Engine 145 Interview: Julie Roberts
Julie Roberts is throwback. In a modern country world where Jason Aldean raps and acts eschew steel guitar and fiddle for layers of electric guitar, here sits Roberts as a reminder of all of the best parts of country music from decades past. From the minute she opens her mouth and lets loose with that soulful voice, you instantly get the feel that she was born in the shadow of the classics like Tammy Wynette and Lynn Anderson. Steel guitar and fiddle aren’t to decorate song bridges, they’re part of her soul.
Perhaps best known for her hit “Break Down Here” from her self-titled debut album, Roberts released her third album independently earlier this year. She has balanced the do-everything approach on the release of Alive and the rebuilding of her home after a devastating second story flood rescue with a healthy approach to taking care of herself. She recently took to her blog and publicly announced that she suffers from Multiple Sclerosis. When you throw in a new song partnership with NASCAR and a tour schedule filled with more charity gigs than anyone, no one can say she hasn’t been a busy lady.
Julie took a little time to discuss how she’s faring after the flood, her new album, how her health’s doing and how she’s simply following Patsy Cline’s shadow for Engine 145.
Ken Morton, Jr.: When I talked to you about a year ago for The 9513, you were about a week past being rescued from the second story of your home during the Nashville floods. How goes recovery and rebuilding?
Julie Roberts: It’s a work in progress still. It’s been over a year now. We are back in. Obviously. We moved in November of last year. So we were in for Christmas. But there are still things to do. We’re still eating off of a table that Point of Grace gave us. There is still furniture to buy and the fireplace to redo. And there are carpets here or there that you don’t necessarily need to live in your house. There are things like that to do. We moved a lot of stuff into our attic and that attic is and was just packed. And we also had a storage unit with a bunch of stuff in and finally my momma said just this past month that we had to clean this storage unit out. She was tired of paying for it each and every month. And we just finished cleaning that room out. And that was a mess. It is still a work in progress. There are days like that. Cleaning out storage rooms. Getting furniture. Stuff like that. We are still a lot further along than a lot of my neighbors who haven’t even started yet to rebuild. So we feel very fortunate to be back in.
KMJ: As you’re walking around your neighborhood and seeing those houses has to be a pretty stark reminder of that experience every day.
JR: Every day when I’m walking my dog by them, it makes me sad, because some of my neighbors have windows that are busted out and there’s still debris on my walk. Stuff from some of the houses is still out. Most people are back in and feel fortunate like we do. One of the saddest stories, I think, is that the man that rescued us who is a volunteer fireman and my neighbor. We saw him when we were walking our dogs a couple weeks ago and he asked, “Are y’all back in?” and we said, “Yeah, we’re back in, how about you?” And he said, “Yes, but we’re leaving because we just can’t afford this fix.” And that’s just so sad because he rescued almost every single one of my neighbors. And now he can’t be rescued. And that makes me sad. There are stories like that throughout the area. But for the most part, everyone is a lot closer because we know each other. Before, we all came and went about our lives. Now we have get-togethers on Friday nights. And we all know each other by name now. That’s the blessing in it. But it’s still sad that some people have so much further to go. But we’re blessed and are back in.
KMJ: You also made a big decision this last year to go public with your diagnosis with Multiple Sclerosis. How is your health doing these days and what prompted the decision to go public?
JR: You know what? I’m doing great. One thing I learned that is really important since I was diagnosed is that I have to rest. I exercise and I take care of me and put my health first. If I’m tired, I have to say, “Hey y’all, I’m going inside. I had a great time and don’t feel bad for me but I’ll catch up in our next stop.” I have to take care of me and what I need. So I’ve started to that more. I’m doing really great. Exercise is a really part of my life. I really started exercising when I got my first record deal. Because I had to. (Laughter) Because I had to get pictures made and I had to shoot videos. I had to be in shape. From having to do it, I learned that I really love it. So that part was a really big change in my life. It wasn’t really difficult when the doctors said that I had to do it. I can’t really go a day without that anyway. I just feel so much better if I get up and run or go to the gym. And it’s a social thing for me because that’s when I see all my girlfriends. That’s the one part of the day when we’re all away from our own lives. So that part of it wasn’t really difficult or a really big change. It’s really that taking care of myself and making sure I’m getting enough rest is what I have to focus on. And what made me decide to talk about it? I feel like that for the last couple of years I wasn’t really being honest with myself. The only people that knew [the diagnosis] were my mom and my sister.
One day I was driving to Charlotte for the “NASCAR Party” music video shoot. And I would do these eight-hour drives by myself a few times. I would go over there every once in awhile for meetings and it would give me a lot of time to do some thinking. And my momma was asking me, “Why don’t you ever sing songs from your second album?” I said, “I don’t know.” And when I thought about it, when I play out of town or even in town, my fans would ask for a certain song off of that album to play that night. And I would just not get to that song. Purposefully. But I hardly knew it. And then momma asked, “How come you’re never doing songs off of that record?” On one of my drives, I put it in and finally realized it was a really good record. And I started thinking about why I didn’t think it was a good record before or why I had quit singing it. That whole time period that I was making that album was the time that I was diagnosed with MS and I would go do vocals in the studio and then go that afternoon for a brain scan. Or I would have to do a spinal tap. And it was a time of my life that I think I was trying to forget. Because it wasn’t fun. And I wasn’t telling anyone. People were saying I was feeling down and that I wasn’t smiling like I used to. I was pretending like there was nothing going on because that’s what I tend to do, you know? I just felt like I had hidden that for as long as I could hide it. It’s part of who I am. It’s part of who I am. It’s part of my history. It’s the path God has made and if he wants to use me to bring awareness to it, I shouldn’t try and forget that part of my life. I shouldn’t forget about that diagnosis. I should use that in some way to help someone. So that’s when I was writing my blog, I had to first apologize for not playing those songs that those fans had been requesting. And I had to tell them that I am proud of them and that I’ll start singing them now.
One fan I have in particular, he’s at every show, asks for “First To Never Know.” Every show. And I never did it and I wrote the song. So when he came to my fan club party, I dedicated it to John. He’s been asking for that song forever now. I said, “John, I’m doing this song for you, today.” And it felt good to sing that song for him and sing it because I’m proud of it. It was time to explain to my fans that have been so loyal to me what was going on and that I’m better and that I’m past all that. I’m proud of my record and that I’ll do those songs for them and this is why. I had just wanted to forget that time of my life. You can’t forget it. That’s just part of who you are. You go through that for a reason.
When I look back on the early part of my life, I would go and sing at nursing homes in Lancaster where I’m from. At one of those nursing homes, there was a lady named Carol. And this really didn’t hit me until after I wrote that blog. But back then, I would ask my momma, “Why is she so young and still in a nursing home?” She was in a wheelchair. She was probably in her mid to late 30’s and her kids would have to come in and see her. She was always asking for Lorrie Morgan’s “What Part Of No.” I asked one of the nurses why Carol was in the nursing home and they said that she had MS. And I was young, really young. I was probably before high school, junior high school age. And being from a small town, I had never heard of it. But we connected in a weird kind of way. The day I got my diagnosis, momma called me because the doctors had called her and told her because I was in the studio. She called me when I was driving home and the first person that came to mind was Carol. I wasn’t sad that I had this diagnosis because I knew in some weird way that I was supposed to because of this connection I had with her when I was small.
When I thought more about all of this on that long drive, I thought that I’m not supposed to be shouldering this alone. I’m supposed to be helping someone or this group of people on earth that have MS like I helped Carol when I was little. It’s part of who I am and who I’ve always been. That’s a long answer to that short little question, sorry. (Laughter)
KMJ: Don’t apologize for a minute. I think it gives incredible background actually on my next question. With the flood and your diagnosis announcement mostly behind you, it seems appropriate that your brand new album is called Alive.
JR: When I first heard the song, “Alive,” I knew that I loved that one immediately. You know when you know that it’s meant to be immediately? I knew. I changed it quite a bit from the demo to suit my needs, but the lyrics just hit me. And I knew the cover of my record just had to be filled with lots of color. I wanted to wear a colorful shirt and I wanted it to be filled with greens and blues. And I knew I wanted that album to be called Alive. It had been five years since my last album and I wanted my fans to know that I’m still here. I’ve still been making music; it’s just that I had to work through these things and these setbacks to make me a much stronger person. It feels great to give them this piece of work that I’ve been working on for so long. And the setbacks caused me to have to work at night or at odd times because we’ve been working on the house or those odd things. But when I heard “Alive,” I didn’t have to think about it. It’s just perfect for me.
KMJ: From the artist’s perspective, how would you compare or contrast this album to your first and Men and Mascara?
JR: Do you mean production-wise?
KMJ: Yes. A little there but with themes, sonically and feel as well.
JR: I think if you had no idea what order the records came out in, if you didn’t know when each of the release dates were, I think I would put the new album Alive as a natural progression from my first “Break Down Here” record. I think it’s very similar sonically, lyrically and production-wise from that first record. Nine of the tracks were produced by Jason Collum, who has been my band leader for more than six years. And I didn’t even know he produced music until a friend said he was doing a bunch of stuff for film and TV. I asked him if he wanted to work together and we did the remaining part of the album together. Because he has a nice studio, we were able to work and night and at odd hours and really spend a lot of time. We didn’t use auto tune and those things that make it sound real. I thought my first album sounded real and organic. And I want this one to sound that way. I want my voice to be up front of the mixes. I spent a lot of time, like I did on that first record, in the studio. Not just on my vocal stuff, but on the guitar parts and the strings. I was there for every single second of it. I couldn’t let it go because it was so important to me. There’s a big difference between the production of this one and even the second one. The second one, because I was so busy with everything else going on in my life, I would sing the vocals and then go on the road or go to a doctor’s appointment. I wasn’t as involved. I was involved in the song process on all three. But especially the first and the third. I’ve had a couple of songs on hold for this third album since my first album. If a song is pitched to me and I really love it, but it doesn’t really fit the feel of an album, I’ll keep them on my computer. There’s some that I revisit a lot that I love. Songs kind of get forgotten about in Nashville because there’s so many of them. But some I just hang on and hope that no one else ever records them.
Sonically, I think the first and this one are more alike than the second one. I’m proud of the second one, also. But I’m most proud of this third album because I was hands-on for every single second of it- even down to how many seconds are between each track. I was there for that, even the bar code on the record. Being an independent, I had to learn that. If someone came to me and said they wanted to release an independent album, I can walk them through everything I’ve learned how to do. And I’d be happy to do it. But it’s a lot! I had to license each and every song. That was a big difference between the making of this album and the other two. I didn’t have to worry about bar codes and licenses and making sure that all the songs were even available. The label did all of that. Now, with me doing this independently, I have to do the marketing and how to get it out of my fans. Social media. Selling at shows. I’m learning a lot. I’ve learned much more on this album than each of the other two projects.
KMJ: A couple of ballads on the album like “Whiskey and You” and “Carolina From My Soul” are pure country nostalgia in theme and sound. That’s especially the case on “Yesterday’s Blue.” Do you ever feel like you were born in the wrong decade?
JR: (Laughter) Yes. I feel like that all the time. But that’s the kind of music I like to listen to. And that’s the kind of music that I always listen to. I go back and look at YouTube. I was writing this past Friday night and was pulling up stuff that I love and stuff I love listening to. I pulled up a bunch of Patsy Cline. Songs trigger in my mind and then I’ll have to stop and pull them up. I was listening to Lorrie Morgan and Shenandoah. I definitely think a lot of days that I was born in the wrong year because that’s what moves me. When someone breaks out that steel guitar? I think that’s what heaven is going to sound like to me. (Laughter) I love the steel guitar. It takes me somewhere and it makes me forget about every worry that I ever have.
I’ve said that before, “I think I was born in the wrong decade.” But people always tell me I was born exactly in the time period I was supposed to be born in. But I tell my momma all the time that I was born in the wrong time period because I like this type of music. She just tells me, “Nope, you were born when you were supposed to be born; you just like this type of stuff.” Maybe this is just the path I was supposed to be on, I don’t know. But I know this is the music I’m supposed to make because it moves me. It’s what I’ll keep doing because it’s what I’ve always listened to. I can’t be dishonest and do anything that doesn’t include the steel guitar because that’s what moves me.
KMJ: I’ve got one last question for you. You’re sitting at one of Nashville’s swankiest restaurants for a table for four. You can have three others join you and they can be past or present. Who are they and why?
JR: Oooh, good question. I would pick Patsy Cline because I love Patsy Cline. I love her music. When I was on the bus when I was traveling a lot, I would put the movie Sweet Dreams on after my shows almost every night as the bus drove to the next town. I just love her music. That’s the music that speaks to me. I would love to just talk to her. I know her husband is still in Nashville and I want to meet him. I just might get a glimpse of her through him. (Laughter) I would love to meet her. The song “Let’s Fight” on my current record was written after watching that movie Sweet Dreams a bazillion times. There’s a scene in there where she’s sort of fighting with her first husband after a show. Her husband is messing with model airplanes and he doesn’t even look up. She gets bored with it and she leaves him her mother says, “Patsy, you are so nice, why did you leave him?” And she says, “Momma, we don’t even fight.” So that is where “Let’s Fight” came from. It came from watching that movie over and over again. I love her so she’d be one of them.
Momma would be another one because she was the one that introduced me to Patsy Cline and I’d want her to meet Patsy Cline as well. And then the last one, I’d like to meet Eli Wolfe. He’s the head of A&R at Blue Note Records. I love the music that Blue Note puts out like Norah Jones and Amos Lee. I love writing that kind of music. For me, songs like “Yesterday’s Blue” and “Let’s Fight” fall in that category. And I think Norah Jones hints- especially on that first record—at Patsy Cline. I would ask Eli if I could make a record like Patsy Cline produced it. That’s what I would ask him. I’d ask him if Patsy Cline could produce my record like this and put it out on Blue Note. I’d love to make an entire record of songs like “Yesterday’s Blues” that have that nostalgic feel. And Blue Note and Eli are people that could do that. And I’m pretty sure that Patsy could help me convince him. (Laughter) And I’m sure momma could. She would be selling me to him for sure!
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