Homecoming Rock Queen

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Fur Patrol frontwoman Julia Deans was back in her old hometown of Christchurch recently to play two very different gigs.

As Julia Deans sips her English Breakfast tea with soy milk at Christchurch’s Metro Café she admits to being “nervous as hell,” before her recent one-off performance at the International Jazz and Blues Festival, but not for reasons you might imagine. Her grandfather, renowned landscape painter Austen Deans, has shouted the entire Deans clan along to the gig – causing her more angst than any concerns she might be having about her crossover from rock goddess to jazz siren. “It is a bit intimidating to know the whole family will be there,” she confesses.

But given the rapturous reception Deans, her special guests Sam Trevethick (Shapeshifter) and Nick Gaffaney (Goldenhorse) and a local jazz ensemble received after the show, there was little for her to be concerned about. Possessing a remarkable voice, Deans’ range moved effortlessly from soaring falsetto to sexy growl, and she had no difficulty crossing into the jazz realm.

Playing mostly her own compositions and giving some of the Fur Patrol hits a new jazz twist, Deans also threw in a few surprises, with covers of David Bowie and Fleetwood Mac songs. But it was the old torch song, Moonlight in Vermont that perhaps best highlighted the clarity and beauty of her voice. “Given that we only had four very short but intense rehearsals, the show had a by-the-set-of-our-pants atmosphere, but it went fantastically well, I think above our expectations. The family was pretty delighted too.”

A few days later Deans performed in Christchurch again, in more familiar territory this time – rocking it out with Fur Patrol to a huge crowd crammed into the Dux de Lux bar to launch New Zealand Music Month celebrations.

Watching Fur Patrol’s music videos for Lydia (where Deans plays a scorned lover), and Precious (in which she happily seduces a series of unfortunates back to a seedy hotel where their ears are then sliced off by band members), you could be forgiven for thinking this is one angry rock chick. But sitting in the café sipping her tea, Deans is funny and sweet, and much tinier than she appears on the telly.

After a long hiatus, Fur Patrol’s new EP Long Distance Runner is set to the hit the stores shortly. It’s the band’s first release since the 2003 album Collider. Deans says the EP is a good teaser for their new album coming out later in the year. “The four songs on the EP are quite different. There’s a couple of noisy, rowdy little numbers, a mellower, softer song, and a dark little pop song. We’re putting the EP on myspace so people can check it out.” Deans wrote the title track for Long Distance Runner when her cat ran away from her Melbourne apartment. “Just as I was about to take him to the vet one morning he snuck onto the balcony and took off up Brunswick Street. I ran after him in my jandals yelling ‘Stop that cat!’ He eventually ran into a shop stuffed full of sheepskins, cushions and cane baskets – the perfect hiding place for a kitty cat. It was three days before we managed to catch him in a possum cage. I was having writer’s block until then, but he broke it.”

Deans says it’s been good to be back in Christchurch, but admits she is “such a dummy” when it comes to finding her way around her home city. “I get lost all the time.” Perhaps her ancestors had a better sense of direction. Deans is a direct descendant of early Canterbury settlers John and Jane Deans. “We had a family reunion when I was about 17, and all the family members were given a book containing letters Jane had written to her grandchildren describing her life as a pioneering woman in this brand new country. At the time I didn’t really appreciate the book, but over the last couple of years I’ve started reading it again. It is so frank and honest, and especially heartbreaking when she writes about her dying husband.”

Through her prolific songwriting, Deans too can be frank, honest and heartbreaking. When she penned Fur Patrol’s breakthrough single Lydia it became the anthem of ditched lovers everywhere and New Zealand’s most played single of 2001. The song catapulted the band from relative obscurity to phenomenal success. They won four Tui Awards the same year, including Best Female Vocalist for Deans.

Growing up in Northcote in a creative family, passionate about the arts and music (her father Paul is a sculptor and painter) it’s no surprise Deans ended up performing. “Mum was always playing music, listening to the radio or singing and I always thought she had a really lovely voice.” It was Deans’ grandmother who asked if she would like to learn piano at the age of seven or eight. “I fell in love with it.” She had a go at violin too, but “was never very good at it”. Then one afternoon, when Deans was 15, her mother came home with a guitar she had bought for $5 at a garage sale. “Mum was really excited but not half as excited as I was. The guitar came with a book of chords, so I taught myself to play.” Deans has never had a formal lesson and says she still plays guitar with a “vice-like monkey grip”. “I’ve managed to get through although I don’t have a good technique. I’m a bit of basher, there’s nothing polite about my guitar playing.”

As a teenager at Burnside High School, Deans listened to everything from Led Zepellin, the Rolling Stones and The Cure, to U2, Madonna and the Eurythmics. “Annie Lennox was a big influence on me – she is such an amazing, strong character.” After being accepted to study at a Wellington jazz school, Deans moved north when she was 18. Her studies lasted only a few months, when the lure to join a working band became too great. She joined Celtic band Banshee Real as a singer guitarist before breaking out to do a few solo gigs. All the time she was quietly writing her own songs. “I decided I’d like to record with a band, and had great visions of moving to Canada and making it big after touring there with Banshee.” She met drummer Simon Braxton, then guitarist Steve Wells, who said he knew of a great bass player called Andrew Bain, who was playing in a band called Svelte. “We had a rehearsal together and it worked really well so we decided to play a gig. Everyone said ‘why don’t you play another one’, so we went ‘Okay, that was fun, we’ll do it again.”

The EP Starlifter, albums Pet and Collider and a swag of awards followed. The band moved to Melbourne in 2002. Fur Patrol’s upcoming album is their first as a three piece, following the departure of Wells in 2004. “The album is being recorded and mixed by Tony Cohen who has recorded every single Nick Cave and The Bads Seeds album. He’s one of Aussie’s national treasures, and a unique character. He came out of retirement to do our album saying he leapt at the chance to work with us again, which is a great thing to be told.”

After Fur Patrol puts the new album to bed on its return to Melbourne, Deans is keen to turn her attention to a few solo projects later in the year. “I’ve written a lot of songs that haven’t worked within the Fur Patrol format so I’m working on new outlets for those, and I also like the idea of writing songs for other people.”

There are new frontiers for Deans to forge but that’s a quality she has in spades. Must be something to do with the genes.