, like under 4, and Elton John’s ‘Song for Guy’ was put on repeat for me. It was deeply moving. Years later, I found out it was written as a lament for his friend who had passed away.

What was the most recent album or track that you purchased?

Iiro Rantala’s ‘My History Of Jazz’ was the last physical CD I bought. I worked with him in Finland and then saw him play at the Recital Centre recently.

I also just purchased Carmen McRae’s ‘Live: At the Great American Music Hall’, which I’m loving.

Which album should be on everyone’s collection?

Hmmm… for everyone’s collection, I’d have to say Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’, as it is the quintessential jazz album for any collection.

As a vocalist, I’d also say an album of Sarah Vaughan’s. My pick today would be ‘Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown’.

Which song reminds you of the best concert you’ve ever attended?

‘Safe from Harm’ by Massive Attack. I saw them live in Berlin. They were influential in my songwriting development and the show was electrifying with deep driving bass lines and beats.

Another lifechanging concert was seeing ‘Ash Ra Tempel’ at the Royal Festival Hall in London. I’d already been working with Klaus Schulze, but I had never seen him live, so he invited me to London to the concert. I didn’t know much about him prior to working with him as he was a different generation and it was electronic. It was free form improvisation and composition with electronic sounds and atmospheric guitar and it was inspiring. When I hear ‘My Ty She’, a tune I co-wrote with him, it reminds me of this concert.

Which song reminds you of your favourite journey?

‘My Favourite Things’. John Coltrane’s version definitely takes you on a journey and I loved the original musical as a child.

Which song reminds you of your most important rite of passage?

Oh, there have been a few important rites of passage in my life, but the first one that comes to mind is Jan Gabarek’s ‘The Path’ from the album ‘Paths Prints’ and I also listened at the time to ‘All those born with wings’. To me it was other worldly and the instruments just seemed to disappear into melodic space. I’d never heard anything like it.

I was finishing high school and gaining more freedom in the world and working out my own voice.

After this, having just moved out of home, Portishead’s ‘Glory Box’ was life changing, as was the music of Afro Celt Soundsystem – can’t remember any specific songs now! I actually ended up supporting them a few years later in Ireland!

Which song best describes your relationship to your loved ones?

‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ – Ella Fitzgerald’s version is beautiful.

Which song best encapsulates your idea of jazz?

Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’. It’s laid back and cool in true west coast jazz style, taking its lazy time but pushing it also. The reverb on those ingenious drums in 5/4 is classic, understated rhythmic piano and bass and the sexy and melodic sax of Paul Desmond. Deceptively simple. This tune is perfection – where’s my cocktail?

If your life was to become a movie

…which song would be heard on the opening credits?
John Coltrane’s ‘Out of this world’. I just love this version with its hypnotic mastery – and with Elvin Jones on drums, it gets my heart racing every time. Incredible.

…which would be on the end credits?
Carmen McRae’s version of ‘A song for you’. The song is beautiful and sad and she’s a master. It’s what I’d want to say to my loved ones at the end.

…which would be on the action scenes?
Maynard Ferguson’s version of ‘Gonna Fly Now’ – hang on, hasn’t that been done?

…which would be on the love scene?
‘The first time ever I saw your face’ by Roberta Flack.

Which song do you wish you had written yourself?

At the moment it’s ‘Lush Life’ by Billy Strayhorn. The brilliance of this song has me speechless on so many levels. I can’t describe it – I just have to sing it.

Melodically, lyrically, harmonically and arrangement-wise. It blows me away that he was a teenager when he wrote it.

Which song do you wish had been written about you?

‘There will Never be Another You’ – I love Chet Baker’s version.

Which song best describes your current state of mind?

Oh, let’s say ‘Feelin Good’ for this one – Nina Simone, of course.

Plan ahead and get a ticket for Julia Messenger’s Melbourne Recital Centre ‘I put a spell on you’ show on Saturday 22 September.