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No longer a casual performer: Julie Beman aims high for The Dress-Ups

There are second acts in American life contrary to whatever F. Scott Fitzgerald was blathering about. Data Analyst by day, chanteuse by night, Hartford’s Julie Beman is proof that Fitzgerald got it wrong. A musical late bloomer, Beman started writing songs a fews years back at the urging of an old boyfriend, and little by little gained the confidence to take those nascent tunes recorded on a phone app to the next level. Her soon to be released, EP, Movie, and year old band, The Dress-Ups, are garnering some critical raves in the CT indie pop music scene. This Saturday evening, Beman and band trek across the border to perform at the Bing Arts Center in Springfield. If you like witty, literate pop music influenced heavily by classic girl group sounds, this well-dressed band is for you.

Julie Beman
Breck Macnab

I recently spoke with Beman about her passionate love affair with music, writing songs and the importance of band members dressing classy. You can hear the title track, "Movie," from the EP here.

Examiner: You haven’t been slogging it out for decades in the music biz, but came into this not too long ago. What’s the impetus behind doing this now at a relatively non-traditional age?

JB: My singing background is in sacred choral music, but my musical background is pop and rock and anything else I've ever listened to. And I've been listening to music for as long as I can remember.

But yeah, it's the age thing that makes this story interesting, and not that I've always loved music. I wrote my first song when I was 44 years old.

I'd wanted to write songs for my whole life, but for some reason I thought I had to have more formal knowledge of music to do it because I'm very rule-oriented. Even though I'd made up songs and sang them to myself since I was a kid, I never thought to tape any of them, or write down any lyrics.

I started dating a working musician in 2011, and when I told him I'd always wanted to write songs, he said I should just do it. I didn't have any instruments, didn't have the technical knowledge — but he clarified it for me: make up lyrics and a melody and record it. And if I felt like it, I could send the song to him when I was done.

I remember the exact moment that a melody attached itself to some words. I'd been thinking about times that I'd felt as if I were looking in from the edges of a scene, watching things happening without really participating or feeling anything; how unreal that felt, like being in a movie but not knowing I was in a movie, but even further, feeling that if this really was a movie, I was never going to star in it. So a little phrase came into my mind. It was "don't turn this into a movie . . . ."

The lyrics came together pretty quickly once I had a melody. I sang it into the recording app on my phone and decided that even though my hands were shaking and I thought I was going to throw up, I'd send the song. He responded positively to the song and to my voice.

We didn't date for very long, but while we did, I'd been introduced to this magical world where people were making their own music. I didn't want to leave it, so I put an ad in Craigslist to see if there might be some musicians out there interested in trying to make music with someone completely new. And a guy named Colin Campbell responded and I have him to thank for building the bridge between the world I'd seen and the world I live in now.

Examiner: You have a very “pro” voice, which is to say to you could be commercially viable: singing commercial jingles, background vocals for pop artists? Why do indie pop?

JB: My strongest desire as a teenager was to be a backing vocalist for Stevie Nicks.

I would never have considered myself to have a commercially viable voice, and it never even occurred to me to do that. I was perfectly satisfied singing choral music at church and am now perfectly satisfied writing pop and rock (and gospel and Americana and punk) tunes, and I’m really grateful when people tell me they like them.

Examiner: Your new EP, Movie, is very evocative of “girl band” music, polished and well-produced. Was it deliberate on your part to put out a recording that was near perfect?

JB: I had no idea what Movie would sound like. The first song that Gwen Thomas (Amsterdam-based performer, G.T. Thomas) produced for me, "Crocus," ended up sounding very different from what I'd heard when I wrote it, and it’s much better than what I’d imagined. Gwen is an amazing musician, and her ability to create stunning arrangements is genius. So I asked her to produce this EP and we settled on five songs.

The process was hard for me. I didn't have a lot of confidence, so some decisions were made that I didn't like. I didn't challenge them or stand up for myself. Sometimes it felt like my contributions were irrelevant, even though I'd written the songs. Gwen didn't make me feel that way; I made myself feel that way. She spent much of our working time shoring up my confidence.

Examiner: You had some sort of recording setback with the EP. What was that all about?

When a record is mastered, space and sparkle is added to songs, and I couldn't wait for that to happen. Jim Chapdelaine (The Shinolas), the mastering engineer, said I could attend his mastering session because I was so curious about all aspects of the record-making process. During the session, I learned that the songs couldn't have any of the sparkle and space that I wanted because of the way they'd been mixed. The mixing engineer had ignored Jim's technical requests, producing a mix that was "too hot," with lots of clipping and distortion. What I’d thought were production choices were actually errors and I didn’t know what to do.

There was some fraught communication in which the mixing engineer was trying to tell me that I didn’t know what I was talking about and that what he was doing was state-of-the-art, but he was wrong, so I fired him.

I hired Colin (Campbell) to remix the songs. I just got the final mixes back. It took me a little while to get used to them, but once I did, I realized that Colin had removed all of the things that I hadn’t liked. He took out a lot of density, leaving room for the songs to breathe. They sound more like me now, which makes me really happy.

Examiner: You obviously have thought deep and long how to package The Dress-Ups both as a band and a concept. What’s the thought process behind this? What are you going for in terms of aesthetics?

JB: Yeah, the band had originally been called Girlfriend Project. The name was ok, but it was also the name of one of my songs and I didn’t really like that. I obsessed about a new name — I think I drove the band crazy. I honestly don’t think they cared what the name was, but it was really important to me. I had these images of dolls — paper dolls, and the fact that we had three female vocalists doing harmonies, so naturally 60s girl groups came to mind. I really had a strong female-gendered feeling. I don’t remember how I decided on The Dress-Ups. I had lists and lists of names. This one ended up feeling really good.

In my mind, there’s a kind of Dress-Ups “code,” which I guess ties into an aesthetic. One is that we dress up: the women wear skirts or dresses and the guys wear ties. There’s a strongly gendered aspect, and it’s a conscious decision. Another thing is that we’re nice people.

I want us to be nice. Not treacly, but warm and welcoming. And I want to wear dresses.

Examiner: You’ve been on the scene for a year or two and now you’re pretty much a staple in the clubs and other music venues in the Hartford area — are you surprised by how quickly this happened?

JB: We’ve been a band for a little over a year. I was going to say we aren’t really on “the scene,” but I guess that isn’t true. People are asking us to do shows, venues have invited us back, and we were invited to participate in SWAN Day this year.

So yeah, I’m surprised that I’m writing songs and that people like them. I’m surprised that such amazing people are willing to be in my band. I’m surprised that I have a band.

Examiner: The line up of your band, The Dress-Ups, is very interesting: what brought you all together?.

Rich Germain is an amazing drummer and an indie band veteran. He brings a lot of experience-based wisdom to our practices and gigs.

Allison Holst-Grubbe (keyboard and vocals), is a professional singer with a choral background and commercially successful recordings with the group Etherea.

Caresse Amenta (percussion, glockenspiel, keyboard, vocals) sings lead on some of my more powerful and emotional songs, and brings an energy to them that I just can’t.

My husband, Eric Bloomquist is a fantastic, creative bass player, and also a veteran of the music scene. Since he started playing with us our sound has changed dramatically; it’s less percussive and more melodic, which is what I’d been wanting sound-wise.

I was blah-blah-blahing on Facebook about wanting a band and Rich wrote to me and said he’d be interested. He and I grew up together. Dave Mourad, our original bass player, also indicated interest on Facebook. Allison had been doing vocal coaching with me in preparation for recording the EP, and for some reason she decided to stick around. Caresse called me one day and said that she’s in this place in her life where she wants to start making some of her dreams come true and one of them was to be in a band and could she maybe audition for the band and I said sure. We had a personnel change a couple of months ago when Eric replaced Dave.

Examiner: You and your husband, Eric (Bloomquist), have a side project, The Tonebanks: what’s that all about? You’re both obviously obsessed with Casios.

JB: The Tonebanks is the is the most elaborate, entertaining and epic courtship ritual ever.

When Eric and I started seeing each other, Casios became a thing for us. We’d scour Craigslist and read articles by enthusiasts. My sister is a Freecycle genius, and she found us a few free keyboards. We’ve collected quite a few Casios, some of which are super cool. I think we have 14 keyboards now.

We decided to put together a set to gig with. We did a couple of covers, including “Breaking the Law” by Judas Priest which I sang. Oh my god. We went out and did a couple of disastrous gigs in that incarnation. Now we’re using the keyboards differently. Eric plays the bass and I’ve become pretty expert at the 610. Keeping things simple seems to be most effective.

We have a lot of fun. We’re thinking of trying to gig with the new configuration and are working on some new material. I guess since we’ve gotten married, The Tonebanks isn’t really a courtship ritual anymore. Now it’s about love. I imagine we’ll be playing music together forever.

The Dress-Ups at the Bing Arts Center (with Two Kelvins), 8 PM, 716 Sumner Avenue Springfield, MA 01108 (413) 731-9730

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