Juliana Daugherty’s Stoic Debut ‘Light’ Parses The Darkness With Fiercely Calm Songwriting

Editorial Director, Music

Tom Daly

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Juliana Daugherty is a writer. Though it can be, that isn’t always the hallmark of an emerging musician, but in Daugherty’s case her skillful, glistening lyrics are almost as arresting as the carefully contemplated, quietly finger-picked melodies that accompany the words on her debut album, Light. Contrary to what a listener often expects, Daugherty says she writes her lyrics second, to accompany a melody that is already in place. Perhaps this is why they immediately stand out, they are precisely carved to dovetail with the music instead of vice versa.

After moving to Charlottesville, Virginia to pursue an MFA program in poetry, Daugherty also got involved with the thriving local music scene and began to parse her role as a writer in more mediums than one. Before pursuing a solo project, she played in and with other bands in the area, following a natural inclination, as music was always in her blood. Raised by a trumpeter father and a violist mother, Daugherty spent some time in a classical conservatory as a teenager but ultimately found that exhaustive approach didn’t work for her. Picking up the more casual relationship that a band offers, eventually, she also began listening to some of her favorite singers — Sharon Van Etten is one — and striving to emulate her favorite inflections.

All these elements come together on Light to create a debut that’s quite extraordinary in tone and structure. Influenced by vocalists with burnished and flitting vocals like Van Etten, her tone her evokes other contemporaries like Angel Olsen, or even Mitski. But Daugherty’s voice retains its own precious, pearly quality, like something that could only grow with special care, hidden away from the world. Her lyrics, on the other hand, possess a quiet and unflickering fierceness, they are sharp without any bite, stoic without apathy.

The feel of the record hews closest to folk, staying within the realm of soft strings, patient harmonies, and the occasional percussive flourish, but it burns beyond the bounds of that ancient genre, surfacing as one of the most surprising, gorgeous pieces of personal commentary I’ve heard this year. Recently, I corresponded with Daugherty over email about her background and how her debut album came to be. Read our conversation below.

You initially moved to Charlottesville, Virginia to pursue an MFA in poetry, yet ended up focusing on music there as well. How do you balance those two aspects as far as academic work, your poetry and your songwriting?

This is something I’m still trying to figure out. It feels important that I do work in both genres, but I’ve found that I’m not able to hold both of them in my brain at once — poetry tends to distract me from songwriting, and songwriting tends to distract me from poetry. When I was writing songs for the record, I made a conscious decision to put all other creative pursuits on hold for at least full year. Only after I put poetry completely out of my mind was I able to focus my creative energy and attention on music. It’s hard to remove that barricade, though — as of now, it’s been more like three years, and I feel like I’m only just remembering how to write poems again.

Tell me a little bit about your background prior to Charlottesville, you grew up in a very musical family, was it always a given that you’d be musical too? Can you tell me a little bit about your time at the conservatory at what prompted you to leave?

I think everyone would have been wildly surprised if I’d ended up with no musical inclination at all. My parents are both professional musicians, so we all took lessons from an early age. I was always quick to pick a new instrument up (literally — I played a lot of instruments, each for a very short time), but wasn’t at all invested in practicing until midway through high school, when I suddenly and inexplicably started practicing the flute for hours every day.

I was accepted into the conservatory on the basis of potential, not skill — I had been playing seriously for a couple of years, when most of my classmates had been playing for eight years, or ten, or twelve. I don’t think I was prepared for the level of commitment that would be expected of me there (our professor wanted us all practicing eight hours a day) and I didn’t have the skills to cope with the physical and emotional burnout I very quickly came up against. I think a lot of the reason it fell apart was just circumstance — I might have thrived if I’d had a different teacher, or if I’d been 19 instead of 17, or if I’d been just a little more well-adjusted. I did have plenty of wonderful, weird, talented friends there, and it was pretty magical to be surrounded with people who were obsessed with the same things I was obsessed with. But it just wasn’t working.

Was singing always a part of your relationship to music? Your voice is one of my favorite parts of your music, but the info shared about your experience focused more on instruments and classical music, while your vocals have a very contemporary feel.

I think I always liked to sing, but I was painfully self-conscious about it and mostly refused to sing in public. I sang along to everything, in private. I never studied voice or sang in a choir. When I first started singing in a band, which wasn’t until I was in my early twenties, I was very good at singing in tune, and that was about it — I didn’t really have any control over the aesthetics of my voice. But being a “singer” made me start listening to other singers intentionally for really the first time — to listen to the voice as an instrument. I was very much obsessed with Sharon van Etten at the time, and I remember listening to her sing and thinking “how can I make my voice do what hers is doing?” I would go on these aimless late-night drives all the time just so that I could practice in my car, mostly by trying to emulate singers I loved.

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