To call singer/songwriter Julia Easterlin’s response “excited” when asked what it’s like to be selected for the eight-voice Grammy Jazz Ensemble the last two years in a row (which found her performing alongside jazz legends like Oscar Peterson, James Moody, Kirk Whalum and Kurt Elling) would be understating the case.
“That experience was totally surreal,” she says, breathlessly. “It was one of those things that you can’t really process while it’s happening, and then you look back and say ‘Oh my God! I did that!’” It’s the first time in our conversation that the reality sinks in that she’s still only 17.
The Augusta native’s quick rise began two years ago, at 15, when she found herself working in the traveling studio known as the John Lennon Tour Bus. After a day of working as the frontwoman for a newly combined group, Julia was pulled aside by recording engineer Jeff Sobel when her mother arrived. “Mortgage your house,” was the emphatic advice he gave Laurie Easterlin. “We’ve never said this to anyone else, but do whatever you can do to get her out there.”
Julia’s parents began by signing a form allowing her to spend the following summer unchaperoned at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where she won the summer Singer/Songwriter Competition and was the only vocalist given a full scholarship to return the following summer. It was at Berklee that one of her instructors suggested she audition for the Gibson/Baldwin Grammy Jazz Ensemble, in which she earned the lead soprano position a young woman by the name of Norah Jones had been turned down for years before.
But according to Easterlin, that was hardly the only benefit of her Boston summers. “I think my experiences at Berklee indirectly affected my songwriting,” she admits. “Meeting other extremely talented students and wanting to be musically compatible with them motivated me to develop my jazz piano and music theory skills on my own time, which has definitely affected my songwriting … on the side of better, I hope.”
As our conversation continues and she reveals musical influences ranging from her mother’s classic rock and folk records to modern artists such as Alanis Morrisette and Imogen Heap, it occurs to me how unusual (and refreshing) it is to talk to a 17-year-old who references Crosby, Stills & Nash, Billie Holiday, Caetano Veloso and John Mayer, all in the same sentence. Which all begs the question, why is this otherwise thoroughly modern teen pursuing a genre often associated with old fogeys?
“Ha!” she laughs. “Jazz is old fogey music, but it’s so complex and challenging. Understanding the idiom of jazz is like learning a new language—it takes time, effort and practice. I think the hardest thing about jazz is that you have to find a good balance between following the rules and breaking them. It’s a metaphor for life. Maybe that’s cheesy—no, it’s definitely cheesy—but it’s also true. That’s why jazz is so compelling to me.”
Easterlin’s take on the genre is growing increasingly compelling to others. She recently won “Outstanding Jazz Vocalist Performance” in the High School Performing Arts School category of jazz magazine Downbeat’s 30th Annual Student Music Awards, and will soon attend Berklee on a full tuition merit scholarship valued at over $100,000. In the meantime, she’ll be heading to Toronto in late July to record her third album, which she describes as quirky, jazz-influenced pop.
“Some artists don’t like the recording studio,” she acknowledges, “but I adore it. The writing process for this album has been different than the others. I’m taking more risks and taking more time. I’m accepting myself more as a musician, trusting my ears and throwing less out the window. It’s totally amazing to create and expand and record it all for keeps.” ‘Totally amazing?’ Yeah, the girl really is just 17.