Julie Amici & Dean Mueller make Americana in the old-school sense. Their new LP I Loved You So is a thick, low-simmering stew of country, folk and blues peppered with subtle hints of jazz and gospel. In the last few years, this melting-pot of traditional American sounds has taken them from their hometown of Portland, Ore., all the way to Memphis, Tenn., where they’ve been recognized by the Cascade Blues Association not only as recording artists and performers, but also for their nonprofit work—bringing the gift of music to disadvantaged children, people with autism and the elderly through the Mudd Nick Foundation, United By Music and their own organization, Fly Me to the Moon, operated in partnership with the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.
For their new album I Loved You So, Julie & Dean once again partnered with producer Alan Jones (Esperanza Spalding, Kelly Joe Phelps), who was also at the helm for their 2017 debut EP Yellow Roses. For the sessions, Jones was on drums and percussion, and Amici handled the bulk of the lead vocals, with Mueller also singing a few songs and playing rhythm guitar, as well as electric and upright bass.
Vents recently caught up with Julie & Dean to discuss the new album, recent single “Frame It on the Wall,” their songwriting influences, the Portland, Ore., music scene, and being a musician navigating these difficult times.
Hi guys! Welcome to Vents. How have you been?
Julie Amici: The last year, 2019, was a huge one for us. It was a pretty busy year with shows, and we received several awards for our nonprofit and community-based work. Now in 2020, it seems like things have come to a grinding halt, but we are actually keeping busy during this social-distancing thing. We’ve been working on the album’s release, and on new material. I’ve been sewing face masks to donate to hospitals in need, working on some paintings, and taking a lot of walks outside when the weather’s nice. All our gigs are canceled of course, so we’ve created a new facebook livestream to connect with our audience, family and friends. It’s called “Happy Hour w/ Julie & Dean” and it airs every Friday at 5 p.m. (PDT) from our Oregon coast living room! It’s a hoot! It’s almost more performance art. We play some music and interact with the audience’s comments. People are really thankful we are doing it. It gets their minds off the rest of the world.
Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Frame It On The Wall?” Did any event in particular inspire you to write this song?
Julie: Yes, a very particular moment. I was at The Roseland, a theater in Portland which has hosted just about every big musician there is. The walls of the lobby are filled with framed photographs of musicians performing onstage, some autographed. I was waiting in the lobby which was fairly empty at the time, and I was staring at a picture of Bonnie Raitt, just smiling her smile, and as I stared at the picture and all the details in it, I realized my own face in the reflection of the glass. And I was wondering, how on Earth someone becomes like that, like her! It was such a strange juxtaposition, my admiration and wonderment reflected back at me while looking at her. It was kind of shocking. I went on to write the song pretty honestly, asking the simple questions: “Could I ever be like that? Will I ever be that good? Do I have what it takes? Can I work that hard?” The other verses follow in a similar format pointing out my other musical idols. I don’t make it completely obvious who I’m referring to, you kind of have to be fans of theirs’ as well to pick up on the subtle hints.
The single comes off your new album I Loved You So—what’s the story behind the title?
Dean Mueller: We wrote the song “I Loved You So” one night when I was sitting on the couch playing around with an old blues-guitar lick. Julie came over with a couple glasses of wine, and we just started having fun and making up lyrics together and the song came together really fast, pretty much in one night. When it came time to name the album, we just looked at all the songs and thought it was a standout for an album name. That name could be kinda sappy but with the edgy lyrics of the song and the album art, we think it really hits the mark.
What was it like to work with Alan Jones and how did that relationship develop?
Dean: We have a great relationship with Alan and feel very fortunate to have him work with us. I’ve known Alan for many years as a drummer and educator and took a few lessons from him way back in the day. We stayed in touch over the years and Julie and I started playing in a jazz group at his Alan Jones Academy of Music (AJAM). One thing led to another and we started working with him on some original songs and one day he just said, “Hey do you want me to produce a record for you.” That was back in 2016, and we subsequently recorded and released our first EP, Yellow Roses. Ever since, we’ve been meeting with Alan weekly for a couple years and are constantly working on new material and plans for the next record. When we have enough material, we start ramping up the recording process, set a target and go for it. By the time we get there, we all have a pretty long history with the songs, so we just have to record them and dial in production.
Tell me about the recording and writing process?
Dean: With only a couple of exceptions, the inspiration for most of these songs are from experiences in our past. The writing process varies from song to song, but usually one of us comes up with a lyric and melodic idea that is the starting point—the exceptions on the new record being “I Loved You So” and “I Wanted You,” which started as instrumental ideas that eventually ended up with words and melodies laid over the top. When it came time to record, we had some specific ideas about the players we wanted to join us in the studio. It was pretty clear who would be suited best each song. We called the guys in and recorded their tracks and then got to work. Alan and I split up the post-production duties, and then worked together on the final decisions for the pre-mix. We have a great working relationship and see eye to eye on most everything, so it went very smoothly. For the final mixes and mastering, we used Matt Greco at The Rye Room.
What role does Portland play in your music?
Julie: Portland is full of so many talented, hard-working, creative, genre-bending musicians. There is a great community that supports one another, and no matter what genre you play, a lot of people can step outside their field and perform. We are fortunate to have these great musicians to call on for the variety of shows we play. From Patsy Cline Tributes, to John Prine Tributes, Jazz festivals or Blues festivals, there are always a number of people we can turn to.
Dean: My professional music upbringing took place in Portland and the players here have had a big effect on me. Portland has a top-notch scene, and I’ve been able to perform with world-class country, blues, rock and jazz players. It’s a deep pool of talent, a warm and cooperative place. Musicians are there for each other, Portland is very hip in that way.
Who are some artists that influence your songwriting? In what way does their influence come through?
Julie: I have a deep respect and love for John Prine. I grew up from a young age listening to him, as he was the only thing my parents agreed on! That, and having a lot of kids! His songwriting style framed the way I even saw the world, the way I interpreted it. I always appreciated Dolly Parton’s songwriting, as well. She’s a storyteller, and those stories resonate with me. I grew up poor, but I had nature, and when you have nature, well that’s your shopping mall. You just go outside and buy it all up. I also love Leonard Cohen’s songwriting, which is more like poetry—ambiguous, sexy, risky. He embraced who he was and his style until the very end. That unwavering confidence made him who he was. I try to write a combination of all these things—funny, clever, sexy, good-natured.
Dean: That is really hard to nail for me. John Prine is probably number one, and then maybe Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, and blues artists like Willie Dixon. They’ve all affected me as a player and a songwriter. There are others, mostly people who are pretty traditional and date back to early blues and Americana. I think that the breadth of influences on us both is reflected well in the diverse nature of these songs and I hope people appreciate the range of style throughout the record.
What aspect of doubt and hope did you get to explore on this record?
Julie: I would hope that the listener recognizes that everything from the lyrics to the production to the instrumentation was a labor of love. Alan, Dean and I have a unique combination of qualities that make it capable to deliver such a high-quality album.
Dean: My biggest question is, how can we be successful in the midst of a release during the damn COVID-19 lock down?! If we can get the word out, I know there are many people who will enjoy what we’re doing, and who can relate to the stories and emotion of our songs. We are really proud of the performance and production, but really the songwriting and stories are what this is all about.
Where else did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?
Julie: Just daily life, and the insanity of the world. Like for “Faces in Things,” that’s pretty much true! That’s how I was feeling at that point. I sat down and wrote that song in about 15 minutes. I’d been working really hard, and not seeing an end to any of it, kinda going crazy, and I starting writing that song as comic relief. Sometimes those are the best songs. I had to deal with the times and try to laugh even though I felt like pulling my hair out and crying.
Dean: I began writing “Read Through Tears” in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre, and finished it as more horrific mass shootings unfolded at a country-music festival in Las Vegas, a church in Texas, and a high school in Parkland, Florida. The song ultimately became a tribute to the anti-gun-violence March for Our Lives. I think of it as a modern blues song, since it deals with modern events and has a modern sound, but follows a traditional blues form and is sad and hopeful at the same time.
Any plans to hit the road?
Dean: Well, that is a great question! I am answering this in the middle, or maybe even the start of the Covid-19 era. So far we have had 27 shows cancelled and that will probably continue and wipe out all CD-release tour plans for the summer. But the show must go on, and we are gonna stick with the release and do some virtual CD-release events, and try to make the most of it. We plan on attending AmericanaFest in September and maybe plan some shows around that if things clear up by then. It’s a very uneasy time right to make any touring or even local-performance plans.
What else is happening next in Julie & Dean’s world?
Julie: As soon as things get rolling again, I can continue my school Musical Enrichment Program. I wrote a lot of grants to make that happen, and now everything has been pushed back for months. The senior class I was working with isn’t even sure if they’ll be able to graduate on schedule. With all this down time, it’s been nice to focus on new songs, as well, and there’s a lot of creative energy that’s been put to good use working on them. I’m sure we’ll have another album coming soon.
Dean: I’m currently trying to figure out how to market online in this environment, and trying to stay prepared to perform again once things turn around. In the meantime we are doing some cool things online and still hard at work writing music and making demos of new songs—trying to somehow turn this crisis into an opportunity.