Buy a Record, Make a Difference 14: Julia Ulehla

Buy a Record, Make a Difference is a new series we have created to help local musicians generate income during COVID-19. It is based on the principle that we should support and reward the hard work local artists have already put into recordings, as it is an immensely difficult undertaking to be creating new material under current circumstances. There is currently a lot of emphasis on livestreaming and innovation in our industry, and while those things absolutely have their place, we think it’s also important to boost projects that have already been completed.

In each post, we’ll ask a local artist a series of the same questions, give them the opportunity to talk about recordings they’re proud of, and ask them to talk about other local musicians whose work they admire. It’s our hope that you’ll take the time to listen to & purchase the work of local artists, or at the very least share their work with others.


Photo: Emma Joelle
1. Who are you? 

I am a vocalist, composer/devisor, and soon-to-be Dr. Ethnomusicologist based in Vancouver, with former lives as an opera singer and laboratory theatre actress. I’m a mother of two young girls, and I try to find ways to coherently integrate creative life, research life, and domestic life.

2. Describe your music as best you can.

As an artist, I am probably most interested in the many expressions of vitality and life force behind music and sound. I try to hone my craft so that as many of those expressions as possible might manifest through me. I would say that I am an improviser, but my practice doesn’t involve improvising over chord changes, or exploring vocal effects and extended technique. Although I worked as an opera singer for several years, the place where I really learned how to sing was a laboratory theatre hidden in a village in Tuscany—it’s called the Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards—where I was a resident actress for about five years. Of all the art-making I have seen in my life, the performance work that is done there is among the most profound I have witnessed. It was more like a mystery school or a monastery than a theatre. My colleagues and I sang the same melodies for hours a day, 6 days a week, 48 weeks a year, year after year. The practice asked that you recognize your own banalities and habits, and realize when you are just going through the motions. Eventually, for me at least, it engendered the desire to sing with all that I had, without hiding—almost like a sacred act. It helped me to become attuned to following a song and giving it agency to do what I could never come up with on my own. The practice could be described as a kind of deep receptivity—to song, collaborators, audience, room, time of day, year, what else? What does a song need, at any given moment, to be alive? As the band members of Dálava know (Dálava is one of my main projects), while we always make a set list, it usually goes out the window after the first or second song, as the life of the thing takes the reins. Even though we may play the same songs, they are never the same way twice—what can manifest as tender and delicate one night, might manifest as raw and trashy the next. Maybe for me performance is a little bit more akin to ritual, or catharsis, or as a vehicle for communitas, than as a spectacle, or entertainment, or display of virtuosity. And, lest I get carried away, singing and song are also just an extremely basic element of existence, like breathing. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother singing, and as I raise my girls, song is bouncing off walls and corners everywhere in our house—silly, somber, wild, elegant. 

3. What’s your latest recording (or a recording you’d like to promote)? Where can people get it?

The last Dálava record, The Book of Transfigurations, came out in 2017. You can get it here. We were supposed to record another album this June, and I had planned to debut two new works at the Monheim Triennale in Germany this summer, but then corona came around! My husband Aram Bajakian and I recently did a collaboration with Martin Shaw, the wonderful British mythologist/author/storyteller, in which we scored one of his original stories about a shape-shifting goddess who tries to reignite her love with Manannán mac Lir, the Irish god of the sea. Martin’s language is so rich and wild-ish, and as he describes the sound world, “it’s like being at midnight mass in some snowy Carpathian chapel filled with mermaids, Welsh poets and the Baal Shem Tov.” But wait—alongside promoting those recordings, let me suggest another form of sound that people might engage with. Quarantine offers new avenues for domestic creativity. It is a great time for songs and stories at home—no matter who you live with. I sometimes think to myself—what would these months look like if people started making music in their own homes, playing and experimenting? I have found that song heritage is a powerful creative catalyst (much of my work involves reanimating a song tradition that quasi-died when my dad emigrated to North America from Czechoslovakia). For me there has been so much to discover in the old songs of my heritage, and they are remarkably relevant to the times we are in. So yes, please buy music. But also, try making your own music! Sing a song your grandma sang! Go check out an online folk song archive and figure out what people sang in the part of the world that your people come from—if you don’t already know.

4. Is there another local musician whose work you’d like to give a shout out to? 

I love Vancouver’s creative music scene, and as these blogs attest, creators are busy creating! Many of my favorites in the creative music scene have been mentioned by other artists, so I am going to give a shout out to I Putu Gede Sukaryana (also known as Balot). Balot is a gamelan musician here in Vancouver for a few years as he gets a degree at UBC and leads the gamelan. Although he is steeped in Balinese gamelan, he is a masterful percussionist, innovative composer, and vibrant performer who has been getting sucked into the orbit of the creative and improvised music scene here more and more, in part because of his wide open mind. I admire his huge, joyful spirit and generous musicality. He and I have been working on a duo that we were going to do at Jazz Fest, in which we made a spatialized sound structure that is “efficacious” for both of us—coming from two very different musical cultures. Check out his labor-of-love Insitu Recordings (with Jonathan Adams); it is well worth diving into!