Thirty years ago GARY STEEL met David Lynch’s Twin Peaks musical muse, Julee Cruise. For the first time, here’s the encounter in full.
Twin Peaks changed everything. Before it first screened in 1990, television dramas largely existed as ratings-driven filler between ads. Film director David Lynch’s innovative dark drama led the way to award-winning HBO dramas like The Sopranos and ultimately, the renaissance in quality small screen viewing the streaming revolution has placed in our homes today.
I was already a Lynch fan-boy, of course. Eraserhead! Elephant Man! Blue Velvet! Who could deny that trio of unfettered brilliance? And one of the key elements that drew me to Lynch-world was the sound design together with his bizarrely skewed choice of music.
Would you like to support our mission to bring intelligence, insight and great writing to entertainment journalism? Help to pay for the coffee that keeps our brains working and fingers typing just for you. Witchdoctor, entertainment for grownups. Your one-off (or monthly) $5 or $10 donation will support Witchdoctor.co.nz. and help us keep producing quality content. It’s really easy to donate, just click the ‘Become a supporter’ button below.
By the time he got to make Twin Peaks (1990), Lynch had already figured out the alluring power of using creepy, nostalgic crooners to twisted ends in Blue Velvet (1986), where theatrical singer Julee E. Cruise had already been utilised as a stand-in for a song they couldn’t get the rights to. The story goes that Lynch had wanted to use This Mortal Coil’s version of Tim Buckley’s ‘Song To The Siren’ in Blue Velvet, but couldn’t get the rights to it. So instead, Lynch and Badalamenti wrote ‘Mysteries Of Love’ and got Cruise to sing it.
By 1989, with his creative juices in overdrive, and his collaborative union with orchestrator Angelo Badalamenti at its most productive, Lynch had made Julee Cruise into a larger than life character with her own album, Floating Into The Night. It was a kind of precursor to Twin Peaks and featured a vocal version of the show’s theme tune. Cruise would appear on the show along with several of the songs.
It’s hard to tell whether Floating Into The Night and its eventual sequel The Voice Of Love (1993) are responsible for inspiring the fairly recent dream-pop genre or whether it’s just a happy accident. Equally probable is that it caught its ambient drift from the group that inspired Lynch and Badalamenti to “create” Julee Cruise, 1980s UK group the Cocteau Twins (aka This Mortal Coil). Whatever the case, Floating Into The Night stands as a real achievement and is still just as haunting (and haunted) as it was in 1989. And for any Twin Peaks fans it’s a necessary acquisition.
Was she just a hired part? Certainly, Lynch and Badalamenti gave the project its creative impetus and very specific mood, but singing always is a theatrical exercise and Cruise inhabits her character completely; and her fragile-sounding vocals give the tunes exactly the lift they require. So whether she was truly collaborative or simply told what to sing and how to sing it is a moot point. She’s the singer. She did that.
I don’t remember exactly how Cruise’s New Zealand promo visit took place or why, given the fact that the album wasn’t exactly new at the time. Maybe it was the imminent arrival of Twin Peaks on our screens, but in March 1991 had that even arrived in NZ yet? The fact it’s not discussed in the interview means that was unlikely.
In reading more recent interviews with Cruise I gather that she has somewhat of a reputation for being feisty, if not downright prickly. My overall impression of that long-ago encounter was that she was really sweet. She was certainly gracious enough to sign my CD!
Note: Some of my questions seem a little arbitrary. I went through a long phase where I couldn’t be bothered copying them down properly when I was transcribing. After all, I was mostly interested in her quotes for integration into a story, and it was never intended as a Q&A. There’s also some odd banter towards the end about being a negative person and a biting dog. I have no idea what that was about, but may have been alluding to a biographical detail on a press release.
Gary Steel – How do you handle this constant press attention?
Julee Cruise – Oh, I like it! I thought that you just recorded an album and go onto your next show, and I didn’t realise that you actually go round and go to different countries and stuff. So the album’s been out in the States since 1989, and it’s been out here for, what… eight months? That’s sort of a long time to pass, for an album to be out, but it’s been like a slow burn. This is sort of it right now. I wanna go home and do a second album, because I’ve done nothing but interviews for like two years.
Gary – The album’s hugely successful in the States and England…
Julee – It’s more successful in England. English charts are the weirdest thing. I can’t make heads nor tails of it. Have you ever heard English radio? No? Oh GOD, there’s no format, there’s all kinds of things. Radio played it constantly. It went all the way across.
Gary – It must be strange talking about a record that you did so long ago.
Julee – It doesn’t feel that long ago. I perform it now so it’s taken on a much richer dimension. I think if I hadn’t have been performing this stuff, then I would be very stale. I think I know what’s going on with music better now than I did when I just stumbled through it.
Gary – It must be hard to keep that level of control when you’re performing it live. Do you feel like bursting out into song occasionally?
Julee – No, not anymore. Now I’m so locked into this. The hardest thing to do is to remain calm, when you’re very nervous. It’s such quiet stuff, it forces you to be calm. It’s a blessing in disguise because it makes me concentrate.
Gary – Is it restrictive?
Julee – I don’t make any money doing this. I think we’ve put just about as much money in as we’ve made. Accounting hasn’t happened yet, but I haven’t made a dime. I do plays and musicals and a lot of television commercials, which is extremely good because you get paid every time it’s on TV. The play that I’m doing at Manhattan Theatre Club is just as challenging as this in a way. She’s a real broad character and she’s slightly psychotic. I need both to keep going. This business is so fickle. I’m as fickle as anyone else.
Gary – You could get sick of playing this part.
Julee – I don’t know if I’ll get sick of playing this part. I don’t know if this part will work much longer past this second album. The second album’s going to be fabulous because we’ve already made a niche for myself and we really know what we’re doing now whereas before I don’t know if we did. We were stumbling in the dark in a way. We just had to base the whole album on ‘Mysteries Of Love’ and David hadn’t done it and Angelo hadn’t done it and I hadn’t done it before. Now we’re sort of locked into something and our limits are much more expanded.
Gary – Have you actually started yet?
Julee – Not yet. Angelo played me a Latino thing over the phone this morning. I’m doing a duet with Chris Isaak and a James Brown cover. There’s so many different ideas that have been thrown up there. They could make the whole thing Latino. I honestly don’t know. It might be an album about… in every song somebody’s trying to kill me. (Laughs). She’s sort of a character that you want to kill.
Gary – She was just about to die at the end of the first one wasn’t she?
Julee – (Furious giggling).
Gary – Was the concept of the first one an intentional thing?
Julee – I think it’s more and more disturbed as it goes on. It’s not as depressing as disturbing. There are certain albums that are really, really good to play when you’re depressed, because I like to get into any emotion that I have and keep it as long as I can because I flit, go from one thing to the other. When I’m depressed I like to play music to my depression (laughs). David is really trying to convey a romantic approach to the lyrics, and the music is very romantic, an Italian background, dramatic but simple melody, and the voice is really detached from that. If I went after it dramatically, if I ‘sang’ it, it wouldn’t work.
Gary – When you’re recording, is it very much the three of you together, thinking and working as you go?
Julee – The lyrics are usually written first, and then the melody line, and everything else is completely done in the studio, so we have many tracks of different orchestrations that weren’t there, that we took out, added something else. There are tracks of different instruments to add different colours. I certainly scream and yell when I don’t think it’s right, and the Duane Eddy sound was David’s idea. David has great ideas about orchestration when he doesn’t even know much about music. He has some really cool ideas.
Gary – The more weird, avant garde touches, is that Angelo?
Julee – That’s David. You mean like the ‘ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-bah’? We had this beautiful song all done, and he blurted out ‘we have to have something Wagner in there!’ This is how he talks, and this is how we interpreted it. And we play it and he says ‘bigger!’ and that’s how the process works.
Gary – When you get back you’re launching into the second one.
Julee – People are pushing us, we have to hurry. It’s nice having David, especially now that David’s so powerful, because the record company stays off your back. (She starts talking about music seminars in which people pay to see musicians talking about how they got into the music business). Oh, hang on, I got way off the point, sorry.
Gary – Don’t worry, I’m like that before my first coffee.
Julee – Can I get you some coffee or tea? Gee I’m sorry. Typical American. I drink far too much coffee. The coffee in the States is real weak, terrible coffee, it’s like water. I make it at home. This stuff I just keep drinking it all day long and my hair keeps getting bigger and bigger.
Gary – One story I saw said you smoked up to 60 cigarettes a day.
Julee – More. I was a big smoker. I always had a cigarette burning. An insecure female that needed a ‘thing’ to show that I was cool. I started smoking when I was pretty old, too. I knew better, I was at college. I had to quit for a number of reasons but the main reason was because I recorded the album, and I was smoking three packs a day, and I had a cigarette in my hand when I recorded the whole thing. It didn’t bother anyone but me. And then I’d try to control myself. I’d tell the assistant engineer, ‘here’s my cigarettes, don’t give me one until 3 o’clock’, and I was so disgusted with myself that I just decided to quit, and I came in one day and said ‘guys, I’m quitting on Monday’. And then I felt, “I just told David Lynch that I’m quitting on Monday, I’ve got to go through with it.’. So I quiet. This was two-and-a-half years ago. Now I don’t think about it.
Gary – Did it used to affect your voice?
Julee – Yeah, yeah! I sounded like Debra Winger. I was singing so much on stage, belting, and that’s really hard on your voice. Then I got into this show called Beehive, and for some reason Janis Joplin was the only role open, and I… there’s an art to doing that. Robert Plant, how does he do it? But I can’t do it naturally. So I just screamed. And I pretty much got to the point where my voice did sound like hers and I didn’t have to alter it. But I couldn’t sing anything else and my vocal chords started bleeding. I ulcerated my vocal chords. I had 14 shows a week.
Gary – How did you get it back into that angelic sounding voice on the record?
Julee – I had to be quiet for about 6 weeks, not say a word and just carry a notepad around. Lots of exclamation points. It was an experience to be completely silent and not be allowed to laugh. When I laughed a squeak would come out. It was awful and I felt like a part of my heart had been ripped out and I was considering… what am I gonna do now? I can’t even act.
Gary – Has your voice improved?
Julee – I wanted to record the album again because the voice is ‘off’ in places, and it bothers me. I guess no-one else has noticed. In order to sing this live my voice has to be in perfect shape.
Gary – For the most part your other career is acting or singing?
Julee – Broadway, theatre is what I’m known for in New York. They’re having a hard time accepting this ‘hobby’ of mine with Warner Brothers, they’re such a stuffy group. And everyone else is like, ‘you’re a belter?’ So it’s a weird world. But I’ll be doing Broadway when I’m 65, I won’t be doing this. So why not go for this while I can? What happened with David and Twin Peaks is something that I never dreamed of happening. This is like a lucky star, a bonus that comes along once in a lifetime, it’s great. But you can’t bank on it, I’m not making a career out of this. But I’ve certainly learned a lot musically, and my voice is a lot better for doing this, so it’s a cool thing, I like it. I’m prepared for it to be over, too. And that’s the hard part. I think a lot of people get real successful 25 to 27 and then it stops because you get real popular. I don’t even read the articles now. My husband goes through them and sends the pictures to my Mum. Nothing from the English press, though. It wouldn’t look good for her friends. There are certain things that I send home.
Gary – You don’t send the things about biting the dog…
Julee – No, but that’s a classic in our family. Every time we get together someone brings that up. I’m the youngest so I get picked on but I’m also kinda bossy…
Gary – Are you still a nasty person?
Julee – I’m the angry terror that runs behind the toilet, showing its teeth. Last week I said ‘I’m not doing this interview first thing in the morning.’ I threw my suitcase down and did the drama trip and then got in the car and said, ‘I’ll do it, it’s okay’. I’ve got a temper but it lasts about a minute.
Gary – What about this incredibly negative person that you portray yourself as?
Julee – Negative? I’m not negative. I’m cornpone. There’s like an inferiority complex going on somewhere, and voices going on that tell you that ‘this isn’t you that every likes, you’re just doing this thing with David Lynch.’ There’s voices like this and you can’t tell me you haven’t got ‘em. Everybody’s got ‘em. And if they don’t have ‘em they’re insane. So I just vocalise it, make the article interesting. I’m pretty happy right now. I’ve a real cool husband, and he’s really fun. I have an old dog and… I’m having a blast right now. I don’t like being away from home that much, this trip… It puts a knot in your stomach, you miss your bed, you miss your home. For the most part, this is great.