Julian Velard: Sad, lonely… and loved by housewives
Julian Velard is the biggest news in music since Duffy. He is courted by top record labels and daytime TV hosts. So why does he look so miserable?
If you were impressed by the vocal gymnastics of Jamie Cullum and Michael Buble, but would rather they sang their own songs; if you enjoy Amy Winehouse’s music but are disturbed by how, well, disturbed she is; if you like Billy Joel or Elton John but wish they were not so uncool... try Julian Velard.
A former pupil at the LaGuardia High School — the New York performing-arts institute immortalised in the ’80s TV series Fame in which pirouetting show-offs in leotards and legwarmers were told: “Here’s where you start paying… in sweat” — Velard is a 29-year-old American who has moved to London to capitalise on UK interest in him.His latest single, Jimmy Dean & Steve McQueen, is on the Radio 2 A-list, the first such accolade afforded a new artist since Duffy and Adele.
Skilled on a variety of instruments, with a voice that makes people insist he should be on American Idol, and a knack for penning upbeat, melodic tunes that nod to Broadway musicals and the made-to-measure “Brill Building” pop of Carole King and Burt Bacharach, he has got plenty to smile about. Except he is not smiling.
“I’m a dark f*****r,” he says, by way of explanation. “My songs are about loneliness, and the romance of loneliness. I’m a sad and lonely guy. There’s a weird irony that you have to be a little bit sad and lonely to write, you have to keep yourself in that space, but we all want to be happy. I’d love to get the good stuff, and yet the best material comes from hard lessons learned.”
Velard has a disabled sister, although he is reluctant to discuss her for fear of being accused of trying “to get sympathy votes”, and looks uncomfortable when the subject is raised. He is more forthcoming about his parents’ troubled background. His mother is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors who grew up in Alabama and became a singing cocktail waitress, occasional model and, later, real-estate agent. His father was brought up by Jesuit priests in France after his parents fell victim to the Nazis, then spent the rest of his childhood with foster parents.
“He was basically a hidden child,” says Velard, shifting in his seat in a greasy-spoon opposite the North London studio where he is finishing his debut album with Robbie Williams’s producer.
“Both his parents were taken away to camps, so he was hidden in Christian orphanages and raised Catholic. Then he got taken in by a nurse and her husband, but she passed away when he was 11, and he didn’t really have a good relationship with his foster father. When he was 21 he was contacted by third cousins living in the States who’d been looking for him his whole life. That’s when he found out he was Jewish — he probably knows more about the New Testament. But he has no immediate family: everybody was killed. So it’s, like, I’m the lineage.”
His father eventually moved to New York and, a computer whizz, designed the first ATM software; these days he is a trader. Velard has a similar determination to succeed, but admits that he sometimes feels the pressure.
“I’ve resisted going to psychiatrists over the years, but if you were to analyse the make-up of my family, I’m very much a product of my environment,” he says. “Because of the way my family is set up, it’s like I’m the ticket. Not so much in a financial way, but more like, I’m the one who’s carrying on the line of the family.”
Velard grew up on New York’s affluent Upper West Side — “the tough bourgeois streets”, as he quips — surrounded by good Jewish families.
“You can imagine being a Jewish kid in New York where everyone I know has become lawyers and doctors — serious careers. And I’m like: ‘Hey, I’m gonna be a musician’. My parents were concerned for me to always have a backup plan.”
Popular “in a freakish sort of way” at school, he was elected senior class president before getting expelled for writing obscenities on an exam paper.
“I was never a good student,” he says. “I was a massive f***-up. Then I found music, and I couldn’t stop doing it. It was something I actually cared about, as opposed to feeling like your typical attention-deficit kid, wandering from video games to movies.”
After studying avant-garde jazz and classical music at college, he had a stint sweeping streets in Paris, then got a job teaching physical education at a kindergarten in New York for three years while simultaneously “doing gigs in cabaret places, off-Broadway areas or burlesque shows. I got hired for weddings; pretty much anything that paid. I didn’t get any barmitzvah calls, although I would have taken them.”
After years of this “hand-to-mouth” existence, he was contacted via his MySpace page by major label EMI, who were impressed by his jazzy direction but encouraged him to record a “full-on pop record”.
He describes the songs on his forthcoming album, Planeteer, as “cuddly and friendly, with an almost game-show vibe, but there’s a very dark side to them as well”.
The album title is about someone discovering new worlds. It was inspired by the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. “It’s the idea of this lonely existence, an astronaut who gets cut loose, the young man going it alone. It’s a celebration of loneliness, the sort you see in a James Dean or Steve McQueen movie.”
A self-confessed celluloid nut, Velard uses films to escape, anything from children’s adventures with a surreal subtext like Charlie And The Chocolate Factory to noir-ish French dramas where the hero is wracked with existential angst. “It’s just music and movies,” he says. “That’s my whole trip.”
But he loathes the fake rebellion of most rock’n’rollers and the pseudo-sincerity of acoustic singer-songwriters. “Aren’t you sick of guitars, man?” he almost shouts. “It’s a pose, this whole idea of the troubadour. I’d rather see somebody with a washboard.”
If Velard is cool, it is by accident, not design. “My music appeals to a really wide audience,” he says, a day away from performing on ITV’s This Morning with Fern and Phil.
“I’ve got housewives who love my stuff as well as hip indie kids who think I’m cool, which is very strange for me.
“I’m weird,” he adds, “but not cool-weird.”
Jimmy Dean & Steve McQueen is released by EMI on June 16, with Planeteer to follow in August