Julien Chang interview: Rising talent talks debut album ahead of first UK shows

If there’s one new act you need to take notice of, it’s Julien Chang.

Aged just 19, his debut album Jules – released earlier this month on Transgressive – is a thing of beauty, breaking down genres and captivating the listener with infectious electronic, jazz and pop sounds.

He is currently studying in New York but he honed his talents in native Baltimore where he assembled an entire basement studio himself using money he’d saved from working at a local supermarket.

Jules tackles love and friendship, growth and change, memory and regret, as Chang’s youthful, subtle vocal delivery suggest deep thoughtfulness.

We caught up with Julien ahead of his live shows at Bermondsey Social Club on October 28 and the Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston, London, on October 29.

Congratulations on the release of your debut album Jules. How long was the process? How did you get from writing ideas down on a notepad to the recording studio?

Thank you! I recorded eight of the 10 songs in the summer before my senior year in high school.

I was basically recording a song every week or so.

The last two I recorded during my winter break that school year. The writing ideas down on a notepad process and the recording studio process were indistinguishable with this record.

All the work was done in my little 10ft x 10ft basement studio: initial conceptions, thought vomit journaling, part writing, acoustic experimentation, and so on.

What were your influences when putting it together, musically and personally?

The time that I was working on Jules was likely the most musically developmental time in my life up to that point.

I was being exposed to all the music that I still hold dear and consider my favourite.

My musical experience that summer was kind of kaleidoscopic. I was finding universal beauties in pretty distinct musical variations.

Things like comparing the harmonic and melodic interaction in a Stevie Wonder tune with Bach's contrapuntal inventions, or romantic swells of tension and release in Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff with that of Pink Floyd and so on.

That was the kind of stuff that inspired me. I was digging deep into a lot of African 1970s funk and jazz and the American music that it inspired later on like the Talking Heads.

When did you get into music? Also, you’re from Baltimore and study in New York – how has this moulded you into a recording artist?

I still have yet to think about it in a career framework. I'm continuing to learn and develop as a musician and a thinker which is the most important arch to consider.

My mom had me start taking piano lessons at six years old. I quit after two years but was given the space, because of that, to take the reigns myself and direct my own musical growth.

I'm still actively trying to understand what kind of impact growing up in Baltimore has had on my music or on the way I think. I imagine it won't be something that I'll have an answer to until I'm much older.

You were snapped up by Transgressive Records – how have they helped you as a label?

Transgressive made their values clear when I first came into contact with Mike Harounoff.

They said what was important to them was long-term and sustainable artistic development. It was very encouraging to hear them say it, and it totally shattered my naive conceptions of the artistically overbearing record label whose motivation is profit even if at the expense of artistry.

I've found that the people at Transgressive are a very supportive team that really do care deeply about the art that they work on. It's inspiring to see. I know this sounds like propaganda, but I promise these are my own words!

Your record is hugely varied, full of different styles and touching on different genres. Is there a track that stands out that you’re most proud of?

I think Deep Green. I enjoyed working on that one the most probably. There's a real excitement that comes from working on a through-composed kind of tune like that. I felt like I could take it in any direction I wanted without the confines of form.

You taught yourself an array of instruments at home and assembled an entire studio with money you’d saved up working at a grocery store – how important is it to stay grounded as a musician and do you think your hard-working ethos comes across in your music?

I feel that giving advice about staying grounded as a musician to other musicians would not be very grounded of me. There's obviously real value to working a grocery store job or something of that sort.

Dangerous problems come when we assume distinctions between artists and workers, or thinkers and doers.

Everybody that I worked with at the grocery store was an artist, and I don't mean that in a hippie universal-truth kind of way.

I mean that everybody that I worked with was actively making very impressive work. I knew writers and painters and musicians. Work is good. It helps you think.

Nobody is above a grocery store gig.

Your tracks have already been picked up by UK radio, notably the infectiously catchy Memory Loss. Did you ever think you’d break through so quickly? What’s it like to have your material broadcast to audiences here and beyond?

It's really a surprise to see how well it has been received so far. I'm very happy that people are liking the music. I will say that big UK radio play and the other press seems so far removed from me even as it is happening.

You’re playing two dates in London this month – how does performing live compare to the recording studio? What can audiences expect from your shows?

I record all my music by myself in cramped spaces. It's an authoritarian, total quality-control kind of effort.

With my live band, I'll bring the song into rehearsal, we'll listen together, and then we will write up the live arrangement for the song together.

It's a much more collaborative and democratic process. The musicians in my live band are all friends from school. They are very talented and inspiring artists with whom I feel comfortable enough to subject my songs to their creative discernment.

Playing live is, of course, an indescribable excitement.

Are there any acts or artists right now that are impressing you?

My close friend from Baltimore, John Tyler, is a musical inspiration of mine. He plays guitar, bass, and raps; and he produces, composes, and arranges very moving pieces. He's also easily one of the hardest-working musicians I know.

Please give him a listen.

What’s next for Julien Chang? Are you working on any new material or projects?

I'm preparing to go on my first tour ever. I fly out to London with my band to play my first shows outside of America. I'm equal parts nervous and excited.

Wish me luck!

Julien Chang’s tour dates

Monday, October 28: Bermondsey Social Club, London

Tuesday, October 29: Servant Jazz Quarters, London

Stream Jules here

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