The Profound Empathy of Joel St. Julien

Joel St. Julien is a Haitian-American multidisciplinary artist based out of San Francisco and his excellent new album, Empathy, is a light against the darkness. St. Julien creates vast worlds with sound, transporting listeners who give themselves over to his sonic concoctions and offering spaces to escape and explore. With Empathy, I was continually struck by how beautiful it is even though it’s borne from the bleak horrors of recent times. St. Julien uses music as a processing tool and to find and hold connections to build new communities of empathy. His work is powerful and engaging.

I spoke with Joel in early October. Empathy is out now on Land and Sea. Joel can be reached via his website.

Before getting into things, how have you been doing not just the last 18 months, but recently with everything happening in Haiti?

I’m as ok as I can be. I’d rather not downplay what has happened over the last 18 months. Collective trauma is exhausting and we’ve all been through it. I’m really fortunate to have a loving family as I know how isolating this has been for a lot of people. 

Regarding Haiti, it’s been heartbreaking. There has been unrest bubbling the past four years and it reached the tipping point when the president was assassinated. Then the earthquake happened which felt unbearable. Thankfully none of my family were hurt or displaced. My cousins all banded together to raise some money for our cousin who lives near the epicenter of the earthquake. Her husband is a doctor who works at a clinic and there has been a huge need for medical supplies as well as materials for shelter, tents, tarps, etc. Being able to raise money then show people where their money went directly felt good. Did it solve the problem of over 200 years of economic and political oppression from France and the US which has resulted in a lack of infrastructure? No. But it did something. It’s good for everyone involved. The current border situation feels cruel and triggering. Anyone who is connected to their emotions can see those images and know that something is wrong when ICE is whipping Black people. Racist policies enforced by the Trump administration continue to be upheld by our current Administration. But damn, this is not a discourse on American Immigration policy and the continued effects of colonization… (deep sigh) 🙂 

Talking about your background, I always love hearing about people’s earliest memories, or maybe most impactful memories, of music and sound. What are some of the sounds and songs you remember growing up that have stayed with you? 

Two sounds come to mind: the sound of my Mom’s cooking and all of the music my Dad played around the house. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard the sound of a pressure cooker but it is a distinct sound. It’s this high-pitched, rhythmic hissing that happens when air pressure starts to seep out of the pot. My mom was always cooking beans and that was an easy way to cook them fast. It definitely got annoying but the rhythmic element engaged me. With my Dad, he played music most of the time he was home. A lot of Haitian music, this weekly NPR program called Afropop Worldwide, and then random shit – David Bryne’s Rei Momo, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine, jazz, classical, and Christian music. That is why my music can seem all over the place. I have never really subscribed to a particular genre of music. 

At what point did you realize your interest in music and sound went beyond just listening and pushed you toward creating your own work?

I had the good fortune of attending a public high school with an amazing music program. I was really encouraged to just dive in so I was a deep choir nerd while playing in some er…DMB cover bands, jazz ensemble, show choir…I even had a teacher who let me and my dear friends at the time have an independent study to improvise and get tight as a rhythm section for our jazz ensemble. I was really invested in it and it laid a foundation for me to start writing my own music. I’ve been making music in a ton of different ways since, but for the last ten years I’ve been writing music for dance, documentaries, podcasts, and releasing my own work as well.

So let me get into the new album, Empathy, a bit because it has really hit me hard in the last couple of months. You made most of this record in the early part of this year, when things, at least here, felt pretty bleak. What I love about Empathy is that it’s so warm, so engaging… There’s a line in the one-sheet “At times sounds and gestures find themselves at odds with one another” – I love that. Can you expand on this idea of how you use music – and maybe even broader, how anyone can use music – to process such darkness and, in turn, find a certain beauty in it?

Love this. This year I learned to harness the spirituality of music that I’m pretty sure everyone has experienced. Because of the isolation of the pandemic, there were fewer places to go for any type of peace. I would be working from home, checking my social media, and finding out these horrible acts of violence happening towards Black people. It was paralyzing. How do I work? How do I live life normally after I see that on the screen? I began to write music directly after to just process and release. Many of that music came from reactions to what was going on. The song “Released” was written very shortly after Daunte Wright was murdered. This one hit home in a personal way because he looked so much of what I envision my 3-year-old son will look like when he is 20. It shook me to my core. Music became a living practice for me to go to when I didn’t really know how to put into words what I was feeling. This album has no vocals or lyrics because I didn’t have the words to express what I was feeling. Many artists have talked about the present moment and when you’re in that space, sometimes the music just flows from something else. That’s very much how I experienced making this album. I had my tools, I was present, and so much came out.

Something I’ve thought about a lot through the years, and something that has become even more pronounced during the pandemic, is the way music and sound can create entire new worlds out of nothing and transport listeners somewhere new. How have your ideas about that changed since the start of the pandemic?

I leaned on this amazing quote by Arvo Part: 

“Music is my friend, ever-understanding. Compassionate. Forgiving. It’s a comforter, the handkerchief for drying my tears of sadness, the source of my tears of joy. But also, a painful thorn in my flesh and soul, that which makes me sober and teaches humility.’ 

After reading that, I had a revelatory moment where I truly connected with what music is to me. I think the thorn language speaks to the fact that you have to feel – creating art means confronting yourself and the problems of the world. With that said, I’m not saying you can’t write a bop about fugees and funyuns – I really don’t want to take myself too seriously. I’ve also let go of the preciousness of releasing music. I used to really be in my head about it and needed everything to be perfect and just so. I released an album and 2 EP’s last year, a longform piece, and now Empathy this year. It feels really good to just let stuff be done and not get too in my head about things. 

Related to this, you mention in the description how this music was not about an escape from you, but about creating a safe place to be, and I found that to be a really powerful and profound idea that really crystalized some thoughts about my own work. In that vein, by creating this space for yourself and then releasing it, it’s almost like offering it to others as well. In what ways do you think music and sound can be used as a sort of framework for people to find connection?

Music is such a leveler and its impacts can be so deep. Yesterday we celebrated the release of my album. I played at the Land and Sea Gallery in Oakland and the place was set up with such intention. It was open for a few hours over the course of the afternoon and people could come and go as they pleased. I created and compiled about 40 minutes of visuals and improvised some ambient drones. People who attended would just come in, absorb the music, talk with friends, sit back down quietly and leave. One person who spoke with me during the show said that he felt like the 20 minutes he sat down to listen seemed like 2 hours. That’s exactly what I mean when I’m talking about creating a space to be. I’m letting some ideas marinate about doing a sound installation in the near future where there is sound, visuals, and a space for people to rest. 

There are certain moments on Empathy where it almost feels like the chaos and darkness from outside is attacking this beautiful space you’ve created (I’m thinking about “Empathy III” especially). What ideas were you trying to convey with this work and how did you approach channeling these ideas into sound?

“Empathy III” is heavy – I honestly wasn’t sure if I wanted “IV” on the album. It’s the part of the album where empathy confronts ego. That’s the ugliest part honestly – looking at the places in yourself where you don’t want to be empathetic. I’ve been in therapy for ages and the deeper I go, the harder some things are to engage with, especially the things that just don’t seem to go away no matter how hard I try. I often joke about aspects of my personality that are still very much a brooding teenage boy. That part of me needs empathy – but that teenager doesn’t want it. Part of it is the inward struggle that we all deal with. But I hope the most obvious is the current state of affairs in America. The threat of being canceled, having to say and get everything right which leads to an inauthentic performative activism. The utter lack of empathy I see when people blame victims of police violence on their actions – the inability to see the humanity in people. “Empathy III” is me dealing with all of that and not having all of the answers. “Empathy IV” is the reckoning, nurturing, and release. 

The album ends with “The World is Ending (Again)” and “Released,” two of the most beautiful and moving pieces on the album. When I listen to these songs, I think about a conversation I recently had around this idea of ‘lost futures,’ specifically thinking about how we may have seen this future in front of us or an idea of what would happen, but over the last many years (beyond the pandemic) a lot of that has been wiped away, shown to be an impossible reality, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing and is an opportunity to build new, hopefully better futures. And maybe that’s just me! But I’m really curious what kind of thoughts were behind ending the album with those two pieces, with those two titles?

Thanks! The title “The World is Ending (Again)” is half a joke/cynicism and the exhaustion of the state of the world. But yes, that song is a journey to take flight above it all as everything is falling apart again. I have no idea what is ahead and if I think too far, it’s unsettling. I don’t know if everything is going to be alright, but I’m going to work my ass off making sure everything is alright within the scope of my control: to be better for myself and my family and to treat others with love and respect. I am seriously tender towards “Released” myself. As I mentioned before, that song was composed in reaction to the murder of Daunte Wright. I started a practice over the pandemic of using my sound and visuals to find a way to deal with and memorialize those deaths. There are a few on my Instagram page. “Released” is the ultimate letting go – the place when you’re released from all that holds you back and enveloped in love. That’s what I hope for all of us.

To wrap it up, I think Empathy is the perfect title for this album and the emotive aural landscape and the deeper message it conveys, but why did you call it Empathy, and how important is having empathy in your daily life?

Honestly, I was pissed off about some things that were happening where I live in San Francisco. There are a lot of culture wars that happen here. Everyone thinks they are right – their way is the truth. It came to a point where it made me a bit unhinged and I had to check myself. After I was asked to make this album, I was thinking about what would be a great name and it dawned on me. Empathy – that’s what I want to put out in the world. That’s what I want people to associate with me! But it’s larger than that – what if we created communities based on empathy and compassion? What if we could extend that to others and to ourselves? I’m very interested in the nature of being and becoming. Practically speaking, I practice empathy daily through my family and work life. The last 18 months have stretched me beyond most of my comfort zones – I’m also very aware that it’s done the same for everyone else. Let’s start there. 

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