Julie Clark is having the time of her life. When we got together last month at a Colley Avenue eatery, she was about to leave for Lyons, Colorado, where she was a finalist in the songwriters contest at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. She’d also just resigned from her day job.
“I’m a marketing manager,” she told me as the classic Yes song, “Starship Trooper,” blared in the background. “I’m hoping they’ll keep me on part-time. That’s a big change for me in trying to get ready to do CD number two, with booking and touring and promoting.”
Since releasing CD number one, Feel Free, two years ago, she’s accumulated a totebag full of positive reviews and songwriting awards, including first place trophies from the Kerrville Folk Festival’s “New Folk” competition, the Great American Song Contest and the Mid-Atlantic Song Contest. Saturday night she opens the new Tidewater Friends of Folk Music concert season with a solo performance at the Virginia Beach Central Library.
“It’s a lot of work,” the 38-year old Norfolk resident said of her journey up the folk music ladder, “but my attitude is that I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything. I have traveled to parts of the country that I had never seen. It’s so wonderful. In 2004, I was a winning contestant; in 2005, I was a hired performer at Kerrville. When you’re a hired performer at a songwriters festival---the people that come there are songwriters---these are just things that really fill my heart. So I’m in it for the experience of it, and I’m leaving my full-time employment to travel farther and longer.”
A northern Virginia native, Clark came to Norfolk to attend Old Dominion University. She’d been playing guitar since she was twelve and tried her hand briefly on the local music scene.
“I was doing mainly cover stuff,” she remembered, “and I knew after about a year that I wanted to be the writer of that music. It wasn’t meaning to me what I wanted it to mean to me. I stepped back from it until the time seemed right to re-emerge from an original perspective.”
She also put herself through a physical transformation when she underwent laparoscopic gastric bypass surgery five years ago to solve a lifelong weight problem: “I’m the only one in my family that really got into a serious weight state. [I weighed] 350 pounds…that’s not plump!
“I would say that it’s really integral to who I am. I think that one of the things that it has carved out in me is a really deep sensitivity to other people. It’s hard for me to imagine how you ever have that sensitivity if you’re like a ‘10’ walking through the world. How do you ever have a clue what rejection and pain and loneliness feel like? I know a lot of people do, somehow or another, develop that sense. My sense of those human frailties was carved out from first-hand experience. So it makes me an observer of that in people, and empathetic of that in people.
“There probably are all kinds of dimensions of ‘pretty people’ problems that I’m not really aware of. I have this beautiful sister, and I would think that she’s got to deal with these guys coming on to her. It was my observation that if you’re a rose in the world, you’ve got to have thorns to protect yourself. I never had to have thorns.
“We all have our own perspective and I think our art reflects that. So I am a representative of the female underdog.”
You wouldn’t pick it up from the songs on her first album, but the weight issue colors everything in Julie Clark’s life and art, both the pain of growing up as a “fat girl” and the exhilaration of making the choice to change her physique.
“Perhaps down the road I’ll stop thinking about it and writing about it,” she reflected, “but there’s such a gratitude in my life for how I feel now, and the physical freedom and health that I feel. I’m so conscious of it that I’m still writing about it, and I’m open about it. I also think that it may help some people to hear that there are tools and treatment that can change your life in such a significant way if you open yourself up to it. So I tried to be open about it for that reason, just to share that. It’s pretty scary.”
The best songs on Feel Free are true, drawn from personal situations. Confessional lyrics like “The Naked Song,” “Guilty Afternoon” and “One of These Days” are bravely honest. In “Your Wings,” Julie tells her mother, “I guess it’s time I take you as you are/Isn’t that what I’m askin’ you for?”
The most celebrated song on that first CD is “Whatever It Takes (The Wedding Song),” written for a friend’s marriage ceremony. It’s a beautiful love song, one that stands on its own merits even without the nuptial context.
“People are paying my way to have me sing that live in their weddings all across the country,” she said with pride. “It’s a great thing to sing that at a wedding; it almost feels like I’m channeling a blessing.”
Saturday night, she’ll also be singing new material slated for her next release.
“Some of the songs that I’ve written that will go on the new CD talk more about my transformation. One of my two songs at Kerrville was a song that I never thought anyone else but me would ever hear. It’s a really sad, personal song that I wrote while I was still heavy about the negative messages that I was given about that. It’s just a really raw song and I was petrified to sing it. But you know what? The place went bananas. Someone told me that nothing like this had ever happened at Kerrville. Everyone was crying, including me.
“It relays to me how deep of a cultural and emotional problem this issue is. And I think in terms of music, it hasn’t been expressed.”
Julie Clark is not afraid to express her most personal thoughts and experiences, wrapping them in some very tasty melodies. And she continues to marvel at the response she’s receiving:
“The honor of playing your own music, of having people really listen to the songs and stories and things you have to say…That’s what matters so much to us as artists, that connection, that it moves someone else too.”
copyright © 2005 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.