By Eleni P. Austin
Julie Christensen began singing as a kid. One of her earliest inspirations was seeing a young Judy Garland, singing “Over The Rainbow” on her parents’ black and white TV. It was the first time a song made her cry. The Iowa native, along with her three younger brothers, evinced musical talent at an early age. A lyric soprano, she began performing in churches and at age 11, she was featured on a couple of local TV talent shows.
By the time she was in college, she jettisoned her studies and then dropped out entirely, to tour with her Country Rock band, Longshot. After a few years on the road, she relocated to Austin, Texas. It was there she began playing with Jazz artists like Roscoe Peck and his band, Passenger.
She moved to L.A. in 1981, although she continued to play with Jazz musicians, she also began to explore the smoggy metropolis’ thriving Punk and underground music scene. Within a year, she was sitting in with Top Jimmy & The Rhythm Pigs, a shambolic ensemble centered around its leather-lunged singer. It was then that she met Chris Desjardins (a.k.a. Chris D.). Something of a polymath, Chris was a fixture on the scene, working as a writer, journalist, A&R man/producer for Slash Records and sonic architect for his band The Flesh Eaters. A Punk super-group of sorts, its rotating line-up included John Doe and DJ Bonebrake of X, plus Dave Alvin and Bill Bateman from The Blasters and Los Lobos sax man, Steve Berlin.
At his behest, Julie added backing vocals at a Top Jimmy session he was producing. By 1984, the pair formed The Divine Horsemen. The following year, they got married. Divine Horsemen’s sound was a potent combo-platter of Punk, Blues, Roots & Country. Between 1984 and 1987, they released four full-length records and an EP. Substance issues played a part in the band’s demise and by 1988, Julie emerged clean, sober and divorced.
As luck would have it, Roscoe Peck had recently become Leonard Cohen’s musical director. He recruited Julie to sing back up for Cohen’s upcoming world tour. In between those commitments, she launched a solo career. Signing with Polygram she recorded a debut produced by Todd Rundgren, but a label regime change guaranteed the album never saw the light of day. She ended up re-recording some of the Polygram material for her official solo debut, Love Is Driving, which arrived in 1996.
Re-married to acclaimed actor John Diehl, the couple started a family and relocated first to Ojai and later, Nashville. In the ensuing years she’s released five more solo albums. When The Flesh Eaters superstar line-up of Chris D, John, DJ, Dave, Bill and Steve reconvened to record I Used To Be Pretty, she added vocals to that well-received 2019 album. Two years later, she and Chris collaborated again on Divine Horsemen’s fifth long-player, Hot Rise Of An Ice Cream Phoenix.
In 2020, Julie moved once again, forsaking Nashville for the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico. It was there, in collaboration with Terry Lee Burns, she began work on a new album. Their musical connection and friendship began decades earlier, so working together again felt wholly organic. The songs took shape during the earliest days of the pandemic, with the pair sending music and vocals back and forth, via the interwebs. The result is her seventh solo effort, The Price We Pay For Love.
The record is a stunning mix of covers and originals that flows seamlessly from start to finish. It opens with a quiescent rendition of “Hejira,” the title track from Joni Mitchell’s landmark 1976 album. Interpreting Joni has always been tricky, she is such a singular talent. But Julie acquits herself beautifully. Her tremulous vocals partner with Jaco-fied bass runs. Dense lyrics chronicle an emotional travelogue across an expansive melody. Looking to outrun a faded love, she hits the road; “There’s comfort in melancholy, when there’s no need to explain, it’s just as natural as the weather in this moody sky today/In our possessive coupling so much could not be expressed, so now I am returning to myself, these things that you and I suppressed.” The instrumentation is spare and evocative and as the song rounds its final bend, it offers a graceful pas de deux between voice and bass. Steeped in restless regret, the final verse signifies that even as she escapes love, she isn’t finished with romance; “I’m traveling in some vehicle, I’m sitting in some café, a defector from the petty wars until love sucks me back that way.”
Julie’s Jazz bona fides are front and center on a a couple of tracks. Much like Joni Mitchell’s collaboration with bassist Charles Mingus, she attaches her own lyrics to Jazz instrumentals from keyboardist Joe Zawinul and guitarist John Scofield. On Zawinul’s “A Remark You Made” lilting melodica sidles around lowing bass and shivery strings. Her fluttery soprano floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, achingly pure and occasionally dissonant, treading the undercurrents of unhappiness; “Underneath the words, I gotta wonder why you stayed, knowing what would-follow, It was hard- and I hurt you, and you hurt me/But I should let- you be, I know you’re leaving me, so off you go, and I’m going to tell you- now, just so you know, I’m- gonna miss you, just so you know.”
Meanwhile, Scofield’s stately “Away With Words” is a bittersweet haiku. Downcast bass lines take up most of the instrumental bandwidth. Julie’s trilling vocals dance around succinct lyrics like “I just need you to know I’m gonna stay, and I hope you can try and find a way for now with few words.” Rapprochement is in the air, but sawing strings and woodwinds finish the song on an ambiguous note.
Julie has co-written two songs, “How He Lost Her” with Wendy Waldman (a successful singer-songwriter in her own right, she began her career as part of Bryndle, recorded critically acclaimed albums of her own and written hits for Madonna, Celine Dion and Earth, Wind & Fire). “All The River” with Karen Hammack (another successful songwriter and musician who has performed with celebrated artists like Michael McDonald, Dee-Dee Bridgewater and Vinnie Colaiuta).
The former is a tender piano ballad. Bluesy, bottleneck slide guitar wraps around a melody that shares some musical DNA with Jackson Browne’s “The Load-Out.” There’s a catch in Julie’s voice that underscores the grief and longing revealed in lyrics like “All through the hills, he thinks he hears her cry, but it’s just some Coyote talkin’ to the night sky, and the wind roars like angels, and it sounds like her voice, how he lost her, he’ll never know.”
The latter is powered by churchy piano, feathery lap-steel, and Julie’s Gospel-inflected vocals. Lyrics suffused in heartache and loss speak to the ties that bind, be they earthly or cosmic; “Hard times happen in every life, no-body’s free from pain and trial, and all the birds keep on singing, even after they cannot fly -it’s all in the river/There are days when I worry ‘bout what’s to come, or I’m sad for what has departed, another whole world will circle the sun, even when my -days are done.” The fluid piano solo walks the line between jazzy and sanctified, terrestrial and celestial.
Julie tackles a couple of well-known songs. Both Joe Cocker and Linda Ronstadt (among many) have had their way with Jimmy’s Webb’s “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress,” offering definitive, (yet very different) renditions. Julie and Terry strip down the arrangement to warm piano chords, and this plaintive cri de Coeur rises and falls on the strength of her husky vocals. As they fade and soar, the cinematic lyrics reach for the heavens; “See her how she flies, golden sails across the sky, close enough to touch, be careful if you try, though she looks as warm as gold, the moon’s a harsh mistress, the moon can be so cold.”
She also takes possession of Blind Faith’s Folky anthem of love and confusion, “Can’t Find My Way Home.” Although the arrangement remains, um, faithful to the British super group’s original, it eschews the acoustic fripperies, paring back to just sepia-toned piano and keening lap steel. Once again, her quavery soprano commands center stage. The lyrics offer an ecumenical entreaty; “Come down off your throne and leave your body alone, somebody must change, you are the reason I’ve been waiting so long, somebody holds the key/But I’m near the end and I just can’t find the time, and I’m wasted and I can’t find my way home.” The song manages to capture the spirit of the hippie-dippy late ‘60s and still resonate in the now.
Other highlights include the wry and reflective “Goldbridge Road,” which includes this vaguely maternal mea culpa; “I’m sorry I lied to you about Easter, I lied about Santa Claus, I lied about the Tooth Fairy and the monster in the hall.” She also reconfigures Buddy Johnson’s Swing Era classic, “Save Your Love For Me.” By stripping away the Big Band largesse, the accent is on thumping upright bass and a gauzy string section. Instinctively, she adds some Lady In Satin verisimilitude, channeling Billie Holiday’s vulnerability and hurt.
The record winds down with “Hilltop,” written by Terry Lee Burns. Anchored by bass and sparkly piano, lyrics address a recently departed loved one; “Your face, your voice, your very soul, I’ll miss until I go, but you’ll be there when I return to the place we were before.” Bellicose bass lines express an urge for going, as variegated piano notes meander. The closing couplet, imbued with tenderness and desolation, makes a promise; “When I reach that hilltop and my days of life are through, when they ask me what I liked the best, I’ll tell them it was you, when they ask me what I liked the best, I’ll tell them it was you.” It’s a melancholy end to a great record.
Despite the limitations imposed by the pandemic, Julie and Terry managed to corral several musical compadres to add some instrumental color. Guests include guitarist Michael Moss, drummer Steve Schwelling, John Funkhouser on piano and melodica, Sergio Webb on slide guitar, Karen Hammack on piano, Chris Tench on atmospheric lap steel and superstar Greg Leisz on lap steel. Terry played acoustic bass, created the string arrangements and orchestral programming. The album’s poignant title, The Price We Pay For Love, was partly inspired by a Queen Elizabeth II quote, “Grief Is The Price We Pay For Love.”
As a singer, songwriter and musician, Julie has never confined herself to one sound or genre. Content to color outside the lines she’s created some sui generis soundscapes along the way. She has characterized this sound as “Great Plains Soul,” which feels wildly apropos. The Price We Pay For Love is shot-through with grit, gravitas and grace.