’Mesmerising voice and magnetic stage presence’ (THE GUARDIAN), ‘an almost religious presence’,
(SCHALL MUSIK MAGAZINE) ‘destined for an extraordinary career’ (STEREOPLAY), ‘should be a household name by now’ (THE LONDON EVENING STANDARD) are just some of the incredulous reactions that have rained in on Julia Biel across her 4 albums to date. From Billie Holiday to Kate Bush, Joni Mitchell to Nina Simone, Thom Yorke to Chet Baker, Björk, Prince and Amy Winehouse,there’s barely a legendary artist Julia Biel has not been compared to as critics have grappled with how to pin down her sound.
And if it all seems bewildering given her notoriety has been distinctly limited to those in the know despite a globe-trotting performing career these past 10 years, then perhaps it pays to zoom out on the cultural landscape a little to take a bird’s eye view of the London born and bred artist to whom all of the following apply: vocalist, songwriter, pianist, sometime guitarist, bandleader, multi-racial, female solo artist, self-taught, producer, late-starter.
Hers was always going to need to be a voyage of discovery and personal evolution, one that would involve taking the baton from parents moved to undertake major journeys themselves. Alighting in Britain in the 1950s, her father arrived from Cape Town seeking a life free of South Africa’s increasingly onerous apartheid laws. Her mother, born in Berlin during the war and raised among the ruins and poverty of rural, post-war Germany, similarly yearned for relief from the unrelenting heaviness of that time and place. Coming from opposite ends of the Earth, they met in Brighton, England and put down roots in suburban London, where they raised two daughters they thought and hoped could be ‘English’ by simple virtue of being in England. Both parents carried within them a desire for their children to be free from the shadows of the past.
But as is often the case, intention and reality are not necessarily the same. For Julia, it was a childhood filled with an abiding sense of being an outsider, of never fitting into cultural norms. Hovering in some unspecified place outside of the invisible British class system and racial dynamics, she found herself also cut off from her ancestral roots in culture and all her extended family, by then scattered all around the world. A love of music and a subconscious need to create culture for herself grew ever stronger but despite distant, musically-inclined relatives in her lineage, hers was not a musical household. She needed to wait. A stint studying languages at Oxford University (where she would meet future partner in life and music, the acclaimed tenor saxophonist Idris Rahman) brought things to a head and the call to making music grew ever more urgent – she needed to create a context in which she could feel fully free to explore her own angle on the world.
The journey began in earnest as she burst onto the scene in 2000, surprising herself by winning the Perrier Vocalist of the Year after being entered into the competition by a friend, just as she was taking her first baby steps into music and singing in public. There were many landmark moments in the years that followed: further award nominations, various profile cross-genre collaborations, 3 criticallyacclaimed full-length studio album releases with a variety of line-ups charting her artistic growth, much international touring, prestigious jazz festivals, opening for Bob Dylan at his Stuttgart gala concert at his request, and with a loyal international following growing all the while. And yet It took the release of a fully solo piano and voice record ‘Black and White, Vol.1’ (pre-pandemic 2020) for the self-taught artist to fully understand her place in the cultural landscape as it presently exists.
‘For these original songs presented in such a gentle way to still be heard as boundary-pushing and uncategorisable was the wake-up call I needed. I came to realise that my very existence as a multiracial being on this divided Earth is often a challenging proposition in itself and so any authentic expression of mine can only ever challenge the status quo, however natural it might feel. In the stillness of the pandemic, this really hit me. I was really sad for a while but then I began to see the strength in that and everything changed. Suddenly I was free from the burden of trying to fit in once and for all. It’s just never going to happen and that’s ok, joyous even. I feel re-born.’
Diving deep into the musical truth of that joyful acceptance has carried her to the dawn of a sound she is calling ‘future organic astral soul’. On a surface level, it’s a classic line-up of piano/vocals, tenor saxophone, double bass and drums but one that is deployed to serve her 2023 liberated self and 10 fresh, contemporary, self-penned songs to add to her catalogue, with Julia free in the music like never before, exploring with compelling abandon.
A new album showcasing this powerful next phase is on the horizon but for now Julia’s visceral presence in the music, her voice twisting and turning, speaking and rasping and then soaring to the heavens or firing out the words when needed, responding to the music in the moment around the framework of the song is already audible in her live shows. For all that we witness a charismatic old soul in full flow, a songwriting, piano-playing, multi-racial woman from the UK presenting this upcoming earthy groove-laden jazz-soul sound is a totally new and unique proposition on the scene. And with a dream international line-up she goes a step further still, underscoring her instinctive outernationalism by combining her unflashy, individualistic piano style with a heavy yet nimble ancestral pan-African groove from Paris-based drumming sensation Tilo Bertholo (Gregory Privat), originally from Martinique, the beguiling presence of Swiss-Italian/Algerian and Paris-raised double bassist Samuel F’hima (Daïda), whose deep and rounded sound is as grooving as it is brooding, and a Pharaoh Sanders/Coltrane-esque otherworldliness on tenor saxophone from the increasingly globally renowned Anglo-Bengali Idris Rahman (Ill Considered, Wildflower), who is also producing the upcoming new record with her.
Whilst unmistakably the product of Julia’s own individual artistry, echoes of the great pioneers Nina Simone and Alice Coltrane are to be heard in the music. There’s a defiant vulnerability in common, as well as an implicit hope for humanity to meet all of itself on a cosmic plane beyond the here and now, as relevant now as it was then.
France’s taste-maker magazine Télérama, on including ‘Black and White, Vol.1’ in its End Of Year Best Of List 2020 remarked that ‘Julia Biel shines with a discreet but deeply natural and instinctive light, one that marks her out as a natural-born singer, a healer even.’ With her new-found liberation and her spirit free to resonate unapologetically at its fullest, that light just got a whole lot brighter for those open to seeing it.