“Better Out Than In” finds Julia Blair coming into full focus

One of central Wisconsin’s most visible musical multihyphenates discusses her debut solo LP.

One of central Wisconsin’s most visible musical multihyphenates discusses her debut solo LP.

Photo: Julia Blair performs on a sunny outdoor stage during the 2017 edition of Mile of Music in Appleton, WI. Blair’s shown sitting behind a keyboard to the right of the image, eyes closed, hands raised in the air, mid-vocalization. There’s a purple wristband on her right wrist and she’s wearing a black V-neck t-shirt and dark tan pants. Behind her are several promotional banners for Southern Comfort. Photo by Steven Spoerl.

Julia Blair’s been a staple of the Fox Valley music scene for years, gaining notoriety through playing in Holy Sheboygan and Dusk—the latter of whom were just announced as one of the acts for the upcoming Dirtnap Fest in June at the High Noon Saloon—before releasing a few short solo collections (which have since been removed from streaming platforms). Being the co-owner and operator of renowned Appleton recording studio Crutch of Memory (which now also operates as a record label and boasts a literary arm), has further heightened Blair’s profile. A dynamic vocalist and preternaturally gifted stage presence with an endearing oddball nature, Blair’s personality has occasionally been pushed to the sidelines of her various projects’ collected work. On her first solo full-length, Better Out Than In, that personality becomes the engine.

Released on February 24, Better Out Than In plays as a culmination of Blair’s eccentricities, running a peculiar gamut of genres, never content to settle into one specific mode. Melancholic chamber folk/pop, peppy, funk-inflected Americana, and genuinely genre-averse concoctions are scattered across the record. While Blair’s record features some co-writing credits, it’s unmistakably a product of the artist—and the person—at its heart.

For Better Out Than In, Blair’s support band was culled from Crutch of Memory mainstays and familiar collaborators: Amos Pitsch, Colin Wilde, Ridley Tankersley, and Andy Harris (formerly of The Goodnight Loving) served as the core backing group, while ancillary support was provided by a wide cast of local musicians. Given Blair’s pedigree and a well-earned reputation as an indelible pillar of support for Wisconsin musicians throughout her time as a musician, spectator, and studio owner, it’s not surprising she’d wind up with a small army of enormously talented artists willing to support her artistic vision.

Lyrically, Blair’s sights are set on microcosms of life’s biggest events across Better Out Than In. Desire (“Wanderin,” “Fantasize,” “Just A Cue”), death (“Barbara,” “Waste Away”) and personal evolution (“Relax,” “Make The Darkness Go Away”), with the three themes frequently intersecting. On the hymn “Lullaby,” split into three distinct tracks to punctuate the record, the lyrics seem intentionally sculpted to heighten the emotional emphasis and impact of the record in relation to its themes during specific runtime points. It’s a neat trick that gives a decent amount of credence to Blair’s claims in lead-off single “Relax”: “Well, I am clever. Much more clever than you.”

In late February, Tone Madison caught up with Blair to discuss her creative process, Crutch of Memory, Better Out Than In, how learning is an ongoing evolution, and cultivating balance. Throughout our talk, Blair was in good spirits, affable, and prone to fits of short laughter, inadvertently demonstrating the curiously singular spirit that drives Better Out Than In.

Tone Madison: Can you take us through the recording process and key players for this record?

Julia Blair: The recording process was long and winding because a lot happened. We started recording basic tracks and it was Amos Pitsch, Colin Wilde, Ridley Tankersley, and me. Andy Harris joined in too. He was working with the label for a while, so he was definitely very involved with the tracking and we got a lot of the basic tracking done and did that live for the most part. Then we started working on the overdubs, and around that time I got hit by a car and had this head injury, which really delayed the whole process for a lot of reasons.

The overdubs took a really long time because, first of all, that happened, and it was kind of like doing it when we could, and then COVID happened. So it was one thing after the other. It feels like we’ve been working on this record for a long time, which we sort of have, but also it gets kind of picked up and put down. The overdubs, Amos was the biggest player. He was always there, always involved. Then Ridley was there a lot too. And Andy! Andy did a lot of really cool guitar solos. And… who else? There was a choir of people on a few songs, there was a string quartet on a song, Jake Crowe was in a few times. We had Frank Anderson come in, who is a local hero around here, a pedal steel player. He used to live in Madison back in the Smart Studios days, played pedal steel on all that stuff. That’s the tracking process.

Tone Madison: Since you’re operating out of Crutch, I’m guessing the pandemic wasn’t a restrictive force when it came to tracking? Or did you shut down operations for the studio as well?

Julia Blair: Right. It wasn’t like we weren’t allowed in, because it’s our space. It was more dealing with the emotional turmoil. Only Amos and I could use it for a while because of COVID. So if we wanted any other players, there was a restriction. Because otherwise, it wasn’t very chill to get together. So, yeah. It affected it in some ways. Not in the literal sense of blockading access to the studio, which was very cool. 

Tone Madison: How much of the record did you have predetermined from the outset and how much of it was created or decided in the recording stages?

Julia Blair: There were some elements that I knew I would want. I knew I would want a choir on a couple of songs and I knew that I would want strings on a couple songs and, you know, [I had some specific ideas like] “Oh, I think this will probably be an organ riff,” that type of thing. I think there was a lot of tone hunting, especially. Overdubbing, we did all of those things we kind of knew were going to be there. The choir, the string quartet. The string quartet was actually the basic track, but different things like that, bass organ or whatever, things I was hearing. And then we went into mixing, basically did that process all over again, because we’d be like “Oh, this song needs a little thing here.” I definitely had a plan, but the mixing process was a sculpting of the sound too. We ended up adding treats, little sound treats, then.

Tone Madison: A lot of the record sounds distinctly like a product of the upper Midwest. How much do you think environment or geography ultimately colors songwriting?

Julia Blair: I’m glad you feel that way! I know for me, it does. In general we like where we’re from and it’s an inspiration to us. I think, for me, it kind of affects my lyric writing more than anything, but it’s not something I do on purpose. I don’t sit down with the intention of having Midwestern overtones, I guess. I do think, just kind of my general personality, and things I think about [are] affected by this area. And I know Amos, because this record was so collaborative—he and I produced it together—I think, for him, that’s a really big part of his songwriting is [reflecting an upper Midwestern identity]. So, that definitely informed the record too.

Tone Madison: When you write lyrics, is there a split between fiction and autobiography or are you generally writing from a perspective that sees a cohabitation of the two?

Julia Blair: It’s sort of like a split, but I do both. I definitely write things that aren’t about myself or, at least not directly, but I guess in some Freudian way they are [laughing]. I do write a lot of stuff that’s very biographical, personal to me. I think part of my general approach to music and lyricism is being very genuine. So, naturally, you speak from your experiences. But some things are definitely part of a story I’m telling. And sometimes, some songs start out as super personal and zoom out to things not related to me. So it’s not exclusive to one or the other. 

Tone Madison: In The Alternative‘s premiere write-up for “Relax,” you expounded on the incident that operated as the basis for that track. Were there any other significant real-life moments that acted as the impetus for any of the other narratives?

Julia Blair: Yeah! “Barbara” is very much related to the death of my Aunt Barb, so it’s very direct. Honestly, I’m trying to think if there are any that aren’t. Some of the songs are co-written, too, so the lyrics aren’t mine. But every song I wrote probably spurred from a real-life impetus and would go in different directions. Even if it wasn’t an experience I’d been having personally, like, “Shy, Dry, And Dreary” was a little bit like how I was feeling at the time, but it was kind of from the perspective of my friend who was going through an emotionally abusive relationship and I was thinking about that a lot. It wasn’t always just my experiences.

Tone Madison: A lot of the record traffics heavily in exploring themes of love and desire. Did the process of writing those songs have any impact on your own patterns of thinking on those topics?

Julia Blair: Boy, I don’t know. I think, maybe, with writing a song like “Relax,” which is kind of a little bit of a “fuck you” song, can be empowering. You can start it feeling pretty bad and then by the end, you’re feeling a little better. I think that was the main one for me that affected the way I was feeling at the time, the actual writing of it. Especially in relation to relationships and love and those kinds of feelings. I don’t know, “Waste Away,” maybe, a little bit, but not quite as much.

Tone Madison: It’s hard listening to the record to pinpoint a specific genre that fully encompasses what you’re doing musically. Was creating something outside of the traditional barriers or confines of genre an intentional approach, or something that came about as a natural byproduct of having disparate influences?

Julia Blair: I would say yes and no, if that’s not a fake answer. Yes in the sense that part of my reason for wanting to make a solo record was that I wanted to really do something that felt straight from the heart, from me. In that way, I’ve never really ascribed myself to one genre so it makes sense that it’s sort of this amalgamation of my influences. I listen to a really wide array of music and feel really connected to a lot of different types of music and also just, with my own songwriting, when I wasn’t writing for Dusk, which is more straightforward, that those confines blurred a little bit. It just ended up being that way.

Tone Madison: I think that speaks to some clear differentiating factors between this record, Dusk, and Holy Sheboygan. All of those projects are wholly their own thing. Did you take anything specific from working with those bands and incorporate it into this record and, conversely, did you take anything away from writing this record that you’d be eager to imbue into those bands?

Julia Blair: Mm. Yeah, I think I did take from both. First of all, they’re both very collaborative projects. Everybody writes in both of those bands and I think that’s the way I always operate. So that attitude came in, even though it’s my solo record, there are some other people who had songwriting credits and people would come up with ideas for parts and weigh in on production, stuff like that. So it was never like I wanted to be Queen of the Record or anything like that.

I think, sensibility-wise, when I played in Holy Sheboygan, that’s also kind of a weird project to pin down. We call ourselves a folk collective but we’re kind of all over the place. We do a lot of really in-depth instrumentation and I feel like some of the songwriting sensibilities I learned working with that group of people definitely extended. With Dusk, it’s more like a straightforward rock n’ roll or country-rock n’ roll band, which I had never really experienced. I would say this record is more close to that vein than it would be if I had never been in Dusk, because it’s just what I’ve been experiencing for the past however many years.

Tone Madison: You said when you “played in” Holy Sheboygan, in the past tense. Is Holy Sheboygan still together?

Julia Blair: Oh, did I say that? No! No. We’ll be together until forever! We get together like once a year, we’re not really active. At this point, we’re just family, so I call it family reunion time. We actually do have a record coming out, we’ve been working on a years-long project that this art institute commissioned for us. It’s actually coming out this fall. It’s another COVID delay but, no, we’re still a band.

Tone Madison: I remember seeing some recent posts about Dusk having tracked a batch of songs for the next record as well. Is that still progressing?

Julia Blair: Yeah, we’re getting pretty close! All the tracking is done. We’re in the mixing process. We’ve started mixing. We… started mixing. [Laughing.] So that’s where we are!

Julia Blair’s shown sitting behind a keyboard on the left, looking expectantly out at an unknown, out of frame object. To her right is her Dusk bandmate Tyler Ditter, playing a cherry red SG, with his eyes fixed towards the same unseen object, mid-strum. They’re performing at dusk on the Fox River House patio in Appleton, WI during Mile of Music 2017. A large tree is visible to Ditter’s right, along with several overhanging leaves. A golden hue tints the leaves in the distant background. Photograph by Steven Spoerl.

Tone Madison: Better Out Than In took around three years to complete. Do you have plans to keep releasing solo work beyond this record? If so, has going through such an intensive process taught you anything instructive that could carry over to your next record?

Julia Blair: Yes, totally. To all of that. I want to do another record. I think I learned a lot about my process and my limits. How to work with myself, if that makes sense. I don’t know. I think I learned a lot about myself, and some of them were hard lessons, but they were all good to learn.

Tone Madison: For your upcoming tour, is the band you put together for the record going to be accompanying you, or are you doing the tour solo?

Julia Blair: It’s going to be a live band, it’s going to be one person for sure. Ridley Tankersley is playing with me. I have two other people who have not confirmed, so I won’t tell you who they are. They’re secret people. May 3, starting in Milwaukee, then going to the east coast and the last day is May 16. So two weeks. Chill. And then I’ll probably try to do another Southwest one this summer. Take it from there, you know?

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