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Interview: Julia Preotu (of MeTalkPretty) – Singer and Songwriter

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Since 2006, MeTalkPretty has “quietly” earned a reputation for their “alternative” approach to rock music. During this time, three of these years have been spent on the road – as participants on the Vans Warped Tour – which has allowed the band to showcase work from their debut album, We Are Strangers. On the strength of their music and growing fan-base, MeTalkPretty received a 2009 MTV VMA Award for New York City’s “Best Breakout Band.”

Following in the footsteps of Courtney Love (Hole) and Gwen Stefani (No Doubt), Julia Preotu joins a rare short-list of female leads that have fronted male-backed rock bands. In the midst of a promotional campaign for the We Are Strangers EP, the Romania-born singer managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on her move to New York City, the necessity of learning English, and the death of her mother.

Before MeTalkPretty and your journey to the States, you were active in a band in Romania. To date, what aspects of the music business seem the most different between the two locales?

Romania is a very different place than America. The music business is almost non-existent. I wouldn’t say that it’s “dry,” but it’s more garage rock than anything! [laughing] I was very young when I started a band. Seventeen. We were hoping that we were going to go somewhere, but of course, it was not the level that we are now here in America.

What professional lessons from your previous experience have you incorporated into your MeTalkPretty experience?

The things I learned there I applied here, but not a lot of things actually do apply, as here the music business is so well-defined. You need much more than just a band. You need backup and a team behind you. I don’t think we even thought about it over there. It’s much more like a high school kind of thing, and then a couple of years through college. As teenagers we were hoping to become stars. I came to America with very big hopes and I followed a dream. I figured that if I could do it there at a smaller level, I could maybe expand, and since then it’s gone pretty well. People have really, really responded. MeTalkPretty is a step further in our careers and hopefully we’ll get to places that we all dream of.

I really respect your bravery and courage to travel overseas to pursue a dream. At what point did you really decide that you had to leave your home country and then come to New York? What was the determining factor?

It wasn’t my personal decision to leave my country, my friends, my life and everything that I had to come here. It was my family’s decision. I followed my family because for me that was, at that time, the most important thing. I still believe family should be the first thing in everybody’s life, and so I came here with my mother. I also saw the possibilities of moving to a place like America. Where I come from, almost every young person dreams to have this amazing chance to be here. When the time came, everybody understood that there were bigger chances waiting for me here. And so that’s how I ended up here.

When you first arrived to America, you did not speak English. Do you ever feel awkward singing in your “second tongue”?

Yes. My English was very poor when I first came. I knew that trying to be in a band would be a long road for me. I didn’t expect that things would happen overnight for me. I knew I would have to work really hard in many aspects of my life, starting with English, and then trying to understand the American culture. I knew something about that previously—it’s pretty well-known all over the world—but also relating to communication, friendships and all those things. And I knew that a band would not develop overnight.

How did you learn the language so quickly?

I put out a lot of effort. I asked everybody who knew me to correct my English. I would never get mad or upset. I put myself into situations where I would have to speak more English so that I could learn it more quickly. I moved to New York City, which is a huge city, and tried to find a band. Of course, at the beginning, it was pretty hard. A lot of people were very skeptical. You’re from a different place and a different culture. The guys in my band were looking for somebody who could sing and who could front a band. They saw that in me and I was very glad to be able to find such people.

That is a really amazing story, not only because you were able to do all of that — you make it sound so simple — but just the fact that you are a female vocalist that is fronting a rock band. When I look back at the musicians that I grew up listening to, there are not too many women that have done all that you have. Courtney Love comes to mind, when I think about Hole, and then Gwen Stefani, with No Doubt. When it comes to rock banks, why do you think it is so hard for women to get in front of the microphone?

I think, first of all, I’m still looking for the answer why some of the fronts in bands don’t get more exposure. I do believe for any vocalist, regardless if you’re a man or a woman, you will get attention from the public if you truly have something to say, and if people can connect to your lyrics or your melodies or your message. Even though we are so young, I believe that MeTalkPretty, given the fact that we have stories of where we came from and our lives have been so complex, we carry a very strong message and people connect to that immediately.

When you were growing up, is there a female vocalist that you drew inspiration from, either in Romania or an American artist that you heard while in Romania?

There were but not in Romania. I must say I was probably one of the few who started there, but I was watching MTV. I was listening to radio. I was just dreaming of how it would be to be in an American band and to have all the chances that artists and musicians have here. I never really thought that my life would change to the extent that I would actually have the chance to come to America and truly live the American dream.

The place where I’m coming from is almost unknown, and here I am today being one of you. It’s pretty amazing. I am living my dream. It’s amazing. As to artists I used to look up to a lot, I think it started with Gwen Stefani. But the band that really nailed it for me and got me wanting to start a band was System of a Down. Gwen Stefani was definitely an idol for many girls, but System of a Down has the rock element that I always craved to have in my music.

I do not want to put you on the spot, but is there a particular song by System that you really like or that you would call your favorite?

Yes, the song that did it for me was “Aerials”.

Along with you, three other band members make-up MeTalkPretty. I want to spend a moment and get your take on the other members:Leon [Lyazidi], James [Kluz] and Nate [Meng].

First of all, my guys are like brothers that I never had. I only have a sister. We’ve been together for close to four years and we’ve been through a lot.

Nate, the bass player comes from Wisconsin. Very simple person. He is just one of the most positive people I’ve met. Enjoys every little thing in life. I love that. We are on the road and if something goes wrong, like the car breaks down or something, he’s always saying: “Don’t worry about it. We’ll fix it. We’ll figure it out.” It’s a very good thing to have such a positive person on the team because when traveling so much, things will happen. That’s for sure. Either it’s funny or sad but it will happen.

James, the drummer has this science mind. He’s into math and all that. He’s definitely somebody that you can count on anytime. He’s an amazing drummer on-stage. If anything goes wrong, I know we can fall back on the backbone of the band, which is the drummer. Again, an amazing musician. He comes from Poughkeepsie, New York.

Then there’s Leon, the guitar player. He is my partner in crime in terms of writing, in terms of the direction of the band, in terms of brainstorming and all that. He has a brilliant mind. The band would not be as far without him. I mean, we got management and a label, but before that, there had to be that person behind everybody saying, “We can go through this. We can make it. We have a chance. We have something to say. We have something special.” And every time I was down, he was the person who opened the doors for me and showed me this is not just what you see. There is more. This is just a bad moment right now.

We made it through a lot of moments when people said, “I don’t understand. I don’t get it. I don’t know what this is all about. And hey, MeTalkPretty can’t succeed every time.” He gave me the strength to move ahead and say what I have to say. He made me understand that I have something to say that people actually want to listen to, because I doubted myself. I’m learning the language. I’m learning the culture. He was the person who showed me that there is a place for me.

Thank you for that. I’m just still amazed that you’ve played over 500 shows in the US and Canada. I looked at the schedule in general, and it’s a really grueling schedule. On one hand I could say: “Who’s crazy enough to even do 500 shows?” But how do you manage physically to keep up that kind of a schedule?

Wow. I could describe a day on the road, and then you’ll understand where all those 500 shows come from. It all starts because MeTalkPretty has been given a lot of chances. We are very grateful to everybody who fell in love with the project and gave a shoulder to help us get where we are. As I said before, that wasn’t the case in the beginning. We had to work hard and polish our band get to the where we wanted to be. That didn’t come out of nowhere. We had to work very hard.

For a band, working hard is writing music and playing shows. And so we did a lot of both. We go on tour for anywhere between a month and four months, and we play anywhere between one to three shows a day. Many of the tours are combined with particular performances in Hot Topic in the morning or maybe in the afternoon. Then somewhere later on the day maybe an acoustic on the radio and then the show at night. So that would be three shows a day. We do that almost every day, so we try to get to as many people as possible. It’s very good for all of us. We are very grateful.

Hot Topic has been amazing for us. They’ve been very nice to us. We are going to continue the same thing with performances for Best Buy and then hopefully the same shows at night. So now if you put all those together, we definitely get to have a pretty high number of shows. We are on the Warped Tour right now. We have the shows on the Kevin Say Stage but then we also have the acoustic shows and the Altec Lansing tent. So people can catch us playing. If they miss us on a big stage, then they can come and see an acoustic which is more of an intimate kind of setting.

You have spent three consecutive years on the Vans Warped Tour. What do you enjoy most about the Vans Warped experience compared against general tour dates?

Well, coming from New York City where most of the clubs are for people 21 and up, you’re missing a lot of the younger demographic which we do appeal to a lot. And when we first got on Warped Tour about two years ago, it was like a fish in water because we finally got the chance to expose our music to a younger demographic. We continue doing that. It goes across the country. It’s an amazing tour. A lot of bands got their start there. A lot of bands started their careers with the Warped Tour. It’s not a secret. So for us, it’s really beneficial.

They always treat us very nice and welcome all the time. We try, anytime we can, to jump on tour, even if it’s for a couple of days. We would love to do the whole tour. This summer we’ve been the supporting act for Neon Trees and Paper Tongues. We went on tour with them; so we missed the Warped Tour, but we still grabbed a couple of days because it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s outdoors. I would say it’s very free and very open-minded. You don’t really have time to create a fancy show. It’s all about, here is my music, and here is the band, and here is a thousand kids.

And that is exactly the impression I got when listening to your album! [laughing] From the very first note, it was pure energy. Like many others, “Wake Up!” was my introduction to you and the band, and it is also the lead single for the album. Why do you think that song is the perfect introduction to MeTalkPretty?

I have to say for MeTalkPretty, the public, our fans and our friends, we know most of them by name. They were the ones who shaped our career. They were the ones who we believed in and they believed in us. Even when the music industry didn’t, our fans did. They were the ones who fell in love with the song at first. It was a natural selection as the first single. People just felt strongly about that song. Maybe it’s the story behind it. In the beginning, we weren’t very open about what the song is all about and what the lyrics talk about, but people felt something with that song. It just touched a lot of hearts. It is very intense and energetic, so we decided that we should open the album with that song. It should be the first single.

After watching the video for “Wake Up!,” the same could be said about the visual as well. That song just has a lot of energy. I thought the video was very creative, too. I was really touched by the closing walls at the end and how the pictures turned into mirror reflections. Can you give me a little insight into the symbolism behind that and what that actually means to you?

The song is written for my mom who passed away. She was the person who wanted the best for me and brought me here to have a better life, which I do. It pays homage to her life and our relationship, which was a wonderful one. When we decided to make the song the first single and actually shoot a video, I was wondering what this video should be like, because it was very personal for me and I was questioning how the visuals should be. We contacted Kenny Beaumonte, the director. We brainstormed. I told him what the song is about and he immediately fell in love with the idea of creating something really special that will keep people guessing; not being very explicit about it. I really didn’t want to be very explicit about it.

We had three days to figure out how to do it, and it was very stressful. I had so many things that I knew that I didn’t want to do. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. That was the hardest part, because I’m usually very positive and is the one to say, “Yes, let’s do this now.” But in this case, it was one of the few times in life when I knew what I didn’t want to do. I said to Kenny: “Listen. I don’t want to talk about my mom. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do this.” But we sat together, had lunch and Leon, Kenny and I talked about it. I came up with the idea of having the drawings. I went to art school so I did those drawings myself.

Oh, wow.

I did the scenes from my mom’s life. Leon had the idea to turn the drawings into mirrors that when life is over, all you have is memories and yourself. The closing walls is the pain that you have to live and deal with. Many times when you’re with somebody really dear to you, you feel like you can’t breathe any more. It’s kind of that feeling, and that’s the meaning behind the closing walls. Kenny really wanted me to play my mom’s soul. In the beginning, I didn’t want to. And then I was like: “All right. Maybe you’re right. Maybe I should. Maybe you see what I don’t see. Maybe people would like to see that.” So the whole scene when we are dressed in vintage clothing, those are scenes from my mom’s life, like the way I saw her. She was really a very simple person with a big heart. But for some reason I just wanted to play her as being a glamorous person.

That is very sweet.

Now that the video has been released, I can’t wait for everyone to hear the album. We have been working really hard for about the past year now writing and recording the new album. We’ve been dreaming about having this amazing chance to be in a studio and have a little more time than usual and a little more money than usual, and we finally have written and recorded ten songs that we truly love. They come from our very powerful life experiences that we all have, and talk about things that matter to us and matter to a lot of people. There are definitely some heart-felt songs on the album. We’ll keep you singing, we’ll keep you moving but we will keep you listening because the lyrics talk about things that really matter to us.

And what’s the inspiration behind the title?

It’s called We Are Strangers because we still are. We want to make a lot of friends, so we hope to change that with this album.

For more information on MeTalkPretty, visit the band’s official website.

[EDITORIAL NOTE: Since the time of this interview, the official ending for the “Wake Up!” music video has been changed. The new release does not feature the “breaking of mirrors,” which was discussed by Julia and I towards the end of our conversation.]

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About Clayton Perry