After more than ten years in the business, the Tyrone chanteuse is still smiling
Juliet Turner says that she stumbled into the music business in 1996. In the years since, amidst radical technological changes in the way people consume and distribute their music, she has seen her popularity grow with each consecutive release.
With a recent return to the world of academia to study speech therapy, she explains that coping with both classwork and fame won’t stop her from bringing the music to the people.
‘Over the past couple of years I’ve been playing in tiny venues in villages which hold a hundred or a hundred and fifty people,’ says Turner. Her return to the halls of learning mirrors a passionate curiosity for seeking out some of Ireland’s unknown and intimate venues.
'That’s been a beautiful experience. Ireland is really lucky. It has venues like the Patrick Kavanagh centre in Inniskeen, the Down Arts Centre or the Kilworth Theatre in Cork, which is a little church.
'People from other parts of the country won’t have heard of them but they’re the best kept secrets in the country. We’ve had beautiful gigs and met lovely people. That’s really exciting, to go to where you quite literally haven’t gone before.’
Turner released her first album Let's Hear it For Pizza whilst studying as an undergraduate at Strathclyde University in Glasgow in 1996.
This collection set the standard for her sound, which mixes a traditional guitar and vocal template with evocative lyrics, informed by an idiosyncratic approach to emotion and storytelling.
In the ensuing years, Turner has seen the rise of new media technology and its effect on both musicians and listeners. She is aware of a shift which means that more and more people are reluctant to experience a live performance, preferring the calm comfort of their homes.
'It’s down to what people value,’ she considers. ‘Some people don’t value the live performance. For me this ties in with the world in which we live. If I want to go to a gig in The Point, immediately my soul shrivels.
'If it’s on a Friday night, I think ‘Oh great, to get there I have to get in the car, drive for two hours, sit in mad traffic in Dublin for ages, and then there’s going to be no parking.'
It sounds like Turner is ringing the bell for the death of live performance, but it’s more a fretful vision of one possible outcome.
'Obviously that’s an extreme example, but it depends on just how much you really want to see someone live or whether you’re just quite happy to sit at home and enjoy music in comfort, through your phone.’
In 2000 Turner set up Hear This! Records, which issued second album Burn The Black Suit. Maintaining a level of personal control proved to be a shrewd move, with the record achieving double-platinum status in Ireland.
The album included a duet with Brian Kennedy, with the pair tackling Tom Waits’ ‘I Hope That I Don’t Fall In Love With You’ after they collaborated on the song in a 1999 two-night stint at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast.
Turner was now officially able to move amongst an elite of high-ranking musicians, but has since tempered her perception of fame with the realisation that it’s graft and craft that bring the real rewards.
‘It’s lovely to be a star - for a while. It’s great to experience the level of commercial success that I did with Burn The Black Suit in Ireland.
‘The people that I know and have watched over the last few years really work on their music and work their butts off touring – Iain Archer, Duke Special. Those are the people that I’m excited for.'
Ireland has produced a raft of quality pop acts, from the worldwide success of Snow Patrol, the national arrival of Duke Special, and the continued success of Ash.
‘There are a lot of writers of great quality,’ Turner says of NI’s musical alumni. ‘I know their commitment and I know how long they’ve spent crafting their work. Seeing them getting the recognition is very exciting.’
Despite a preponderance of Irish artists infiltrating the consciousness of the public-at-large, Turner’s approach seems now to be one of consolidation.
After the success of 2004’s Season Of The Hurricane (which again passed the platinum sales mark in Ireland), she decided against committing to a rigorous regime of tours and publicity in favour of combining educational aspirations with her musical ones.
‘I love live performance – but what I’ve done over the past two years is downscale everything. I’ve started to travel with just my guitar player.
Turner’s long career and lightfooted jaunts to unlikely Irish outposts has afforded her a unique insight into the changing nature of live performance in the country.
‘I really like the idea of ‘the musician going to the people’, rather than people having to get in their cars and travel to the big cities to hear the music that they want to hear.
'The biggest change I’ve noticed since I started out is the amount of pride that people take in their venues. When I first started, there weren’t anywhere near the same amount of small venues. I would be wrestling with bad monitor mixes, engineers who were there for their Friday night pints, and there wasn’t any standard or professionalism.
'Not everywhere, though, and now people are so proud that they have a place where they’re celebrating the arts. They take enormous pride in it. You notice from the minute you step in the door – you’re treated so well and there’s a real warmth that comes from an audience who are sharing the music on a Friday or Saturday night.'
For all the romance in the image of an enduring musical quest to long-forgotten rustic huts and whitewashed watering holes, there would be scant enjoyment in playing only to pipe-smoking, weather-beaten farmers and frumpy fishwives.
'Maybe it has to do with the technology, but I find there are a lot of younger people coming to my gigs. Students, younger, early 20s – maybe not my ‘normal’ fanbase. Playing in venues like theatres and not always bars means that there’s young kids too, which is always nice.'
Online outlets like iTunes and MySpace have allowed Turner to connect with a new audience, saying that ‘it’s nice to see people's faces’ on online profiles. But it’s a strange irony that online ‘communities’ lack the actual interaction of real-life live performances.
'In all my praise for MySpace and everything else, the very real concern is that people do stop going to live performances. I don’t, however, really think that’s going to happen as people know that a gig is completely different to the sterile contact that exists when you’re not face-to-face with an audience.
'That live setting is where I come alive, in a sense. I don’t really shine or enjoy the studio process so the live performance is pretty important.'
The tentative live outings in the pubs and clubs of Scotland and Ireland set Turner’s musical career in motion, but after more than a decade in the limelight she admits to being unenlightened as to the mechanics of fame.
'Who knows what will thrust a band or writer into the limelight?', she muses. 'Someone like David Gray, who before bringing out White Ladder, had decided that if it didn’t work, he wasn’t going to try and make a living from it any more. He made some big financial sacrifices to fund the album.
'For many people it just doesn’t happen – they may have great songs and immense talent, but don’t make it into the limelight and achieve the sales that make life that little bit easier.
'It’s a mercurial process and I don’t think it’s something you can control – you just have to put yourself in the way of it and hope that it happens. And then hope you can cope when it does.'
Juliet Turner performs at the Strule Arts Centre, Omagh, on December 30. Click here for details and booking. Season of the Hurricane is out now.