It was Scott Raab, legendary pen-master extraordinaire for Esquire, the man’s man of all men’s magazines, who once eloquently and insightfully pointed out that “New York doesn’t bluff, fold, or bet against itself.” Neither does New York’s own Juliana Riccardi and on her latest EP entitled Full Cup, she pronounces this with the gravity of a desert winter’s first snowflake, finding the key to her own glee in shedding the hollow armature of everything she once knew as familiarity.
Riccardi comes wielding not just the resolute focus of a Shaolin warrior-monk, but a surround-sound voice that works like disinfectant graffiti on the strange undergrowth of negative self-talk that costs too many people their own star turn of color. With an archeological precision, she has bit-mapped the atlas of her scars for Full Cup, and the result is a valentine to herself as both artist and woman that has simultaneously made her that much more of both. A background in jazz performance has likewise built impressive integral crash bars around a textural vox that can travel from polyphonic chorale to attenuated rasp in half a measure of music.
The wild weather of being a woman has never been for the meek of mettle or the candied of rear. The gender that has always engendered the most derision from the tumefied tribes is one that tends to be born with an understanding that they are not the undernauts projected by those in power, but the joists holding up the very vortices of the world – whether they admit to this quiet function aloud or not. Juliana Riccardi is here not just to say it aloud, but to sing it – loud – and to showcase in the most Zen manner possible that most of what feints toward femininity in the traditional sense and the Midas touch of real female experience go together about as well as regicide and treacle.
The things that can bring women to a second class seat on the train of their own lives often do not sound like steam engines; they come in like dread tiptoeing across tightly laid bamboo flooring. As such, many women, in varying degrees of overt submission, allow themselves to be marionetted all the way to marriage with little more than a half-remorseful glance over the shoulder that has seen the least salt.
Juliana Riccardi, by contrast, nonchalantly takes a whaleboat and a harpoon out to the tossing seas of things other people don’t say about romantic relationships, bedeviling her own wounds like the ghost of a seafaring ancestor might the toppled dock crumbling from an old Cape Cod. Previous singles like “Simple” and “Life According To Plan” reveal that she is not a moguless of disenchantment, but rather an empress of unfaltering emotional realism.
Full Cup is a whip-smart call to let relationships of any kind autolyze to their proper elasticity, like dough, and this set of songs is like a pack of scented matches, each with its own reason for spontaneously striking. Songs like “Hold For Your Woman” and “Bartender” demonstrate Riccardi’s unique ability to blend self-scrutinizing lassitude with punctuated exponents of unquenchable humor, strip-mined patience, rectilinear wishing, and early exile until the mix makes any room the song is played in an instant brazier, her push-me-pull-you lyrics the resident coals – too hot for anyone else to touch or rearrange.
QRO got the happy chance to let Juliana Riccardi fill our cups, hearts, and minds with the sturdy inspirations and rococo shadows that led to the making of this record, and we can say with authority that chatting with the woman doing the pouring on Full Cup felt decadent like denim without lycra.
Whatever happened, happened; there was no fixing it – it was printed – and I like that!
QRO: Thanks so much for making time to speak to us about your epic little EP called Full Cup, Juliana! I’ve been so excited that we would get to chat because there is nothing I love so much in music as a woman who is doing something off the beaten path. I was immediately drawn to your work and it has been on a steady rotation of ricocheting its razzmatazz off the walls of my cottage ever since.
Juliana Riccardi: Thanks for having me today! That’s so incredibly nice to hear.
QRO: I want to ask you first about what draws you to the analog experience. I noticed you even did some analog production here.
JR: Just never taking advantage of going to a real studio with real history. To be honest, I haven’t done a lot of recording, so that’s why this project is so important. The project before was done remotely so everyone just kind of plugged in their own home studio, but the dynamics from analog you just can’t replace. When we found Dreamland, it was just perfect! I let the engineer choose and so even on “Wire” there’s an analog distortion effect on my voice; we just left it there. Whatever happened, happened; there was no fixing it – it was printed – and I like that!
QRO: Me too! So much. Since you mentioned “Wire”, I’ve got to say that this is my favorite track on the whole album because you get into rock-n-roll Stevie Nicks Land there for a red hot minute…
JR: Oh, I live for her. She’s a huge influence on me. My mom used to blast both Stevie’s Fleetwood Mac and solo material. That comes through because I never had a band before, and you do need a band for that. Elevating the songs with a full band really just changes everything. I feel like I was able to tap in.
That song, previously, was just an acoustic kind of bluesy song and we fired it up for sure. Going forward, I feel like more of my next project will lean in that direction. Somewhere in between “Wire”, “Hold For Your Woman”, and then “Full Cup”. Those were the songs that I think were the most felt by listeners and also felt by me in the studio.
Sometimes I think that people are going to hear what I do and think “This is all over the map!” but then I just think “fuck it.”
QRO: It is admirable to me that you never shy away from any kind of texture or genre. Not everybody is able to let themselves be such a versatile artist.
JR: I feel like I have always just tried different things, and when you listen to a lot of different kinds of music, my feeling is that it is almost harder not to incorporate different flavors and sounds. Sometimes I think that people are going to hear what I do and think “This is all over the map!” but then I just think “fuck it.”
QRO: Human experience is all over the map so it absolutely works! I think it was Julia Stone that said she was perennially shocked at who people expected her to be. The proverbial “they” had kind of given you the girl-with-the-silhouette-and-the-guitar image so I think it’s good that you have shown them otherwise. What about your impetus for this particular record – from where do these songs derive?
JR: They were all written out here in L.A. even though I’m from New York. I moved in 2015 and I was just really fed up with trying to find my voice out there. It wasn’t working for me; it was too saturated and I wasn’t my best self. Coming out here, I was alone more, I was in nature more, I could turn down the noise more and that started to help me come through. It forced me to meet new people on my own and end old relationships that weren’t serving me.
You start to feel new things and face new things so you have to say new things. It wasn’t all easy. A lot of that stuff is romantic stories ending or beginning or being in question. But all of the melodies were clear and they just came to me; there was no point where I felt “Oh, I’ve just got to write a song.” I knew that was my intention but it was never forced; it was just me living and trying to renew myself.
Change always lends itself to me; it’s when I’m not changing that can be a problem. Honestly, even though the record is all big and band-sounding and grooving, it all started really quiet and acoustic. That was so important to me physically figuring out how I was going to sing. I don’t think I could have done it the other way, like finding a band first – it would have been too noisy. I had to be alone to plant that seed.
QRO: I love all of that and the fact that you’ve done this from a really grassroots angle, playing for your neighbors, and building it all out directly from you.
JR: Yeah! I was lucky enough to find this town, Mar Vista, which is near Venice on the west side. It’s just a little more quiet and humble. There are a lot of artists – fine artists, photographers, and musicians. I was very shy at first, but they’d be like “Come out and play! We’re going to meet in front of the art studio and sit on milk crates and play music.” So, I would flesh out an idea and everybody was always welcoming so I felt like it was not pretentious. I think that’s so important when you’re being vulnerable and creating.
QRO: For sure, and I think in the traditions that you are most a part of like jazz and blues, it’s all about raw truth.
JR: Yes, and being spontaneous where it’s not all scripted.
You start to feel new things and face new things so you have to say new things.
QRO: I would argue the best moments of anything are never scripted! Speaking of going off-script, any truth to the story that you turned down a publishing gig when you first got out there to California?
JR: Well, I worked as an A&R for a little bit in publishing and I worked for the same company when I moved, but I gave it up because I didn’t want to be on that side of the table anymore. It was too much of a numbers game and the people I worked for at the time were not interested in cultivating creativity. I was getting that itch. I was helping people link with others to collaborate and make music, and listening to their songs I just thought “I’ve got to go back to that side of things.” But it was a break I needed in order to step away from performing and learn the business a little bit.
QRO: I think this has given you an advantage in many ways because a great many artists that I work with get chewed up and spit out by the industry because they have no clue how it works. That experience seems to have lent you some insight.
JR: It did! It’s encouraging to understand what people at the desks are looking for and how they want to be approached. It can also be discouraging when you see that a lot of people are just looking to find an easy dollar to earn. I know I wasn’t around in the 1950s and 1960s, but I do recognize that the industry is not like it was then in terms of cultivation of artists. However, there are more opportunities as an independent artist than there ever were. I learned a lot about song placements and licensing there.
QRO: I bet. I talk all the time to anyone who will listen about how the last time you really had labels and management teams that were into artist development was in the early 2000s. It’s nuts because when you think about someone like Bowie, it took him close to 15 solid years of starving before he became Bowie. Imagine passing up on an artist like that because you couldn’t turn a profit on him in Year Two like the paradigm wants to do now.
JR: It does take time! Having patience is probably the hardest thing, and sticking with it, not giving up. If you give up, you’re definitely out.
Change always lends itself to me; it’s when I’m not changing that can be a problem.
QRO: No question. It’s a game of internal durability now. Can I get you to comment on the title of this delicious EP of yours? I have a thought about it, but I want to hear yours!
JR: Oh, sure. So, “Full Cup” the single was the most recent song written. It was like a resolution. Maybe some of the songs are about a lack of something or trying to find something. “Full Cup” was kind of where I had landed right before I decided it was time to record. It was kind of a resolution to that chapter of the journey, and feeling grateful. After a lot of relationship losses, both friendships and romantic, it all comes down to how you feel about yourself. That’s going to color your whole life and your whole world. Putting that verse in there about self-love is really important. I had somebody in mind, romantically, when I was writing it. But the more I sang it, the more I thought, “You could just be singing about yourself.” Waking up next to yourself and being like, “I’ve got everything I need here.”
QRO: Most definitely. People like to put up the classic debate of whether the glass is half full or half empty, but who was it that said, “People forget that it doesn’t matter if the glass is half empty or half full because the glass can be refilled.” That, to me, is the vibe of your record. All of these songs are about how, whatever you’ve gone through, you can restart.
JR: I love that! It’s so cool to hear your take on that and I agree. My intentions and my interpretations of my own songs change all the time too.
QRO: That filters down even into the fact that you recorded a great deal of this as a live EP – letting it be what it was on the day of recording is bold and authentic. You hear the live element really strongly, I think. What are your plans for 2022 in terms of touring it?
JR: I would love to do some festival tours like Americana – blues, roots, singer-songwriter, folk – anything in that nature. For sure that’s in the stars for this year because it is so much fun playing live with the band!
QRO: This record has got your cool New York grit but put through the California roll-with-it filter. New Yorkers are my favorite people in America because the attitude is always, “Get out of my way, I’ve got 100 things to do,” while California is all, “Yes, but look how beautiful each of those 100 things is!” You captured that dichotomy extremely well. Was that intentional or is that just you? [laughs]
JR: That’s cool that you say that! You know, I don’t know if that was intentional but I certainly realized that I have two sides. That’s part of why I left New York; I was getting too aggressive. I was craving nature and a little bit more spirituality. So, I do have both sides and even though I was raised one way, deep down I think I’m probably not a city girl. That came out organically, I think!
I had somebody in mind, romantically, when I was writing it. But the more I sang it, the more I thought, “You could just be singing about yourself.”
QRO: I think so, and it expresses really beautifully. I also hear a lot of feminine power on this album. I talk to a lot of women artists and I always like to get their perspectives: where do you stand on the status of women in music today? Have we made the strides needed, are we in the middle of making them, or what is left to be done on those historic iniquities in your estimation?
JR: I’m not working with labels so I’m not sure what it might still be like on the inside of that issue, but from my perspective, I think we are probably in the best place we’ve ever been. Women are running labels and managing labels. It’s still male-dominated and there are probably layers and layers to the reasons why that is, but I think women are stepping into their power more than ever. It would be good to see more women playing instruments and more fully-loaded female bands, but I think there is more draw for some reason to the communicative aspect. The songwriting and the singing, that’s a feminine thing.
QRO: Yes, and it’s something else that I think you’re a good example of – that you can have a certain mix of what society deems the “classic” female qualities and an equal amount of whatever it has deemed outside the pale.
JR: I think a lot of my inspirations were women, but they were tough and they were resilient. All the great voices were. That’s true feminine power. It’s not just taking a side seat and accepting and forgiving and loving. It’s owning and taking initiative.
QRO: Of course! Beyond our Stevie, who would you put on that list?
JR: Bonnie Raitt is a big one. She’s such a powerhouse. She and Sheryl Crow because they play and they write. In soul, it’s Aretha Franklin all day. One of my first jazz influences was Billie Holliday, and then Ella Fitzgerald. All of those are way up there for me.
QRO: All favorites of mine as well. Do you have a favorite track on this record, and if so, why?
JR: I really feel so good when I hear “Full Cup”. I remember the recording, and the fact that it was the morning. I felt so happy to be in that situation with those people playing. So, I would say that “Full Cup” is probably the favorite, but then everything else taps into a different mood and scratches a different itch.
QRO: Many commonly shared moods and itches, trust me! Are you looking to stay independent or would you entertain any kind of label or distribution type of ideas?
JR: Yeah, I would entertain anything that I felt was fair and supportive. Being indie is hard; it’s really hard. Especially when you are competing with labels that have such resources.
QRO: Yes, it’s way beyond David and Goliath, I know. Where do you see this EP in the storyline of your work – is it a prequel to a full-length or is going to stand on its own for a while?
JR: I’m not going to force it all, but I’m already getting song ideas and I think we will probably aim for full-length next time and do at least ten songs.
QRO: You’ll get that easily because seven songs this time around, and none of them are playing games! What draws you to make this music? What do you love about it?
JR: It’s definitely healing. It just feels natural. There are things I feel like I need to say, even just to myself, and they come out in song. It was honestly always like that. I wrote poetry as a kid, I listened to a lot of music – all those voices I mentioned earlier – and it just always felt natural. It’s a means of expression and for me to work through things. I can get stuff off my chest and I can’t imagine not doing it. Then, you see how people are moved and touched, and it’s even more rewarding. As cliché as it sounds, it’s the universal language. We all feel it. It’s an extension of living and the vibration that we are all composed of. It just feels like home.
QRO: What a fantastic answer. Thank you, Juliana, for sharing your home space with us today, telling us all of these inspiring insights into your gorgeous work, and being the best part of my Monday by a mile. I’m wishing you big luck and joy in everything that you do next with Full Cup and beyond – and, of course, I will be listening all the way along!
JR: Thank you so much for your time and interest. It’s been so wonderful to hear what you’ve gotten through listening and I am super grateful.