“I wanted to shock people,” says Julien Chang. "I wanted to make something in secret, with no expectations, something that would challenge an image of me that people had become familiar with."
With his stunning debut album, Jules, Chang has accomplished all that and more. Entirely self-recorded and self-produced, the collection showcases the nineteen-year-old Baltimore native’s remarkable vision and breathtaking instrumental chops, fusing infectious pop melodies and experimental psych-rock with progressive jazz improvisation and sophisticated classical construction. The arrangements twist and turn, toying with expectation and reveling in the freedom and discovery of youth. At the same time, Chang’s subtle, restrained vocal delivery suggests a deep thoughtfulness, one that belies his youth as he grapples with love and friendship, growth and change, memory and regret. The result is an album that boldly defies categorization, a trippy sonic collage that dares you to keep up as it tips its cap to everything from Stevie Wonder and The Beatles to Tame Impala and Robert Glasper.
Chang, who currently attends university, grew up studying classical and jazz performance at the Baltimore School for the Arts. While he enjoyed creating beats for local hip hop artists on the side, most of his classmates and teachers knew him only as a trombone player, and a reserved one at that. Few in his life had any idea that he’d actually been teaching himself to play a whole arsenal of instruments at home, and even fewer were aware that he’d assembled an entire studio in his basement with money he’d saved up working at a local grocery store.
“I didn’t want to lessen the impact of what I was making by talking about it or sharing anything while it was in progress,” says Chang (pronounced Chong). “I wanted to tap into the power that comes from releasing something nobody sees coming.” In fact, Chang didn’t even make much of a fuss when he initially self-released the collection last year, posting it online and producing a small run of CDs. However, the record gently spread across the Baltimore music community - and eventually found its way to London, catching the attention of Transgressive Records (SOPHIE, Let’s Eat Grandma, Neon Indian) who flew out to meet Julien in New York City and offered him a record deal shortly after.
Chang was 17 at the time he began work on Jules, and the collection reflects all the evolution and exploration that comes with life on the cusp of adulthood.
“The summer before my senior year was a really formative time for me,” he explains. “I got exposed to a ton of revelatory music, all sorts of stuff like Pink Floyd and Tchaikovsky and 70’s Afro-funk and Gregorian chants. At the same time, I finally started doing the kinds of things you’d expect a 17-year-old kid to do.”
That combination of carefree personal growth and eye-opening artistic exposure fueled a prolific period for Chang, who would often begin writing tunes by improvising on whatever instrument happened to be most handy. With no one looking over his shoulder, he gave himself permission to take big artistic risks without fear of failure. On one track, for instance, Chang decided to simulate the sound of a 30-person choir by recording six distinct vocal harmony lines five times over, each from a different part of the room; on another song, he challenged himself to utilize every single one of the 15 pieces of handheld percussion he’d found in a box at a local yard sale.
“It was very much a one-man-band, control freak kind of effort,” he laughs. “I’d start writing a song at four o’clock in the afternoon, and then whenever I got too tired to keep working on it, the song would be done.”
That reliance on spontaneity and gut instinct would guide Chang throughout the project, and it infuses the record with a freewheeling energy from the outset. Album opener “Deep Green” sets the stage perfectly, beginning with a classical swirl that slowly morphs into a blend of prog-rock and psychedelic pop. It’s impossible to predict where Chang’s writing may go at any given moment: high-octane disco-funk gives way to dazzling jazz piano (performed by school friend, Jeheiel Smith) on “Of The Past,” while a percussive groove evolves into the foundation for a soaring saxophone solo (performed by another friend from school, Ephraim Dorsey) on “Dogologue,”and effervescent synthesizers swell into a throwback electronic orchestra on “Memory Loss.”
“At school, I was going through all this really intense classical theory study,” explains Chang, “but then I’d come home and listen to old school R&B music and have these revelations about how Stevie Wonder and Bach were connected. ”
By illuminating those hidden threads, Chang was able to do away with arbitrary genre boundaries in his own music. The mesmerizing “Two Voices” finds a dreamy middle ground between the Beach Boys and Beach House, while the animated “Moving Parts” draws on the guitar and percussion traditions of Nigerian rock and roll, and the loping “Butterflies From Monaco” is colored by the earthy, textures of American blues and roots. For all the album’s sonic fireworks, though, perhaps the most arresting moment arrives with tender album closer “A Day or Two.”
“After getting so big on some of these songs, I wanted to end the album with something small and sweet,” says Chang. “I think of that song almost as an epilogue.”
It’s a simple guitar-and-vocal tune tracked directly to tape, and it’s the barest, most unadorned arrangement on the record. The song feels like a chance to finally lift the curtain and meet the artist behind the art, but even that, it turns out, is something of a feint.
“I called the album Jules because it’s a nickname that no one ever actually calls me,” Chang explains. “Nicknames can give you something to grab onto, a sense of familiarity with someone, but in this case it’s actually a false familiarity. Just like people thought they knew who I was but had no idea what I was creating in that basement all summer, you might think you know me well from listening to this record, but the truth is that there’s a lot more going on below the surface.”
It’s yet another sleight of hand from a consummate showman, one who’s only just begun to truly reveal himself.