Julian Coryell never really considered being anything other than a musician. His thinking is easy enough to explain: His father, Larry Coryell, has long been one of the world's most celebrated jazz guitarists, and Julian grew up watching musical virtuosos come in and out of the family's southern Connecticut home. In fact, he was so accustomed to hearing live music in the house, that for years he assumed everyone's dad was a performing artist.
But the 26-year-old singer-songwriter says that music was more than a crucial part of his early environment. It was also the only means he had to bond with his career-driven father, particularly after Julian's parents divorced when he was 12, and the young boy moved with his mother--first to Woodstock, New York, and then to Los Angeles.
"I have an older brother who also plays guitar," Coryell says. "We were always vying for my father's attention. Most musicians are very self-absorbed, self-obsessed people, and you sort of have to be to perpetuate any sort of career. And our father was no different. So clearly the only way to get his respect and attention was to involve ourselves in music.
"I remember when I was about 13, I started playing the bass and learning some jazz songs. After about a year of practicing in my room, I sort of approached my father and played for him. He was very impressed, and he started taking me out on these low-pressure gigs, which were amazing, to be able to share that with someone you loved, a parent, that's so deep. On the other hand, to be in the proximity of somebody who lives and breathes music, I couldn't think of a better tutelage."
As exciting as this apprenticeship was, in a way it set the pattern for years of inner conflict for Coryell. It's a conflict between his genealogy and his own musical instincts, a creative tension that he's finally resolved with his Mojo Records debut, Bitter to Sweet. The album is sophisticated, rococo pop-rock, equal parts Jeff Buckley and Adrian Belew. The results might surprise some who regarded Coryell's surname and early musical experience as sure signs that he was destined for a career in jazz (an expectation only heightened by a stint at the Berklee College of Music in Boston).
But, much as Coryell loved jazz, he also had a longstanding, well-developed appreciation for melodic pop and clever wordplay. He fell for The Beatles at a young age, and by his late teens was also an avid fan of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello.
At Berklee College, a songwriting teacher told Coryell he'd probably write about 200 songs before crafting his first good one. Shortly afterward, he moved to New York, anxious to get a band together and get those bad songs out of his system. He was so eager to be connected to music that when he couldn't get work as a guitarist, he became a soundman at rehearsal studios and clubs. Eventually, he got session work, playing on a few R&B records and scores of singer-songwriter demos, among other things. It's a period that Coryell looks back on with ambivalence.
"Making your living solely as a guitar player, or anything like that, on the one hand you're making a living doing what you love. But on the other hand, you're put in a lot of compromising situations where maybe the people you work with aren't the kind of people you would necessarily work with if you didn't have to," he says.
"I think what was best about that experience for me was learning the difference between viable art and viable songwriting and the peripheral phonies who weren't bringing anything sincere to the table. At the end of the day, you had to eat, so you'd get up there and play music that you didn't believe in, but it'd pay your rent. So at times, it was very hard, because any musician, at the end of the day, if you ask them what they want more than anything, I don't think they'll say they want to make a million dollars. I think they'll say, 'I want to be a part of something that I love.' Money becomes almost superfluous at that point."
While in New York, he formed a band and began testing out his material, including such didactic, angry-young-man ditties as "Song for Cynics." But just when he was finding a true musical voice--one that synthesized all his disparate influences--he agreed to make a straight jazz album for a Japanese label called Venus Records. After releasing a second jazz disc for Venus, he signed with N2K, a now-defunct label distributed by Sony, and made yet another jazz album in 1997. By this point, Coryell had become deeply frustrated by the stylistic restrictions being placed on him. He'd also grown to hate the recording process.
It was a situation that was remedied last year when he began work on Bitter to Sweet with producer Niko Bolas. For Coryell, it felt like his first record, the first time he'd really satisfied his own expectations and not those of others.
"In the past, I was sort of making records for record companies that were very narrow minded and not very aware of the potential of the recording process," he says. "As a consequence, the music that was made was very sterile and lacking in what I define as sincerity. So generally, I wasn't very excited about going into the studio, 'cause those experiences had always been somewhat dry and unfulfilling.
"But with Niko, he just set us up like a band would be set up, and just let the tape roll. Half the time, we didn't even know if the tape was rolling. We just performed."
In conversation, as on record, Coryell comes across as an earnest guy, someone who takes his work very seriously. Bitter to Sweet occasionally suffers from a bit too much conviction, the sense that Coryell is trying too hard to express 26 years of pent-up angst with every note. Along those lines, "Song for Cynics" might be the most problematic song. It's a sweeping, gorgeously arranged tune, with Coryell making virtuoso leaps into falsetto at the end of each verse. But the lyrics and vocal delivery are so self-righteous, it can make you a bit uncomfortable. Interestingly, Coryell himself finds the song slightly overcooked, but he decided to put it on the album because it was an honest reflection of his youthful idealism.
"I wrote that song at a time when I was really raw emotionally," he says. "I was 19, and I was very poor, and things looked very bleak. I think when you're younger, and things don't turn out the way you thought they would, you tend to overdramatize things a bit. When I wrote that song, I felt a certain way, and I still feel that way today as well, that it's a strange time. There's a lot of apathy, a lot of greed, there's not a lot of compassion, not a lot of solidarity or kinship, or any of those things that are vital for a society to survive. But I don't think today I would write a song as overtly raw as that."
Fortunately, the peaks on Bitter to Sweet rank among the finer moments in 1999 pop. The album's best track by far is the rollicking "You Couldn't Leave Me if You Tried," a bitter lyric attached to a sunny piece of tunefulness, with a stop-start rhythm, spacious harmonies and an irresistibly kitschy organ riff.
Almost as strong is the self-loathing final track, "Everyone's Better Than Me," which similarly creates tension between a buoyant melody and a downbeat lyric: "There's beauty and innocent dying like flowers/There's 24 years with nothing to show."
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Even though Coryell has no plans to revert to his jazz roots, he won't slam the door on making a jazz record if the environment is more supportive than what he's previously encountered. But even if he never again plays jazz, he says the lessons he gained as an adolescent from playing with his dad still carry him through.
"It was unspoken, but I can articulate what he taught me: that you can do a lot of practicing, and you can do a lot of studying, but at the end of the day, when you get up to play for people, you have to play from your heart, and play as intuitively as possible. If there's anything I carry with me to this day and try to share with others, it's that ideology that it's all about the right brain when you get up there. It's all about emotion and spirit and making some sort of visceral connection with the music and the audience.
"What I've learned in the process of making bad records is that life is too short to make bad records. When somebody subsidizes your vision, that's very profound. But at the same time, you have to make the most of that, and try to remain true to your vision and not be swayed by greed or security or any of the things that can water down something true or honest.
Julian Coryell is scheduled to perform on Thursday, June 10, at the Green Room in Tempe, with Zuba. Showtime is 9 p.m.