Balancing restraint and emotion to forge empathy: An interview with SF sound artist Joel St. Julien
Following the release of his new ambient album "EMPATHY," Joel St. Julien opens up about his practice and shares music he's been listening to (hint: a lot of Radiohead)
Joel St. Julien—a Haitian-American composer, sound artist, and musician that has been based in San Francisco for nearly two decades—just released a new full-length ambient album entitled EMPATHY. It’s a striking piece, opening with a four-part meditation on the title theme that is at times tranquil, at times noisy and jarring. The latter half of the album shifts to pure ambient bliss, with the 10-minute and 15-minute tracks “The World is Ending (again)” and “Full Moon” weaving a tapestry of calm.
Next month Joel St. Julien will perform live alongside Leila Abdul-Rauf and Shipwreck Detective at FALL MASS, a showcase of Bay Area ambient artists hosted by White Crate. Ahead of that performance, we spoke with the artist about his journey, the new album, and some of his current favorite artists.
Tell us about your musical background up to the present.
I started playing the piano and clarinet in 4th grade. Then I stopped playing clarinet and picked up the guitar and singing in choirs in high school. I was really into it! I thought I was going to be a music teacher but ended up getting into songwriting. I played in a few bands and was pretty active in the music scene the first decade of the century.
When my first child was born, I decided that late nights weren’t my thing so I started composing music for dance, films, podcasts, etc/whatever. I’ve been doing that for the past 12 years or so. I have a 9-5 job doing social work (another passion) and do projects on the side. It can be really busy at times but it keeps me fresh at my day job. I’ve learned over the pandemic that staying at home being a full-time musician wouldn’t be good for me - I need to work with people. I’m not taking on as many projects as usual since I’m back to school part-time to get my Masters of Social Work. Performing is actually a bit more interesting to me these days.
EMPATHY was made “during the early months of the 2021 quarantine lock down.” Would you call this your “pandemic album”?
I don’t think it’s my pandemic album - I released an album and two EPs last year. They all chronicle parts of my life through the pandemic. EMPATHY is another response to how I’m experiencing the world. The pandemic changed the way I approach my art - I think for the better. I’m much more interested in producing and releasing lots of work and not getting too caught up in it being perfect, having it properly promoted and received, etc.
I just want to make stuff that I’m proud of and feel represents how I process life. I probably wouldn’t have been as prolific without the pandemic - but that’s been my experience. I know people who haven’t created much and I don’t think one is better than the other to be honest. I’ve made the connection that I can process the trauma of life through my music so I’m sticking with that now.
How do you view EMPATHY in relation to your previous work?
EMPATHY feels like a balance of restraint and emotion. I am an emotional person and that definitely comes out in my music. I found myself really listening to tracks, editing, mixing different versions of tracks, and not including a lot of pieces I composed during the process. It was really good to edit myself and not let myself get too emotional in the post-production process. I was able to really sit back and give myself space and permission to make good decisions about the work.
At the album release/listening party, I learned you’re also a visual artist. Do you create music to match your visuals, the reverse, or both?
Two things I started messing with during the pandemic: modular synthesis and visuals. It was so strange seeing this question as I don’t consider myself a visual artist but I started getting really inspired by how sound and visuals complement each other. I saw Thom Yorke’s show both times he brought it to the Bay Area and I was blown away by Tarik Barri’s projections. It added a whole level of depth to the performance. I’ve been messing around ever since and started posting my experiments on Instagram. At this point in my practice, the music precedes the visuals and then I create something inspired by the sounds.
What's your relationship to the Bay Area? Does that influence your music-making?
I’ve been living in San Francisco since 2004. I love it here - I’ve grown here in so many ways both musically and as a person. When I started playing music here, I was exposed to so many types of music and so many forward-thinking experimental artists. All of this propelled me and the music I made. I’ve made some really dear friendships from the people I’ve met over the years as well. The experimental scene is small but pretty awesome. I haven’t felt a lot of condescension from people. I know there’s a lot to dislike about San Francisco, but I’ve fallen in love with all of its natural landscapes over the pandemic. Nature inspires art.
There’s been this sense over the years that—due to the tech industry, skyrocketing rent, closing venues, etc.—the Bay Area music scene has been dying over the past couple decades. Do you agree with that sentiment?
I think everyone has their story of dealing with how things have changed - I composed music for my frequent collaborators RAWdance and the whole piece for me was about all of the changes happening in the city. It was a very tense time because we were seeing so much of what had been built falling apart. Like most cities, it has become commodified. But I don’t think that has killed the music scene. I have so many friends making music, playing shows again, and figuring this out.
It has not been easy but I don’t see it going anywhere. We have our lovely little niche and by that I’m really only speaking for the experimental, electronic, punk-adjacent scenes. I don’t think it’s dead - people aren’t going to stop making music - people aren’t going to stop playing shows. It will look different and why not? Despite the fact that live music took a serious hit over the pandemic, so many artists made amazing work doing livestreams and pre-recorded performances. There is always going to be a tension - artists can be alchemical, absorb and transform it.
What music have you been listening to and loving the most recently?
Lots of pop music as my other job is chauffeuring my children all over San Francisco
Unhealthy amounts of Radiohead