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Chosen One: Julia Kent

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Interview with Julia Kent.

“At this point, I am just trying to express the emotions I’m feeling, whether positive or negative, in whatever way I can.”

—Julia Kent

Words: Craig & Mark Carry


‘Asperities’ is the fourth full-length solo work by the Vancouver-born and New York-based cellist Julia Kent. Released earlier this year by English independent The Leaf Label (and follow-up to 2013’s glorious ‘Character’), ‘Asperities’ sees a significant shift and development in Kent’s unique sound, with an increased focus being placed on the treatment of sound. While Kent’s work practice has always consisted of a looping pedal station with her beloved cello, ‘Asperities’ displays a heightened focus on how far this processed sound can be manipulated and pushed while maintaining the emotion distilled at the moment of initial playing. It is the manner in which both worlds of analogue and digital – acoustic cello plus processed electronic sound (which can also incorporate field recordings) – that strikes such an irresistible chord throughout the spine of ‘Asperities’. Significantly, the album was also recorded, produced and mixed in its entirety by Kent (who formerly performed as cellist to Antony & The Johnsons and Rasputina) in her New York studio while mastering duties were done by American composer and sound artist Rafael Anton Irisarri (The Sight Below, Orcas).

A distillation of emotion has always been at the fore for Kent’s recordings thus far – from her 2007 debut ‘Delay’ (released via Swiss label Shayo) to its 2011 follow-up ‘Green And Grey’ (Important Records) and her most recent album ‘Character’ (her first for the UK-based Leaf Label). Tracks such as ‘Missed’ (‘Green And Grey’), ‘Tourbillon’ or ‘Nina and Oscar’ (both from ‘Character’) are testament to this: the careful looping of cello lines interweave forcefully and gracefully all at once, creating moments of raw power and pure emotion in the process. The fact that the Canadian composer can conjure moments of both earth-shattering force and a fragile lightness of being (sometimes all at once) is both testament to Kent’s immense playing prowess but also her own very specific outlook and vision as an artist. Like similarly minded souls such as Iceland’s Hildur Guðnadóttir or Germany’s Hauschka, Kent is less concerned with mere technique or surface detail as she is with where such surfaces can take her.

On talking about the album’s title Kent has previously stated: “I was thinking about the concept of difficulty. Whether in life or in nature – of conflict, of being troubled. The idea of friction. Also in geology, an asperity is some part of a faultline that doesn’t move which can create an earthquake, which is quite an evocative concept.”
Indeed, such a concept beautifully encapsulates the album’s arc as a whole as well as its nine divine tracks. From the gradual build of album opener ‘Hellebore’ – where hard-edged cello lines cut through the foreground to stunning effect halfway through – a whole world of both impossibly intricate and fluid-like abstract textures awash the sonic palette. Its clear from second track ‘Lac des Arcs’ that an increasing focus is now placed on both the distance between notes as the precise notes themselves. Like a network of branches offset a winter sky, we lose ourselves in the infinite patterns of both positive and negative shapes in our midst. The ever-expanding well of emotions is palpable throughout – reminiscent of a prolonged mood-piece motion picture or an epic piece of fictional prose where we nervously await the outcome of our ill-fated protagonist – and brings to mind the other special souls making music in the modern classical realm today such as Jóhann Jóhannsson or William Basinski.

‘The Leopard’ begins with plucked cello lines which are looped throughout the piece (the longest cut on the album at six-minutes) and recalls vivid memories of witnessing Kent live in concert. For it’s in live situations one can readily appreciate (and effectively visualize) the construction (and simultaneously the deconstruction) of Kent’s majestic oeuvre. The impact of tracks such as ‘The Leopard’ leaves one loose complete sense of the present and existing moment; we are floating to some distant shore underneath the moon and stars above. In fact, the piece embodies no less an impact than as if played by a string quartet or full-scale orchestra where a seemingly endless gamut of mood, emotion and scale emerge from the horizon. ‘Flag Of No Country’ contains an alluring melodic line (akin to a piece of musical saw performed by Amiina), and precisely how these acoustic sounds merge with its processed electronic counterpoint (recalling both electronic and dub-influenced traditions) is a pure joy to behold. There is a meticulousness felt here and yet – crucially – what emerges most obviously throughout is a palpable sense of the present, the here-and-now (it’s as if we are a silent witness hearing the songs for the first time being performed in Kent’s New York studio). Fittingly, ‘Terrain’ sits at the center point to Asperities’ vast landscape where a synthetic drum line further accentuate the electronic arc of the album. Whereas on a previous track – for example, 2013’s ‘Tourbillon’ – such an addition may have functioned more as a backdrop to the main cello line narrative; here, each and every electronic element lives, breathes and seeps into every pore of Kent’s cello playing. Indeed, such a brooding atmosphere only heightens and intensifies as we continue to navigate side b’s precarious waters, where processed and found sounds (for example, the buzzing static on ‘Empty States’) merge and fuze to startling effect, recalling Murcof or Fennesz in the process.

There is so much evidence here that ‘Asperities’ is Kent’s most remarkable and life-affirming tour-de-force to date and – taking into account the exceptional output that has already been made by the hand (and mind) of Kent – this is a truly remarkable achievement all on its own.

‘Asperities’ is available now on The Leaf Label.



Interview with Julia Kent.

Congratulations Julia on the truly breathtaking and exceptionally beautiful new record, ‘Asperities’. It’s such a pleasure to speak with you again and ask you some questions about this latest chapter in your beautifully storied career thus far. Please take me back to the making of ‘Asperities’ and the time and place these songs came to life? It really feels that this collection of music echoes the darkness of our times and the world as a whole of late. But nevertheless, in the darkness a deep sense of hope and strive for a better life prevails. The new music I feel captures this emotional depth and really feels (as all your records do) a special and emotional experience for the listener. I also love the many meanings of the album-title which in many ways filters into the album’s nine sonic creations.

Julia Kent: Thank you so much, Mark! Indeed, ‘Asperities’ was made under the influence of the stresses that I think we’re all feeling right now as humans: we seem to have lost empathy for one another as mutual inhabitants of this planet. And the title of course references the sense of harshness that echoes that sensation, as well as a sense of forces, whether tectonic or social, that are in conflict. But, as you say, there is still a sense of hope: there is still so much individual kindness that one encounters in life.

Please discuss the various stages of the album-making process: you recorded, produced and mixed the album in your own New York studio. This solitary process must really help shape the music that is eventually created. Also, I am very curious about the mindset and this concept of a musician’s mind when it comes to the creating/composing of music, and your instance, these heart-rendering cello-based compositions steeped in such unfathomable beauty. How do you feel your approach (and indeed the work of your mind) has developed across your solo works and in turn which has led to the creation of the latest masterpiece?

JK: The process of making ‘Asperities’ was actually fairly rapid, compared to my previous records. I’ve been playing some of the pieces live over the past year or so, so once I had some time in the studio, recording went quickly. And I tried to keep a sense of immediacy, and let the pieces go, rather than letting things percolate too long and getting stuck in an endless cycle of tweaking, as can sometimes happen when I’m working on my own. It’s great to have the objectivity that having someone else mix can provide, but I decided to mix myself, though I was lucky enough to be able to ask Rafael Anton Irisarri to master: I love his music and his sensibility so much, so it was really amazing to have the opportunity to have him do the mastering. I do think this record represents an evolution in my solo work: I’ve definitely become more comfortable with the idea of harshness and noise and sounds that aren’t inherently trying to be beautiful. At this point, I am just trying to express the emotions I’m feeling, whether positive or negative, in whatever way I can.

‘The Leopard’ is one of the record’s most captivating moments, and serves the centrepiece to the record’s Side A. In terms of the layering and meticulous crafting of the various sounds & textures, can you talk me through the construction of ‘The Leopard’? Also, I love how these intricate layers forever feels as if it’s one swarming ocean of sound (rather than many different isolated parts), something that has proved a great hallmark to your sonic creations. I love the reverb and heavy bass sounds that serve the pulse to this track, and creates a foreboding, menacing atmosphere whereas the counterpoint of strings forms a sea of sadness and pain. It’s such a moving, transporting piece of music.

JK: Thank you! It’s so interesting that you would point to ‘The Leopard’, because it had a particularly interesting genesis. It began as something I developed playing live for a dance piece: a very dark and powerful piece dealing with bearing witness to war and the inevitable repetition of conflict. I called it ‘The Leopard’ because there was a visual reference to the animal in the piece, but then I started thinking about the Lampedusa book, which also references conflict and social change, and has such a strong and evocative atmosphere. We ended up not using the piece in the dance performance, but I kept developing it, and eventually it evolved into what you hear on the record. I hope it conveys a sense of foreboding: that’s definitely what I feel when I play it. And I feel as though there is a tension within it between repetition and things that are trying to break free.

I am very curious to learn more about the electronic aspect of the music, Julia? Certain pieces like ‘Terrain’ contains sublime electronic textures that coalesce so effortlessly with the strings. What signals in you to incorporate more electronic-oriented sounds to be added to the cello-based compositions. A beautiful sense of motion and journey is inherent on tracks such as ‘Terrain’ and elsewhere dotted across ‘Asperities’.

JK: On this record, some of the pieces actually began first with electronics rather than cello, which I think made for a different point of departure, and created an interesting synthesis. And, in some cases, I was trying to see if I could erase the boundaries between the electronic and the organic textures, through processing and through blending the sounds.

The cello instrument is an extension of your own self and indeed your true voice, something that rings true when thinking of you and kindred spirits such as Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh (fiddle), Lubomyr Melnyk (piano), Arthur Russell (cello) and so on. I also love how you bend the possibilities of the instrument to your own needs, for example a plethora of treatments to the cello is at work throughout ‘Asperities’. Please discuss the cello instrument, your first discovery of this beloved instrument, and indeed the voyage you began with this instrument back with debut solo LP, ‘Delay’ and even much before? Being so fortunate to witness your live performance, it was very special to visualize your cello-based compositions unfold and emit its magical spell.

JK: Oh, that is more than kind of you to mention me with Caoimhín and Lubomyr! They are great artists and I’ve been really fortunate to encounter both of them. And Arthur Russell is of course my hero: he really expanded the boundaries of the cello in such a personal way. The cello is, and always will be, my voice: it has such expressive possibilities. I’ve had a slightly troubled relationship to the instrument: I stopped playing for a couple of years after music school, because I was really disheartened by the whole process. But then I discovered another musical world, one that was freeing and creative, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to continue on that path. The cello at this point feels really like an extension of myself.

You have been heavily involved with score work for dance and film in the last couple of years, Julia. I wonder how does the music-making process vary depending on the particular medium? I can imagine some of this score work must have filtered into the overall makeup of ‘Asperities’?

JK: Yes, definitely the work I’ve been doing with dance and theatre and film has influenced this record a lot. I’ve found the process of making music for dance and theatre particularly interesting, because, in certain cases, I’m creating music live in reaction to movement or text or image, and that can be so inspiring and so immediate. I especially like working with dance: there is a sort of nonverbal communication that can happen with dancers on the stage that is really powerful.

The immense power of instrumental music – and your music typifies this simple truth – is the expression of emotion without words. I would love for you to share your thoughts on this whole idea and the journey you feel that has unearthed as a result of your musical path? Have there been other musicians, artists and records you feel that have truly moved and inspired you and has helped shape your own musical landscape?

JK: I do listen primarily to instrumental music – a lot of it electronic – and I find so much of it moving and inspiring. I think artists like Stars of the Lid or Kyle Bobby Dunn or William Basinski or Rafael Anton Irisarri or Markus Guettner are so conceptually and sonically powerful, and convey so much emotion in a relatively abstract way. And Oneohtrix Point Never and Tim Hecker and Haxan Cloak and Blanck Mass: it’s really an endless list of amazing music. But I think my own musical landscape is a fairly personal one: I really feel as though I’ve found my own way over the years, as one does.

Lastly, Julia, the penultimate track ‘Invitation To The Voyage’ feels like a very important piece of music on the new record, somehow akin to the approaching sun-lit horizon, reflecting hope and redemption. Please talk me through the various stages of this song’s inception and gradual development?

JK: ‘Invitation to the Voyage’ of course shares a title with the Baudelaire poem, but I also was thinking about the Watteau painting ‘Embarkation for Cythera’. I’m not particularly a huge fan of Watteau, but I’ve always been slightly haunted by that painting: it’s almost like a vanitas, with a sense of the ephemerality of life and of pleasure. You wonder if all those beautiful, frivolous people in fact made it back from Cythera? Or knew where they were heading in the first place? An invitation to a voyage conveys a sense of adventure and possibility, but there are some voyages from which one does not return. So I feel as though the piece is balanced between a sense of hope and a sense of elegiacness, and that it’s bittersweet in the way life is.

As a p.s.: I wrote all of the above before the most recent awful events in Beirut and in Paris and in Syria and elsewhere and who knows what else will have happened before you read this?… I don’t have any words other than: be kind and take care…





‘Asperities’ is available now on The Leaf Label.

Written by admin

November 26, 2015 at 12:19 pm

Chosen One: Julia Kent

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Interview with Julia Kent.

“I was inspired by the idea that we are all, in a way, characters in the narrative that is our life, but that we aren’t able to control that narrative as an author might. So the record is meant to reflect the paths we take through life, and how that journey can end up.”

—Julia Kent

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry


The Leaf label have recently released the brand new album by New York City-based composer Julia Kent. The record is entitled ‘Character’ and is undoubtedly one of 2013’s finest releases that will be on many end-of-year polls come the end of the year. The amazing new record consists of Kent’s shape-shifting cello-based compositions, where the composer uses looped and layered cello, electronics and field recordings to explore the human space. On ‘Character’, Kent’s cello-based compositions take on this life of their own and soon, without any realization, the music becomes part of you, and seeps beautifully into your consciousness. The result is a moving body of work that breathes an ocean of emotion. ‘Character’ is utterly transcendent; where the heavenly layers of cello truly awaken all of your senses-the effect of Kent’s music is deeply profound. An unspoken connection is formed between the listener and the composer. The result is nothing short of magical. After years spent performing and recording with other artists and groups (most notably Antony and the Johnsons) the Canadian-born (New York City-based) Julia Kent found her own voice with her solo debut, ‘Delay’. Her follow-up ‘Green and Grey’ continued to use looped and layered cello, electronics, field recordings to explore the intersections between the human world and the natural world. Kent has also composed a number of original film scores and her music has been used as accompaniment to dance and theater performances. The latest ‘Character’ is Kent’s most accomplished work to date, whose intricate arrangements and divine melodies inhabits a magical realm of enchanting sound.

Kent recorded ‘Character’ alone in her home studio. The intimacy is clear to witness, as hope and solace exudes from each cello note and found sound. The flow of intertwining cello motifs and Kent’s specialized layering techniques makes ‘Character’ an innovative and compelling sonic journey. The found sounds etched across the canvas of sound offers contrast to the cello, and serves to complement the music. I love how you can feel Kent’s love and attention to detail for recording and looping her beloved cello instrument throughout ‘Character’. The music forever travels in unexpected directions-new horizons are endlessly reached.

Album opener ‘Ebb’ consists of slow-stirring strings that gorgeously build into an intense swirling of emotion. A beautifully delicate pizzicato accompaniment returns throughout-forming the rhythmic pulse to this short piece. Upon first listening to Kent’s music, you are immediately immersed into the ebb and flow of Kent’s layered cello and drawn to a new world. ‘Transportation’ sees the many intricate parts evolve before your very ears-where the sum of the parts form one organic whole. Allow your conscience and senses be awakened by the otherworldly bliss of this piece of music. Next is ‘Flicker’ which is reminiscent of Michael Nyman. The uplifting melodies transport me to Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk across the Twin Towers in the 70’s. A stunning composition. The spirit of Bach’s cello concertos are present-drifting somewhere close by, where a flicker of ancient light shines forth. ‘Tourbillon’ blends the synthetic and the organic. Strings and electronics are in constant motion, resulting in a wonderful climax of soaring strings. The momentum of this piece stops you in your tracks. The tempo slows on ‘Fall’, which contains mournful strings set to found sounds of ocean waves. The piece gradually intensifies with bowed strings forming rippling patterns on the sonic canvas.

‘Kingdom’ begins the second half of ‘Character’. This dark and menacing instrumental wonderfully combines an array of sound effects, field recordings and cello instrumentation. The experimental nature of ‘Kingdom’ and the cinematic atmosphere thus formed is similar to that of Leaf Label’s Murcof and The Haxan Cloak. An eerie landscape pierces the very air’s atmosphere. ‘Only Child’ is stunningly beautiful. The piece feels as if it’s a dream upon waking that effortlessly permeates your every thought. The element of electronics shifts to the foreground on ‘Intent’. A compelling piece of music where the synthetic and organic magnificently blend together. My current favourite is the album closer ‘Nina And Oscar’. An unerring emotional depth forms the foundation to this heart-warming composition. The cello strings are a pure joy to savor and absorb its magnificent beauty-a fitting close to this remarkable record. ‘Character’ is a work of rare beauty from a gifted composer.


‘Character’ by Julia Kent is out now on the Leaf label. 


Interview with Julia Kent.

Congratulations on the amazing new record ‘Character’. You must be deeply proud of this one. The cello-based compositions take on this life of their own and soon without any realization, the music becomes part of you, and seeps beautifully into your consciousness.

Thank you so much, Mark! And thanks for the beautiful and perceptive questions….


Please tell me about this new third solo album? What is the central theme that connects these wonderful pieces of music together?

I was inspired by the idea that we are all, in a way, characters in the narrative that is our life, but that we aren’t able to control that narrative as an author might. So the record is meant to reflect the paths we take through life, and how that journey can end up.


I was interested to read how you recorded ‘Character’ alone in your home studio. This is not surprising to me, as the sound you conjure up feels as if it’s performed from a distant shore- far removed and in turn, possesses a profound sense of hope and solace. Please discuss your recording process and describe please the home studio where the sound is born?

I feel very free when I record at home–it’s an intimate and creative environment for me, where I can control the process, and spend as much time as seems needed to make the music. My studio is just a cluttered spare room–I’m hoping all the bits and pieces that are stored there, almost floor-to-ceiling, are creating a sort of pseudo-acoustical treatment that lends a particular character to the sound!


My current favourite on ‘Character’ is the fourth piece of music, entitled ‘Tourbillon’. I love how the cello motif returns throughout, and the looping of the strings combined with the electronics is stunningly beautiful. It’s a symphony that breathes an ocean of emotion. Please discuss the process by which you loop your cello parts and the technique involved in layering sounds together?

I develop the pieces using looping, as that is how I recreate them live, but, when I record, I have to recreate the looping process using multitracking. So it’s very much a process, and the music definitely evolves through it. I do really enjoy the process of layering, and sometimes I end up with unexpected harmonic conjunctions that take things in an interesting direction. But I am also always trying to create space within a process that is inherently additive. “Tourbillon” of course refers to the watch mechanism that counters the effect of gravity and also to the idea of turbulence, like that of a whirlwind. I had this image of rotation and swirling, both mechanical and natural.


I adore the piece ‘Transportation’. As ever, your music taps into a hidden dimension where a divine ambient flow is present. I love how the piece builds and builds, with familiar motifs returning to and fro. Can you talk me through the construction (or de-construction) of this piece please?

Oh, thank you! “Transportation” began with a pizzicato accompaniment part and a layered melody, and the other parts evolved as the piece grew. I wanted to create a sense of constant movement, with elements appearing and disappearing the way they might, visually, on a busy street. And I also wanted to evoke idea of transportation in a more metaphorical way, in the sense of being carried away.


You have been an integral part of the amazing Antony and the Johnsons. ‘I Am A Bird Now’ was one of those rare albums that breathes such power and raw emotion. Your cello playing serves the perfect counterpoint to Antony’s voice. I would love to gain an insight into this special collaboration and what hold this venture must have on you for your solo work?

It has been a great privilege and a joy to play with Antony. He is an amazing artist and a very special and beautiful human being. I’ve learned so much from playing with him and the wonderful musicians he draws to him.


As a cellist, please discuss the endless possibilities of music as you see (and hear) it?

For me, music is really about communicating, and the kind of instrumental music I make is a way of expressing emotion without words. I feel really fortunate to be able to travel and play, as I do; I’ve had some wonderful encounters all over the world. Of course it’s a bit of a cliché to say that music is a universal language–but it truly is. Through music you can communicate with anyone.


What are the albums that have inspired you the most? The past few years marks a golden age I think, for modern classical music with labels such as Erased Tapes, Bedroom Community, Leaf, Preservation etc introducing hugely remarkable artists such as yourself, and many other amazing people. It must be a beautiful situation to be part of this era?

I am really so happy to be working with Leaf; they are an amazing label and I’m really lucky they released “Character,” which is a particularly special record for me. As you say, it’s a great time for instrumental music; there are so many beautiful records that have been released over the last few years. In terms of personal inspiration, I constantly return to people like Arthur Russell, Tom Cora, and Ernest Reijseger: cellists and composers who radically advanced the cello as an expressive instrument.


‘Only Child’ is such a compelling piece of music. I love how the bass notes are looped throughout that marks the familiar, whilst heart wrenching strings drift magnificently beneath. What sound, feeling or otherwise triggered the birth of this piece?

“Only Child” is definitely a bittersweet piece of music, inspired by mixed emotions. But, at the same time, I love to play it, because it just seems to flow in a natural way, which is the way it developed as a piece. Often, because of the technological constraints of the way I loop, I feel constrained to work with symmetrical phrases. But “Only Child” seems to have escaped that, somehow. It just wanders on!


You use found sounds in your music. I think you used sounds from airports on your debut. What are the sources of these sounds found on ‘Character’?

For “Delay” and “Green and Grey,” my previous full-lengths, I used field recordings from particular environments: airports and the natural world, respectively. For “Character,” the found sounds are much more internal: I used a lot of different sound sources and then processed them to make them not immediately recognizable. I was trying to create an electronic/organic mixture that would complement the music, which is definitely more inward-looking, rather than bringing in the idea of an outside environment.


‘Intent’ is more electronica-based. I love the instrumentation, so delicately used and particularly the electronic tweakings beneath. Please discuss the electronic/ambient artists that inspire you?

I have been listening to a lot of electronic music: there is so much incredible stuff out there! I really love Amon Tobin, for the unexpectedness and power of his sounds, Four Tet, Nicolas Jaar, Blanck Mass, Laurel Halo, Actress–I could make an endless list! And on the more ambient front, I find Stars of the Lid and William Basinski endlessly beautiful and inspiring.


Do you plan to tour Europe on the ‘Character’ tour, Julia?

Yes, I’m heading off right now (March/April) for some Italian shows and planning a more extensive European tour in May.


‘Character’ by Julia Kent is out now on the Leaf Label.



Written by admin

April 2, 2013 at 10:36 am