Milwaukee singer Julie Thompson is everywhere these days, doing regular gigs at Hotel Metro, the Black Trumpet Restaurant in Waukesha's Clarke Hotel and the Delafield Hotel. Thompson didn't grow up a jazz singer.
The Maine native recently released her second disc, "Reverie," but the project, recorded in Maine with musicians from that state, was begun many years ago, languished for a while and was jump-started. The result is a sleek, cosmopolitan jazz vocal record rooted in Thompson's love for both standards and contemporary material, too. The disc even includes a Thompson original.
Thompson didn't grow up a jazz singer. She got her start in church, sang folk music and later spent 10 years with a duo that performed music for kids. And, oh yes, she also sang with Foreigner.
In addition to teaching music to children, she also performs '60s soul music with Bobby Jiles as Night & Day, sings '60s folk with Dangerous Folk and as a backing singer with the South End Blues Band.
We asked Thompson about her musical background, her new CD, "Reverie" -- which follows her 2007 disc, "Songs for the Heart" -- and her experience with Lou Gramm and company.
OnMilwaukee.com: Can you tell us a bit about your path to "Reverie"?
Julie Thompson: I was singing in a family / children's touring duo (called) Julie and Brownie on the East Coast in the '90s. A producer approached me after a performance at the Portsmouth (N.H.) Music Hall and asked if I had ever considered singing in the style of jazz. He felt I would do well in the genre and asked if I would consider recording. I had just recently begun listening to the standards, and didn't think I could jump right in it. So, I found myself a teacher at the University in Augusta, Maine -- an hour from Portland area where I was living -- and drove up every couple of weeks for a lesson. Having come from a classical background I had to learn the in's and out's of the jazz idiom.
Soon I was recording in Portland with a pianist I knew, and a bassist and drummer who were recommended by my jazz teacher, since I knew no one in the field at the time.
OMC: Tell us a bit about how you selected the material for "Reverie."
JT: The original producer had a vast knowledge of current and past artists of all genres, and seemed to have a great ear for songs that would work well with my voice. He brought many of the songs to me -- "Child in Me," "You and The Weatherman Lied," "Maybe If I Sang Cole Porter" -- all contemporary songs written by women from different parts of the U.S. I then sprinkled in some standards such as "The Nearness of You" and "Willow Weep for Me."
This project was arrested about 10 years ago when the producer had some personal as well as business challenges. It was shelved until recently when another fan and producer came along to ask why I didn't have a jazz CD. He connected me with a seven-string guitarist, Neil Lamb, in Maine who also had a studio. Together we completed the project! That is why half of the songs have piano, bass, drums and half are voice and guitar. Two songs (Voodoo, Song in My Heart) are written by a man from Maine, John Linscott who is about 80 years old and still playing strong. When I am in Maine I often connect and play some music with him. Neil Lamb and I play together whenever I am back in Maine.
OMC: Are there originals on the disc, too?
JT: "Reverie" is a song I wrote many years ago. It originally sounded more like a folk song. Then for this project the producer suggested I have it arranged differently -- so a guitarist from Maine -- Steve Fotter -- adjusted it into a bossa nova. I think it works brilliantly that way.
OMC: How did you get started as a singer?
JT: I was an excruciatingly shy child; very quiet, literally hiding behind my mother's skirt when meeting new people. I didn't like Santa, or clowns, I would not even look at them if they talked to me! Church was my first public experience of music. My dad sang in the choir, and I started singing with the youth choir at about age 9. That was my first solo experience, and I was a complete and total nervous wreck. Nonetheless the choir director encouraged me and I continued to sing.
Thinking back I was definitely influenced by two women of the church who comprised a folk duo and sang contemporary music with guitar and two part harmony during service. I knew I wanted to sing, but I just had no stomach at the time for the attention.
Finally in high school chorus and chamber singers and special performances I started to break out of my shell. As I began to be trained I gained confidence. I studied under Fred Waring and his conductors at Penn State a few weeks for a couple of summers, and then my high school music teacher asked me to teach some of the songs to the other kids. This boosted my confidence.
Voice lessons began during my sophomore year and continued through college. I was a voice minor at the University of Southern Maine while I completed a B.A. in Communication. During college I was the lead in the operettas - Desiree from "A Little Night Music," Carmen from Bizet's "Carmen," Dido from Purcell's "Dido & Aeneas."
OMC: How did Julie and Brownie come about?
JT: Soon after graduation I started a job in which I organized events including hiring musicians. I hired a singer / songwriter for a kids-focused performance who noted that my voice sounded trained when speaking to me on the phone. I told him I was a singer and he asked if I was interested in doing some work with him in the way of performances and jingles. Our duo became known as "Julie and Brownie' and we toured for 10 years on the East Coast, writing songs, doing project such as narrating children's books, and co-authoring "A Pirate's Life For Me."
OMC: OK, you've got to tell us the story of working with Foreigner ...
JT: It was just one stint, but a huge mental turning point. I was in college and Foreigner needed some backup singers for a Portland performance. They got recommendations from the music department at the university. I just remember standing in front of 6,000 yelling, screaming fans. The crowd was so loud I could not even hear myself singing, yet somehow I could hear my name being screamed as a few people recognized me. Yes, it was amazing I remember thinking, "wow such energy from the crowd." So palpable -- you could feel it pushing on your skin. I thought "I can see how this would be addictive, I gotta do this." Lou Gramm shook my hand as he walked me off the stage and I was incredulous.
OMC: Do you have a local group with which you perform here?
JT: Yes. I work in a couple different jazz configurations. Often I am working in a trio with guitarist Mark Rattner and bassist Hal Miller. Sometimes I work in a duo with pianists such as Dan Dance or John Hefter. I will soon be recording an E.P. with pianist Barry Velleman, bassist Jeff Hammond, saxophonist David Velleman and drummer Donald G.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.