People of Duke Arts: Julie Williams
In this interview with singer-songwriter Julie Williams (Trinity ’19), we learn how this Florida-raised public policy student grew from singing national anthems at the ballpark to embarking on a music gap year in Nashville after graduation.
From National Anthems to Nashville
With her first single, “Take Me Home”, released in September 2017 with three additional singles in tow, Julie Williams has made a name for herself with her acoustic pop-country voice and inspirational songs. In this interview with Williams, we delve into the music scene at Duke, how collaboration has helped Williams follow her passions, and how she hopes to impact others in a positive way through both her music and her public policy studies.
Annie Kornack (AK): When did you first realize singing is more than just a side hobby?
Julie Williams (JW): Everyone says I’ve been singing my whole life. I’ve always loved to sing and perform. I told my parents I wanted to sing, but they didn’t know that I could because I was just singing karaoke. I started singing in the church choir, then national anthems at local minor league baseball games, and then I was lucky enough to sing at a [Tampa Bay] Rays [Major League] game, which is a funny start to singing. Ever since, I started classical training and a man at my church offered to teach me guitar. We played together as a little duo at restaurants, bars, and weddings around the Tampa Bay area. That was my high school job. At that point I thought, “Okay, wait, people are paying me to sing.”
AK: How did that recognition of people paying you to sing change your relationship with singing?
JW: I love singing at my community church; it’s like singing for your family. Everyone always tells you, “Oh, you’re great, you’re great.” When I started playing gigs, it was different. I would sing a song or two, and people would ask, “Can you sing some more songs?” That’s when I realized I could perform.
“There’s a huge community of artists at Duke where anyone can collaborate and record. By trying to collaborate with as many people in the Duke community as you can, you find space to grow or gain support.”
AK: On campus you’re involved with Small Town Records and the Duke Jazz Ensemble. How have those clubs helped you enhance your musical talents?
JW: I took a classical music voice lesson my freshman year, which is what I studied in high school. In high school I did it to strengthen my voice, but by the time I got here, I didn’t have the same love for it. I felt lost artistically, since I wasn’t playing gigs. I would play them when I’d go back to Tampa, but I missed that outlet.
Then, sophomore year, I tried out for a cappella groups and Jazz Ensemble, even though I had never sung jazz before. I heard of Small Town Records, and I submitted recordings of me singing and crossed my fingers. I ended up being selected as one of the Jazz Ensemble vocalists and then also as one of the Small Town artists. Since my sophomore year, those have been two of the most important artistic groups for me at Duke.
AK: What was it like recording your first official single with Small Town Records (STR)?
JW: It was an amazing experience. The STR studio is all student-run, which is great. I love how everybody is doing their own thing academically but at the same time everyone is so passionate about the arts. When I came to Small Town Records, I didn’t have a sound I wanted. My first single, “Take Me Home,” was cowritten with the former STR president, Serges. With him, I learned how to work together to write a song. We each came to it with different ideas, stories, and talents. The process is less scary knowing there are people that want to collaborate with you.
AK: Where do you find your songwriting inspiration?
JW: Songwriting is a very collaborative process for me. I’ve always had melodies or little tunes in my head that I wanted to sing. Now I’ll record that and send it to one of my friends, asking what they think and what we could play over it. For example, I wrote my recent song, “Letters,” using letters somebody wrote to me. I pieced together all the words, and then I sang the melody. I had no idea how I would play that on guitar, so I asked a friend and we wrote the song together. I think the best songs that I’ve written have been the ones where multiple people have put their brains together and have come up with something amazing.
AK: How has being a Public Policy major enhanced your music, or do you view music and academics as two separate entities?
JW: I think policy and music have similar objectives. In policy, you want to make people’s lives better by making them happier. Similarly, when you sing, it’s amazing to know that there’s somebody in the audience whose day was made better because they heard you sing.
AK: After graduation where do you see that relationship between policy and music leading you?
JW: I’ve been studying public policy this whole time. I haven’t given it all to music yet, so I’m taking a “music gap year” next year in Nashville. Right now, I give academics 50% of my time, and 30% to music. I’ve always wondered what would happen if I gave music 100% of my time. How would my music grow? Could I make a living off of it? My Duke degree isn’t going to go away in a year or two years. Nashville’s a really fun city, and if I spend the next year performing and nothing else comes out of that, I think it’ll still be a great year.
AK: Have you had a most memorable or impactful singing performance since being at Duke and recording your songs?
JW: My most exciting performance while at Duke was when I sang at Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill. I opened for a band called Mt. Joy this September. It’s a small venue for bigger artists, but for an artist like me, it was a huge. It was awesome to go out there and see other people learn my songs, move to them and smile. It is one of my favorite memories.
AK: I love your outlook of doing what you’re passionate about but also finding ways to positively impact others. How has Duke impacted you most?
JW: Duke pushed me to try something completely different in the arts—far more than I could have ever imagined. Even opportunities like DEMAN Weekend and meeting alumni showed me I can do this. That’s the Duke difference: you can find your passions and people who will support you through it.
AK: What would be your biggest advice to a prospective or current student who might be looking for similar artistic outlets?
JW: My biggest advice is you should pursue whatever it is that you want to pursue. Being open-minded and searching for all the opportunities you can—from other students or even Facebook—is important to continue your passions. When you hear of those opportunities, go for it, even if it’s something that you haven’t done before. Also, if you don’t join a club formally, there’s a huge community of artists at Duke where anyone can collaborate and record. By trying to collaborate with as many people in the Duke community as you can, you find space to grow or gain support.
Julie Williams (’19) is a Public Policy major originally from Tampa, FL with a passion for singing and songwriting. As part of Small Town Records and the Duke Jazz Ensemble on campus as well as a Public Policy major, Williams uses her passion for music and service to make people’s lives better by making them happier.
Annie Kornack (’20) is originally from Dover, Massachusetts and has loved the arts for as long as she can remember. She is majoring in Psychology with a Markets & Management Certificate, and is also part of FORM Magazine, Arts for Life, Camp Kesem, and the Ruby’s Creative Student Arts Team. Her passion for art and using art to connect with others has led her to call the rich art-loving community of Durham her home away from home.