Singer-songwriter and ethnomusicologist Juliane Jones’ English-Chinese hybrid album (“The Space Between the Telephone Lines”) uses pop conventions to explore intriguing, contrasting dialogues in musical styles, cultures, and romance. “The Space Between the Telephone Lines” melds genres and inward/outward travelogues, incorporating Jones’ experiences from studying music overseas in China and France. Says Jones: “Answering big questions about music, culture, and life has always been a part of my songwriting. I’m always looking for new ways of understanding music, and I’ve always been interested in how writing music can be linked to individual biography and social history.” Enjoy our review of “The Space Between the Telephone Lines”, as well as an interview with Jones, below.
The grandiose production of ‘Free This Mind’ opens “The Space Between the Telephone Lines” with acoustic guitar, piano, and drums, the piano melody welcoming in an all-Chinese first verse (each of the verses are in Chinese). The last line of each verse, and the choruses, are in English, as is the bridge. This song exudes a very poppy, happy, positive attitude over bouncy instrumentation. The instrument performances are very solid; there is no issue there, especially in regards to the bass parts. ‘Rhythm and Blues’ opens with piano and bass, the drums simply keeping time in the background. The first and second verses are in Chinese; the vocals sound confident on this track, and the choruses are captivating in nature, with echoed, repeating vocal lines. This track featured one of the better vocal performances on the album, the vocals consistent in pitch throughout the track. The piano melody between chorus and verse is excellent, and the stand-up bass play is spectacular. The drums stay very much in the background here, present only for support. The instrumental parts in the bridge were intriguing, and the bridge and the two final verses were back in Chinese. ‘When You Sleep’ opens with stringed instruments and bits of percussion. The song featured a solid, memorable melody and a staccato feel. ‘When You Sleep’ features verses that are English, for the first time, with the choruses in Chinese, a role reversal from the previous tracks. The stringed instrument performances within this song are fantastic, and the acoustic guitar parts in the choruses are very simple, yet add a lot. The subject matter is deep and emotional, consisting of love lost and suffering as a result, Jones trying to reconnect and recapture these feelings via dreams in her head during sleep. There are excellent vocal harmonies the second time through the second chorus that lead to a bridge that is very different from the rest of the song. The main vocal lines are spoken and whispered, followed by flowing, sung vocal lines in Chinese. The second half of the bridge then switches back to English; this section, instrumentally, seemed to get carried away structurally before the instruments are broken down, allowing the vocals to shine overtop the music, undisturbed. The song closes just as it opened, leading nicely into the picked acoustic guitar and piano melody that opened ‘Just A Feeling’. Jones’ vocal performance on this track was very heartfelt and more mature than other offerings, the chorus vocal lines especially impressive, backed by such emotive instrumentation. The bass play is staccato, with orchestral strings shining brightly over largely Chinese dialect (with exception to the song’s pre-chorus). The song’s opening is also what plays out between the first chorus and second verse. The bridge again changes things up, and is again in other language. This section closes the song, with less instrumentation backing it this time, a very solid, appropriate ending in my opinion.
‘Wooden Horse’ featured lots of reverb and delay on the opening vocals. A picked electric guitar and light percussion enters in the background for support. A synth and electric guitar are the only instruments in the first verse, allowing the vocals to shine untroubled. More percussion, piano, and bass come in for the chorus, the lyrics still in Chinese; this transition is much too basic for my liking, and the drums have a much too stagnant feel, especially in the third verse. Interestingly, the delivery of Jones’ vocal performances in Chinese are more pronounced, confident, and direct than that of her vocal performances in English. ‘Wooden Horse’ is fairly basic and dry all the way through without many changes, and thus, the entrance of ‘Heavy Things’ was a welcome change. This track’s lyrics, while specific, were a bit cliche, though the staccato feel in the admirable choruses and stand-up bass play evened the score for me. The song’s final verse switches between English and Chinese, a detour from previous songs. ‘The Bicycle Song’ and ‘Cotton Candy’ both featured a ukelele, the former beginning with spinning bicycle wheels, bells, and an English verse. ‘The Bicycle Song’ is skillful metaphorically, and instrumentally this is probably one of the better tracks on the album, as it changes a good bit more than the other tracks. The bridge, which is in Chinese, is very short and done before you know it, with vocals playing out overtop limited instrumentation. ‘The Bicycle Song’ ends very similarly to how it began, with similar lyrics, the same original melody, and the same spinning bike wheel. ‘Cotton Candy’ is instrumentally-diverse as well, with an acoustic guitar that performs fantastically and a unique, carnival-esque organ sound. This was one of the tighter performances, with the drums sounding good in the pre-chorus and in the chorus as well. The opening melody of ‘Hey Shadow’ seemed inauthentic, yet the feel was good and optimistic overall, enhanced by strong bass play (walking around proficiently during the verses) and extensive use of a ukelele. My issues with this track include the fact that the song doesn’t necessarily go anywhere (very few changes), and there is barely any English wordplay within the song. ‘Jack’ was another track that just didn’t do it for me; the vocal performance seemed somewhat lackluster and uninspired, the entire song and theme repetitive, unoriginal, and unimpressive (aside from the acoustic guitar’s performance, which was outstanding). An acoustic guitar and a stand-up bass open ‘Water’, a song, which, as the album’s closer, also happens to be one of it’s best and brightest moments. These two instruments play around with each other before Chinese vocals come in. This track is full of so much emotion; I would have loved to see and hear more of this same emotion throughout the album. The acoustic guitar’s performance is again outstanding, just as it has been throughout the album. This song changes so much, and its overtly emotional, powerful touch allows the listener to deeply connect with what Jones is feeling. The choruses feature English lyrics and intelligent chord choices, and the song’s subject matter is unparalleled. Jones made a great decision to close with this particular track; in conclusion, the instrumentation, songwriting, and production of this album is, for the most part, very strong. Jones has somewhat of an undeveloped and unseasoned vocal tone and delivery (a deft, soft delivery and tone as opposed to an assertive and poised delivery and tone), which is surprising due to her career achievements and experiences. Nowhere is this more prevalent than during the opening and verse vocals on ‘When You Sleep’ and during ‘Hey Shadow’. Jones’ vocal performances throughout the album are more competent and skillful than not, with nearly each performance having some type of memorable quality to it. In regards to the concept of the album in general, this is certainly the first I’ve heard of anything like this; I’m not sure if anyone else is doing something like this, although I’m sure there’s a huge market for it overseas. If Jones can enhance her songs, making them come more alive with soul and authenticity, and further develop and find her true, confident singing voice, she’ll be in great shape. Be sure to check out ‘Just A Feeling’, ‘Cotton Candy’, ‘The Bicycle Song’, ‘Rhythm and Blues’, and ‘Water’ from “The Space Between the Telephone Lines”.
Could you give us some insight into your musical background? What inspired you to begin writing and performing in the first place?
“I began playing piano as a child, but I started to write music only when I learned to play guitar at the beginning of college. At first, songwriting was a way to connect with other people and to share my personal experiences, but it has gradually become a space to explore different musical timbres and cultural encounters. I started learning Chinese in high school, and now integrating Chinese music and themes (into my original music) is a large part of my songwriting.”
You currently reside in New York City but have lived and traveled all over the world, correct? How has this cultural diversity found its way into the music you write?
“I once studied with a great composer in China, He Zhanhao, who told me that a composer (should use) everything they have ever seen and heard. I think this is true: we gather personal experience and knowledge as we grow, and then somehow, we translate this into music. For me, I’ve lived in Shanghai, London, Chicago, Vancouver, and NYC. Sometimes I explicitly write about cities, like ‘Charing Cross Bridge’, about a bridge in London, and ‘Water’, about the sense of chaos, energy, and beauty that I noticed when I first visited Shanghai. Other times, I might draw on an instrumental texture or a theme from my ethnographic studies in China. Lately, though, I’ve been integrating timbre from Chinese opera in my compositions while using narrations from Western pop idioms.”
What life events and experiences led to the writing and recording of your latest release “The Space Between the Telephone Lines”? What was it like tracking the album in Nashville?
“(My album) “The Space Between the Telephone Lines” includes one older song (‘Water’) that I wrote in Shanghai. The other songs were written when I was in graduate school in ethnomusicology in Vancouver. Some of the songs are about love, but they always have a deeper meaning: ‘Rhythm & Blues’ plays with yin and yang opposition to express how long-distance relationships can sometime feel like harmony and other times feel gloomy like the blues. The deeper meaning of ‘Hey Shadow’ is that we all have a “shadow” that we can’t shake, and whatever can’t be got rid of, sometimes we’re going to want to get rid of.”
Do you have any upcoming performances or studio dates booked for 2014?
“We just returned from a great performance at Canadian Music Week in Toronto. I have a performance on September 7th at the Queens Library in New York City with members of Baban Chinese Music Society of NYC. We are also booking for the festival season in China (this September) and working to record a new album inspired by kunqu opera this summer.”