When David Julien released a track called "You Dancing" last summer, it surprised a lot of people. A collaboration with a trio of DJ/Producers called WildOnes, it wasn't just that the production was so driving, or that Julien's vocal was so rich with carefully crafted power. It may have been a lot of things that surprised people, but one of them was probably the way that Julien can layer a vocal with emotional nuances, as only somebody who really cares what they say in a song can do.
Is it surprising that three Russian DJs, working in their St. Petersburg studio, could put a track together with an English singer working in his studio in Leigh, near Manchester, a good thirteen hundred miles away? Yes and no. That kind of production often happens in electronic dance music. The backing track is written and mixed by one artist, while the vocal and the lyrics — the topline — are written and recorded by another. They don't really need to be in the same studio, or even the same country. They just have to be in the same digital universe of files, formats, and digital audio workstations.
What was more surprising about "You Dancing" is that WildOnes and Julien could put a track together that sounded as if they'd been in the same studio for a couple of albums. With WildOnes' very melodic take on electronic arrangement woven so effortlessly around Julien's sense of acoustic melody, it sounds like it was made by people who have worked together many times.
"You Dancing" was released by Enhanced Music, a London-based Dance label with chart heavy credibility in the genre. It probably surprised even them — not just by how well a somewhat improbable collaboration turned out musically, but also by the success of the release. Millions of streams, all kinds of downloads, a second release of remixes, and a lot of DJ support later, WildOnes featuring David Julien are back with their next release. It's called "Nobody But You" and not surprisingly, it features the same surprising balance of careful touch and reckless power as "You Dancing".
Will anyone still be surprised? Could be. If people knew more about David Julien when they heard the music that he and WildOnes put together, they might be even more surprised.
That's not to say that David Julien is unknown. Before last summer's release, he had been a finalist on The Voice UK, so millions of people had heard him sing. But David Julien's story, or more exactly the story of David Julien's music, is kind of like one of those picture puzzles. When you look at the different pieces separately, it's a little hard to imagine how they're all going to fit together.
Listening to Julien's high intensity vocals, for example, you would never expect him to be as easy-going as he is. Considering the drive and determination that it takes to keep on building a career as a singer, especially with what must be a letdown when a trip to the world of massive-audience TV ends, you might expect someone intense, but that's not even close.
It's not just that Julien's laid back approach to a high-torque career makes for such a contrast, it's more than that. Even in his music, you see parts of different pictures that you might not expect to all go together, except that then it turns they do.
"When I initially started out in music, I'd play guitar and sing," he says — many of his inspirations and much of his own creativity are more in the realm of the singer-songwriter. "So to go from that through to dance music and topline melodies is a bit of a journey." To say the least, but his take on it is characteristically calm. Whether he's talking on a video call from his studio in Leigh, just outside Manchester, or talking to Danny O'Donoghue and will.i.am in front of millions of people, Julien just seems to be ready for whatever's up next. "It's just one of those things," he says, "the way your career progresses isn't always the way you wanted in the first place. It usually turns out being better when you just kind of roll with it, and go where it takes you."
Apparently you don't have to be stressed to be focused. Focused he is, but it's a musical focus, and that may be how he puts all the different pieces together. "Musically, I identify with the kind of story telling that there is in folk music and folk rock," he says. "So when you get something through that's more electronic, I try to put a bit of that in it — the story telling. I try to have a start point and an end point, and it kind of mixes well, I think."
Although he's talking about just one aspect of his music — how his sense of story telling mixes into the loop-driven aesthetic of dance music — it's an insight into how the rest of the puzzle goes together. For David Julien, mixing his own originality into the more complex context of collaboration is just as musical as a solo performance.
"They send a basic idea, like a demo, or a backing track," Julien explains, describing the way that he and WildOnes work together. "Then I send them the music and the lyrics that I put to it, basically from having a listen, understanding where it's coming from, and getting a feel for it." For a track like "Nobody But You", that can go back and forth, a crescendo of creative interaction. "Sometimes I might send them something and then they may tweak things and what not, and it makes it a completely different feel," he says. "So I change the melody line, or change the lyric a bit. Or I can hear that now it's massive with synths and harmonics and really good stuff, so I've got to be this powerful, commanding vocal on it."
Maybe that's why, when you listen to tracks like "Nobody But You" and "You Dancing", you start to get the whole picture. WildOnes find textures of melody, atmosphere and drive and build them around Julien's lyrics and topline, as Julien adds a potent but carefully dynamic vocal. When all of those parts get put together it really makes for quite a picture. As it turns out, not only can an artist's focus be both relentless and laid back, that actually makes a really good mix.