For singer/songwriter Julia Smith,
Music is art,
created in the soul.
interview JULIE JOHNSON
pictures courtesy of JULIA SMITH, singer/songwriter, Nachtigal
Growing up a farm girl, she would spend her free time building forts among the trees, playing with her family’s menagerie of animals, exploring the pasture.
Julia’s mom had toured with an international choir during one summer of college. She introduced the homeschooler to Mozart and Bach to help focus an “overactive imagination” (says Julia) between school assignments.
Her paternal grandma majored in oboe performance and taught both oboe and piano. Grandma Nachtigal invited her granddaughter into the story of piano, giving her the first lessons on the chordophone.
“Music was always important to me in the sense I just loved it,” Julia says. “I would play piano for 1-2 hours a day just because it was almost like an out-of-body experience, silencing any sadness or anxiety around me.”
Through high school, Julia worked her craft, writing her first song on guitar as a senior, but thinking nothing of it until sometime later. In college, she joined a studio band with other students who were writing and producing music. She vulnerably showed them her song; they bought into the dream; and the owner of the rented studio offered to mix it for free. “The experience was exhilarating,” she says, “and from then on, I was hooked on the creative process of making music.
What I slowly learned through that process of intense jealousy was that her gift did not take away from mine.
Music has been an unwavering friend to Julia. Even when she wrestled with the potential of it all, music became Samwise Gamgee to her Frodo Baggins on her journey of self-discovery.
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“Now as I open up my heart and allow myself to feel the emotions I believe God gave us as humans, I believe art is a gift that allows us to bring a small piece of God’s beauty down to earth,” she says.
“I hope through my songs, people can 1) get a glimpse of the magnificent, passionate glory of our God and 2) accept and see the beauty God has placed in themselves and in all the humans around them, even if we all manifest it in a different way.”
Julie + Julia’s
Julie: What was the first experience you had where you thought, “I have to write a song about this?” How does songwriting help you process situations or emotions?
Julia: I remember writing a little poem when I was maybe seven about a bird I was watching fly from tree to tree as I lay in the grass. I loved to pet my cats, and I was frustrated I couldn’t pet the bird too, haha! I thought the bird was beautiful, but I also felt I would never really be able to appreciate it fully until I could hold it and touch it, which would never happen.
There was some type of longing, yearning emotion I felt was important enough to find words to put on paper, because maybe then I wouldn’t have to keep dwelling on that emotion. To this day, my songwriting serves much of the same purpose. I’ve learned letting emotions lead your words or actions is rarely a good idea, so putting the words down on paper and the feelings to music is like a safe place where those emotions can live.
I know a lot of people who like to make lists of things they have to do or buy because otherwise the thoughts just keep swirling around in their head and it’s hard to push them aside because you don’t want to forget anything. Writing a song about an emotion or situation for me is kind of the same thing, where I’m feeling this thing and I just can’t move on until it’s resolved. When I take the time to craft it into a song, it’s like, OK, that feeling is now processed and it lives in the song. I don’t have to keep feeling it all the time because any time I want to feel it again, I can play the song, and it will come back to me.
Julie: What has been your most personal song to write or sing? How does being vulnerable help connect you to others? What actions can people take to choose vulnerability?
Julia: I actually have a few songs I’ve never released because I felt like they were too personal and/or people would misunderstand their meaning. They are my time capsule to put those emotions in, but I’m not sure if they would be helpful to other people or not. I struggle with that because I don’t want to hide the ugly parts of my life, and sometimes I think it could be helpful to other people to know they aren’t alone in feeling those things. But at the same time, I don’t want to be guilty of glorifying unhealthy emotions. I do my best to bring my songs to a redemptive conclusion, but sometimes when I’m writing, the song just doesn’t want to go that way. It wants to sit in the feelings a bit longer and a 3-minute song just doesn’t give enough time to wrap it all up.
As far as songs I have chosen to release, I would probably go with “Window Seat” or “Love Me Back”. I have song descriptions on all of my songs on my website, so if you want to know the stories behind those, you can check out NachtigalMusic.com.
I think being vulnerable can help us connect just because when we choose to open up about hard things or struggles, it gives others the chance to know they aren’t alone in their own struggles. It is tempting to conceal the things that don’t seem “highlight reel” worthy in our lives because those make us feel less worthy of love, when really we as humans all struggle with the same root sins and the same stressful events, albeit maybe at different times in our lives.
When choosing vulnerability, it is important to be someone who is trustworthy. I say that because we attract friends who share our own values, so if you want friends who are trustworthy to give empathy and good advice when you are vulnerable, work on being that person yourself. Because being vulnerable doesn’t always mean wearing your heart on your sleeve; it just means opening up to the people who really care about you.
Julie: How has failure or rejection helped you become a better singer/songwriter? Will you share a story of a time when your resilience was tested? What did you learn during that time?
Julia: I’m a person who likes to feel like they are always right (who’s with me??) so failure and rejection bring me back down to earth. It’s important to ask questions, but we won’t ask if we think we already have the answer. Having the humility to listen to other people and acknowledge they might know more than you is so important if we are to grow in any area of life.
When I fail or experience rejection, it helps me to be humble enough to evaluate where my songwriting or singing might be able to improve. My resilience has been tested many times when I compare myself to other musicians whom I feel are so much more talented than me. I have wanted to give up songwriting many times when I have met others who just seemed to have it made. It made me feel puny and worthless.
There was one artist in particular I met while interning at Studio 2100 (editor’s note: a local, professionally designed studio) that was signed and went on some international tours. While we were working on my own songs, my producer would show me some of her songs as examples of great singing and songwriting. He meant to use it to help me grow, but it hurt my pride a lot, for which I am very thankful now, and I didn’t know how to deal with it.
What I slowly learned through that process of intense jealousy was that her gift did not take away from mine. I could learn from her gift, but I had my own unique place and purpose in life. That situation sparked both my songs “Mercury” and “Love Me Back.”
Julie: What does a pause or white space look like for you? How do you rest so you can re-energize your creativity?
Julia: Usually, it looks like disconnecting from digital media: social media, movies or TV shows, online shopping, music, anything that puts me in the place of a consumer. There is a time to consume because we can be inspired by the art of others, but in our digital world especially, it’s important to know when to shut off all the noise so the whispers of the soul can be heard.
And a lot of times, I need to spend time in the quiet without an agenda. What I mean is, I don’t shut off the noise purely so I can sit down and pound out the next song. I shut off the noise to truly let my eyes, ears, and brain breathe.
This might sound cheesy, but I feel like when my senses take the backseat, my heart can start to wake up. That’s when creativity is re-energized. I go for a walk, take a nap, and maybe read a few chapters of a book. I don’t feel like books put me as much in the role of a consumer because my imagination still has to work and interpret what the author is describing or explaining. Also, changing your scenery can be really helpful. Whether it’s going on a day trip, weeklong vacation, or just listening to a different kind of music than I usually do, shaking things up almost always leads to new inspiration.
Julie: Favorite songs by three artists and why?
Julia: Oh man, these definitely fluctuate from day to day and three songs in no way can encapsulate my entire library of music, but here goes:
“Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac. When I discovered this song, I was entranced by the emotion in the lyrics and the way Stevie Nicks delivers them. The song is literally only two chords the whole time, except for one little turnaround, which showed me a song doesn’t have to be complex to captivate. When I started writing, I felt like I had to make everything complex and use as many chords and crazy melodies as possible to make the song stand out. So, I learned a lot from this song about the importance of expressing rather than impressing.
“I’m Still Standing” by Elton John. I love a lot of Elton John songs, but this one I’ve been listening to a lot lately. I just like the attitude in it and it makes me feel ready to take on the world, haha.
“Take on Me” by a-ha. The most brilliant synth line ever. Captivating and memorable vocal melody. Still not sure exactly what the lyrics are, something about being gone in a day, or two. But, whether I’m interpreting the lyrics correctly or not, the song seems to speak for itself. It’s just beautiful and an all-time favorite.