Nearly a decade ago, I watched Julia Bullock crawl around the floor of the Juilliard stage in the title role of Janáček’s “The Cunning Little Vixen.” A great talent had arrived. I kept listening: First, to her Joséphine Baker-inspired “Perle Noire” in a penthouse at Lincoln Center (and the tweaked version that followed on the main stairway of the Metropolitan Museum of Art). In San Francisco, I saw her in the world premiere of John Adams’s “Girls of the Golden West,” directed by her artistic soulmate, Peter Sellars. For musicians like Bullock, listening seems an innate skill. Her debut solo recording, “Walking in the Dark,” will be released on December 9 on Nonesuch Records. It includes orchestral songs by Adams and Samuel Barber, alongside voice-and-piano pieces by Oscar Brown Jr., Billy Taylor, Sandy Denny, and Connie Converse—and a traditional Black spiritual arranged by Hall Johnson.

I spoke with Bullock, who now lives in Munich with her husband, conductor Christian Reif, earlier this summer about her traditionally–non-traditional career path, what she looks for in artistic collaborations, and her then-impending motherhood (she announced the birth of her first child last week).

VAN: Can you identify the feeling that drives you to sing?  

Julia Bullock: There is a real joy and a pleasure in the act of singing. I feel it more and more now. It’s becoming so empowering and freeing. 

I took lessons starting back when I was nine years old. During the summer in St. Louis, a choir of 50 kids sang in the Muny, the city’s largest outdoor theater. In the winter, 20 kids would travel all over the St. Louis area and sing showtunes for audiences for free. I looked at it as a chance to perform. One of the women who ran it suggested that I take voice lessons, so I did. 

I didn’t practice. I didn’t appreciate what I was doing. I didn’t appreciate the discipline of singing. And the woman who was teaching me said, “The singing voice has to be totally natural. Your voice is not going to develop until your late 30s.” I thought: I’m not waiting that long for my voice to develop.

Eventually, I quit. I stopped taking lessons. I started taking lessons a few years later, and then I quit again. Every time I quit singing, I would write a letter to my teacher to tell them why I was stopping. Usually it had something to do with not feeling comfortable, not living up to expectations. 

I had a lot of trouble early on. Christine Armistead taught at Washington University [where Bullock studied briefly as part of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis Artists-in-Training Program—Ed.]. She encouraged natural, vocal utterances and release of sound. I went on to college and turned discipline into a negative. I took myself seriously. It became very intense, and I had issues with my middle voice. I was not comfortable—even with my speaking voice. I would put on this fake gravelly sound. I was not comfortable just living my life. This influenced how I sang. There was a tightness in my voice. 

I’ve gotten tools over time. I started to coordinate my singing, the mental directions I give my body to initiate sound. They are getting clearer. I don’t think my voice has actually widened. I don’t even know if the word “strength” is right; it’s a much deeper understanding. 

Now I’m in my mid-30s. The teacher in St. Louis said, “When you’re 36 or 37, [then] your voice will fully develop.” I also remember something Renée Fleming said to me: It wasn’t until she was 36 or 37 that she trusted her voice to just do what it does. My voice has come into its own more and more every six months. I can clock that. It’s the moment. Biologically, this is the time that coordination happens for a woman. You don’t have to fake musical moments. They are authentic human utterances.

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Could you live without singing?

Whether I’m performing or not, I will always sing. If you have the singer bug and you want to express with your voice, it doesn’t just go away. It’s been three weeks since I performed publicly and I’m itching to get back out onstage. I’m singing lots of songs to the baby [in utero], and learning some repertoire when I’m feeling up to it or when the mood strikes, when I really want to study. 

Singing has become the practice through which I exercise my desire to be conscious and intentional. I think I will always want to express with my body. I don’t know if that desire will ever go away. That seems to be a very human desire, if it’s not shut down. 

In 2012, you won First Prize at the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, which included management services, concert bookings, and career advice. Did that advice help?

Young Concert Artists was an amazing opportunity. My managers at that time said, “You don’t need guidance in your career, you need affirmation.”

I was 26 when I won that competition. There were times when I thought: I don’t want to do opera competitions, because I don’t understand what the hell the judges are looking for, or I don’t understand the vibe of the room. They made me very anxious. I didn’t like going into environments where I couldn’t understand the expectations or how to meet them. In that way, my route has not been quite conventional. But when I look at the other singers I love and their career paths—that includes Régine Crespin, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Shirley Verrett, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, Janet Baker, the list goes on and on… They sang what they wanted, when they wanted, and followed their interests and their intuitions. In that sense, my path is very conventional and very traditional, because I learned from those amazing models. 

"Singing has become the practice through which I exercise my desire to be conscious and intentional." @_JuliaBullock in @vanmusicmag Click To Tweet

The initial recital tour [with Young Concert Artists] did impact so much of my life and my career. I had to program what I wanted, and how I wanted the material to flow, and communicate it to audiences. I was programming recitals with different themes. I proposed one program to YCA which I thought was really cool, and YCA founder and director Susan Wadsworth said they wanted me to pick material that “uniquely reflected who I was in every respect.” That was coded language for: “You’re a woman of color with a Black identity. Do you want to do a program around that?” When I got the prompt, I thought, “Maybe this is the time for Joséphine Baker.”

In college my voice teacher had compared me to Baker. I was troubled by the comment [“I was first compared to Joséphine Baker when I began my studies of classical music in college. I was told that because of the way I looked, I would likely be asked to sing a lot of exotic repertoire,” Bullock has written—Ed.] But then I started doing research. It was a deep dive in YouTube and recordings, and reading a bunch of articles about her and watching interviews. I had no idea that she would become such a source of artistic and  creative fuel. It was a very conventional comment from my first voice teacher in college that led to the idea that Joséphine Baker could be a conduit through which I could express and explore some social and political topics from my being. I could release them onto a platform and let other people deal with them. Through the outlet of Joséphine, I wasn’t just contemplating my thoughts internally any more.

What makes you say no to a concert? 

I have not taken offers to perform when I don’t feel the environment is right, or if I’m not feeling physically and psychologically ready to perform the material yet. I’ve trusted what my body and mind are telling me. 

I talk about the body and mind as if they are two separate things. I don’t really believe that, but I don’t have the right word [for the two as one]. Whatever cues I get that this is not the right time to do something, I pay close attention to them. Also, it sometimes has to do with the people who are involved: some people I feel weary about—or I don’t have a great feeling about [working with]. You have to make a choice about the work environment you want to be in. Is it something  generative, is it something you can learn from? Is it something that you will learn from?  

Sometimes it’s a financial decision. I won’t pretend that’s not real. 

What has determined your choice to live in Europe now?  Do you expect to bring up your child in Europe?

We do plan on bringing up our child in Europe. We travel a lot. The child will have a home where we are, and we will have a home where the child is. I love the fact that we can ride the train for a couple of hours and be in a completely different landscape and a completely different place. I like the fact that I can take the train back to my physical home in a few hours. 

I never considered having a baby in the U.S. During the birth, the mother’s death rate is higher. Gun laws; gun control. It’s a difficult society for me to reconcile with at this point. It’s troublesome to watch from afar. In Germany, they are continually addressing their societal issues for real. Care for me as a birthing person is exponentially better. And not just care for me, but for the child and all children later in life. In the U.S., a lot of it is still based on individual drive and I find that really exhausting. 

My hope to live in Europe now is largely because of my husband and partner, Christian Reif. He grew up not too far for Munich, the city where we live. I knew that I didn’t want to live in New York any more. It wasn’t a restful place to return to and very expensive.

I’ve never really been attached to the U.S. I have been very troubled by it. I felt very tied down by all its hypocrisies. One thing my Texan stepfather said to me: “There’s a lot of performers who grew up in St. Louis who decided never to look back.” I said, “That’s about right.” [Laughs.] ¶

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Susan Hall

Susan Hall is an award-winning feature and documentary film writer and producer who failed as a pianist studying with Adele Marcus. She has published books on race in Alabama, an MLB baseball team, the...