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On the surface, Melbourne based singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist JULITHA RYAN has released her second solo album, THE WINTER JOURNEY. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find a tale of triumph, one that should inspire any independent artist who has struggled to the point that they’ve felt like giving it all away. I’m not talking financial windfall here or an incredible leap in public acceptance of her music (not yet anyway) but a powerful personal victory, the kind which simply gladdens the heart. Greg Phillips explains.

For most, the first indication of Julitha’s significant talent came via her contribution to respected, legendary Melbourne instrumental trio Silver Ray. Her dramatic, cascading piano notes played a pivotal role in the band’s sound, crashing against the walls of Cam Butler’s menacing, eerie cinematic, guitar licks and Brett Poliness’ deft percussion work. Silver Ray released four magnificent albums over a six year period and must go down as one of Australia’s most criminally underrated acts. Their last epic statement was their 2007 release, Homes For Everyone. Since that release Cam Butler, continued to champion the spirit of Silver Ray with the grandoise musical themes of his own solo projects. Meanwhile, Julitha kept her toe in the water, contributing quality keyboard and cello parts to other local indie artists’ gigs and recordings.

As many Australian musicians can relate to, producing acclaimed and respected music doesn’t automatically equate to financial gain. While there’s no doubt Silver Ray produced world class music, it didn’t really pay the bills and certainly post-Silver Ray, it was a day job, rather than any musical pursuit that Julitha relied on heavily to survive. Creating artistic greatness with little or no reward for such a long period can be emotionally taxing too. Add the loss of both of her parents and it’s not surprising that Julitha was overcome with great sadness and bleak thoughts of the future. It became painfully obvious that she was struggling.

luckygirlIn one last accumulation of courage, Julitha summoned enough energy and resources to create a solo album, the one thing on her bucket list that she knew she just had to complete. In 2012, She released her debut album, The Lucky Girl. The album received some positive feedback, allowing her to play a series of gigs in support of it but having achieved her goal, then returned to the day to day struggles of an independent artist.

“With Lucky Girl, in my mind it was going to be my final statement,” she says on reflection. “It really felt like that. After 30 years at the coalface. My parents had died and I thought this is my statement … and it was and is. Musically, It encompassed everything I wanted to do. I didn’t think I had any more in me. I didn’t think there was any more in the tank.”

Fast forward to February 2017 and nobody is more surprised than Julitha herself, that she has released a second solo album The Winter Journey. Created with a bunch of Italian musicians who she barely knew 12 months earlier and armed with only a smattering of Italian language skills, Julitha has delivered a tour de force. In terms of production, songwriting and arrangement, The Winter Journey stands head and shoulders above her previous effort. Not only that, she’s about to embark on a 10 date Italian tour to promote it.

“I can’t believe it’s in 3 dimensional form,” she tells me while shaking her head. “I had just started recording Lucky Girl and thought, I’m never going to tour overseas. I am too old. It’s not going to happen. Then at the end of 2013 I wrote to this guy Henry Hugo, who I had only met through Myspace! He had contacted me because he had seen my name on a Hugo Race record. I wrote to him and said, well I am vaguely thinking about coming to Europe and he wrote back and said, Jules I will come with you. I’m thinking, I don’t know this man. I don’t know what that would be like. So I get off the plane in Zurich … I’d been on planes for 28 hours and there he is. We hit it off straight away. So he said, we’ll drive to Milan, I know a drummer we can play with down there. It was all completely by chance. Italy was always some beautiful dream in my mind and I mean, it is but who would have thought. It just confounds me and then to play there … Straight away I played in small venues but they were packed with all sorts of people. They were as fascinated by me as I was by them, so I went back again the same year.”

The idea to record another album had emerged while on her 3rd tour of Italy but didn’t get off to an ideal start. In fact the genesis bares no resemblance to the finished product whatsoever. Julitha had asked her Italian guitarist Pier Adduce to book a studio for a few days, thinking she could get in there and workshop some songs. The Italians however had a different modus operandi in mind.

“I was in tears from terror,” she recalls at the first day in the studio. “I didn’t have a song completed in my head. I was thinking we would get into the studio and have a play together. I get to this place and it’s a tiny room with a digital keyboard and a chair and a guy behind a desk. He says ok, today we do the piano and all of the songs to a click track. I didn’t even know the songs. I sat there with two of the other guys breathing down my neck and I literally made all the songs up on the spot. I had a vague of chords and choruses but really they weren’t written, so I did them all on that day. Then he said ok, let’s do some vocals, so I’m there making up words. The next day the drummer went in and he did some things. It was kinda fraught.”

Things only got worse from there. After a stressful day in the studio, driving back across Milan on the chaotic freeway, a flat tyre forced them to pullover on an illegal portion of the road.

“A man came up and asked me if I was ok,” she explains. “My friend was looking in the boot and meanwhile someone jumps in the front seat. They were going to take off with the car. Henry Hugo, he’s Argentinian … yelled and scared the shit out of them. It was two minutes and we could have lost all our gear and that was the first day of recording.”

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Julitha returned to Australia soon after, faced with the prospect of completing the album via email, entrusting her music to producer Giovanni Callela, a guy she barely knew. Some brass, cello and backing vocal overdubs were completed by Julitha and Idge Hehir (who had produced The Lucky Girl) at Soundpark studios nearby her home but essentially, the crux of the album was being created by sending files back and forth to Italy via email.

“Giovanni doesn’t know me at all and he would occasionally send me his ideas,” she laughs. “I had never experienced this before. I was giving my work to somebody on the other side of the planet who I don’t know. But that was the point, that’s what I wanted to do. The Lucky Girl was very much in my comfort zone. I was in a beautiful studio that I know. I was working with Idge who I know so well and this was the complete opposite. I remember that I had to send Giovanni some files, I think they were 20 gigabytes. It took 50 hours to load on We Transfer and I remember being worried my computer would blow up or I would lose power or something. The thing with language is that it’s not so bad to say the big things but it is very easy to get a negative wrong. I would say don’t put the cello there and he’d come back and say I put the cello right where you asked me … where I said not to. So you can’t really deal in nuances, they’re painfully difficult to get across. I’m at home completely alone with headphones and going ‘I do not know what I am listening to’, having nobody to bounce it off at all, except these mysterious Italians on the other side of the world. It was terrifying.”

Faced with such a difficult method of creating an album, Julitha began to question whether it was worth continuing at all. The turning point came with an email from Giovanni.
“At some point I wrote to Giovanni and said I want to give this up, my voice sounds terrible blah, blah,” recalls Julitha. “He said no, no, no and I think this was the only time he said something on a personal level. He said your voice is strong and expressive and we love it and that was a turning point for me because up until then I thought, he’s just working on the tracks of some obscure person. So I thought ok, there is something invested in this for you too and that was a turning point. Even very late in the process, I was still unsure about it all. The last track is ten minutes long. Giovanni mixed it and I kept saying no, it’s wrong. I wrote it while I was driving. I love driving long distances. I was driving through an absolute thunderstorm and the moment I got back I recorded this thing in my head. The song is called There Is No Turning Back and it was a very strong emotion for me. I just thought that was the one song perhaps the Italians couldn’t understand … that Australian vision of the long straight road ahead. I did worry about deciding to mix There Is No Turning Back in Melbourne as Giovanni had already put so much effort into it and I was concerned about offending the Italians. In the end after a 46 hour mix, I am absolutely certain Giovanni was happy for us to do it, although I walked around Melbourne all winter just terrified. Giovanni was really wonderful though and they were all tremendously welcoming; the fear was entirely in my heart! I was worried I would let them down, and felt incredibly under-prepared when I was presented with the way in which we were to record but I could not have achieved it without Giovanni of course.”

coverDespite the album’s fraught origins … the sketchy initial song ideas, the language barrier and sheer drama involved in the creation of it, The Winter Journey has manifested as a triumphant work of art for Julitha Ryan and her band of curious Italian brothers. As it turns out, Giovanni and co’s methodology may have been alien but their musicality cannot be questioned. Featuring some tricky time signatures and intriguing sonic soundbytes, the album rocks one minute, tugging at the heart strings the next, but always perfectly complementing Julitha’s heartfelt tales of truth. Not only does the album showcase Julitha’s songwriting strength, arranging skills and high level of musicianship but it also uncovers a brave, warts and all story of an independent artist dealing with loss and sadness. From the album’s opening line “Nothing between me and death” from the autobiographical single Bonfire to the sheer desperation revealed in Something’s Gotta Give, Julitha bares her soul. Dedicated to fallen Cruel Sea guitarist James Cruickshank, the album places oft-overlooked dark subjects under the microscope yet emerges as one joyous, triumphant and fabulous journey, one that nobody saw coming, least of all Julitha Ryan herself.

“That’s why this record to me is like … wow,” she exclaims”. “I thought there was nothing left! It’s a very different feeling now compared to when I finished The Lucky Girl. This time I feel like that it is not the end, it’s a continuum. Late last year I even recorded a solo piano album, so a couple of those tracks will be available if you download The Winter Journey. So I want to do more, record more stuff. I’ve had several reviews in Italy that have been very positive and I just want to do so much more.”

The Winter Journey is out now. Buy it here

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