Morning Star sees Julia Sanders pushing against the notion that motherhood and being a musician isn’t compatible and created her own soundtrack to matrescence.
Julia Sanders is a force to be reckoned with. She is a multi-instrumental singer-songwriter and folk singer, and a top of everything else she is a mother of two. Carving out her own world within the music industry, a place for herself to be both a musician and a mother, she found a creative rebirth and rejuvenation in the experience of making her sophomore album Morning Star.
Making peace with the conflicting fragments of her identity, Julia started to seek out songs about the complicated, often contradictory feelings she was experiencing as she transitioned into motherhood.
Julia started creating her own soundtrack to the experience of matrescence, which is that physical, emotional, hormonal and social transition into motherhood. Morning Star is an album that is brimming with meticulously layed out soundscapes, which are anchored by Julia’s mesmerising vocals and her transfixing lyrical style. Her compact and thoughtful storytelling of her exploration of her transition from woman to mother, and partner to parent.
Here at Happy we got the opportunity to pick Julia’s brain about her sophomore album Morning Star and navigating motherhood whilst being a musician.
HAPPY: What was the exact moment that you fell in love with music?
JULIA: This is so hard to say because music has always been a big part of my life for as long as I can remember. I started playing the violin at age 5 and then guitar in middle school. I have an uncle and two aunts who are musicians and singers, so music was a big part of what I looked forward to when getting together with family. Like most people, discovering the music that spoke to me in adolescence helped me realise who I was separate from my family or even my friends. I wish I had one clear memory to tell you but my love of music has really just been a constant in life.
I do think I fell in love with music in a different way once I started diving into writing songs, and it became so much more personal. The love I have for it now is more reverent because I know there’s a real mystery and magic to where songs come from, and I’ve also seen all the hard work it takes to pull that idea down to earth and make it what it becomes.
HAPPY: Your sophomore LP Morning Star documents your journey through a lot of emotions you experienced and is an act of self-reconciliation. How did you find being so vulnerable with the LP, and did it provide an outlet for catharsis?
JULIA: I’m only interested in writing from a place of vulnerability. I think to create something that feels true and resonates with other people, that’s what you need to do—even if it’s not always flattering. Writing is definitely catharsis for me, and at the same time, it’s also very revealing. Oftentimes it’s not until I write a song that I really understand whatever it is I’m working through at the time.
Songwriting for me is really this balance of conscious and subconscious—being vulnerable and sharing what I know I’m feeling, and also uncovering what’s under the surface that needs to be put into words.
For me, the most difficult part of the vulnerability on this album is that I don’t ever want my kids to think that—when I’m talking about the challenges of motherhood—it has anything to do with how much I love being their mother. I hope that as they get older, and listen to this record, they understand I’m talking about my own growing pains while also trying to honour how beautiful and tender this time is.
HAPPY: Coming into this LP, you were experiencing matrescence, how did you find navigating it, and what range of emotions did you experience?
JULIA: I saw something online a while back that went, “Remember a caterpillar needs to turn into goo before it can become a butterfly.” I think that’s a pretty good description of the journey into motherhood. Before I had children, of course, I knew my life would change when I became a mother, but I think it had more to do with having less free time. What I wasn’t prepared for is how much it changes your own sense of self. The day my daughter was born all of a sudden I felt like I wasn’t the centre of my own universe anymore. Especially in those early months when they are so tiny and need so much. Everything orbits around them, and you realize you need to make an actual effort to remember yourself, to drink water or call a friend. Not to mention the turning into goo that is the pregnant and postpartum body and hormones. Like adolescence, there’s so much growing that needs to happen, and such big emotions—happiness and bliss and deep loneliness and loss all at the same time. So yes, who you were, how you lived your life, what you valued—you have to let all that go and be messy. These days, I’m starting to feel slightly more toward the butterfly side, where I’m getting glimpses of who I am as both an independent person and a mother, and that’s exciting.
HAPPY: How have you found the transition to motherhood whilst also being a musician?
JULIA: It’s challenging on every level. As a window into my life: right now, I’m answering this question standing at the counter in between trying to entertain my daughter who is home sick from school, make dinner, and keep my youngest from playing in the dog’s water bowl, which is the only toy he’s interested in. There’s a lot of great writing about the invisible load of motherhood that I should really leave to the experts, but in summary, even with a loving and supportive partner like I have, motherhood is more work than it even looks like, so it’s a constant dance of figuring out how to make space for music.
Writing these songs for Morning Star took so much longer than my first record because my process is so much slower now. We started recording when I was pregnant with my son and we kept going until I literally couldn’t breathe deep enough to sing. Then we started again after he was born and that meant so many sessions of wearing him while I was singing vocals, or my producer John James bouncing him in the baby chair so we could get a take. I’ve brought both kids to shows and fed the baby between sets. I’ve run back from soundcheck to put the kids to bed, and then gone back to the show. Worked rehearsals around school and nap time. For the most part, people are super supportive and helpful, but I’ve also gotten the occasional, “you can’t do everything,” and “Maybe while they’re young is not the time for this,” to which I wonder if anyone has ever said this to a male artist. I think it’s really valuable for my kids to see me working hard at what I love, and making time for it. Both my parents are visual artists, and that was what I grew up with—balancing life and art—so I want that for my kids as well.
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HAPPY: You currently have your gorgeous music video for Woman In Between, what was the inspiration behind the music video?
JULIA: My daughter is very into outer space right now, in that amazing way that little kids get totally fixated, so it’s something we talk about a lot at home, something that’s on my mind. Woman in Between is about being between worlds, the person I was before becoming a mother and then after, so the space theme made sense, and I liked the idea of a character that travels to another planet and evolves as a metaphor for parenthood.
HAPPY: The music video is stop-motion which you taught yourself to do, what was the process like? And what inspired you to create the video yourself?
JULIA: Honestly, it came from limitations on time and budget more than anything else. Even though stop-motion is very time-consuming, it’s something I could pick up for 20 minutes or an hour, whatever time I had while my oldest was at school or the baby was napping. It didn’t require blocking out a day or setting up a team that I needed to hire.
Also, I have a visual arts background, I went to school for photography and fine art, and I’ve had various jobs in that world, though not for a long time, so it was fun to explore that part of my creative brain again. I’ve noticed that when I start recording and working on an album I write a lot less, which can feel a little disorienting. Things get very outward-focused instead of inward-focused, so it was nice to have this totally different way of being inspired. The learning process was just a lot of trial and error really—watching online tutorials, messing up and starting over. I knew I wanted it to be more playful Monty Python-style animation, so thankfully I didn’t need to have it turn out too slick.
HAPPY: What has been the biggest lesson you have learned in songwriting and motherhood?
JULIA: The biggest lesson in songwriting has definitely been to just get out of my own way. I am without a doubt my own worst critic, which can keep me from finishing a song or sharing it with others. These days I try to trust the process of songwriting, and that if I’m writing from my heart it’s worth it to keep going.
I’m still learning so much about being a mother, but maybe the biggest lesson I’ve learned there is that it’s not about getting it “right.” When I mess up, I say I’m sorry; when I’m having a hard time I tell them I need to take a breath. I don’t want them to see me as perfect, but as a person who’s growing and learning just like they are, so that they feel comfortable doing the same thing.
HAPPY: What’s something someone has said about your music that you hold close to you?
JULIA: Someone once said they wanted a song of mine to be their alarm clock every morning, which was pretty sweet. But really the thing that makes me the happiest is how much my kids love when I sing to them. I think it’s because it’s the music they remember from their earliest moments, so it always calms them down, and it makes me feel like I have a superpower.
HAPPY: Thank you for chatting with us here at Happy! I can’t wait to hear your LP when it is out into the world!!
JULIA: Thank you!
Stream Morning Star via Spotify below.
Interviewed by Laura Hughes.