Art is a long conversation. Even works that seem truly unprecedented usually have forerunners, if you're looking. Sometimes the dialogue between piece and its sources is prominent and explicit, sometimes veiled.
On Rest Assured, the upcoming album by Apple Valley-based husband/wife duo JulyDa, Julida and Sean Alter engage in creative conversation with a number of old poets, whose public domain texts pianist/cellist/vocalist Julida adapted into lyrics for several songs. The pair made their sources central to the music, and in doing so they highlighted a juxtaposition of themes from the past and present.
Rest Assured drops on September 20, and JulyDa are celebrating the album with a show at Minneapolis’ Hook and Ladder Theater and Lounge alongside classical pianist Jonathan Tauschek (commemorating an album release of his own) and pop singer Lacey Guck. Between sets, poet Sean Pavey will read selections of his work too.
Before turning to poetry's history, Julida found one of the first sparks of inspiration for Rest Assured in a poem written by a friend in response to a brush with disaster. Cassandra, Julida's childhood friend, recently moved to Colorado and, within a month of arriving, her house was nearly burned down by wildfires.
"It was literally a call of 30 minutes," Julida says. "It was that close. 'If the wind takes it this way, your house is gone, if the wind takes it this way, you might be good for some more time. And in the end it didn't happen."
Julida remembered Cassandra being a talented writer from their school days and encouraged her to write about the near-miss experience, after which she could set it to music. The result was "World on Fire," the album's lead single.
Having enjoyed the process of adapting her friend's poem into a song, Julida next turned to public domain poetry – old poems whose copyrights have expired, allowing for free use -- as the easiest way to keep working by similar methods.
"I've always loved poetry, always read it, since I was eight" Julida says. An elementary school teacher had sparked her enthusiasm early on. Gathering the album's source material involved a lot of reading. "I would say I read 10 poems to everyone that I was like, 'Maybe this'll go somewhere,'" she explains.
When Julida had a pile of 10 or so potential poems she liked, she'd try to get something going musically with each of them. By her estimate, she averaged two keepers from a batch of candidates. Then she'd start the process over.
Julida picked poems that she felt could relate to contemporary times even though they were all old by necessity. The selections include Ezra Pound's "The Sea of Glass," Alexander Posey's "Assured," Henrietta Cordelia Ray's "Aspiration," William Blake's "A Poison Tree," and Christina Rosetti's "Echo."
Film is the medium we most commonly associate with adapted works, and film theorists sometimes describe the process of adapting a text in terms explicitly borrowed from Darwin. Given the inherent differences between two media, a single text cannot exist in the exact same form in both; instead, changes must usually be made in order for one work to "survive" in a new medium.
Julida's approach to adapting her chosen poems prioritized fidelity to their meaning.
"I really always tried to keep their words true," she says, adding that she highlighted elements she could relate to her life. “And if possible to not even change words unless I wanted to modernize it because I didn't want anything sounding old."
Historically, Julida said she usually writes the music for songs first, with the words coming later. While working with words that were already written, the composing process tended to go more quickly, although starting a song from a poem took longer. The poems she arrived at are a mix of free verse and rhymed works.
"The ones that had rhymes, I kept the most of their words," Julida says. “Because it's hard to break up those rhymes."
Rest Assured isn't Julida and Sean's first experience with musical adaptation. The pair are both members of six-piece chamber pop group the Blacksmith's Daughters, whose next project is a Christmas album featuring modernized versions of holiday standards in addition to festive originals. Each band member took a traditional Christmas song and rearranged it for the album. Sean's song was the carol "Ding Dong Merrily on High," for which he converted the song's Old English to modern and gussied up the arrangement.
"He took that old song," Julida says. “And he made it really modern, really flashy, but he kept everything."
JulyDa's first EP, Do You Hear Me?, was released last year and saw the Alters getting used to producing music as just the two of them – learning new instruments and finding ways to blend their contrasting styles. (Sean is more rock-oriented, while Julida has more jazz and classical influences.) For that album, the dynamic was bifurcated, with Julida handling the writing of the music and Sean acting largely as producer, striving to subtly elevate the meanings of the songs through his choices.
"She has this reoccurring character in a lot of her songs kind of like an evil character," Sean says. “And I tried to personify that voice with this distorted and really big-sounding voice, so it'll be a contrast—she'll say one thing and sing it in her very pure voice, very clean, and there will be this other voice that's very big and distorted and loud, and kind of obnoxious."
At some point, Julida's vocals waver between these two tones every other line.
"It almost sounds like a sung megaphone," she adds.
Not all of the Rest Assured's songs are adapted from poems, but even the ones that aren't maintain a sense of narrative drama.
"Our music is very steampunk in the way [that] it's theatrical with blues and pop influence," Julida says. “And with that, if you want anything to be theatrical, it has to—I think—be story-based. All the songs are very descriptive stories, and all but one doesn't follow the typical verse-chorus-bridge [structure]."
Julida and Sean are soon expecting their first child, which means their September 20 album release show might be one of the only chances to see JulyDa live for some time. In keeping with the theatricality of their music and its contrasting of past and present elements, the release show will feature a mascot: An old-fashioned plague-doctor character, complete with pointy mask. They call him "Mr. Beak," and they've been sharing photos of him placed in sharp modern backdrops, a symbol of sometimes frightening and often misunderstood history.
One of the things that attracted Julida to working with 100-year-old poems is way they portray the constancy of human emotion. As she put it, "We still feel the same things."