WHITE CAMELLIA

Neil Chapman : How have you been during these difficult times?     

Julianne Oc:  Thank you for asking. It’s hard to know sometimes, there’s a lot of survival-mode going on after the plague.

I’m navigating them (the difficult times) and beginning to emerge out of the numbness of the last few years. I went into lockdown riding a wave. Dreams which I had worked very hard for, were coming true.  The ensuing isolation then brought significant loss, artistically & socially and on many levels. I think I’m still recovering. Life feels very different. It isn’t easy to dive back into the modes of coping and thriving I was used to before, though I don’t really know why. I’m spending a lot of time adapting and recalibrating. I’m lucky to have music and goals. What about you? 

NC : I am ok. Much better than I was, anyway. I think I basically lost it during the pandemic – not that it is over by any means, but that morbid intensity and fear has definitely subsided and I feel as if I am coming back into myself a bit more again. 

I was on a bike ride the other day around where we live in Kamakura and I came across a perfect white camellia. I stopped and photographed it. I then suddenly remembered (though I had never forgotten) that we were going to do this, but then as is often the case with an inconsistent person like myself, I got swept away in all the latest news horror, work stress, and personal flotsam and jetsam and it never happened. But here we are again now.

‘White Camellia’ is the title track of your first album – and the whole thing is really lovely. This song in particular reminds me, vaguely of Goldfrapp’s Black Cherry album, the obscure 4AD band His Name Is Alive, as well as reminiscences of Kate Bush’s dark and poignant Lionheart period. But it is its own genus; of right now, but also in a different realm.

JO: Alison Goldfrapp is interesting, isn’t she? Somewhat of an enigma. I particularly liked the 2008 album Seventh Tree. I’d like to know more about her journey. I just looked up her age (56). That’s pretty impressive. I’m willing to bet she has fought hard for her lasting place in the industry. I liked the song Black Cherry the song but I’m not familiar with the rest of the album.

I often feel like a feminist-fan failure when I admit to not knowing a vast amount of Kate Bush’s music. I was definitely influenced by Ariel, which I listened to incessantly when I lived in Devon. I’m not sure there has ever been a time someone hasn’t referenced her to me after a gig. I suspect I was standing on her shoulders unconsciously. I much admire her natural ability to just get on with it and do her thing, be herself, carry on in many aspects of her work. I’m honouring the reference. 

When I was layering the harmonies of White Camellia, I think there was a subconscious fixation on the rolling waves of Ghibli’s animated ocean in Ponyo; the scene where Sosuke is on the hill and Ponyo is gleefully running after him on that ominous rising water. Simultaneously unsettling and invigorating, the mix of threat and joy. There’s an all-encompassing, transcendent allure about the feel of that film, it just takes you to another universe; absorbent, colourful escapism. I wanted the music for this album to feel like that. 

NC: To my shame I must admit that I have never seen a Ghibli film, even though I know that he is worshipped around the world. Many of my students have seen his films scores of times, even hundreds : he is really venerated.

Would you call yourself a romantic? (for me, there is a purity, a naïvete in your music, even though there is also a slightly poison-tinged, laconic aspect undertingeing everything as well)?

JO : Fascinating.

I used to be a die-hard romantic but after I healed the proverbial daddy-wounds, I’m more pragmatic. That said, this album was written in the wake of an intense, doomed love affair which had me hooked for longer than I care to admit. If there is a tinge of poison, it probably tells of that regret. Chemistry is mysterious. It promises so much and is indefinable. Ultimately though, if there is dysfunction or incompatibility you are not going to succeed in relating happily, which isn’t fair, and it hurts.

Perhaps buried in the naivety, is hope. I don’t want to lose hope, even after surviving being a woman in this world and somehow making it to mid-life not totally defeated. I’d rather hold on to a semblance of innocence than embrace cynicism. It’s a fine balance.

NC: I feel precisely the same about innocence and cynicism. I don’t want to be an idealistic fool but at the same time the true cynic is never happy.

What is the significance (if any) of the camellia as flower for you ? How did you come to write this song?

JO: There is a whole subtext in that song. I used flower folklore to veil my vulnerabilities and because well, flowers. 

There are multiple meanings in folklore, but White Camellia tends to represent romantic love, affection and purity. I think you don’t give White Camellias in Japan though (?) Connotations of death. Quite different. But I love the ambiguity. Perhaps more interesting is my locked-up Lobelia! *

This song was written in a life-crossroads moment. I knew had to let some darkness go but I didn’t really know how. I wanted to stop repeating patterns that had served me up to a point but were now getting in my way. It was a difficult process. Someone really good had floated unexpectedly into my life. It gave me a new kind of hope. So I guess it’s about a bridge, an exit from not-so-comfortable comfort zones, about trust, vulnerability, fear and hope. 

Burning Bush is a most fascinating anomaly of wonder, btw. Are you writing songs? I want to hear more. The video of your singing touched my heart. Its voice is really quite exquisitely beautiful. If such expression is bestowed upon a thing, is it not an unarguable duty to share it prolifically far and wide?

* Lobelia – arrogance, malevolence

Puke weed, gag root, vomit wort, bladderpod – all of these are colloquial names for the controversial Lobelia. https://floraldictionary.tumblr.com/post/161475001496/lobelia-arrogance-malevolence-puke-weed-gag

NC: Burning Bush is a strange one. I am still not entirely surely what it represents for me deep down: for now it is dormant ( the volcano analogy is apt; I have a lot to get out) , although I did a big performance recently – in October in Tokyo – and it was hugely enjoyable and cathartic.

D brought the entity to life, almost ten years ago now, and I have to admit that once that happened, I felt like I was exploding into the stars, vastly more realized somehow.

When it comes to music, obviously it goes without saying that I have nowhere near as much musical talent as you, not remotely, so we are not comparable in that regard ( fantastic to get your approval though; there will be more! ). I can improvise and make up the odd bit of music, but have never actually written a song : it’s like fiction somehow: I know that for me it would be impossible. Life is already so intense and overwhelming in its beauty and terribleness that I feel that there is more than enough material for me to work with. I like writing words : about perfume, my life and the people in it; cinema, culture, the world; it must be hugely satisfying to be able to deal with similar issues embodied musically, though, in a song: a hermetically engineered, sealed but porous world that lives forever on its own terms. I envy you that.

Should I refer to you as singer songwriter’, incidentally ?Or do you prefer ‘performer’ (a bit Cirque Du Soleil) or, ‘musician’ (a bit studio session bassist) : you write your own songs and sing them, but don’t you think there is almost something limiting about that label, ‘a singer songwriter’ : a tad older-Carole King-stuck-at-the piano churning out hits for other people, or even a bit Barry Manilow? ( Do you remember I was always playing the dramatic opening chords of his Could It Be Magic on the piano as a kid? Or was it my ridiculous Moonlight Sonata classical musician piss-take that used to have you and David and Owen in stitches : I can’t remember)

JO: Ha! Isn’t it weird, the singer songwriter label thing. I have settled on music artist at the moment. Nothing really quite cuts it though does it. 

It was your ridiculous Moonlight Sonata classical musician pisstake. There was no singular event more hilarious in my childhood. 

NC: I can see myself now; always something of a class clown.

But back to the music…

Part of me really loves the intimate, in-the-room-with-you production in White Camellia (was this intentional on your part?) Another part, I must admit, is yearning for a more epic, sweeping mix.

JO: My producer Paul suggested an intimate feel for the first part of the song, and cutting the reverb was part of that decision. Yeh I think it would be nice to do more mixes, I know what you mean –  an emotive chillout beats type thing could work well. Is that the kind of thing you mean? I’d like to experiment with a moody face-melting bassline for it.

NC: Would you do a Bond song?. 

JO: Absolutely. 

NC : ( Julianne’s music is already being used as the theme song in several international TV shows : she would nail a 007).

Your song ‘GiftFrom Elle’ is vaguely terrifying. What was the genesis of that one? I love it. It’s like Belle And Sebastian listening to Air inside a sepulchral tomb in the interior of Brazil – (do you know Os Mutantes btw ? Crazy psychedelica from the 60’s? I am reminded of that green shadowness; the moisture that lies beyond. I think my ultimate aesthetic in this life is lushness ). Your harmonies are eerily out of body here, as well as in the exquisite ‘Traces’, possibly my favourite of these tracks: otherworldly (I won’t say ‘ethereal’ – I am sure you are sick of being called that now!) . How did you learn to do this, by the way? To harmonize and multilayer the voice? Is it instinctive? I am incapable.

JO: Vaguely terrifying. It’s wonderful that you get that. I think being vaguely terrified describes much of my existence quite well. But it’s weird because I also recognise the side of me that is utterly fearless and always has been. Do you think it’s possible to be both terrified and fearless at the same time? 

NC: I do think so. I am a bit like that myself. 

JO : You do have to be brave to write songs, and as I am discovering, braver still to release them publicly. There is so much scrutiny about the many different details. I have learned to grow an elephant hide which protects me from critical voices, but my own is probably the worst. It’s an extraordinary process.

Growing up I thought everyone could harmonise. My brother can do it too so perhaps it’s something in the genes. I spent countless lost hours harmonising with hoovers, hairdryers, lawn mowers, whistling taps etc., experimenting with different voices, singing obscure complimentary scales and find that very fascinating indeed. It was only when I joined my first professional band at 18 that I realised everyone can’t harmonise. I found that quite shocking actually.

But I digress. Gift From Elle was written from the perspective of the opposite gender. Do I know how it feels like for a boy? Probably not, but I had a go. The silence of men can be crippling for women. Silence is violence. Sins of the fathers. It’s some way attempting to express these issues. For example, I suspect one ex of mine was wildly jealous of my complete freedom to put on a dress and waft about, smelling of citrus and red lipstick flaunting my tender birthright of femininity. Imagine the secrets we would uncover if we all told the truth. Imagine the potential intensities of healing if sexual shame were defunct. I don’t know if my suspicions were founded in any truth, but if they were, imagine if he’d just told me. Maybe we could have made it. 

NC: We met through music.

(A little context : Julianne and I were childhood friends. In the Midlands, going to the same school, though she was two years below me. We lived round the corner from each other and spent a lot of time together as well as with the other kids who lived on that block: we bonded over our record collections; lost contact and drifted apart for many years before getting back in touch out of the blue with each other a decade or so ago – when over big G + T’s in some Birmingham bar or other we realized that we still get on like a house on fire (there is something ‘extra’ about Julianne I can’t quite describe).

Julianne and I occasionally meet up when I go back to England now : she also came down to my book opening in London for Perfume, a fantastic gathering of people important to me which I was very touched by. In many ways J and I are kindred spirits – both on the ‘wild child’ tip growing up in respectable suburbia with volatile families and never quite fitting in; although of the two I was the boring goody two shoes)

NC: At the end of the day, I think I do probably consider myself something of an outsider. Do you see yourself that way? 

JO: I do. And I have explored this notion many times and in different circumstances throughout my life. There have been times I have felt at home, but they are often transient. Perhaps that’s simply the nature of life but I think it has something more to do with growing up in a family who shall we say, had very different interests. If you feel like an outsider in your home as a child that sentiment is probably going to stay with you throughout your life. Cognitive development shit is hard to shake. 

It was my hairdresser who first called me a wild child, midst spiral-perm. I adored him, he was an affirming tonic on a Solihull Saturday. It just felt like he got me. I remember feeling instantly elevated, like I had a sudden status. “You’re the wonderful wild child” or something like that he’d say, and I was like, fuck yeh I’ll have that. Funny how we can pin our identities on these little moments. 

His overt gayness was intoxicating to me. So refreshing and wonderful to be around male energy without that underlying subtext of the ‘gaze’, the complexity of which I of course didn’t understand at the time (13ish). I just knew I felt very comfortable in his presence. I sometimes wonder whether I had similar feelings towards you – but actually I think it was more that you had a gift of encouraging creativity. The emotional safety that inspired was invigorating. I remember being blown away when you said I could call you any time to read you my poems down the phone. Literally no one but you in my sphere was remotely interested in hearing my little-girl scrawlings. I fucking loved you for that. With all your razor-sharp wit, intimidating physical beauty, talent and intelligence, the thing that impacted me most about you was that you were kind. 

NC: Wow thanks. I actually hadn’t realized I had had such an impact…… I was struggling myself too despite all the natural exuberance, but you always stood out. I have a so many great memories of coming over to your house to listen to you and your brother’s latest vinyl acquisitions and then dance our asses off to the disco lights that David had proudly installed. He had a massive, big show off stereo system I was in awe of that put everyone else on the block’s to shame : and I was basically in heaven every time we could have our own little club nights: I can still see those strobe lights flashing..

For a troubled and ultrasensitive child like me coming into himself, just letting it all go to Madonna’s ‘Into The Groove’ at top volume was just incredible : like I was finally coming fully alive.

JO : Ha! Yes David did like the best stuff. His wife Karen says he is still the same and his family joke about how everything he buys must be the big version, like a Dave go-large nickname or something. He makes truly excellent cocktails I discovered recently, which didn’t surprise me at all. He has many talents.

Ah those discos, the music, the lights. It was enthralling. I never wanted you to leave, you carried fun around with you. Why do you describe yourself as ‘ultrasensitive’? Do you still feel that way? The word makes me twitch just a little, like it could be used critically. Maybe you don’t see it like that at all and if so I’m sorry. But I prefer ultrasensory. I mean, heightened sensory awareness, that’s a superpower. 

NC: I had never properly thought about that before, that ‘ultrasensitive’ can be turned against you. Actually I do much prefer ‘ultrasensory’, though it feels a bit exceptionalist.

JO Everyone thinks the music they grew up with was the best era, but we were very lucky to have the diversity of the 80s. Madonna – where would we all have been without her soundtracking our youthful awakenings? Borderline, Everybody, Crazy for You, La Isla Bonita: pure gold. 

NC: I specifically remember lots of Madonna 12”s from the Like A Virgin period being on the turntable; Frankie Goes To Hollywood; the Miami Vice theme extended mix (!)  – but specifically of course, our mutual adoration of Scritti Politti. I was (and still am) obsessed to the core with them, blasting out my Absolute, Wood Beez and Hypnotize 12”s at top volume when the time is right – usually sunny spring and summer days and just standing and staring at the beauty of the sleeves and the perfection of the pop. I haven’t changed one iota in that regard. Does that make me a sad case of arrested development? 

JO: I think we should all take artistic sustenance however it comes, and if that’s staring at the same art for decades, why would you not? I am fascinated by our reasons for being attracted to certain music or art. The way it makes us feel, why it might be touching our complicated psyches. I have often found myself digging around in there. When I was a kid I was obsessed with Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus. I read some of the Greek mythology which inspired it and discovered the fateful story of Echo, which I decided to adopt as an important lesson in the detriments of gossip. Very helpful. Once I felt I had received my important message from that artwork (Echo was not the only one), my obsession with it waned. But that’s just a little story. 

I found becoming a mother almost fourteen years ago interrupted the luxuries of spending hours on art appreciation. Music has always scaffolded my days, but I miss visual art. I like to paint too and fantasise about a time where I’ll set up the easel again and get lost in colour. 

This conversation is to be continued.

7 Comments

Filed under Flowers

7 responses to “WHITE CAMELLIA

  1. Paul Rogers

    If only all musician interviews were this eloquent, insightful and thoughtful. We need part two.
    X

    • This is the nicest thing I could possibly have read today. Thankyou.

      J and I have barely scratched the surface here. SO much to talk about. Parts 2 + 3 inevitable ( she also likes perfume – I think she is fantastic )

      x

  2. Emma Fushimi

    What a great piece! I love this type of very natural conversation style of interview. Two things stand out for me – N, you’ve never seen a Studio Ghibli film?!
    And Aerial is definitely one of Kate Bush’s finest albums.
    Looking forward to the rest of the conversation (where is a link to Julianne’s music?)

    • Yes – that was rather important but I thought people could look it up instead!

      Glad you liked this: as for Ghibli; 1) I would need J-subtitles, and you can’t get them (and I never subscribe to any channels etc) and 2. I simply don’t watch anime. Although Julianne’s descriptions of the waves here make it all sound absolutely essential.

      As for Aerial: of course!

      But not really.

  3. Lorna

    well … WOW … thank you both for letting me eavesdrop.

  4. This was such a wonderfully enjoyable read. I can hardly wait for the follow-up.

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