Cellist Julia Kent doesn’t sit still. The Canadian artist, known in part for her turns in femme-cello supergroup Rasputina and Antony and the Johnsons has spent the last year bouncing across the Atlantic creating music for a hip-hop dance troupe in Geneva, scoring theater in Cambridge, MA, performing with a dance company in Italy, all while touring and performing as a solo artist around the world. During a rare, week-long stay in New York, she chatted with our friend — sound artist Jesse Perlstein about the path that’s led to her solo music career and her advice for musicians still trying to find their sound.
JP: What have you been working on recently?
JK: In 2014 I explored a lot of opportunities in dance and theater. I worked with Company Tensei, a Geneva-based hip-hop dance company, collaborating with a beat-maker and guitarist to do music for them. At the same time I was involved, along with Son Lux, in a hybrid dance and theater project–The Shape She Makes–at the ART Theater in Cambridge, MA. And I did several other theatre projects in Italy. In 2015, I’ve been continuing to work a lot with an Italian dance company, Balletto Civile; we just performed at Holland Dance in Den Haag. I’ve had a bit of time at home in NYC recently, and have been able to start start working on a new solo record. And there are a bunch of new film and theatre projects in the works, and some new musical collaborations.
Where did the interest in getting involved with theater and dance come from?
I’ve always been really interested in process. You know, being a musician you go on tour, play a show, go to another city, and you play another show, and it’s very evanescent. But with theater, dance and film it’s very much a process; you see how the work develops over time, how it evolves through collaboration and rehearsal. And I find that super interesting because it’s not something musicians normally experience.
You touched on collaboration–how do you balance solo and collaborative projects?
It’s been very interesting working mostly on my own music over the last five or six years. I spent so many years playing other people’s music. In Rasputina, Melora Creager wrote all the music, which was wonderful to play, but very much her music and her project. So when I started to do my own thing it was so liberating. I was like “AHHH!” I finally felt independent and autonomous.
And I still really enjoy making music on my own but maybe the reason I’m more into the dance/theater/film thing right now is because it provides me with that element of collaboration that I miss when I’m just doing my own thing.
So what pushed you to start performing your own music?
I reached a point where I had some stuff I wanted to express in music and then I gained the technological capability to do it. It was really a double education because I had to learn how to write music and develop musical ideas myself while I was learning the technology to record those ideas. It took me a long time to figure everything out, but at this point you really can learn anything through the magic of the internet.
Let’s go back a bit, how did you first get involved in music? Have you always been a musician?
I started studying cello really young, probably around six years old. My parents claim that I picked it up after taking me to a [Mstislav] Rostropovich concert but I suspect there was a little…parental influence involved. Also my sister’s an amazing classically trained violinist.
But then when I went to music school, I got to a point where I threw up my hands in despair. I was like “I can never be a classical musician”, “I’m not talented enough”, “I don’t work hard enough”… because studying music that way really is a discipline. So I quit cello for a couple of years and moved to New York. And moving to New York was pivotal for me, I started playing with various different band and realized that “Oh! Here’s this whole world of music that’s improvised and creative.” And it was amazing. It opened up this whole universe.
How did you become a professional musician?
It was challenging when I first started playing with bands and improvised projects because at the same time I was working all day as an editor at the Village Voice. And even though it was something I really enjoyed doing, it was quite an interesting career, music was always more appealing. Rasputina eventually started touring more and more and that’s when I switched my focus to doing music. (And given what has happened to the printed publication, I feel like it was the right decision!)
But it didn’t happen all at once, I’d tour with Rasputina for a bit and then come back and do freelance copy editing for the Voice, and then I’d do some session work, and play with new projects in New York. Basically I just cobbled everything together in order to make music my focus.
What’s your hustling move? When you were trying to make money and simultaneously make a name for yourself, what did you do?
Oh my god I have no move! I am just the worst person at self-promotion and money!
What does the future look like for you?
I’m just happy to keep being able to make music and keep moving in the direction things have been going. I’m not a wildly ambitious person, but I feel very fortunate to be able to make my own music and to work on the projects I’ve been doing. I don’t have a huge “career” and it’s not like I make a huge amount of money, but… I’m happy. I have enough pressure in my life with the little things that I do–I take everything very seriously–that I wouldn’t want the additional pressures that come with lots of money and a huge career.
Do you have any advice for aspiring musicians?
This is gonna sound corny but I feel as though you need to express yourself through music however you need to express yourself. Don’t be afraid of emotion. Don’t be afraid of trying to make something beautiful because sometimes people are afraid of that, you know?
And if you do that and you take that risk, maybe not everybody will get it but the people who do get it will be touched by it. I don’t have a huge audience but the people who’ve managed to find me seem to be moved or touched. To me, that’s the most important thing, otherwise why are we doing this? If you express yourself and your emotion, everything else will come.
Jesse Perlstein is a multi-disciplinary artist based in Brooklyn, NY. He is an avid collaborator and a puckish rogue. He has taught, shown and performed locally and internationally. Ask him about X-Men lore, being big in Japan, and the relationship between time and identity.