Julie Kathryn: Americana Done Noir

Hannah Ghorashi on August 5, 2013

In the analogy of a twilight skyline of warm pink and chilly blue deepening with early stars, “Julie Kathryn’s”: debut album Black Trees well personifies the shadowy black branches reaching out to claim the coming night as their own. The album, dropping on August 27th from Shorefire Records, even features some striking photography of the singer standing two stories high among clawing black brambles in a long white dress, courtesy of Carl Timpone. The picture, however, wasn’t photoshopped. “I’m standing on a ladder,” Kathryn illustrates, “and it’s about 45 degrees, I had a cold, I think I may have even been crying and I had a harness wrapped around my waist.”

Kathryn is similarly self-aware in her music, coaxing characters to life in her songs with emotion but also respect for a full picture. Often credited with a genre label of “Americana Noir,” the songstress eschews mere cinematic melodrama in favor of a more appealing combination of a musical childhood in Lake Placid, NY, influence from the greatest folk-confessional music icons, and lyrics from her own life experiences and imagination. She recalls, “When I was young I sang a lot with my dad, we sang on the way to school, and we would sing folk songs like Peter Paul and Mary. I started taking piano lessons and then when I was about 17 I taught myself to play guitar….when I was in high school I had this live box set of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and that obviously was very Americana-oriented. Upstate New York was very visual, the idea of painting, like painting the American landscape with a song…because I am a very visual person and grew up in nature, it kind of all worked together for me.”

Black Trees offers quite a range of folksy sound, from the extremely upbeat and anthem-like “Nightingale” to the slow, crooning “Johnny,” a glimpse into the world of a Depression-era family in the Dust Bowl, with the words of the title track “Black Trees” running through the whole album: “You looked in my eyes, our sadness collided…like a waking dream, you’re everything I believe, your memory hangs between this world and me.” Positivity always reigns, even when we hear the gritty snapshots of a young woman’s life, in Kathryn’s soothing voice in an infancy of whiskey-soaked warmth, stuttering delicately like a series of blinks into the melodies. Her twilight draws worn nostalgia, but Kathryn determinedly searches for some relevant takeaway in the sweet sadness of the memories, both realizing in “Underground” that, “I’m drunk on whiskey…I would do anything if you would just let me stay…” and yet later “I am who I was before.”

Kathryn elaborates further, “The whole black tree image is kind of a memory I have, growing up, and particularly connected to the relationship I was in, a really meaningful relationship that ended in a really sad way, and that image, like twilight, that time of night when the sky gets kind of light and dark and trees just look black on the sky…it’s the most bittersweet time of day.”

In contrast to a time when day and night are able to join briefly, Kathryn feels the record is about life’s misconnections, times when potential is present but the timing is wrong, choices are made, and things just don’t work out. This applies even in what could be the greatest of empathizing experiences between people, listening to music. “Because of the internet and cell phones and all that, people isolate themselves to stay in touch. A loneliness of communicating with people but also being alone, whereas I can imagine people back in the sixties had to interact with people if they wanted to hear music and socialize.”

Kathryn was trying to reach people even before she became a full-time songwriter and performer. She spent the earlier part of her career as a social worker, working during the day and playing gigs at night. Describing her career as “great work but very emotionally taxing,” she seems happier and enthusiastic about engaging mostly in artistic pursuits to support herself, though believes that her time spent with people that were waiting for 25 years to life helped her write songs with more emotional rawness. “The only thing I could really do was be there for that person, and I could only try to help them out, or maybe get a shorter sentence, or just help them cope with it, and I just feel like I got really in tune.” Pun unintended, but well placed.

Along with several covers of lesser-known songs by Bob Dylan, Son Volt, and Greg Brown that she felt were appropriate in completing the album to her vision, the album is executed beautifully both sonically and lyrically, and with nuanced simplicity, to the point of resonating beyond the individual stories of the songs and more in unison with Kathryn’s yearning persona. She admits, “The stuff I listened to like Joni Mitchell was a long time ago, but I…don’t want to be overly clever or hide things [like many songwriters today]…I want people to view me as an honest writer.” Black Trees projects Kathryn beyond the top of the trees to the sky itself, reaching out to arrange her songs as stars on the coming night sky, never to be obliterated.

Kathryn will be playing shows at NY’s Slipper Room on Thursday, August 8 at 7 pm, and at Rockwood Music Hall on September 6.