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Julie Crochetiere spares no personal expense in ‘Counting Dreams’

Julie Crochetiere “Counting Dreams” album [March 18, 2014 pre-order iTunes | Vega Musique/DEP/Universal]

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Those sales come with what I call ‘the chorus of advice’… Everyone in the music business has counsel… ‘You’re too jazz for pop, too pop for jazz, soul is over, you should do a French record, you should do an English record, your hair would look better in an up-do, way more indie-soul.’ The refrain of ‘you shoulds’ is always amusing, but for a very long time now I knew exactly what I should do and it was a very powerful feeling to know, so deeply, what needed to be done. I knew I wanted to make something very spare, I wanted to hear the songs but I also wanted to hear the air around the notes. There is always such a temptation to add another instrument, to stack another vocal, it’s like the arrangement is trying to seduce the song… ‘It’d sound great with horns, don’t ya think?’ But this record had its own voice…

For her new album, “Counting Dreams,” Julie Crochetière let the songs dictate form. They called for a quiet, spare refrain, letting the notes breathe new life into the listener.
For her new album, “Counting Dreams,” Julie Crochetière let the songs dictate form. They called for a quiet, spare refrain, letting the notes breathe new life into the listener.
Emma Lee Photography

Julie Crochetière can go jazz, pop, indie-soul, just about anywhere on the musical scale. But her special talent goes beyond labels and styles, studio requisites and ratings numbers, to the emotional touchstones every listener quietly, fiercely guards deep within.

By all intents and purposes, the Montreal singer/songwriter should be another worldwide Sara Bareilles, the Carole King of a new generation, on the lips and in the dreams of every growing teenaged girl climbing the top of the tree with her Panasonic radio.

Crochetiere, who also goes by Julie C., is not a newbie. She first hit it big at 18 with an arranged pop band called Sugar Jones for a Canadian reality-TV show—definitely not her bag (she grew up grooving to her parents’ 1970s record collection). It gave her a taste of fame away from Canada to England, with a platinum record and several hit songs, until it gave her nothing, alone and broke in a small Toronto apartment, homesick and lost. She almost sold her bread and butter—her precious keyboard—when manager Chris Bennett wisely advised her against it, “That’s not a keyboard. It’s a songwriting machine. I wouldn’t sell it if I were you.”

Julie C.’s songwriting machine helped her find her own voice. She listened to another wise soul, the late Haydain Neale (Jacksoul), when he told her, “If it feels good, do it!” Soon, she came out with a top-selling, feel-good soul-jazz album, “A Better Place,” in 2007, featuring the phenomenal torch song, “Precious Love.” “Precious Love” resonated with its captivating blend of achingly real lyrics, slow piano burn, and pitch-perfect vocals, placing #18 on the Canadian AC charts and earning a finalist spot as “Best Song” at the 2009 Canadian Radio Music Awards. Her first solo album was the most downloaded album of April 2008 on iTunes Canada’s soul/R&B charts.

She followed up “A Better Place” with “Steady Ground” in 2011, a fresh turn on those 1970s Chic dance grooves. “Steady Ground” diversified the singer’s portfolio quite nicely, showing off Julie C.’s innate ability to go from intimate to club in a heartbeat. Her third powerhouse album made it onto a steady stream of movies and TV shows throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.

On Labor Day Weekend 2011, Julie C. was one of the first acts for the inaugural Jazz on the Mountain at Whistler Festival. Organizers had high hopes for the music festival, which mixed famous smooth jazz and funk artists (Stanley Jordan, Kevin Eubanks, the Rippingtons, Spyro Gyra) with local, cross-over acts (Julie C., Ali Milner, Cory Weeds, Five Alarm Funk). While Jazz on the Mountain never got to an encore, Julie C. turned out to be a revelation, definitely one of the surprise highlights of the trip. She sang a version of Donny Hathaway’s “For All We Know” that left the audience in tears. It was thoughtful, considered, and sung as if she’d been there.

That cover is back in her new, upcoming album, the much-anticipated, fourth solo release, “Counting Dreams,” out on May 6, 2014 on Vega Musique/DEP/Universal. Pre-orders for the album kick off March 18 on iTunes. Listeners score two free songs when they pre-order now.

Once again, Julie C. paid no attention to the noise of the world when making this record. She listened to her own voice and did her own thing, letting the songs dictate form. She found herself back in her parents’ basement when she was a young girl, wearing out the grooves in their vinyls — Carole King, Roberta Flack, Bill Withers, Nina Simone — and trying to unlock some code.

“Counting Dreams” harkens back to that time when the song carried beautiful melody with resonant meaning under sustained, spare music, letting one or two instruments do all the work and allowing the vocals to soar. “Simplicity is where the authenticity is. There’s truth there,” Julie C. explained. “This project has been in my head for 10 years.”

She ignored what she called “the chorus of advice” in the music business trying to put her in a finite category and make her over into some bombshell, the fallout from having made it big. “The refrain of ‘you shoulds’ is always amusing, but for a very long time now I knew exactly what I should do and it was a very powerful feeling to know, so deeply, what needed to be done. I knew I wanted to make something very spare, I wanted to hear the songs but I also wanted to hear the air around the notes. There is always such a temptation to add another instrument, to stack another vocal, it’s like the arrangement is trying to seduce the song… ‘It’d sound great with horns, don’t ya think?’ But this record had its own voice…”

That compelling voice required Julie C. strip away the usual orchestral maneuvers for mostly acoustic piano and the string quartet Quatuor Orphée, featuring Sara Page on the harp. Julie C. recorded this album last fall in Montreal live on the floor the way they used to in the 1960s-‘70s, relying on piano, strings, and a bare bones rhythm section. It took her only one week to flesh out nine original compositions and two covers, the Donny Hathaway favorite and Vincent Vallières’ “On va s’aimer encore.”

Most recording artists would never attempt an album so spare, not with auto-tune and electronic gear to cover up the gaffes. Julie C. doesn’t need to worry about any of that. She’s hardly a studio manufacture, but an original, with a voice to deliver the goods and a deep love for a good song delivered with emotional truth.

Julie C. also doesn’t think about what will sell, only what moves her. She has an uncanny knack for reaching people where they live. “Counting Dreams” is filled with songs to take immediately to heart. Somehow, she knows what to sing about — losing a friend, building a dream, searching for another love — and how to sing the feelings that result. It’s as if she’s been through the same experiences, refused to let them get her down, and is here to do the same for the listener.

The first song off the album — “Who’s Gonna Love Me (Like You Did)” — will bring on the waterworks. As her piano and the string section gently carry the lyrics of a terrible, but great loss forward (“You make me strong, into your words I will hold on forever, you are the sun, lighting the way in the darkest of hours, thank you my love, eternally grateful for the time we shared together…”), it’s goosebump time. How did she know? She captures the fearless plans (“partners in crime, nothing could stop us from living a life we dreamed of, time on our side, sweetest illusion allowed us the freedom to love”) and the sudden crushing reality of death in her sweeping lyrics and music—with a firm grip on an eternal, childlike hope. This song could easily have spiraled downward, note for note, but she keeps the melody on an upturn, choosing to remember the best of what remains.

Fourth on the list, “You Need More Than Love,” packs a powerful punch, because it’s grounded in a universal truth many have painfully learned firsthand. The song describes a master manipulator playing upon kindness one too many times. It’s a song a survivor of a Narcissist might sing. Once again, brilliantly astute lyrics leading up to an even more powerful title, wrapped in the right musical notes — Julie C. on vocals and acoustic piano, playing it straight and raw: “Money, time, and truth, I gave them all to you. No more I could do. Sold my life for free. Nothing left for me. No more I could do. I know better. Sorry is never enough. Sorry won’t bring back my trust. Five simple words that could sum this up: You need more than love.” The string section enters the bridge with Julie C. seamlessly, lifting than strengthening her resolve to overcome.

The same theme arises time and time again in this personal album: resilience. Julie C. doesn’t hold back remembering those dark times, but refuses to let them define her. Her songs always move forward, as exemplified by the naturally positive vibes of the string arrangements. For anyone in a bad mood, “The Better Part Of Me” will turn that around with a sweet exhortation. She counters every downward turn — “When times are tough and I wanna close my eyes too” — with a saving grace — “I’ll be strong enough to tower above and pull through.” Nothing beats this convincing gut check in the rising, string-enhanced bridge: “Don’t look for me down by the river. There’s nothing for me in your gutters. Just look way up high and you’ll see me fly.”

On “My Sinking Heart,” Julie C. touches lightly but firmly on the melodic hooks she’s known for. In short order, you’ll be singing the pop-heavy chorus along with her as if it’s a Top 40 radio hit from an ageless landscape, right beside Carole King and Diane Birch — swept up in that moving string quartet and those vocals. Despite the sad-sounding title, the music is steadfastly upbeat.

The string quartet plays another major role in the Donny Hathaway cover, the one Julie C. loves so much as a listener and a singer. The harp especially builds on the hope of happiness prevalent in this Montreal singer’s song collection. As she sings the words she knows so well, she considers them carefully, as one would clutch a frayed photo from a photo album and hold it close, with only fondness. Then, she lets Sara Page finish the sentence, pulling heart strings — between loss and love.

There’s more to Julie Crochetière’s new album than just a bunch of neatly arranged songs. She goes over so much of what moves people with such stunning detail and incredible artistry. Her music defies category, but definitely leaves a lasting impression. Maybe she unlocked the code after all.