Photos: Roberto Terrones

Bound to Meet the Devil: An Interview With Soul Singer Extraordinaire Julie Rhodes

Two years ago, Rhodes was working at an ice cream parlor. Now, she's on the verge of releasing her debut album, an 11-track opus of powerhouse Americana and blues with grit and political edge.
Julie Rhodes
Bound to Meet the Devil
Dirt Floor / FAME

Just two years ago, Julie Rhodes was working at an ice cream parlor, spending 50 to 60 hours a week at the beck and call of anyone craving a sundae or a banana split. Now, she is on the verge of releasing her debut album Bound to Meet the Devil, an 11-track opus of powerhouse Americana and blues. Early critical press has compared the New England-based singer to world-renowned vocalists such as Etta James, Janis Joplin, and Aretha Franklin.

Indeed, Rhodes’ musical ascent has been meteoric and, in her words, “insane”. Yet, she remains firmly rooted. In fact, much of her record references her time spent working at the ice cream parlor.

However, Rhodes transforms the potentially twee image of a musician working at an ice cream parlor by using the metaphor of digging to get at issues of real working class struggle, giving the record grit and political edge. Throughout the record, Rhodes expresses her idiosyncratic experiences in a relatable manner, fostering forms of community through and beyond her music. Recently, Rhodes sat down with PopMatters to discuss how her past informed the making of Bound to Meet the Devil, as well as the social issues undergirding its composition.

Although writing and performing music is still relatively new for Rhodes, she has always been an impassioned fan. As a self-defined “lifelong supporter of the music community”, Rhodes would attend concerts at every opportunity when she was growing up. She would drive at times for five or six hours by herself to attend shows in the states neighboring her home of Massachusetts, always hoping to arrive early to lay claim to the prime real estate of the pit. “Following bands on tour, I felt like was on the road, too,” she says. She describes it as the first time she felt part of something bigger.

During this time, the bands Rhodes would travel to see seem unusual given her current Americana and roots-based sound — bands like RX Bandits, Hopeland, and New Found Glory. Rhodes laughs a little at her early interest in pop-punk: “This is something that always haunts me when doing interviews. Everyone expects you to be into roots music since birth.”

At these shows and on the road to them were the seeds for her own musical growth. Having seen the progressive ska band RX Bandits “probably 40 times”, Rhodes cites the unique texture of singer Matt Embree’s voice as a primary influence for her. “I think I found my voice singing along to RX Bandits, the soul vocals of RX Bandits.” She remembers them covering songs by Sam Cooke and Bill Withers, marking some of her first encounters with music by such illustrious soul and R&B songwriters.

Eventually, Rhodes delved deeper into roots music, becoming a regular attendee of the legendary Newport Folk Festival. The crossover between roots music and the bands she previously listened to clicked for her. At places like Newport, she found the “community that helped [her] transition from being a fan to being a musician”.

One particular member of this community was Jonah Tolchin, a blues and folk singer-songwriter from New Jersey. She met Tolchin after one of his performances at Newport, but little did she know that he would quickly become the galvanizing force and the main collaborative energy for her own songwriting. At the time, she paid him a compliment on his set and grabbed a quick photo with him. A few months later, she saw him play at an intimate house show with the folk troubadour Dan Blakeslee.

Rhodes remembers this show as particularly inspiring because of the way Tolchin generated a participatory environment. Tolchin was “opening up the stage for other people. ‘This is my show, but I want you to play, too,’ he’d say.” While Rhodes was too nervous to join him on stage that night, Tolchin and Blakeslee overheard her expressive croon when she was singing along during the set, as well as when she was singing “Green, Green Rocky Road” to herself afterward. Impressed by Rhodes’ ability, they recommended she try her hand at songwriting.

On the drive home from that show, like so many times before, Rhodes found herself singing. Only this time, she recorded it on her phone. Upon arriving home, she strummed a few chords on her guitar, and quickly sent the recording to Tolchin and Blakeslee, telling them, “Thanks for the inspiration.” Within seconds, Tolchin thumbed back a response: “You have to keep going. Keep writing, keep writing, keep writing.”

Motivated by Tolchin’s urgings, Rhodes quickly wrote another song called “Hey Stranger”. Blown away by the song, Tolchin began clamoring to make a record with Rhodes. What followed was a sudden flurry of intense songwriting. What’s incredible about this period is that nearly all of the songs on the record, including “Hey Stranger”, came from this unexpected burst of creativity. She workshopped the songs with Tolchin, who helped with structures and arrangements, and soon they found themselves in the studio with the foundation of Bound to Meet the Devil.

The songwriting itself didn’t take on a particular style at first, existing in the realm of the singer-songwriter with only vocals and an acoustic guitar. However, the collaborative band arrangements done at Dirt Floor Studios in Connecticut allowed the songs to evolve, radiating genres from Americana, blues, R&B, gospel, and even reggae from each song’s original core. Rhodes recalls the “beauty of getting a band together that had never heard the songs before”, the way they got “to interpret them the way they were hearing them in the moment”. Like the participatory collectivity fostered at Tolchin’s house show, the record came into its own sound as the group worked together.

Rhodes chronicles one particular “happy accident” that occurred during the collaboration on “Hey Stranger”: “We were playing a jazz groove. Or trying to anyway. And it just wasn’t feeling right. We were trying to shake it out. And Michael, the drummer, was playing between takes, and he did this reggae thing. We were like, ‘Let’s try it.’ And we were able to keep the blues influence and to still have it feel a little bit on the reggae side.” Rhodes refers to this as a “happy accident” precisely because of how much it combines her experiences of belonging to different music communities — both the roots music realm of the collaborative and the ska pits of RX Bandits shows.

The time spent at Dirt Floor in cultivating this organic space of collaboration also owes much to its actual recording space. Interestingly, much of the record was actually recorded outdoors in the Connecticut woods. “We set up outside,” Rhodes says. “The studio was literally in the middle of the forest. There were endless trees. After mixing and mastering, you can’t really hear the natural sounds anymore, but before, you could hear birds chirping every now and then.”

While recording in a forest provided a unique earthy experience in the making of the record, working at the celebrated FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama was an “otherworldly experience” for Rhodes and her bandmates. She compares coming into FAME to a kind of time travel: “You could imagine it was exactly how it looked like in the ’60s.”

There, Rhodes was able to work with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Spooner Oldham. From the studio control room, Rhodes had the unimaginably surreal experience of watching Oldham chart out her song “See the Sun,” a blues dirge with a distinct country twang. In addition to Oldham, Rhodes met and worked with illustrious backing vocalists who had worked previously with singers like Etta James. These backing vocalists accompany Rhodes with harmonies on the groovy “Collector Man”, the gospel anthem “Faith”, and “See the Sun”.

After completing work at Dirt Floor and FAME, Rhodes travelled to Los Angeles, where Grammy-award-winning producer Sheldon Gomberg mixed and mastered the record. Gomberg had the Americana supergroup, Watkins Family Hour, in the studio the day before Rhodes was scheduled to be in. As a result, Sara Watkins added violin and Greg Leisz added some pedal steel to the skittering textures of Rhodes’ “Skyscraper Blues”.

Much like Rhodes in her youthful concert-going enthusiasm, Bound to Meet the Devil “has been everywhere. It has travelled the country”. What makes the composition of the record even more amazing is the fact that Rhodes had to carve out time outside of her hectic employment schedule at the ice cream parlor, a job, “which probably should have been more fun than it was”. Rhodes describes that time as one of intense financial struggle: “I was barely scraping by, just trying to keep a roof over my head.”

Rhodes’ time at the ice cream parlor planted the seeds for the “general theme of the record”. She indicates that Bound to Meet the Devil is essentially about “the division of the rich and the poor” and the struggles of the working class. It’s about people “just trying to survive, trying to keep your head above water, but feeling like you’re working yourself to death.”

Rhodes developed a “playful metaphor” for scooping ice cream by writing about the labor of digging in “Collector Man” and “Holes”. She quickly realized that her “cute anecdote” for working at an ice cream parlor was applicable to general working class conditions. “This is bigger than me working at my ice cream shop,” she says. “It’s bigger than that. [The digging and shovel metaphors] encompass everybody who is punching the clock everyday, working these long hours, and not getting the money they deserve from it, not being able to afford a roof over their heads in some cases.” Rhodes’ ability to locate her own particular story within histories of labor and capital even manifests itself on the cover of the album, which depicts her carrying a shovel.

Rhodes’ lyrical interest in representing working class struggle is very much in part of the traditions of folk music. Rhodes wants the album to communicate a “relatable message” that might “open up eyes about real social issues”. She seizes the radical potential of roots music, both in its lyrical content and in its collaborative construction: “The very nature of folk music is that it’s made by people. It’s inclusive. It’s about community. That’s what it’s all about.”

That said, Rhodes still has issues with folk music’s claim to radical inclusivity. While she admits that the roots music community is more accepting of females in music than other communities, “it’s still a boys club”. Time and time again, she hears concert-goers remark that they simply “don’t like female vocalists”. She also laments the inherent sexism in the fact that women most often function only in vocal capacities. Growing up as a woman, she says, “it just wasn’t instilled in you to go pick up a guitar.” Grateful for her many male musician allies, Rhodes stresses the importance of continuing to support women in the music industry, remarking upon the need for intersectional thinking when it comes to music production and consumption.

Taking on social issues regarding the working class and gender, Rhodes hopes that her album can “inspire people” to get involved. “If anything comes out of this record,” she says, “I hope that musicians who want to do it but might be a little too scared or who might not think they’re good enough, just go for it.”

While the title of Bound to Meet the Devil pays homage to the legend about Robert Johnson exchanging his soul for the ability to become a successful blues musician, it’s clear that Rhodes has not lost any bit of her soul during her writing and recording process. Witnessing her steadfast dedication to the collaborative workings of community and hearing the soulful grit of her voice, I can say with confidence that she is certainly bound for success. Bound to Meet the Devil is released on February 26th.