Between sips of seltzer and small handfuls of Chex Mix, Juliana Daugherty lovingly runs her hand along her cat Monday’s back. “I’m still kind of shocked that I managed to get it out in the world,” she says, eyeing a thick cardboard box at the bottom of a bookshelf. It’s full of vinyl copies of her debut record, Light, and she’s kind of shocked, because a few years ago, she hadn’t thought to make an album.
But when Daugherty decides she’s going to do something, she does it, to prove to herself, and “maybe to other people,” that she can.
The daughter of a viola player and a trumpet player, Daugherty, 30, began harp lessons at age 4, practicing on her own terms, and refusing her teacher’s preferred methods. She bounced from harp to piano to classical guitar before trying flute and deciding to get serious about woodwinds.
In college, she took an introduction to poetry class and decided that if it went well, she’d get a minor in poetry—not only did she get the minor, she earned an MFA in poetry from UVA.
After years of playing flute in local indie-folk bands Nettles and The Hill and Wood, Daugherty realized she was the only bandmate without a side project, and figured that as a poet and a musician, she had the skills to be a songwriter. Daugherty decided to become a songwriter, working late into the night on melodies and chords, then fitting lyrics on top of them.
Perhaps even more surprising to Daugherty (but not to any listener of her music) is that Light, which was produced by local musician Colin Killalea and released in June by Western Vinyl, isn’t just out in the world—it’s been featured on popular music websites such as NPR Music’s “All Songs Considered” and Stereogum, and critics have received it warmly.
Stereogum’s Chris DeVille says, “there is no shortage of artists making music of this ilk today, but few are doing it so captivatingly.”
Lars Gotrich of NPR writes, “I just want to curl up in a circle of pillows and stare upwards at eggshell paint that could so easily be cracked by the quiet and contemplative poetry Daugherty sings with gentle, but aching lilt.”
Creative endeavors are how Daugherty makes sense of her world, her life, and she doesn’t actively choose what she writes about. “Whatever has been in my brain is what’s going to come out, and whatever I’m trying to understand is what’s going to manifest itself,” she says.
In her artist bio, Daugherty writes, “I wrote this album partly to strip mental illness of its power,” and that is the part that many critics have focused on, noting how refreshing it is to hear someone speak about depression, sadness, and melancholia so openly, so beautifully.
Light is that, but it is mostly a record about love.
Of course love is “well-trod territory” for a songwriter, says Daugherty, and it irks her that many consider it a trite song topic. “For me, so much of my life is consumed by feelings about other people and interactions with other people, not just in romantic relationships but in all of my relationships, with friends and my family, and with strangers that I pass and imagine things about.”
On “Revelation,” Daugherty sings about her parents, imagining what it’s like to love someone over so much time, to know them so well and yet not really at all: “Someday I know the bonds that keep us will be broken. / We may outrun our bodies any moment. / And the mouth of revelation will not open; / I don’t know you—there’s no time.”
“Sweetheart,” is about a relationship that wasn’t much fun for her, that in hindsight is more toxic than it seemed, and what it’s like to belong to oneself once again, or for the first time. “California,” Daugherty’s favorite on the album, is about having to find a different way to go about your love for a person after your romantic relationship has ended.
Love is such a small word for all of the many, big things it means, and Daugherty will keep walking down that well-trod path because it is a worthy path to tread. Love is “something that’s endlessly interesting and mysterious, and it’s endlessly relevant,” she says. It is what defines us, what drives us and holds us back; it is the most important thing in the world, says Daugherty. Love is the light that we all move toward.
Many hands make Light work
Artist and photographer Tracy Maurice designed the cover and liner notes art for Light, and indie-rock fans have likely seen her work for Arcade Fire’s Funeral and Neon Bible, among others.
The album art’s sequence of spheres, some dark and opaque, some light and transparent, others evoking both weighty stones and gaseous planets, is a helpful conceptualization of contrasts present in the music.