In November 2019 Julie suddenly lost the use of her hands. This is in addition to more than ten years of serious illness and various health challenges. While this new reality means she has had to give up her public performances and touring schedule, she’s continued to develop an amazing collection of original music. Eventually this material came together as an album, and an answer to the question: what does it mean to be a musician who can’t play music?
Heliotrope is a beautiful and ambitious project that primarily features Julie’s skills as a composer and arranger. Her original music is a seamless melding of various folk traditions from Western Europe and North America, presented with ferocious clarity and attention to detail. The initial tracking sessions were with a small core “band” consisting of Noah VanNorstrand (fiddles, guitars, feet), Dana Billings (drums, bass, keys) and Anna Patton (clarinet). Special guests include Yann Falquet, Nicolas Williams, Jonathan Cannon, Jeremiah McLane and Jamie Oshima. Julie also plays and sings on the album, using a variety of creative recording techniques to communicate her artistic vision for this stunning material.
- Window Seat
- The Strand
- The Floor is Lava
- Waiting for Landfall
- Carry Me Over
- Homestead Close
- The Last Crickets of Summer
- Perforated Stars
- Sea Change
In November 2019 I suddenly lost the use of my hands. I’ve dealt with serious illness for more than 10 years now, but I never anticipated that I would wake up one morning and not be able to use my hands at all. All my projects that I had been working on, everything I had been doing, came abruptly to a halt. I found myself struggling to adjust to life without hands, and also deeply grieving the loss of music and art and so many other things. Music has felt like my main language since I was a child, and without being able to play piano I felt like I had lost the ability to speak.
After months of overwhelming grief, I started to make small forays into the world of music again, tentatively trying to figure out who I could be and what I could still do, picking a note out on the piano here and there, singing a little, trying to write a tune or two. Eventually I went through and gathered tunes from my interrupted projects and some old tunes that never had a home, and realized that I had enough for an album. So I decided to make this album to try to answer the question for myself: what does it mean to be a musician who can’t play music?
The process felt mentally exhausting and thrilling and rewarding and strange and futile all at once. I gathered some of my closest collaborators and we set out to bring these tunes to life. This album stretched all of us in new and different ways as we tried out new roles. I became the producer, getting musical ideas across in whatever way I could, singing them, describing them with words, playing them with one finger, dictating them into music software. Anna was incredibly helpful with transcribing and translating my musical ideas. Dana and Noah were so flexible as I asked them to become musical Swiss army knives. With Dana’s encouragement, I found some old impromptu recordings of myself playing piano, and we built arrangements around them. Throughout, grief and loss intertwined with the joy of camaraderie and creation. We laughed and tried wacky ideas and ate delicious food and got snowed in. Together we made something imperfect, awkward, beautiful, quirky, flawed, and yet the perfect reflection of that particular time we spent together.
This album isn’t my final album or a definitive statement. It’s just making something out of nothing. That’s what it felt like in the moment, in the midst of a pandemic, in the dark of winter, after I had been isolated for months in a new town, living alone and struggling to adapt to my new circumstances. Transitioning from survival mode to a place of creation. I’m endlessly grateful to everyone who helped with this project, and for the spirit in people that makes us want to create and brings us together even in the darkest days.
Julie Vallimont: piano (tracks 3, 5, 7, 9, 13), vocals, wurlitzer (track 6)
Noah VanNorstrand: fiddle, viola, guitar, tenor guitar, octave mandolin, foot percussion, percussion, vocals (track 8)
Anna Patton: clarinet, vocals (tracks 8, 11, 13), shruti box
Dana Billings: drums, percussion, bass, pump organ, piano (track 2), wurlitzer (track 6), vocals (track 8)
with special guests
Yann Falquet: guitar (track 2)
Nicholas Williams: flute (track 6)
Jonathan Cannon: strings (track 7)
Jeremiah McLane: accordion (track 9)
Jamie Oshima: electric guitar and wurlitzer (track 10)
All tunes by Julie Vallimont.
Arranged and produced by Julie Vallimont.
Recorded at Next Stage Theater, Putney, VT in February 2021.
Engineered and mixed by Dana Billings, Pittsburgh, PA.
Mastered by Charlie Pilzer at Tonal Park, Takoma Park, MD.
Supplemental recording in our home studios.
Piano for tracks 3, 7, 13 recorded at Tonal Park by Charlie Pilzer in 2018.
Piano for track 9 recorded by Julie Vallimont at home in 2018.
Artwork by Briony Morrow-Cribbs.
Layout by Louise Bichan.