Inspirations is a Billboard interview franchise that examines the process behind new standout releases.
Julien Chang could’ve been dubbed a teen prodigy with the arrival of his debut album, Jules, on Oct. 11 from Transgressive Records, if not for the fact that he just had a birthday in September. “I can’t hold on to that teen, fresh music label anymore,” he jokes on the phone.
Chang, now 20, is in New Jersey for college, but he grew up in Baltimore City with a musical family. His grandparents on his mother’s side both attended the prestigious Peabody music school, where Chang enrolled for piano at the age of 6. “I really didn’t like that, mainly because of practicing,” he says. “My mom and I would get into a lot of fights, when I was 6.”
Despite his piano background, he played the trombone for his audition at the Baltimore School for the Arts, where he attended high school and continued to build upon his one-man-band repertoire. Chang first experimented with making his own music around the age of 12, but when he turned 16, he started recording the dreamy, psychedelic pop songs that would end up on Jules. Though he was surrounded by schoolmates who were also musicians, Chang — who was best known for his beat production at the time — kept his other music, and his basement studio, a total secret.
“People kind of knew me as the beat guy from early on in my high school career,” he says. “If I was going to reintroduce myself as a different kind of musician, I wanted to do it in a complete thought. The album as a structure was the best way to do that. I think I always wanted to go all in on an album, in secret and quiet, and then come out with it pretty loudly.”
He wrote, recorded and played all of the songs on Jules himself — with the exception of two guest performances on piano (“Of the Past”) and saxophone (“Dogologue”) — and then self-released the 10-track album on the online music distributor CD Baby on May 10, 2018. Transgressive Records came calling shortly thereafter, appealing to Chang with phrases like “long-term and sustainable artistic growth,” he says. “How can you say no?”
The label’s flexibility allowed Chang to work out a brief tour that doesn’t interfere too much with school, meaning Chang can continue promoting his music while pondering life’s big questions, like whether or not he should major in German. “It’s one of my quarter-life crises at the moment: ‘Am I about to major in German? Why would I major in German?’”
Below, Chang discusses the inspirations that led to his album.
A Yamaha Guitar
Both of Chang’s parents are visual artists who attended Alfred University in upstate New York, but they each inspired his musical side in different ways. Chang’s mom played the piano, while his dad had a thing for collecting “cheap Craigslist guitars,” says Chang. “My dad was on the hoarding side of being a musician.” He got his first guitar from his dad, an old Yamaha covered in stickers from the previous owner, and he started to learn how to play it when he was 16, the same age he was when he started recording his own music and writing the songs that turned into Jules.
A Rock Education
Electronic dance music led Chang to learn production software when he was in middle school, but he soon transitioned to making hip-hop beats. He switched his style again after he got into the R&B group The Internet, led by singer, songwriter and former Odd Future cohort Syd. “The beats that I was making started to turn into R&B, neo-soul kind of things,” he says.
When a couple of his friends asked him if he wanted to start a band, he explains, “I was the only one who wanted to do a neo-soul band. One of them wanted to do metal, one of them wanted to do punk.” His friends’ influence led him to rock, which changed his whole view about how to make music. “It was with that rock ’n’ roll awakening that I was like, ‘This is really what I should be doing, I should be getting out of the computer and into real instruments.’”
A Basement Studio
Chang got a job at a local grocery store called Mom’s Organic Market when he turned 16 and started saving up money to build a studio in his family’s basement. “Our basement was just used for storage space for keeping mostly my parents’ old art junk, and I was like, ‘I could clean this out and probably use it for a studio space.’” Once he’d raised about $5,000, Chang and his dad fixed up the 10-by-10 concrete room in a little over eight months.
“It’s not an ideal space to record music in,” he explains of the room, what with the lack of natural light and the occasional crickets. “I had to keep the dehumidifier running always unless I was sure that I was about to record something. Just before hitting record, turn off the dehumidifier, pick up the instrument, hit record.” “Two Voices” was the first song Chang recorded in the new space in 2017, the summer before his senior year of high school.
A Nickname That Never Was
Jules is a nickname for Julien, but it’s not one that Chang has ever been called. Rather, he chose the album title as a play on the familiarity people assume by using nicknames. “What Jules represents is kind of a false familiarity, or a perceived familiarity, which doesn’t actually exist,” he says. “The ‘me’ that people would’ve been familiar with in high school was not the ‘me’ that was expressed in the album, I think. But I personally feel more familiar with the ‘me’ that was expressed in the album.”
But don’t presume the album will bring you that much closer to the songwriter. “Even by listening to the album, you might think, ‘Oh, now this is the real form of familiarity because this is the real expression of the ‘me,’ of the [true] Julien.’ But it couldn’t possibly be, because it’s just some songs.”
A Formative Summer
Chang recorded eight of the album’s 10 songs during what he calls a fast-paced summer in 2017, right before his senior year of high school. “I was really getting into a different kind of music each week, and I recorded a new song each week,” he says.
Some of the music he heard that influenced his own recordings included Nigeria 70: Lagos Jump, a collection of Afro-funk tunes that his friend gave him; Gregorian chant (“It’s so hollow and powerful”); Brahms’ German Requiem; and Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, whose third movement inspired the beginning of his song “Deep Green.” “Basically a wide range of different types of stuff, which is why, to me, the album sounds like it’s not very cohesive,” he explains. “It’s kind of a bunch of different genres. But my friends are like, ‘No, it plays through.’”
The Butterfly Effect
“Butterflies From Monaco,” a pretty, sighing song that Chang put out this summer, might lead you to believe that the writer, whose songs contain bits of autobiography, has some sort of attachment to the country of Monaco. But, much like his album title, there’s something headier going on here. “Monaco is just nonsense,” he says. “It could’ve been any place.”
What Chang was really thinking of in this song was the butterfly effect, which is the concept that even a small disturbance could lead to large changes: “I was thinking about this butterfly effect idea, the idea that anything, no matter how inconsequential it may seem to be, can affect anything else. If that’s the case and everything is just the result of some other unknown force on the other side of the world, then why does it even matter, or why bother even thinking about that? It was an easy little philosophical game that I was having.”