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Exclusive: Interview with the American Jazz Singer "Juliet Annerino"

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Juliet Annerino is an American singer/composer of jazz, neo-soul and lounge music. With an aesthetic reminiscence of the classic chanteuses, she is also a peace activist. RockEra had an interview with her while she was here in Cairo as a part of her Middle East tour. Read more to know about her music and politics.

Hany: is it true that you started singing at the age of 12?


Juliet: Yes, actually I took a guitar course, it was free at my school. I started playing the guitar and learning songs and then decided to write my own songs, so I started composing songs using the guitar and then I studied piano. This was back in Chicago. The problem with my songs was that they were all limited by how well I played either the piano or the guitar, which was not that proficient, so someone suggested I write a song without the help of an instrument. Write the melody, they said, just let the melody come to you. And I thought Ok that sounds really scary! But I tried it, and it worked best, and so that’s how I write songs now. I never use an instrument when I write. I write the melody and the lyrics, then I sit at the piano and write the chord charts so the jazz musicians can play it. I also sometimes write out the notation for the bass part and the strings parts when I’m working with live musicians.


Hany: I heard that you started underground...


Juliet: Oh you know I was referring to Chicago and to the subways there, because I sang on the subways. I made a living that way when I first moved to the city by myself. It was a great school because I couldn't do many of my originals there…The people on the subways in Chicago need to recognize the song. The great thing about it was depending on the kind of people there, I could pick which song would make them open up their hearts and open up their purses and I think I really touched some people…Some people approached me with tears in their eyes. That’s what it was about, that makes it all worthwhile. If I could sing an R&B song for like 3 young Black kids that would reach them. If I could sing an old song from the 60's for someone who's in their 50's then that would touch them, so this experience really taught me how to reach an audience. And I found out that it really isn't about me. It's about what I give, and the connection that I make with the audience, so whatever that audience shows to me I had to reach that. Music is a way of communication.


Hany: How do you categorize your music?


Juliet: I like to call it exotica new jazz because it has elements that can't be categorized, exotic elements, maybe from different countries we don't usually hear, or instruments that are used, like the song “Secret Life” has banjo in it as well as acoustic guitar but the styles I like to blend, funk and R&B, come out of Chicago where I played with funk and R&B players. It’s the jazz influence that’s always going to be there.


Hany: What are your lyrical themes?


Juliet: I deal with any theme of passion. I have written about political issues especially when I was campaigning for Ron Paul last year, and I wrote a few songs about that. I write about relationships and I write about taking chances because those things I think are important in Life.


Hany: Can you name a few artists or bands that you admire?


Juliet: That’s a great question, I love the great modern writers, I love the old great writers! Cole Porter was a great song writer I think, Sting is one of the great songwriters of our time. He sung in Cairo when I was there last, I think Anne Lennox is one of the greatest writers and performers, I like people who take chances like Bjork and Michelle indigeo Cello and Imogen Heap. I love her. She is unique... She sings like no other, she has her own voice and I love her style.


Hany: Tell me about your gigs and tours in the Middle East, were there any previous ones?


Juliet: Well I was in Dubai and I'll be going back to do a few shows there. But After Cairo, I'm going to Beirut, staying there for 2 months and I'll be playing about 3 or 4 shows a week there.


Hany: Are you thinking of doing a show or a tour again in Egypt?


Juliet: I'd love to come in the winter. It depends on how things in Beirut go. If they go well, then I'll come back to Cairo hopefully for a longer time because I really love it here. This time I'm thinking WOW it’s like a home for me, here in Cairo. It is so comfortable.


Hany: That’s great to hear! I hope it goes well for you in Beirut.Tell me about your label, how would you characterise it?


Juliet: I call it “Matahari Music”. I just connect to the Idea. The character of Matahari, she was a real person and a lot of people don't know much about her. She was actually Dutch, she was very tall, 5'10”, which at that time back in the 1900's was very tall for a woman. She was so tall that they thought she could never marry, so they said you are gonna be a school teacher! She was beautiful though. Many people were attracted to her, and this became a problem with her job. So she got kicked out of there. She ran away to Paris from Holland and she decided to reinvent herself and be a dancer because in Holland they had different colonies, so they had the Dutch East Indies, known at the time as “Java”. So they had the influence of this exotic Javanese culture, so she took on some of the influence of the people she knew from the The East Indies.


She learned their language and her name “Matahari” actually means the golden rising sun. She was a character! And she was recruited by the French to work then as a spy. The French who had hired her ended up executing her, even though she worked for them. They said she was a double agent. The story is so mysterious and she is such an independent woman that I just connected with her. So I called this “Matahari Music”.


Hany: Are there any official music videos in plan?


Juliet: Yes I'm working on a music video right now. I wanted to finish it before I came here but it was too much to do…It’s for the song, “Just For Fun” but it’s unedited now, though it’s all shot. I was planning to edit it once I was in Beirut *laughs* Maybe I won't have time, though. But it'll be done eventually!


Hany: Who’s the director of your upcoming video?


Juliet: This is a collaborative thing. I guess I was the director but I had my friends in LA shoot it , I had this friend, Paul Grayson play my boyfriend in the video and I would just call my girlfriends, asking "Hey are you free? Can you shoot this?!", and I told one of my best friends – also another musician with the band “Silver Phial” – and asked her, “Hey, Cheryl, can you play the other woman in this video?” She said OK, we met up at this local café, no permits, just a basic scene idea and as for directing I just explained what was going to happen…Paul talks to Cheryl, lights her cig, I make a face, pull out a lipstick that turns into a blade, etc. It’s a very punk rock theme, very "do it yourself", D.I.Y


Hany: Tell us about your future plans...


Juliet: Ok I had this Idea; I saw that there are so many great DJs in Cairo, so I'm looking forward to release a remix album for the next project of songs from “Scenes From a Life on Fire”. I brought the pro-tools sessions so I have the files to share with DJ’s who would like to try a remix of a song from the CD. I'll talk to K-mat, one of the DJ’s on NILE FM because I’m seeing him soon. I want to do a CD, all remixes, but really different, I don't want this to sound like anything else!


Hany: Have you heard about DJ Carlos?


Juliet: with the K , Oh yeah with the C. Uh both of them, I think…


Hany: On Nile FM.


Juliet: He is really good!


Hany: Maybe he can help you, I'll see if I can find him


Juliet: I just wanted to say something about Cairo; it’s really close to my heart, because the people in Cairo are so warm that I wanted to come back and then I got on Facebook and everybody is so enthusiastic. Everybody is so kind and helpful. Some things you could hardly even believe, like my friend, Ahmed El Shaky found me there, he said I'm a journalist, and I said maybe he wants to be a journalist, he’s young I thought, but it’s OK I didn't care, I didn't really take him that seriously, at first. But he really helped me out, hooked me up and came through for me! He was real and so sweet. And we’ll be friends for life. I also think you guys have a TERRIFIC WEBSITE, I'm so impressed.


Hany: Maybe the 1st time I chatted with you there was no website at all, I told you it was under-construction


Juliet: and then you sent the alert, and I said ok let’s see, and it was so good!


Hany: The magazine actually is all about 9 or 10 people at most.


Juliet: Oh yeah, working hard huh? I'm really impressed with that.


Hany: Tell me more about your experience with people in Egypt?


Juliet: Coming here was much better than having to be with everyone on Facebook! Reaching you guys all the time, 5 in the morning, it’s like time differences especially that we are always like chatting at weird times, but you know that’s the point though, because a lot of times you make a connection with somebody on Facebook or on Myspace, But when you meet them it’s like OKAAY, they are not as warm as I thought they were, but this experience was very true. Just being on Facebook but in 3 dimensions!


Hany: How do you think most people in the US view the Middle Eastern community? Are any of their ideas changing?
Juliet: Yeah, I guess our ideas are changing, and the reason I think that is my involvement with the Ron Paul campaign last year. It introduced me to a lot of people who are open-minded, like Anti-war and pro-peace because you see the US government is unfortunately governed by a small group of elites that don't represent the American people. What they are trying to do is be an empire, like the ancient Roman Empire. Well, even speaking of the Dutch, they were once an empire. They would have their satellites, they would take over this, and they would take over that, they would colonize. That’s what the US is trying to do with the occupations. They send people all over. The poor soldiers, they don't want to be there! And all they can do is cause havoc. It’s bad for everybody. It's bad for us Americans. It’s bad for the people who live there, too, of course!


What was so inspiring for me is that a lot of Americans are sick of what our government is doing, so the impression that Americans have about middle Eastern people is changing, and it's changing for the better, and I'm very happy to say that, cause I had such a great experience in 2001 that I tell everybody how respectful everyone was to me! I can say that the only bad experience I ever had was with taxi drivers *Laughs* and that's a problem all over the world.


Hany: Do you think that your political values and standards affected your music? Maybe some of your friends took defensive positions for supporting some other guy in the elections.


Juliet: Actually Not. Well first, I have no desire to go to Israel you know when my agent said to me you can't *laughs* I said why? It looks like their government is worse than ours. So I wasn't supporting that! But she told me you can't go to Israel, so I said I don't want to go there, but the sad thing is, which is also part of the message I want to put out there, is that Jewish people are not the same as the people who run the government in Israel. In LA I know many Jewish people and they have no interest in occupying the Middle East and taking over Palestine, they have no interest in that, they are good-hearted, educated people. But there is a difference and people make these broad assumptions, just like the people who make assumptions about Middle Eastern people or Muslim people.


Hany: But I think many Egyptians think that Jewish people are different than Israelis


Juliet: I'm so glad, really, that’s wonderful to hear!


Hany: It’s true, we do differentiate between a Jew and an Israeli, we know that there is a big difference between them, one is just a religion and the other is a political view.


Juliet: You guys know that Orthodox rabbis are against Israel, right? When I found that I was like WOW and also there is a great group of Jewish people who refuse to serve in the military, the IDF there, too. They are called the Refusniks, the Schministin.

Hany: And they are brave because those 19-year-olds are put in jail.


Hany: Back to music *Laughs*


Juliet: I don't want to take a long time talking about that.


Hany: So were you involved in the Ron Paul Revolution?


Juliet: Yeah, I did the Ron Paul calendar and I did get some flak for the calendar. I have no problem with sexuality so I didn’t get that.


Hany: Maybe you should explain the idea of the calendar.


Juliet: I should've brought you one *laughs* Ok, the calendar includes on every page a quote by someone like Martin Luther King, Ayn Rand, Thomas Jefferson…I have so many great people included. And then there is a quote from Ron Paul that matches it in some deep way. So the reason I did the calendar was because people think it was interesting, people think it’s fun, so they buy it because of that, and open it up and get to learn more about Ron Paul, his political views his positions and see the parallel people like Thomas Jefferson Martin Luther King and they'll see what the movement is about.


Hany: Where are your next concerts going to be?!


Juliet: I'll be at Cairo Jazz Club on the 12th and that’s going to be an unusual show because it’s really intimate, in a small room and people can really get close. I would actually feel more comfortable when I’m close to the people, because I can connect to the people better.


Hany: It is small *laughs*


Juliet: Yeah I like that, and I’ll do more jazz standards there, too. It'll be fun!


Hany: Will there be "TANNOORA" like today?


Juliet: No, it's unfortunate, But no, but I like him so much! Mokhtar Hakim is his name.


Hany: The guy is really amazing.


Juliet: YEAH I’d never seen so many things he did.


Hany: What was his name? The accordion guy?


Juliet: The accordion guy came from upper Egypt his name is Bishoo


Hany: Bishoy


Juliet: and he is 19 years old and I just found him only on Facebook, but I took a chance actually, because I only saw one video of him playing, and I could barely hear it, but he was so enthusiastic!


Hany: So where did the idea come from?


Juliet: Which one?! Oh, to feature a Tanoura dancer?


Hany: yes


Juliet: well I've been a big fan of Sufism for a long time. I studied the Sufis, certain books by Idries Shah and Hazrat Inayat Khan…He is an Indian and I love these books! They are all jokes, stories, and they are more about how to learn and how to understand and how to live than by laws and rules. It’s more like how to make your own rules from what I understood and this really appealed to me! Also what appeals to me about them is how, for them, it was all about dance and music. They are about expressing love for God through dance and music, reaching this ecstasy. I love in fact that they used the word, “ecstasy” even, and they even use this word “intoxication”. See this is one of the problems we have in the US. We go back to our pilgrims. We were very Puritanical at one point, so they had these little buttons to push and they didn't have a connection to their own bodies, to ecstasy, this sort of joy that’s euphoric that I see in the Sufi tradition, goes into euphoric states which is so beautiful, and which music gives people, so I connected with that. It’s very liberating. I think it’s a level of spiritual heights that can only be reached through music, so that’s why I connect with them, so when I found this tiny picture on Facebook, of this guy in the skirt spinning, I said that guy is a Sufi because he is spinning so I wrote him and he was receptive. So Sufism is an important part of how I feel about music.


Hany: Do you take it as legend or a philosophy?


Juliet: More of a philosophy actually. That’s a good question!


Hany: I asked because so many people can't understand the meaning of Sufism.


Juliet: Just a philosophy as I can understand it. When I think of a religion I think of a group of people who like to get together for social reason besides the spiritual aspect. Me, I have my friends, I have my musicians, I have my family, so I don't look for that kind of social connection through spirituality, to me spirituality is an independent thing. It’s personal.


Hany: Comes from the inside…Yeah.


Juliet: Yeah!


Hany: How do you think your music plays a part in political change?


Juliet: I think in 2 ways basically, one way directly by writing a song that has some political meaning to it, and the CD has one song called "New Revolution" and it’s about bringing our troops home from the Middle East. And it quotes Ron Paul, who said in a debate, that he would say to our troops if he were elected president, “Just come home.” And in other way, politically reaching people, not directly, is by reaching out to people in different countries and showing that there is camaraderie, a connection, and strengthening that.


Hany: Who writes your songs?


Juliet: That’s good *laughs* I write my stuff, I write my songs.


Hany: Do you compose it as well?


Juliet: Yeah and I play it, everything on the CD is played by me, except for when you see the guest artist noted. For instance, like there’s a girl playing accordion, my friend “Tammy Tomahawk” of Cinderella Motel and there is another friend of mine, Thom Duvall on banjo and guitar… and you see a few other guitar players, Jamie Tisdale and Jimmy Walker. All great players!


Hany: What is your role in the recording studio?


Juliet: In the recording studio I work with a wonderful engineer who is also well known as a producer. He has worked with people like David Bowie, Seal, Mick Jagger. He’s a very eccentric person, likes to cross-dress. He has this wild sense of humor and he’s very fun, but he’s quirky. He’s a guy that not everybody might like…I love him I think he is wonderful. But he only works with people he wants to work with. And that’s part of the reason I chose him. He doesn’t produce my stuff, though. He engineers for me. He says when he works with me he is like a “sonic waitress”, meaning that I tell him what to get just like a waitress, like oh get me guitar in here, oh give some good bass on here and he gives it to me and I play it and then put it together. And he likes that, because it’s different than the way he usually works with artists.


Hany: How did you meet your musicians?


Juliet: Mostly through Facebook, actually. I already knew Amro Salah, the pianist from when I was in Cairo back in 2001. I was going to play with him, but unfortunately he is in Bulgaria. I won't even see him, which is too bad, cause I’ve known him for many years. So I was wracking my brains about how I was going to find another keyboardist. Then on Facebook I found Fathy Salama, and I saw that he had won a Grammy, so I just figured, well he knows the right cat to play keys for me! *Laughs*


I wrote to him and asked him, please I'm coming to Cairo, and can you recommend to me a good jazz piano player? I knew if I had a piano player, through him, I’d also have a band. Fathy Salama was so cool. He gave 2 names and Hesham was the one who picked up the phone.


Hany: Hesham Galal?


Juliet: Yes, “Hesham Galal”. And he was into it right away, even the first phone call, I said some gigs don't pay that well, and he said, “you know what, I’ll do it because it'll be a good opportunity, it sounds fun”. I was really overjoyed when I got his email saying he likes my songs cause I've seen his videos, really amazing…


Hany: And he was in the Cairo Jazz Festival


Juliet: Yeah, and over the last show he can't make that, so I'm going to be using a wonderful pianist who has played with Amr Diab whose name is Hany el sheikh, and the guitar player, plays with him a lot, his name is Adel wa'ad, we will be doing different material there too, little funkier stuff, it’ll be fun.


Hany: The last thing I'm going to ask you about is your last album, tell me something about it.


Juliet: That was a jazz album.


Hany: No the last one you mentioned at your concert today.


Juliet: The one that just came out.


Hany: Yeah, tell me about your art work.


Juliet: It was really hard because I wanted to look modern but also harkening back to the late 1950's early 60's type of look. Do you think it does that, what do you think?


Hany: YEAH!


Juliet: Great, it does.


Hany: And the fire thing that was really amazing!


Juliet: Oh yeah, I learned how to do that from a girl friend of mine who was in a troop. She toured with a fire dancing group. All they did was blow fire, eat fire, and twirl fire, everything with fire…


Hany: So it’s not a Photoshop trick?


Juliet: NO, it’s really fire. It’s out of my tongue *laughs*, here is one thing I'll tell you guys because you'll find it interesting. This is the first thing she told me. You grab a torch, touch it to your tongue, and sticks on your tongue for a minute. Now what you never do, never breathe in. Because if you breathe in, the fire may go down your throat and maybe your lungs and it will burn everything, very dangerous to do that.


But I thought the picture was too extreme to put on the cover on the back.


Hany: How many albums do you have?


Juliet: three.


Hany: Three? What are they called?


Juliet: “Crushed Velvet”, that was 5 years ago, yeah.


The second one was from a show in Hollywood called “The Lord's Lover” and the songs from that are mostly funk, and then this is it the ones.


Hany: What do you hope to give to the audience here in Cairo?


Juliet: I hope to connect with them, so they remember me as an American artist, who is giving them a good example and not trying to occupy them *laughs* just wanted to share…


Hany: Where are you originally from?


Juliet: From Chicago, but my mother is Italian and my father is Hungarian, you know what is great? People in Egypt know how to pronounce my last name perfectly!


Hany: Yeah, because many of them deal with Italians. Italians in Sharm El Sheikh are a lot…

The interesting thing also here in Cairo is that people in here also look like the Italians. All Mediterraneans are passionate.


Hany: Did you expect that great success, to become a great artist, since you first started dreaming about music?


Juliet: No I don't know if I expected it, but I was thinking about it for a long time, ever since I was 13, writing a lot of music and reaching a lot of people…


Hany: what do you feel when you look back at your life, everything you've done, starting from zero until you reached the point of fame and everything?


Juliet: You make me sound really good! HA HA I don't deserve that kind of compliment *laughs* I think every single turn, and every single problem or challenge was really worth it I don't regret anything. No regrets, that’s what I say. I’m just very grateful for everything, big and small.


Hany: For your music, as a target audience, is it easy or hard to succeed in the US?


Juliet: I think it’s difficult. It isn't hip hop, it’s not Electronica, it isn't jazz all the way. I’ve got a one hand over here, one hand over there. We’re playing twister you know?


Hany: wow! Your answer is surprising! I always thought jazz was so popular in the US!


Juliet: Well yes, actually it is. I love jazz. Jazz is my heart, but also I want to take that and enrich it with something different.


Hany: Well that was the last of my questions, do you have anything more to add?


Juliet: I enjoyed my time in Cairo. No actually nothing more! *laughs* I think we talked about almost everything!

 

Hany: Thank you very much Juliet, it was my pleasure interviewing you. Hope you have a safe flight to Beirut and back home.

 

Interviewed by: Hany Adly

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