Date of Interview: 01/27/2012
Julie Frost is known internationally for her songwriting and music production talents. Her recent Golden Globe win in 2011 for “Best Original Song in a Soundtrack” (Madonna’s “Masterpiece” from W.E.) follows her 2010 win at the Eurovision Song Contest as the competition’s first American victor. The winning selection: “Satellite,” a song performed by Lena Meyer-Landrut and co-written with Dane John Gordon, which debuted at number-one in Germany and attained double-platinum certification.
The life journey of Julie Frost – from rural Vermont to the sunny skies of Los Angeles – is just as diverse as her music catalog. Her discography includes songs by the Black Eyed Peas (“Just Can’t Get Enough”), Beyonce Knowles (“Countdown”), Pitbull (“Castles Made of Sand”) and Cody Simpson (“On My Mind”). Shortly after her Golden Globe recognition, Julie Frost managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on her mother’s love of John Taylor, her father’s songwriting advice, and the music scene in Chicago – the city of her “musical birth.”
Clayton Perry: As a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist, the various talents guiding your musical journey have varying origin stories. During the evolution of your songwriting career, when did you first develop a fascination for words and wordsmithing?
Julie Frost: Hm. I think I’ve loved words for as long as I can remember. When I was a little girl, I learned how to read very young, and I could read extremely quickly. And I was the sort of reader that if I loved a book, I would read it four or five times. Or fifteen times! [laughing] I love books – the Narnia Chronicles, The Phantom Tollbooth, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Great books! And I think I might have always had a knack for “word association” games, or saying things in different ways with different words. But I didn’t really put it together that I was a songwriter until much later. By some measures, I was a late bloomer, because at some point pretty early on, and pretty decisively, I decided that I wasn’t creative. I was certain that I was most likely going to be an accountant or a marine biologist or something like that.
Clayton Perry: Oh, wow! I find that quite interesting.
Julie Frost: Yeah! So when I started writing, it was primarily journal writing – just to get my thoughts out and cope with life. I accidentally wrote my first song that way. It literally just wrote itself down. It was a funny feeling – like it was writing itself through me. I just looked at it and said: “That rhymes! Oh, my God!” [laughing]
Clayton Perry: As you were writing to cope with the things you were dealing with on a personal level, your work also evolved into a sort musical therapy for yourself and others on the professional end. You began playing instruments at a very you age, too. At what point did the worlds of writing and music-making begin to overlap and dovetail?
Julie Frost: I have always had a passionate love for music. Listening to music – like you said – was a form of therapy. I would listen to records and tapes – and then CDs – over and over. Music was everything to me. From the time that I was six, I would sing and play guitar off and on. I could always pick up and do something, and sometimes I’d get into it, but it was more for this enjoyment and therapy. I couldn’t really sing in front of people. At this point, I was living in Chicago and good friends with Craig Champlin. Craig gave me guitar lessons and he was the host of these open mic sessions. He is the one that said: \”I thought you could sing, and you should try the open mic…”
Clayton Perry: Right there – on the spot!
Julie Frost: Yeah, right there. That was a huge turning point in terms of me knowing that I was a singer and a songwriter, and then actually doing it. It was a big turning point. I’m really excited to go back and do a show with him.
Clayton Perry: It is really weird how our lives can change within one single moment. What if that dare never came?
Julie Frost: I know! And that’s how it happened. Of course, there was also my dad. He was the person playing guitar around the house in Vermont. He said: “I think I had this idea that if you were a songwriter, it would just come really easily and it would be really obvious. Like you’d just be five years old, like Mozart, and just do The Moonlight Sonata or something. But that it is actually a lot of hard work.” And this sounds so trite, but this turned out to be another big turning point in my life. He said: “Anything you do a lot of, you get better at. The more you do it, the better you get.” So I decided I was going to write and play guitar every day until I had written enough bad songs to write a good song, and then write enough good songs to write some great songs. And I’ve completely dedicated myself to it. At a certain point, I quit my job: right after the Songwriter Hall of Fame had chosen a few of my very early songs. I went up to New York, performed in a showcase, and came back from that saying: “I’m going to find a way to make a living making music or starve.” And I just starved the rest of the time until recently! [laughing]
Clayton Perry: Oh, yes! The starving artist stage! [laughing] Right before the glory years, right? [laughing continues]
Julie Frost: Yeah… [laughing] …and those were really rough! [laughing continues]
Clayton Perry: As I learned in my own personal experience, it is not easy to quit and walk away – and beyond – your comfort zone. I know there were a lot of fears and emotions embedded in that moment, but at the time you were studying “Entrepreneurship in the Arts” at DePaul University. What professional skills did you gain from this academic setting? Interestingly enough, at the very same time you quit, you essentially became an entrepreneur in an art you regularly participated in anyway. So what did the program teach you? And what lessons did you learn outside the classroom that were simply the product of trial and error?
Julie Frost: It was a cool program – the DePaul University School Without Walls. On one hand, that was the major I was specifically going for, but it was also the name of a class I took. I had a teacher named Jill Kickul – and that class opened up my eyes to this idea of to be an artist, it’s like you are your own company. You have to look at it in that way – bookkeeping, accounting, all of that. The class was probably worth the whole big student loan I still haven’t paid off! [laughing]
Clayton Perry: A lot of artists do not get that level of understanding until the later end of their careers, so it was a blessing that you had this information at the front-end.
Julie Frost: Yeah. It was just a lot of practical information about how to write a business plan. If you think about it – not in a cold way, but just a realistic way: “My music is a product. My show is a product. And in a way – I am a product.” Art and business need each other. They seem like they’re at odds, but they need each other, because what is business without art and products. There is so much room for creativity, which makes me so upset when I hear about art and music programs getting cut from public schools. It’s crazy: the kids are going to school and the building doesn’t even have a pair of maracas – or anything! Creativity is undervalued – especially when it comes to solving problems or having a visionary breakthrough like Steve Jobs. It is so undervalued. But the truth is everybody needs each other. Business needs art. Art needs business. At some point, you have to realize that fact – and make friends with that fact.
Clayton Perry: When people think of the “music business,” they tend to forget that there’s the musical element that runs alongside the business component. Is there a particular moment in your career, either for better or for worse, that you used your gut instincts to make a defining career move?
Julie Frost: I think one of the best decisions was deciding not to do things just because – and never signing a contract. I never signed away my publishing until it was 100 percent the right thing. At that point, I could give myself 100 percent – no holding back! I signed with EMI Music Publishing through Jon Platt. And it’s still tough – because you’re still green. You can always use some help.
Clayton Perry: Right! Help is always nice! [laughing]
Julie Frost: Yeah! [laughing] I like to eat – and live indoors. All that! [laughing continues] And you want so hard to believe. But something in me knew that this catalogue that I was building in my publishing was my whole investment. That was my 401(k). That was my degree. That was everything. And that I needed to really value it. I was very reluctant to sign anything, and that’s how I owned everything by the time the right situation came along.
Clayton Perry: Has this shrewdness and thoughtful hesistance always been within you, or can you recall when it was instilled along your musical journey?
Julie Frost: I don’t know. I think there’s a part of us down deep inside that’s very wise and sort of knows. There’s these things you just come with, inside of you, that you know, and if you have a certain calling and you have a certain mission in life, even if you don’t really understand it, you kind of can operate from that. Somehow you get protection. You get guidance. And if you follow it, it’s almost always good. And when you don’t, you almost always regret it. Like every little decision you regret, you usually have this memory: “Oh, I had a feeling.” But why did you listen to that feeling? Well, because your mind will tell you this. And somehow or another – thank goodness – I think it was a combination of maybe me having this intuition, but also me being protected, somehow, because I was just as foolish and naïve as anybody. At the same time, I don’t know how I managed to do that, but I did.
Clayton Perry: Over the course of your life, you have lived in a lot of different states: Oklahoma, Vermont, California, Illinois and Georgia. Walk me through these various stages and phases of your personal and professional lives. Looking at your catalog, the diverse range of your catalog must certainly pay credit to the various experiences you had within these different locations.
Julie Frost: I was born in Tulsa, and at a very young age we moved to Vermont, and I pretty much grew up on the East Coast. Then I went to Chicago, and that’s really where I came into music. So… South, East Coast, Midwest. Then I did a couple of years in Atlanta before I moved to L.A., and now I’m on the West Coast. So I’m a little bit from everywhere. [laughing]
Clayton Perry: So, Chicago is the place of your musical birth. What elements from – or related to – the city do you find incorporated in your work?
Julie Frost: Well, Chicago is just an incredible city. I just love it. The culture. It’s so culturally diverse – the neighborhoods, the lake, and everything. There’s something so special about it. And there is an independent music scene there that’s pretty cool. And it also has one of the biggest AAA radio stations, AAA meaning not the mainstream. And it’s a big radio station that would support independent artists, which is cool. And then there was a lot of advertising agencies, and every now and then I’d land a little cash from that, which was amazing. Then I taught at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Then I started my own thing, Happy Child Studios, where I did family concerts and family classes. And that’s another thing. I mean, Old Town. Second City. All those folk clubs. So it was a city, but there’s like a folky, grass roots element to it that’s just cool.
Clayton Perry: Although I have never been to the city, it is really neat to see how the city’s influence has weaved itself into your work. When you look at your debut album – The Wave – and bring everything full circle to the present – with you Golden Globe win with “Masterpiece,” what elements do you consider necessary to make the perfect song? Earlier, you mentioned that you use to work on a song endlessly – as it could always get better. What do you think makes a good song, and then what do you think is the hardest thing in creating a great song?
Julie Frost: For me, it’s almost a physical feeling of openheartedness and connection. It’s almost always very emotional. And again, this feeling of knowing that you’re just a vehicle for this song that is trying to be born through you. It literally feels that way. I have had songs come through me and I have felt like: “This is going to break me in half!” – and I am not the same person after writing the song. They change me – almost like a child. They look like you – and you have to do the work of raising them – which can be painful, you know? Sometimes it hurts. But even though they kind of look like you, you can’t really take credit. It’s a miracle – just like a baby. Songs come from the same place. Whenever I write a song, I discover things about it – later on – that I could not possibly do with my mind. It’s almost like your mind has to be subservient to that divine inspiration. But if the mind is in charge and more involved, it gets less special, for me.
Clayton Perry: Both your mother and father were very into music and music surrounded you while growing up. In my personal experience, I distinctly remember hearing Patti Labelle and Chaka Khan. Even though I was not directly connecting to the lyrics – but rather their voices – they provided the music to my early portion of my life’s soundtrack. When you look back over the years, is there a particular era, songwriting team or album that influenced you as a singer, songwriter and producer?
Julie Frost: James Taylor. James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Carole King. Bonnie Raitt, although she does write, she sings James Taylor songs and she sings songs written by others. I love her voice – and her interpretation. Mary J. Blige has a voice like that – it doesn’t matter if the words are hers or not.
Clayton Perry: Oh, yes! Both of those artists are very underrated, but considering how long they have been in the business, their longevity proves a certain level of fan appreciation. When were you first introduced to James Taylor?
Julie Frost: My mom. Her favorite record was JT (1977).
Clayton Perry: What song was your favorite?
Julie Frost: [begins to sing] “Whenever I see your smiling face, I smile myself, because I love you.” [stops singing] I believe it was simply called: “Your Smiling Face.”
Clayton Perry: Having travelled the long and wandering road of entertainment, what departing message do you wish to leave with your fans?
Julie Frost: I want to mention the power of gratitude. Gratitude and creativity. Gratitude is a fundamental thing that you need to cultivate to really succeed. I joke about struggling and starving, and it was always hard to get the rent paid, but I have to be very self-disciplined and remember: “Okay, I don’t have a GRAMMY, but I have socks, and music bought me these socks. And music bought me this shirt. And this good friend. Because of music, this person is here. Because they want to hear my music.” If you have the presence of mind to refocus on those things in the periods of struggle, I think that something happens – something happens in your state or your viewpoint that just makes other things more possible or they come to you easier because you’re at least appreciating what you have. I think that two of the most powerful weapons we have against the fear and the darkness in this life are gratitude and kindness, and those two things are really important to me.
For more information on Julie Frost, visit her official website: http://www.juliefrostmusic.com/