I just got done transcribing an interview I did with Julianna Raye, and I don’t know if I‘m going to use any of it. Oh, we had a good chat. We talked about depression, longing, happiness and desire, about which she and I both had something to say. We talked about meditation and Buddhism and the weeklong silent retreat she was getting ready to go on with her two Zen teachers.
We talked about parents, money worries, organized religion, and about how it felt for her to spend September 11 in her Beachwood Canyon apartment alone. We talked about loneliness and pain and pleasure and brass rings and bullshit and sexuality and the record industry and her favorite singers of the moment (Etta James, Joan Armatrading, Nina Simone). What we didn’t talk about is her magnificent singing voice, which is nothing like her speaking voice, which is all she had to do the interview with, which is all I‘ve got to work with, which is why much of what follows is moot.
That’s how it is with great singers. You get them on the phone or backstage or at a coffee shop, and you talk about what goes on inside them, but it‘s often cud-twice-sung dull for the both of you, because if you’ve done your jobs, the explaining of it is like looking at a snapshot of a full bottle of wine you‘ve already downed together. Great singers tell you who they are with a nuance, a flaw, a quaver, not a pull quote. The biography may be interesting, the interview exchange may be exhilarating, but little of it is as illuminating as a single note that pushes its way up from somewhere deep in the soul-diaphragm. The rest is mythmaking, fill-in-the-blanking, which is all well and good and tempts me even now to do the poor-undiscovered-next-Eva-Cassidy-but-she’s-alive-death-to-the-evil-corporations-shame-on-the-lemmings thing here, but myths are wasted on the easily myth-led, and great singers are not myths. They are the most readily understood creatures roaming this planet; all the rest of us have to do is listen.
To great singers like Rufus Wainwright, the man with the hell-angelic singing voice who said Raye “suffers for her art” and called her “my first girlfriend in L.A.” and a “master of the throat.” His speaking voice giggled when he said that, in that irresistibly fey Rufusian giggle, because he was bored, too: talking about singing. When I told him I hear a similar caged-rat yearning at the center of both their voices, he stopped giggling and agreed: “On one hand it‘s a gift, but on the other hand it’s kind of a disease. Basically, all of our lows and problems have to spurt out of our mouths in music. It‘s a natural function.” Then he made a bad joke, hung up his cell phone and went back to watching TV in his hotel room alone.
Rufus sings a cameo with Raye on “More Wine,” which she characterizes as “a duet between Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf.” It appears on her new album, Restless Night, the very existence of which is something to howl about. In 1993, Raye, a New Jersey native, made “Something Peculiar,” her classic Jeff Lynne–produced pop-rock debut for Warner Bros. Shortly thereafter, Warner Bros. underwent a seismic power shift at the top, and Raye got dropped from the label.
So one year after National Public Radio, Spin and Entertainment Weekly raved about her, she was waiting tables and wondering what to do with her life. The music industry left her for cute-but-obsolete, but Raye eventually got back up, continued singing, songwriting, and playing with bands. “Something Peculiar” can now be found almost exclusively on eBay, but you won’t find its maker playing the same game that got it there.
“The thing that hit me was, I don‘t want to twist myself in a pretzel for this shit,” she said. “I don’t want to get desperate about this. I got so desperate afterwards, because you get scared. It‘s ’Oh my God, what am I gonna do, I don‘t have any money, I’m waitressing.‘ You start to freak out, and when you start to freak out, the choices you make are all made by that desperate urgency. And people can feel it. They feel it, you feel it, it’s awful. So that‘s when I kind of kicked into ’All right, fuck this. I want to keep making music because I love it and it‘s in me, but I don’t want to live like this. So let me try and get happy.‘”
Nice try. The other thing about great singers is that they are never truly happy; that’s why they sing. They are always desperate to some degree, always hungry, fighting off love and demons and voices in their head, practicing meditation or medication during the day to give them the strength to open a vein at night. In that sense, they are the human spirit distilled to its most elemental, which also makes them very solitary beings.
“Julianna doesn‘t remind me of anybody, which is one of the things that I like so much about her,” says Raye’s producer Ethan Johns, who has produced music by Ryan Adams, the Jayhawks and Emmylou Harris, and who started his own label, 3 Crows Music, to release Restless Night. “There are touches of [Edith] Piaf in there, and touches of Joni [Mitchell], but just hints. She‘s kind of timeless in that regard. She seems to have been born 50 or 60 years too late.”
Such is much of the charm of Restless Night, which Raye describes on her Web site as a record “for people who like to lie back and dream, and who aren’t afraid of the dark.” A moody blues of groove-cabaret and slink-pop that shares a certain hippie-soul sisterhood with such mod torch singers as Beth Orton and Shivaree‘s Ambrosia Parsley, Restless Night is all about what goes on behind the closed doors of that voice. On songs such as “The Man That Time Forgot” and “One Hour,” it’s clear that Raye is singing to someone. A lover. An ex-lover. Someone she‘d like to seduce, someone she’d like to be seduced by, someone who hurt her, someone she can‘t forget. On others, such as “Dark Night of the Soul” and “Baby Blue,” it’s clear she‘s singing toabout herself. Through it all, the voice remains willowy, clarion-clear, barely bridled.
“Every song on that record is about longing in one form or another,” she said. “I feel like the more I give myself permission to feel that longing, the more it becomes a beautiful expression of myself, as opposed to a weight I’m carrying around. It‘s actually in the resisting of it when you get fucked up.
”You get this idea that this longing is about that person, but it’s not. It‘s about this person, and that person, and that other guy. It’s like trying to stop a river. To say that longing doesn‘t have a place in spirituality is like, well, then neither does the ocean.“
The song that perhaps best defines the singer is ”Indigo River,“ which finds Raye giving in to her blues, in a decidedly not-mopey manner, and exploring her insatiable lust for life. With which comes a lust-life hangover that she sings about, with a skyward lilt, on ”Baby Blue“: ”Haven’t you heard of being too alive? Baby‘s got a heart that’s been surgically opened wideShe‘d like to wave goodbye.“
”I’m kind of a sensitive machine,“ she said. ”I get stuck in my emotions, fascinations that I have, and I feel totally overwhelmed by them. I get a pain overload and get so stuck in that feeling that I sort of shut down.“
So she sings. Solo, or with her band (bassist Jennifer Condos, drummer Jay Bellerose, and guitarists Mark Goldenberg and James Harrah). She sings at bars, cafes, theaters and coffee shops. Yes, almost 10 years after her ”A Star Is Born“ story stopped as quickly as it started, Julianna Raye sings.
”I got to a point recently where I thought, if I can‘t make it, if I stop, possibly the saddest thing about it is that it’s really only going to be a loss for me,“ she said. ”Like, I‘m the one. It’s my personal goal to communicate, and if I don‘t manage to reach an audience, they’re not going to know the difference. I‘m the only one who’s going to know what I lost.“
At that, her transcribed speaking voice laughed to keep from crying, while her indescribable singing voice waited in the wings to tell her story. You should hear it.