"On a hot summer morning on Manhattan’s west side, the sight of a debutante in a black dress, wearing what appeared to be a most uncomfortable pair of high heels, planted the seed for the title track on Richard Julian’s latest, Sunday Morning in Saturday’s Shoes. Julian recalls. “There was no way she’d gotten dressed that way that morning.” Such attentive observation is a staple of Julian’s songwriting, on full display in his fifth full-length album (and second for Manhattan.) When asked for a reference point for his style, the songwriter mentions filmmaker Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election) before mentioning other musicians. Julian’s screenplay-worthy craftsmanship is a skill that’s earned him entrance to a mutual admiration society that includes artists like Randy Newman, Norah Jones and Bonnie Raitt. In fact, it was Raitt who initially suggested producer Mitchell Froom (Los Lobos, Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello and many others), who signed on to help Julian shape Saturday Morning in Sunday’s Shoes. “The songs weren’t just blank canvasses,’” Julian notes. “They had evolved into more intricate compositions, probably because I hadn’t made a record in a while, and Mitchell is really skilled at arranging that kind of thing. He has a highly developed sense about what a song needs, or doesn’t need. He knows when to perform a surgical maneuver, but also knows when to step back and just let the music be music.” Froom paid close attention to Julian’s 11 finely honed songs, constructing meticulous arrangements that brought out the best in Julian’s jazz-musician sidemen, bassist Tim Luntzel and drummer Dan Reiser, as well as Julian himself. After much musical deliberation, Froom added his own keys to a handful of cuts. “Mitchell would say, ‘Hey, no drum entrance here. Let’s drop the bass out of this solo section.’ Or he might just stick an electric guitar in my hand.” And he would do all this before we even played a note. It wasn’t like we went in there and he just started pushing buttons. We would discuss the tune for 15 minutes or so—he doesn’t like to press ‘record’ until we’ve all locked eyes and know what we’re about to do.” Such an approach bears dividends on tracks like “Brooklyn In The Morning,” where the music mirrors the lyrics in every aspect—a stark, almost single-note guitar line beginning the song, drums and keys entering as the narrator opens the curtains and faces the day, then bass dropping in as the day gets into full swing.
“Even on songs where it’s just me playing guitar, like on ‘A Thousand Days,’ it’s still Mitchell’s arrangement, because he had to convince me not to screw it up with busy production ideas,” Julian says, chuckling.
More than past outings, there’s a sociopolitical undercurrent to these songs, whether it’s “Syndicated” (which laments the inevitable spread of American franchise culture), the “infamous flood” mentioned in “A Thousand Days,” or the couple “watching the war on TV” in “World Keeps On.” Even “God III,” a flight-of-fancy that imagines what it might be like if Jesus Christ had a ne’er-do-well, underachieving son, is a social comment of sorts. “God the third moved out west / was a very big hit with the Hollywood press / just a blank, aimless kid / we were so enthralled with all that he did.” “I’ve been performing these songs on the road lately and it sometimes feels like they’re connecting to audiences in a way that’s relevant to the times,” Julian notes, adding that he’s written several alternate endings to “God III,” including one where the bumbling kid ends up in the Oval Office. At the same time, Julian’s somewhat fatalistic perspective keeps the proceedings from getting too serious. “There’s something about the fact that we’re all going to die which, although depressing, can actually engender a sense of freedom. Like, all the day to day worries that get locked inside our brains are, on some level, meaningless.” But while Richard Julian had been spending two years on these songs, he’d also been paying attention to his performing life. The past few years have seen Julian fronting The Little Willies, a low-key country collaboration with pals Norah Jones, guitar whiz Jim Campilongo, bassist Lee Alexander and drummer Dan Reiser, and guesting with Tim Luntzel’s soul-jazz combo The Brooklyn Boogaloo Blowout. Julian and pal Jesse Harris also teamed up to play with and write for Sasha Dobson on her 2006 album Modern Romance, supporting the singer on a series of live dates. Julian, along with Harris and Dobson also performed together at the prestigious American Songbook series at Lincoln Center’s Allen Room, which garnered him a rave review in The New York Times. “Singing with Norah was major because I didn’t really regard myself as a harmony singer,” Julian recalls. “In some ways I wouldn’t even be able to do the project I did with Sasha unless I’d done Little Willies first, because it gave me a lot of confidence as a singer,” Julian recalls.
In fact, Julian says he’d always considered himself a writer—with the singing as an afterthought—until recently. “I think that really busted open for me on this record after working with those two singers and learning about phrasing and letting my voice go.” Recording with Norah Jones and bouncing ideas off Bonnie Raitt is a long way from playing Vegas cocktail lounges, which was how Julian began his musical career.
But after four records and logging thousands of road miles, this mild-mannered and disarmingly charming, bespectacled artist can stop loitering in the corner of the public's eye and takes his rightful spot front and center."
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