The Throwback Charm of Julia Haltigan
PHOTO BY MARC McANDREWS
Julia Haltigan’s timeless voice, look, and persona make her something of a period piece. Her effervescent performances are also known to entrance entire crowds. Haltigan’s entire life is music: When she’s not singing, she can be found attending another show. Whether she’s crooning about motorcycles, old flames, or mermaid’s tails, Haltigan’s jazzy, sixties sound and Spanish rhythms shine through.
Haltigan’s new EP My Green Heart, which she will debut August 4, features her scattered influences and thoughtful songwriting. We chatted with the soulful singer over some soul food and discussed being mistook for a southerner, her love for Tom Waits, and having her dad in her band.
KAPLAN: Why My Green Heart instead of My Yellow Heart, or My Blue Heart?
HALTIGAN: When I wrote that song, I was actually in Tuscany with my friends. We were going on this beautiful walk in the land. There was some tree that looked like it had a green heart. My friend was like, “What’s a green heart?” I just jotted it down in my lyric book. I was like, “Maybe I’ll use it later.” It was relevant in what was going on my life. I had just gotten out of a relationship. My Green Heart is definitely about a fresh start, movement and breaking free of whatever it was. I’m not the best at titles. It’s hard for me to commit. I have a hard time settling on something.
KAPLAN: I feel like your sound is 1930s and 1940s, and you tend to sound like you’re from the south when you’re performing. Do you get that a lot?
HALTIGAN: I do, but I have no idea why. I get asked where I’m from and I say New York City and they’re like, “No, you’re from the south.”
KAPLAN: What are your musical influences?
HALTIGAN: That’s a hard question because I feel like I take in music like it’s air. I listen toeverything. It’s funny to me how certain influences come out. It depends on whatever I’m listening to this week and I’ll think oh this is so amazing. I really want to use it. I’ll be writing and a month later that influence will come out when I’m not expecting it anymore.
KAPLAN: Are there any specific people that stand out to you as influences?
HALTIGAN: Tom Waits is my hero. I’m in love with his persona that he’s put on. It’s definitely a goal of mine to achieve something like that. I’m not necessarily going to commit to going all out into this character, but I’d love to work towards that.
KAPLAN: How old are you?
HALTIGAN: I’m 27. I forget that. I say I’m almost 30. That’s how I feel.
KAPLAN: What’s it like having your dad in your band? How’d that happen
HALTIGAN: My dad is the one who got me into Tom Waits. I hated Tom Waits when I was young. My dad and I used to go on these long road trips to Maine. At that point in my life, I didn’t grasp time. I was like, “Yeah, I could do ten hours [in a car].” Meanwhile, three hours into it, I’m like, “Ahhh, get me out of the car!” He won’t let me stop at rest stops because it takes too long. I’m five and it’s really annoying. I’m only allowed to pee on the side of the road. He’d throw Tom Waits on and I’d be like, “Ahhh.”
My dad listened to cool music and taught me the basics on guitar. When I started taking music seriously and performing-my dad’s a harmonica player. I was like, “Please get up on stage.” He was like, “No, no, no, no. Definitely not getting up on stage.” Then I slowly broke him into it, getting comfortable. Suddenly one day he was like, “Julia, I have an idea.” He said, “I’m thinking, at a show, have the lights come down. It’s dark. You don’t hear anything but the harmonica. You don’t know where it’s coming from. All of a sudden a spotlight comes down in the audience and nobody knows I’m there. I’ve got my sunglasses on and I’m playing.” I’m like, “At least you’re not shy anymore, is what I can say.” When we have a budget for a lighting guy, we’ll totally do that. It’s so fun. I love my dad. He’s so sweet. We have a great time.
KAPLAN: Did you end up playing with Justin Townes Earle at his free show?
HALTIGAN: I did. I sang backup. I sang backup for him on the Letterman show for that song. It was awesome. It was really scary. I’d never done that before. I think when you’re playing someone else’s gig, you’re a little more nervous because it’s their gig if you could mess up, not your own. I was like, “Oh God, I hope I get the harmonies right.”
KAPLAN: Did you know him before?
HALTIGAN: There’s this local spot we hang out at, the 11th street bar. It’s an Irish pub. Some local musicians hang out there.
KAPLAN: You play there every Tuesday, right?
HALTIGAN: Every Tuesday.
KAPLAN: Do you think you’d ever play a tour with Justin [Townes Earle]?
HALTIGAN: I don’t know. I would love to! I think it’d be a good deal.
KAPLAN: How do you characterize your sound?
HALTIGAN: Wow! I think it’s very similar to my influences. It’s very scattered. I think the reason it is scattered is because I actually grew up just a block down…I think growing up in a place like New York City, there’s just so many different cultures here all the time. I don’t know why. A Spanish rhythm flamenco or maybe tango going on. I don’t know. I think my pitchy, sixties sound comes from my love of Nancy Sinatra. I really appreciate a well-written song. A good song’s a good song. You can break it down and be like, “Oh my God. I hate that artist, but actually it’s’ a beautifully written song.” I love that forties jazz sound.
KAPLAN: Does this album have a theme?
HALTIGAN: I think there’s a lot of female empowerment in the lyrics. There’s definitely a lot of hurt and pain and heartbreak, but there’s a lot of soul and passion in there as well. Definitely something that comes up in my lyrics: confidence and sass. I actually don’t know that this album has a theme because honestly, my current band and I got together just over a year ago. We were getting it together. I was writing a bunch of stuff, and these are my favorite songs.
KAPLAN: What’s been the most exciting part of your journey playing around here?
HALTIGAN: Honestly, I think the most exciting thing in this is when you get in front of a really big audience. It’s this feeling that you can’t explain. It’s just seeing something you worked so hard on and see people really enjoy it. I think every time you put out a new record. I’m actually trying to get back in the studio in the fall to put out another EP.
KAPLAN: Your inspiration for songs, are they about breakups or relationships most of the time?
HALTIGAN: You can use relationships, when you realize you get out of them to create a story or influence the lyrics of a song. I’ve definitely written about specific instances. Maybe someone will say something and you can write down the line, later come back and actually use the line to write about “this” subject. There’s a lot more collage imagery. It’s a little more chaotic.
JULIA HALTIGAN WILL PLAY AT MY GREEN HEART‘S RELEASE PARTY TOMORROW NIGHT, AUGUST 4, AT JOHN VARVATOS ON THE BOWERY.