by Amanda Beland
Julie Rhodes is an active supporter of live music.
So when a friend suggested they go to the Newport Folk Festival in the summer of 2012, she didn’t hesitate to say yes, especially with a line-up that included one of her current favorites, Alabama Shakes.
She had no idea what was coming.
“I thought that Newport was just…I thought it was just going to be like you go and see some music and that’s basically what it is,” said Rhodes. “But for me it changed my whole life.”
At Newport, Rhodes was walking around the festival grounds when she heard someone singing her favorite song at time.
(The song goes by many names and has been covered by many artists. The rendition Rhodes had been listening to was “New Railroad” by Crooked Stills.)
She immediately began searching for the source. What she found she says she’ll never forget.
“So I hear this song and I see this guy in red overalls and straw hat and no shoes sitting in the grass with a guitar,” said Rhodes. “Just busking in the grass.”
The man was Jonah Tolchin, a local musician and producer. They talked briefly – Rhodes complemented him on his playing – and then they parted. Over the course of the next year, they ran into each other and slowly developed a friendship at various shows across New England. At one of these shows, Tolchin called a group of friends and musicians onstage and they performed a couple songs together.
Rhodes was in the audience for the show.
“I remember feeling really inspired,” said Rhodes. “That’s when I wrote my first song.”
Rhodes doesn’t come from a family of musicians – in fact, she can’t remember hearing music playing in her house growing up. The music she did listen to came from the radio
“The stuff that really spoke to me at a young age was like – I really liked Lauren Hill,” said Rhodes. “She had that soul feel to her voice that I didn’t understand why I liked it at the time.”
As soon as Rhodes got her license, she was driving to as many concerts as possible, which at the time included pop punk and alternative rock bands like Brand New and Mae. Rhodes frequently went to shows in other states, sometimes even states outside New England. It was on these long car rides where she began singing.
“I guess I got some chops that way, you know what I mean, just constantly practicing – I didn’t know I was practicing, I thought I was just having fun,” said Rhodes.
Close to 10 years of private “practicing” passed before Rhodes sent Tolchin her first song. Tolchin told her to keep writing – which she did. Eventually the two decided to work on a stripped down, bare bones EP together in the summer of 2013. Tolchin’s original idea was to record the EP “just to have” said Rhodes. But after the two worked together, Tolchin convinced Rhodes to release the EP online and suggested the two work together on a full-length, fully-formed LP.
The following months were full of writing and confidence building. Rhodes began writing and arranging songs on her own as well as performing live for the first time. Tolchin and his friend/guitarist Danny – who would eventually become Rhodes’ guitarist, mentor and close friend – began carving out mini-sets for Rhodes within their own sets at shows. This gave Rhodes the vehicle to slowly begin building a stage presence.
“I think just going out on a limb and .. I faced a lot of fears really quickly so I feel like it (the fear of being on stage) passed pretty quickly,” said Rhodes.
Tolchin and Rhodes began tossing out location ideas for recording her record and Dirt Floor Studio seemed like an obvious fit – not only because that’s where Tolchin recorded his first record, but also because of the Studio’s vibe.
“It’s a very first time kind of place and its also family so me being new to the whole thing, we thought it would just be more comfortable,” said Rhodes.
But when Rhodes and Tolchin watched a documentary on the legendary Alabama recording studios Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and FAME Studios, Rhodes became obsessed with the idea of making her record there.
“It went from him being like ‘how do you feel about doing the record there’ to me being like ‘we have to do the record there,'” said Rhodes.
Rhodes ended up recording most of her record at Dirt Floor with Tolchin’s band in the summer of 2014. Dirt Floor is located near a patch of Connecticut state forest, enabling some of the songs to be recorded outside.
“I think part of why the record sounds like it does is because we were outside in the sun,” said Rhodes.
Rhodes wrote the lyrics for all of the songs on the record and wrote complete guitar arrangements for two of the songs on the album. Rhodes says writing songs can be difficult, but it’s something she enjoys very much.
“When it comes to speaking my mind about things, I find it hard to find the right words to express myself so that’s part of the reason why i really enjoy writing songs because I can get a lot of stuff out that I normally wouldn’t know how to get out.”
The record was mixed between Dirt Floor and a studio in California.
However, Rhodes was able to overdub parts of her record at Muscle Shoals after recording the basic tracks at Dirt Floor. Rhodes and Tolchin drove from Boston to Alabama a month after recording at Dirt Floor.
“At the time, I was working like crazy, I was going to shows like crazy, I was trying to write like crazy, so my mind was full all the time,” said Rhodes. “So we went there and we’re sitting at the river, the Tennessee river, and we’re taking it all in. It was the best; it was such a beautiful time.”
When she got back from Alabama, Rhodes started booking more of her own shows. The only issue became finding a band. Rhodes had recorded her record and had been playing with members of Tolchin’s band. This meant when Tolchin went on tour or was in the studio, band members were unable to play shows with Rhodes.
The issue came to a head when Rhodes was asked to play a show with Ryan Lee Crosby and only had a guitar player and a harmonica player. Crosby suggested Rhodes ask his drummer for the show, Harrison Seiler, if he would mind filling in. Rhodes asked Seiler at the show and, according to Rhodes, Seiler listened to the songs once before the show before playing them live. A couple weeks later, Rhodes asked Seiler to fill in again and he said yes.
“He kept saying at these shows, ‘you gotta play with my friend Wayne, he’d love this,'” said Rhodes.
Wayne Whittaker plays bass with Seiler, alongside Eric Bolton and Stephen Konrads in the band Eternals (their bandcamp). Whittaker and Seiler have been playing together in various projects for years. Rhodes, in need of a bassist, agreed and brought Whittacker and Bolton on to complete her backing band.
Since the fall, the group has played a number of shows together, including a “Blue Wednesday” two-week residency at Atwoods Tavern.
“The live shows that I’ve been a part of have been a lot of fun,” said Whittaker. “Eric Bolton has been on guitar, and he brings a certain spotenaity and energy that’s unique to every set. For the band, our the job is pretty simple, support those songs and leave enough room for Julie. The freedom we have with the songs makes each performance different, which is part of the reason it’s been so fun.”
Whittaker said he’s only known Rhodes for a couple of months, but has been impressed with what she’s accomplished in the time they’ve been friends and band mates.
“It’s pretty remarkable how much Julie has done in the amount of time she’s been a musician,” said Whittaker. “Formative years are so important, and to trust your instincts enough to throw yourself in head first and learn on-the-go is something that shows tremendous confidence and trust in the process.”
Jenn Harrington is roommates with Rhodes and has known her for almost two years. The two originally met at a show and formed a friendship at subsequent concerts. Harrington has been around for almost the entirety of Rhodes quick transition into musicianship.
“I think the thing I most appreciate about witnessing the evolution of Miss Rhodes is that there isn’t really a precedent to follow,” said Harrington. “The woman wrote her first song and in a year an incredible album is recorded and mixed. Six months into playing live at venues, she’s completed her first mini-residency with a two hour sets each night that ended with the audience shouting for more. And just about every set has had a different combination of players—all with varying personalities and ways of playing—and yet, there is a shared character within them all. There are many musicians, many people, who don’t have the grit to submit and adapt to change on an often-daily basis. And Julie has managed it because she is many things: she can go-with-the-flow one moment and then be a pistol the next, but no matter what perspective she’s taking, she’s cares about every bit of it. ”
These days, Rhodes is focusing on “shopping” the album around to record labels to hopefully get signed so the record can be mastered. She’s also writing a lot, getting more comfortable with playing the guitar and playing around the metro-Boston area as much as possible.
The last two years still don’t seem real to her.
“It doesn’t even make sense to me, honestly, like I say this stuff but I’m just like what are the words coming out of my mouth?” said Rhodes.
Julie Rhodes will be playing tonight, Feb. 5 at Atwoods Tavern with Smith & Weeden. Show starts at 10 p.m. Tickets are $7 and can be purchased at the door or online. For more information on Julie and upcoming shows, you can keep tabs on her through Facebook, Twitter or through her website.