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Names to watch in 2007: Julie Feeney

Julie Feeney

Feature by Jack Foley

“MY mother once gave me a little card for my birthday, listing all my best qualities. One of the things she wrote was: ‘She always crosses the finishing line’.” Julie Feeney.

When it comes to achieving her life goals, Julie Feeney, the composer and singer from Galway, can certainly boast an impressive strike rate. She has three Masters degrees, including one in psychoanalysis, plays 10 instruments and has been a professional singer for the National Chamber Choir in Ireland for five years.

She has written soundtracks for plays and short films and has lectured in music education. She has worked as a photographic, live art and catwalk model, and as a “movement actor” in the world of contemporary dance. She is an accomplished windsurfer and a kayaking enthusiast.

But the achievement which she holds dear above all others is her single-handed success in composing, producing and marketing her own debut album, 13 Songs, which won the Choice Music Prize (Ireland’s equivalent of the Mercury Music Prize), and has already sold 5,000 copies in Ireland.

The success of the album is testament to Julie’s determination to succeed for herself and on her own terms. She had no manager, no PR and no agents plotting her progress. From the very first jotting down of ideas in her “thought copy” (exercise book) right through to the eventual sending out of the finished CDs to reviewers and radio stations, Julie micro-managed the entire project on her own.

She composed, arranged, produced and sang all 13 songs and played most of the instruments herself. Hell, she even designed the cover art-work and financed the recording and manufacturing costs by a succession of bank loans, eventually setting up her own record label – mittens – named after her mother’s favourite cat.

“I didn’t employ a PR company,” Julie says. “It was very simple, just putting the CDs into envelopes with a handwritten letter and sending them to everybody. One of them reached a journalist at The New York Times. He opened it, liked it and reviewed it. Other reviews started to come out, in much the same way, which was really nice. Then it won the Choice Music Prize, which was quite amazing.”

One of the most fascinating things about listening to the album is hearing the way Julie’s classical training combines with her traditional Irish music heritage. The result has been compared to artists such as Bjork, Stina Nordenstam and Laurie Anderson and provides signposts towards the general direction of her creative ambitions.

Continues Julie: “I’m passionate about music. Every day I eat, breathe and sleep music. There’s no existence for me without it; it’s my drug.”

Julie hails from a family of high achievers. Her parents separated when she was very young, and she, together with her four brothers and one sister, were raised by their formidable mother.

“My mother is an absolute perfectionist,” Julie says. “She became a school principal at 27 in rural Ireland, which was very uncommon for a woman. She exposed us to a wide range of experiences when we were growing up. I’ve been everywhere in Ireland, visited all the castles and historic places. We’d go on holiday to places like Iceland or Copenhagen, never to Lanzarote or obvious holiday places.”

Studying from a very young age at Trinity College, Dublin and at The Royal Conservatory at The Hague among others, she earned a startling tally of three Masters Degrees, including one in Music and Media Technologies.

“I went a bit nuts on the degrees and stuff,” she says. “I was just on a roll, really. You have to do a thesis to get a Masters, which is 20,000 words or whatever it is. You can actually do that in quite a short time if you have the right headspace for it. When you are in that sparky place with a particular thing, that is the time to follow it.”

She became a professional choral singer in the National Chamber Choir of Ireland, a job she only gave up last March. She also composed her own songs, which she would perform in bars and clubs with a conventional line-up of guitar, bass and drums. But she suffered initially from an identity problem.

“The people in places like Whelan’s thought I was some kind of opera singer. And my classical-head friends thought I was one of those singer-songwriters. Not correct either way. It was difficult to find a niche.”

Her moment of truth came when she realised that what her songs really needed were instrumentation and arrangements that drew inspiration from her classical background rather than tried to conceal it. She began arranging the songs for keyboards, violin, recorder, melodica, cello, trumpet and occasional percussion. No guitar or bass was required.

“From that point on I didn’t feel in any way insecure about what people heard. People realised that I am someone a bit different, and it’s fine.”

Julie has been commissioned by the head of BBC Music in Northern Ireland to write a 25-minute song cycle for an orchestra to be broadcast this summer. Meanwhile, she is excited at the prospect of continuing to play her songs live, another key element in her artistic portfolio.

As well as her own numbers, she performs a Scottish-Gaelic a cappella song and a Brazilian song. Accompanied by three classically trained musicians who all play several instruments, she works closely with a lighting designer and eventually will work with a choreographer to explore her theatrical background.

Having now signed a deal for the mittens label to be licensed through Sony BMG, Julie is looking forward to moving her career on to the big stage.

“It will be great to have somebody else working on my behalf at last,” Julie says. “But you know what? If I did it again, I’d do it exactly the same way. It’s your name that goes on the CD. So really you’re the one that is responsible for it. So it’s best not to get into a situation where you’re going to be blaming other people for anything you don’t like. The buck stops with you. You’re the person that wakes up with yourself in the morning. So you have to realize that it’s your life, and you can make things happen.”

Read our review of the album