Christchurch-born, Deans has creativity in her blood – her grandfather is painter Austen Deans, and her father Paul is a sculptor. At age 15 she was given a guitar, and a book on how to play it, and she taught herself the instrument. A move to Wellington in the 1990s to attend jazz school didn’t last long before she joined bands such as Banshee Reel and Fur Patrol. The latter coalesced to become one of New Zealand’s most well-known bands of the early 2000s.
When Fur Patrol went on what Deans told Real Groove was “a little holiday,” she found herself at an emotionally turbulent impasse, telling Grant Smithies, “after the collapse of Fur Patrol, I was physically, emotionally and financially spent. I moved back here from Melbourne in bits. I spent some time where I seriously considered giving up music, but that thought spun me even further down into the depths.”
Supportive family and friends helped turn her mental and emotional state around, and she began to craft a solo album, taking a number of songs she had written that didn’t quite fit the Fur Patrol sound. Some songs – such as ‘Hand On An Anchor’ from their final album Local Kid – had already indicated a new direction.
While Deans’s record label organised for her to record a solo album, there were clear signs she was heading that way. She was in demand as a collaborator and worked with Tiki Taane on his 2008 song ‘Our Favourite Target’. She performed solo with a jazz ensemble in 2007 at the International Jazz and Blues festival in Christchurch, testing out some of her own new songs that “don’t fit the Fur Patrol mantle,” she told Her magazine in 2007. ‘Little Survivor’ was one of those tracks, a song that, she told Real Groove, “sat in my head for ages. We … never knew what to do with it.”
Taking ‘Little Survivor’ with her, Deans recorded her debut solo album Modern Fables with producer/partner David Wernham in three locations: Melbourne (her home for a few of years), Christchurch, and Berlin, a city Deans adored on arrival. She told Rip It Up’s Helene Ravlich in 2010 that working on the album in Berlin “was a great excuse to visit a place I’d always wanted to”.
While recording in Christchurch at The Sitting Room, Deans also played shows at the arts festival, accompanied by musicians on the upright bass and horns, noting to Rip It Up, “It seemed silly not to apply what I’d learnt playing with these guys … and not utilise their incredible talent as musicians.” The recording process was affirming, a “more organic way of doing things,” she said, with ideas flowing naturally. Guest musicians on Modern Fables included Aaron Tokona (Cairo Knife Fight, Weta), and Karl Kippenberger (Shihad). Deans was also discovering her confidence in her voice, explaining, “I have been discovering that instrument on a whole new level, experimenting with my voice a little bit more.”
The recording process of the ‘Modern Fables’ album was affirming, said Deans.
Deans considered Modern Fables a “get myself-out-of-depression” card, and lead single ‘A New Dialogue’ set the introspective tone of her new career as a solo artist, while singles ‘The Wish You Wish You Had’ and ‘Modern Fables’ became staples in her live shows.
‘A New Dialogue’ was initially released as an EP with acoustic demo versions of songs that world appear on Modern Fables. The EP was well received, and the Otago Daily Times was complimentary, saying it “reasserts the songwriting prowess so evident early in Fur Patrol's career.”
Going solo was a bit of a shift for Deans. She told NZ Musician that “going from a democracy of five to an autocracy of one was quite a shock.”
Modern Fables was released to much fanfare. A mix of the subtle and the strident, the album was a fixture in the New Zealand album charts, with the title track becoming a classic in Deans’s repertoire. The album was shortlisted for the Taite Music Prize later that year, and ‘A New Dialogue’ longlisted for the APRA Silver Scroll award.
Deans supported the album with a tour around New Zealand, supported at various shows by Lisa Crawley and Marlon Williams. Though happy to be out as a solo artist, she admitted going out on the road supporting her new material alone was lonely. While she enjoyed the freedom to organise the sets, she missed the intuition of working with her former bandmates. She told Rip It Up it was weird touring without Fur Patrol. “There was no one yelling ‘come on, let’s go’ … I had to rely on myself for a little motivation when it came to making decisions.”
In 2011 Deans recorded guest vocals on singles ‘Devil In The Dark’ with The Nomad, and the synth-disco ‘The Only Thing’ with Tokyo Street Gang, telling Shane Gilchrist of the Otago Daily Times she “channelled Madonna/Donna Summer”. She was in discussions with friends Anika Moa and Anna Coddington to form a group, Allusionz, named after Moa’s mum’s old band. While discussions around this collaboration seemed loose, they were seriously talking about appearing at festivals, as Next magazine reported in 2011. Although the band did not eventuate (yet), Deans continued to work with Moa on a number of projects and tours, covering ‘In the Air’ from Moa’s Love in Motion album) on an album of covers from that record.
Deans was also part of Jon Toogood’s ongoing collaborative music project The Adults, which also included Moa and Shayne Carter. The collective started when Toogood was preparing a solo album, and took his song ‘Anniversary Day’ to Julia Deans to complete; the pair had jammed together previously when they lived close to each other in Melbourne. Toogood’s idea of a solo album evaporated quickly, with Deans, Carter and other collaborators (including Ladi6) coming on board. Their subsequent album, The Adults, was a huge success, winning album of the year in the 2012 NZ Music Awards, and ‘Anniversary Day’ was longlisted for the APRA Silver Scroll Award that year.
The Adults project with Jon Toogood, Anika Moa and Shayne Carter was a huge success.
Three singles were released from the album – ‘One Million Ways’, ‘Part of Me’, and ‘Nothing to Lose’ – plus a live session at The Lab Recording Studio filmed for an iTunes exclusive release. The core trio of Toogood, Deans and Carter toured the album in early 2012, and again the following year for a Classic Hits Wineries tour, as well as a live performance with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, later released as a special edition of The Adults album.
In 2012 Deans and Toogood were also approached to perform as part of Silo Theatre’s The Words and Music of Jacques Brel, along with Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Tama Waipara. It was a cabaret-style show in which the four vocalists presented the songs in different arrangements. Working on the Brel material was, she told Smithies in 2018, “incredibly all encompassing. I couldn’t just learn the words; you have to really climb inside songs like that. Brel’s songs are so big and emotional and dramatic – you can’t just sing that s... lightly.” Deans noted the impact of Brel’s work, which she initially wasn’t familiar with, on her 2018 album We Light Fire. “He had such a bold world view, and he wasn’t afraid to talk about things in song, which really inspired me.”
Deans rounded out 2012 with a new standalone single, ‘Broken Home’, a collaboration with her brother Sean, while The Adults repeated the orchestral experience with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra (APO) in early 2014.
A different role beckoned in 2014: musical theatre. Deans took on the role of Mary Magdalene in director Oliver Driver’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar, along with Laughton Kora as Judas, former Midnight Youth vocalist Jeremy Redmore as Simon Zealotes, and Kristian Abercrombie as Jesus. The APO soon called twice more for Moa and Deans. In 2015 they performed some of their songs with the orchestra under the title Divas. And in April 2017, Deans joined a raft of performers, including Toogood, Coddington and Kora for Bowie: Starman. In this tribute show she performed gems such as ‘Starman’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’, and ‘Five Years’. The concert was repeated with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra the following month.
In 2014 Deans also performed the songs of Joni Mitchell in the show Both Sides Now: Julia Deans Sings Joni Mitchell. The show was commissioned by Auckland Live, and premiered by the Auckland International Cabaret Season. It was reprised in 2016 as part of the New Zealand Festival, and again in 2019 at both the Taranaki and Hawke’s Bay Arts Festivals.
In the ‘Both Sides Now’ show deans performed the well-known and lesser-known songs of Joni Mitchell.
In Both Sides Now she performed both the well-known and lesser-known songs of Joni Mitchell, backed by musicians including Paul McLaney, and Sean James Donnelly (SJD). Her performance was not a tribute act, she told the NZ Herald in 2014. “I’m just singing her songs, in my own way, with a band. We’re trying to honour the beautiful arrangements she wrote, and the power of her songs but bring our own slant to it.” Deans admitted to not being a huge Mitchell aficionado, explaining “Occasionally, people have … said I remind them of Joni Mitchell, which I took as a lovely compliment, but I didn’t really know anything about her … it’s only been delving into this that the lights have really come on.” However, she became a devotee, and immersed herself in Mitchell’s repertoire, enjoying the structures and stories in her songwriting.
Continuing this theme, Deans took up the challenge of performing Billie Holiday in 2014 with the Lady Sings the Blues shows at the Auckland Arts Festival, along with other Holiday interpreters Ladi6, Hollie Smith, Annie Crummer, Whirimako Black, Ria Hall, and Camille O’Sullivan. Deans told The 13th Floor that preparing for productions like the Brel, Holiday and Mitchell shows did not mean taking on the role of another vocalist, rather it was “trying to take the words and the music of these amazing … songwriters and interpret them. Sing them from my point of view, whilst paying respect to the writer.”
She found the experience of taking on another songwriter’s work to be awesome, and her entry to these artists and their music was to listen to the original songs, and “[select] the songs that resonated the most with me.” Lady Sings the Blues was slightly different, as the set list was curated by Tama Waipara, selecting the Holiday classics ‘Everything Happens to Me’ and ‘Don’t Explain’ for Deans.
Singing other people’s songs was not intimidating, she explained. “Taking that piece of music and exploring it with your own voice … you can’t be someone else … that’s the beauty of singing other people’s material – it’s so subjective.” These performances influenced her thought processes with songwriting, especially her approach to lyric writing.
In 2014 Deans also toured again with Anika Moa, as part of their “New Hearts Tourette”, playing off each other, performing on each other’s material and giving spine-tingling, pitch-perfect cover renditions of songs such as Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’. A one-off performance with Shayne Carter provided another change to try out a cabaret-style performance. It was an intimate evening of song, food, and art at Lot 23, where there they played their own songs with a backdrop of Angus McNaughton’s artwork.
Further collaborative work included singing backing vocals for Mel Parsons on live shows in 2015, and she took a longer look back on her own work and career in 2016 when Fur Patrol reformed for a short series of shows to support British shoegaze band Swervedriver, Fur Patrol bassist Andrew Bain’s favourite band. In 2017 she was the songwriter in residence at Ara Institute’s Music Arts at Ara, and she collaborated with Paul McLaney on his 2017 album of Shakespearean soliloquies set to his music, the beautifully titled Play On. Deans performed ‘Hold On,’ and ‘The Lunatic, the Lover and the Madman’ on the album, and was part of the live performance of the album at the Nelson Arts Festival in October 2017. She was also one of the backing vocalists on Neil Finn’s 2017 album Out of Silence, and for the live performance of the album at the Auckland arts festival in 2018, again with the APO.
While performing in cabaret, musical theatre, with orchestras, and other people, Deans was also busy writing a second solo album. Long before the album was released, she had its title: We Light Fire. More outward looking than Modern Fables, We Light Fire (2018) was inspired by world events, the meaning of being human, and her responses to these aspects of life.
The ‘We Light Fire’ album in 2018 was inspired by world events, and the meaning of being human.
Initially, she wrote the album using old synth sounds, breaking away from guitar-based songwriting to try something new. However, by the time the album was released, some of the songwriting seemed to veer back to more traditional sounds of guitar. She played most of the instruments on the album herself – although musicians including Moa, Coddington, Waipara, Annie Crummer, and Nick Gaffaney appeared – and produced the album with Wernham in their home studio. ‘Clandestine,’ however, was produced at Neil Finn’s Roundhead Studios.
Well received, We Light Fire was called “sonic pointillism” by Nick Bollinger in his review; he also noted the spacious sound, and the “emotional impressionism” of the songs. Some tracks pointed to Deans looking for a fresh direction, while others such as ‘The Panic’ (about anxiety and depression) could have been straight from the heyday of Fur Patrol.
When touring the album, Deans decided to use women and non-binary musicians as support for her shows, and this gave her an idea of a network of female musicians around New Zealand. She admitted to the Otago Daily Times she was “delving not just into the songs they’d sent me but finding their other works and back catalogues online and getting a better picture of their processes and development,” providing a “treasure map” of artists and locations. Her own band for the show included Reb Fountain, MC Tali, Richie Pickard, and Jono Sawyer. We Light Fire was nominated for the 2019 Taite Music Prize, although Avantdale Bowling Club’s debut album took out the title.
In 2019 Deans was only marginally quieter, performing around New Zealand in shows big and small, playing solo shows on the West Coast, Hamner Springs, Napier, and Melbourne. Shows at The Christchurch Arts Festival with Burnside High School’s Bel Canto Choir (which she was once part of) and working with other Christchurch-born musicians including Flip Grater and Bella Kalolo were also important ways to connect with the community. Deans curated the set, and the songs explored the spectrum of love, loss and regret. There was also a show for The Crescendo Trust of Aotearoa, performing songs alongside The Lady Killers, and Sol3 Mio, as well as revisiting her time in Fur Patrol for the Prime TV show Anthems: New Zealand’s Iconic Hits.
Deans supported Pet Refuge NZ by lending her voice for their advertisement, and worked mentoring students at Napier Girls’ High School. She was a major drawcard at The Powerstation leg of the inaugural, female-focused Milk and Honey festival, performing with her band: Anna Coddington, Jono Sawyer and Richie Pickard. Also on the bill were Tami Neilson and Nadia Reid.
In 2020 Deans contributed a recording on the Mansfield compilation (which set to music the poetry of New Zealand literary great Katherine Mansfield: Deans sang ‘To L.H.B.’) and has been rising to a new challenge – opera. Relocating to the Hawke’s Bay for the 2019-2020 summer, Deans was working with Festival Opera and Project Prima Volta as part of Opera Cav + Pag Two Tales One Town, playing the role of the seductress Lola in Mascagni Cavalleria’s Rusticana.
Speaking to the Hawke’s Bay Today in late 2019, Deans admitted that it’s a challenge she isn’t taking lightly. “I knew it would mean a whole lot of work and a huge commitment from me … I’m just knuckling in and going for it.” The technique and physicality of opera and learning to sing without a microphone, she says, is her biggest challenge. “I will need to learn to use the cavity of my chest and my physical being to take the sound waves of my voice and project them … I have my work cut out for me.”
Hawke’s Bay opera singer Anna Pierard was impressed, telling Hawke’s Bay Today, “Julia is one of the most charismatic and artistic people I’ve encountered … I heard incredible extension in her upper register, and suggested opera might be a future project for her own boundary pushing.” The success of the show may prove to be a pivoting point for her. Whatever Deans does next is eagerly awaited.