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Mette Juul: Finding the Musical Sanctuary of Change

Mette Juul: Finding the Musical Sanctuary of Change
Jakob Baekgaard By

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Change has always interested me. I guess change is also an ongoing theme in my music in different ways. The fact that we can choose to change if we wish. That’s exciting and much better than stagnating. I have always used music as a stepping stone to change. —Mette Juul
Since she released her debut Coming in from the Dark in 2010, Danish jazz singer and songwriter, Mette Juul, has been on a path of discovery that has seen her in collaborations with many prominent musicians, including drummers Alex Riel and Rodney Green, bassist Jesper Lundgaard and trailblazing trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire. Her latest albums Change (2019) and New York -Copenhagen (2020) focus on the sound of the guitar and enlist Mike Moreno and Gilad Hekselman among others, but make no mistake, Juul's music isn't solo music in the sense that the goal is to sell the music by taking advantage of established names. In fact, Change started out as a private investigation, music for the sake of music, without any intentions of selling a concept or line-up. Essentially, it began as a soliloquy and became a conversation between Juul and the other musicians, including additional guitarists Per Møllehøj and Ulf Wakenius, pianist Heine Hansen and producer and bassplayer Lars Danielsson.

As it turned out, change became a theme in the music, but in a way, it has always been there, as Juul points out. She is a tireless explorer seeking new sounds, but her roots are far from the bustling big cities.

All About Jazz: Since your new album, New York -Copenhagen, mentions two cities, I would like to know about the place where you grew up. I've read that it's the town, Hornsyld, which is a tiny place compared to big cities like New York and Copenhagen. How was it to grow up there and how has that influenced your music?

Mette Juul: Life was very simple in Hornsyld, a little town with few possibilities compared to bigger cities with theatres and music venues. Everything went a little slower and the highlight of the week could be a visit to the local grill bar. However, the town is surrounded by fields and nature. I recall spending my childhood playing in the fields, but also playing with junk from the factory nearby where my father worked as a printer. So, as a child, I could play and make inventions far away from the world of adults.

I don't recall hearing much about "the world outside" when I lived there, but maybe that was because I was a very dreamy child, who often lived in my own world. This might be the origin of my creative space.

AAJ: Later you moved to Copenhagen to study at the conservatory. Could you tell about your meeting with the music scene and the city and your impression of the city today?

MJ: I love Copenhagen. The city fits my temperament well. I think there are many possibilities in Copenhagen. It has a good musical environment for jazz, nice music venues, cozy parks and charming urban areas.

At an early age, I knew I wanted to live there. But it was also a bit overwhelming moving to the city because I had lived a bit in my own world, and suddenly there was speed, bustle and big traffic lights. However, I also saw other searching souls and people with many different backgrounds seeking new possibilities.

AAJ: Did you move directly to Copenhagen from Hornsyld?

MJ: I had a stop in Odense for a few years before I moved to Copenhagen. As a self-taught musician I met many musicians from the conservatory. It was an important influence on me. When I finally moved to Copenhagen, I didn't know any musicians, so I spent many years working as a disabled helper, but I also did a bit of busking and worked as a singing waiter. I also started getting singing lessons.

I realized that I wanted to apply for the conservatory, but I couldn't read music. The musicians I knew from Odense were puzzled by my choice because they saw me as a self-taught musician and didn't see me as a good fit for conservatory. But I started to learn how to play piano and read sheet music. Later I got a job as a church singer and that improved my ability to read music and I also learned some theory. Finally, 26 years old, I got accepted at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory (RMC) in Copenhagen. It was a great gift and major upheaval. I am the first musician in my family and the first who has completed higher education.

While attending conservatory I continued playing in little cafes using only my voice and a guitar. I did that for many years. My most important musical meetings happened after I finished my education at the conservatory. I met the pianist Heine Hansen and he introduced me to the legendary Danish drummer, Alex Riel, whom I asked to play on my first record. He said yes and brought along other wonderful musicians like bassist Jesper Lundgaard and trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg.

AAJ: I would like to jump from one important city to another. The title of your new album also mentions New York. Could you tell about your relationship with New York and the experience of recording music in the city?

MJ: Coming to New York has always meant a lot to me, both as a singer and a songwriter. Meeting the city is an explosion of music in all genres where everything seems possible. My horizon broadened in New York, especially the first times I was in the city. I was very inspired by the musicians I met. I feel this meeting has also helped me find out who I am as a musician. I'm very fond of New York and I always look forward to my next visit.

AAJ: When I think about New York, I think about a certain vibrant and restless vibe that is very far from the calmness I often hear in your music. Could you tell about the relation between restlessness and calmness in your music?

MJ: I have had a lot of restlessness, or rather impatience in my life. It's like this kind of energy which is present all the time. I especially felt it earlier in my life where I also had a lot of stress. Music has always been a sanctuary for me. I also remember it from my childhood when I heard my mother sing naturally without any kind of ambition. It was nice just to be in the song. Today I feel less stressed, but happily the energy is still there. The wish to explore.

I find great joy in music that breathes freely and provides a space for the listener. I experience that living nowadays is generally more hectic with a lot of input from social media and busyness rather than absorption and calm. Unconsciously perhaps, I seek balance and a room for reflection, but I also love music that grooves so much your body can't stand still. I would also like to record that kind of music in the future.

AAJ: Wrapping up the discussion of cities, are there other cities you are fond of and do you find that specific places provide inspiration for your music?

MJ: I am sure I get inspired unconsciously no matter where I am. But there are cities that continue to inspire me a lot, like NYC, mostly because there are so many creative directions, it's so multicultural, and that's a quality I like a lot.

I was in a tiny Danish town some years ago, and it seemed like they had given up somehow, so as a guest you didn't feel welcome. The place was so incredibly beautiful so I could not help but thinking that they had forgotten their own potential as a town and citizens. It inspired me to write a song that is not finished yet.

AAJ: Speaking of songs, you are both a writer and interpreter of songs. I would like to know about your process of composing.

MJ: Returning to my own musical roots has been very important to me as a songwriter. For many years, I felt rootless as a human being. Knowing and accepting your origin, no matter what it is, is important if you write music. At least it is to me.

There is a fine balance between writing about things I know about, or has experienced, and writing lyrics others can relate to, perhaps it's the most important thing for me as a songwriter. A song that comes to mind in this regard is "Roll Roll," which was recorded in 2015.

AAJ: What is the most frustrating and joyful thing about writing a song and how often do you write? Could you imagine not writing your own music?

MJ: Writing is an important part of me. It makes me grow both as a songwriter and interpreter of other people's music. When I write I'm in an open space where every door is open. It's an exciting place to be. Here, I might experience new aspects of my voice that I didn't know before.

I'm always in the process of writing songs. But I'm not always writing them. Sometimes the songs I write are just part of a larger process and they never make it to a record. Right now, I have heaps of sketches in my windowsill, but when I have just released music I seldom write. It's as if an empty space is needed after a record to make room for something new.

AAJ: As opposed to Change (2019), your latest album, New York -Copenhagen only consists of covers. Was this the plan all along? The album is billed as a companion piece to Change. Could you elaborate on the connection between the two albums, as you see it, and perhaps also talk about Change?

MJ: From the beginning, it was supposed to be a love letter to the guitar and the world of standards, but then several of my own new songs seemed to fit in. I did not know from the start that there would be two records as a result of the project, but now it really makes sense. It has been a great pleasure recording the music. I feel so blessed that I'm recording with such wonderful musicians.

When I picked the songs for Change there was so much material that it was clear that it could be two independent releases. For instance, I thought the recordings with guitarist Mike Moreno should be on a separate record. From the start, I wanted the process to be open without specific goals. There was something I wanted to explore/examine musically, also in terms of the recording situation and production without a fixed goal or deadline. I gave myself the opportunity to record in my own room, just playing guitar and singing, exploring the feeling of a standard or another kind of song. After this, I wanted to meet other guitarists and let the music emerge in the moment.

My first meetings were with guitarist Per Møllehøj in my home-studio and with Mike Moreno an afternoon in New York. Both sessions felt good. It was very inspiring to play with Mike because our musical backgrounds are so far from each other. Later I also met Gilad Hekselman by coincidence and we had a very cosy afternoon in the Big Orange Sheep studio in Brooklyn.

As the process evolved, bassist Lars Danielsson, guitarist Ulf Wakenius and pianist Heine Hansen joined me. We met in the Nilento studio in Sweden and I could see the contours of a record take shape. It was very organic to play with them. They are very openminded and receptive all of them. It felt like breathing together. Lars naturally doubled as a producer in the process and has had a great influence on the album, just as sound technician Lasse Nilsson also became co-producer.

AAJ: Do you find that composing your own music has made you a better interpreter of other people's music or do you see it as two different things?

MJ: I have to delve into some deep layers both in music and lyrics when I write. Perhaps that makes me receptive to other people's songs. I think there are many ways to be an interpreter and songwriter.

AAJ: I think playing music is one of the most difficult art forms since you have to recreate your interpretation all the time when you're playing live. If you have painted a picture, it's an artistic expression frozen in time. Music lies between the frozen expression of the recording and the recreation of live music. How do you navigate in this field and do you prefer one situation to another?

MJ: I painted a lot as a teenager. I remember the experience of being inside the picture I was painting, being in an open space, and I don't think that is so far from creating music.

When the music is recorded, it is also an artistic expression that can never be done again, it's recorded. In live concerts, I experience the present communication with the audience very closely. We are together and we create the music together right now. They add something to us on the scene. I tell a story with the song and the interpretation is also based on the ambience in the room on that particular night.

AAJ: Speaking of playing live. Which songs of your own do you return to? And which songs composed by others do you play most often?

MJ: There are many songs I often return to. I have played "Double Rainbow" by Antonio Carlos Jobim and "For Jan" by Kenny Wheeler quite a lot live, but also my own songs "At Home" and "Northern Woods." I like to experience the songs again in concerts. New things are happening all the time, so new songs are constantly added to the repertoire.

AAJ: You are both a singer and songwriter. Can you tell about your approach to the art of singing and the singers that have shaped your understanding of what it means to be a good singer?

MJ: There have been many wonderful singers who have inspired me. Obviously, my mother and her singing have meant the most to me. At that time, I didn't know you could make a living out of singing. She has a wonderful voice. Since then, it has been singers like Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell. They showed me a path that resonated deep within me, being a free singer using your own words. Later I listened to Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis...so much elegance. Oh, and all kinds of wonderful music playing in Danish jazz radio. I also love classical music.

It has been good for me to treat singing as a craft, just like the instrumentalists practice technique on their instrument to be free and be able to play longer. There's also the aspect of originality to the voice, letting your own personal sound come through, and that's something we can´t control. I think about it as making oneself available to what happens and then tell the story from this open space. Perhaps this space is what makes a singer's original sound. But I believe there are many ways of exploring a voice.

AAJ: Lyrics also play an important role in your music. One of the great lyricists, Norma Winstone, shows up on two of the five songs on New York—Copenhagen. What is it that you like about her lyrics and what is your own approach to writing a text for a song? Does the music come before the lyrics or is it the other way around?

MJ: Yes, the lyrics mean a lot to me. I write most of them in English, partly because the songwriters I listened to in my youth were American and partly because I'm interested in communicating across countries. But I'm also aware that English isn't my first language. That's why I spend a lot of time on my lyrics. Often the music and the ideas for the lyrics or a specific atmosphere come at the same time.

Norma Winstone has warmth and nuances in her lyrics. They give opportunities for me as an interpreter. I feel a strong layer of subtexts I can interpret in different ways and it's a great gift as a singer to find such delicate material.

AAJ: A prominent theme on Change is the process of change as reflected by the title. Often, we try to avoid change and there can be a feeling of melancholy involved with change, but the refreshing thing about your album is that it seems to embrace the fact that change is inevitable. Do you think music can help us to accept change and how do you see change in your own music?

MJ: Change has always interested me. I guess Change is also an ongoing theme in my music in different ways. The fact that we can choose to change if we wish. That's exciting and much better than stagnating. I have always used music as a stepping stone to change. But I think you're right when you say we sometimes avoid it, it isn ´t always funny to need to change our ways to get out of a dark comfort zone.

AAJ: You speak about stepping out of the comfort zone. The artist Michael Kvium is also known for doing this, and one of his paintings is depicted in the booklet to Change. Could you tell about the painting and your connection with Kvium?

MJ: Michael Kvium is a great visionary Danish painter. I know him personally ... a wonderful person. When I saw the picture (used in the booklet) for the first time, I instantly liked it a lot. The picture is very different from some of the more dramatic pictures he paints. It carries layers of calmness, nature and change in it. I am very honored it is a part of the project.

AAJ: Finally, speaking about change, how would you sum up the development you have been through and do you have any plans or projects you dream of realizing?

MJ: When I worked on Change I felt a transformation. Previously I have been very impatient and felt I couldn't wait too many years releasing a new album and so on. But I discovered that something had happened, I had to create from another place this time. It was important to me to give myself time without forcing the process. Just as it was important to me to have the opportunity to examine something musically, without having to release it. The fact that it ended as something I wanted to release is just wonderful.

Right now, I look forward to playing concerts so the music can be heard live. But I also have many different projects I would love to be a part of in the future. Musical meetings and songs I wish to write.

Photo Credit: Alex Nyborg Madsen

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