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Honest Music, Navigating the Industry, & Life After Berklee: A Conversation With Julia Gartha

Read about how Julia Gartha transitioned from Berklee to living and working in LA, chasing her dreams as a pop singer-songwriter and hitting

Girl with Micro Braids

DECEMBER 6, 2019

In a world that is heavily filtered and carefully curated to showcase only our best moments, Julia Gartha’s authenticity is a breath of fresh air. The 2019 Berklee graduate has already written and produced her original songs ‘Can’t Change You’ and ‘Comfortable Being Used, which are a marriage of folk, jazz, and pop, her soprano riffs floating on the air over her refreshingly honest lyrics.

Julia radiates warmth and understanding through her music, and her vulnerability is just what the aspiring artists of tomorrow need to spur them on towards the greatness they’re bound to achieve. At Tatte Bakery, next door to Berklee’s 160 Mass Ave building, Berklee Groove Editor-in-Chief Ceskie sat down to chat with Julia about life in a new city, her budding career, and her big dreams. Remember her name - you’re going to be hearing it at the top of the charts in no time.

Check out her latest release with fellow Berklee artist, LEW - HERE.

Why did you move to Los Angeles?

Well, there’s a bunch of reasons. First I thought about all the different cities in the U.S. that I would want to move to if I wanted to use my OPT (Optional Practical Training), which I do. I was also thinking about what type of things I wanted to do and where I would fit in. I thought “okay, if I define myself as a pop singer-songwriter, I’m going to go where there’s a community of similar artists already, and LA is the hub for pop music.” Also, Berklee’s communities are already so ingrained in LA, so the transition of moving to a new city and starting all over again after four years at Berklee seemed a little bit easier in LA than in New York or Atlanta, because I don’t really know anyone there. Nashville was a thought, but I just feel like LA fits what I want to do more than any other city.

What exactly are your ambitions?

I’m working on my music, my artist projects, but I’m also writing. I want to be a writer—I am a writer—but I want to be writing for other people as well. LA seemed like a place where I could do both at the same time and not have to pick one. A lot of times people make you feel like you have to pick.

How do you get into writing sessions?

A lot of them are with people that I know, other people who also moved to LA. We’ll go to a session and then we’ll figure out who we’re writing for: if it’s for my project, or something for a pitch. Then we’ll kind of figure it out from there. I did a session last week with two grads from Berklee, and we had that conversation of “okay, what do we want to write today? Do we want to write for you or for others?” I showed them an idea and they loved it - which we ultimately decided to work on for me. Lately a lot of the sessions have been with Berklee people.

Are these people you knew anyway or people you’d been in contact with through your connections at Berklee?

Kind of half and half. For example, a friend of mine used to be in Pitch Slapped with me. I’ve known him a long, long time. It’s so crazy - the saying “it’s all about who you know,” is so true. I saw him at a party when I first got to LA and he said we should write together and we picked a day. His roommate and writing partner is a really good producer. He also came to the writing session, which is why we then started writing together. You know what I mean? It’s mostly through people I know, and then they’ll say “oh, I think so-and-so should come too because they can bring something cooler.” Every time it’s different. It’s a strange, weird dynamic writing together.

What happens after you come up with an idea?

We’ll figure out what our goal is, or sometimes we’ll just write to write. Someone will come up with an idea and everyone else will give their opinion and then you land on something you want to work on. I don’t know - every time it’s different. Sometimes I’ll come to a session with an idea or a melody, and then we’ll take that, put it into a Logic session, and work around that. Someone will be working on the session and producing a track while the two other people are working on music and lyrics, and then we’ll meet up and work on it.

Is there a specific role you typically play in that process, or do you work in different areas?

I’m really good at melodies - if I had to rank what I’m good at, it would be melodies, lyrics, and then production. So I’m not usually the person on the computer making the track, I’m usually the person writing.

How did interning in LA the year before help prepare you?

During the day I was an assistant to the writers and to the studio manager, but through that I did a lot of writing. I learned what the session culture was - how it works and its lifestyle.

Before last summer if I listened to a song I liked - like if Khalid came out with a song I would be like “Oh, this song is so cool! Khalid is so talented,” which is true. But after doing that internship it taught me to actually do the research. If I like a song, I need to look up who wrote it, who produced it. Who is this artist signed to? Who are the people working on these songs? It’s not just the artist. I got asked if I knew any female songwriters and I named Kasey Musgraves and Maren Morris. Then they asked about women who are just writers - which I couldn’t name as I had never thought that you could actually have a career just writing. You don’t have to be both, but I do want to be both.

Did you find any female behind-the-scenes writers after that?

I did! The OG one, her name’s Diane Warren. She wrote a lot of the Whitney Houston songs, all that old-school stuff. There’s this writer - it’s funny because now she’s also releasing an artist project - but her name’s Emily Weisband. She wrote a lot of Camila Cabello’s songs, and she worked on Danielle Bradbery’s stuff. Now I look more for those people, but before I never did.

How was the transition from Berklee to working in LA?

It’s good! Every day is different. The transition was between having a schedule you make for yourself because you’re in school and being the one to discipline yourself. In the beginning it was hard, but now it’s good because I can figure out the night before what I want to accomplish the next day and where I can fit that in. It’s a weird transition.

How do you balance following your dreams and making money?

I’m part of a talent agency called Steve Beyer Productions, and they feed a lot of talent to different restaurants and venues in LA and Las Vegas. They put me up at this restaurant and every night there’s live music. I play keys and sing at this place a couple times a week, so that’s my job. That’s at night, and during the day I’ll do a session and then I’ll have to leave at 5, go to the restaurant, do a gig, and then the next day it’s a repeat. It’s fun because I still get to play music and make money. Every gig you can pick what you want to sing, but we also take requests.

Looking back on your time at Berklee, what do you wish you would have done differently?

A couple of things. My major was CWP [Contemporary Writing and Production], but looking back I wish I had taken more songwriting classes, because I think throughout my time at Berklee I always tried to downplay the fact that I was a songwriter. I wanted to learn about more things like writing for big band and writing for orchestra, so I put a lot of time into that—which is fine, but I also was ignoring what I think my true calling was. I kind of brushed the songwriting classes off, so I wish I had taken more of them.

Tying into that world, I wish I had just taken more opportunities to write with other people, co-write more, and put out more music. I think now, being out of Berklee, it’s so hard to find people that you like and that want to play your music, whereas here at Berklee you’re surrounded by friendly faces, peers, people that believe in you. I wish I had taken more of a liberty in finding places to play my own music and record my own music, because all the resources are here: free studio time, musicians that you play with, friends that come to your shows. All that community isn’t gone, but I feel like I’m starting all over again. I wish I did that way more than I did.

Now that I’m thinking about it—not that grades aren’t important— but I also used to really stress about what my grades were, but looking back I just wish I put more time into my own art. Certain classes are like “as long as I pass it’s fine,” and I just wish I focused on things that were actually my passion. I guess it took time for me to realize that, too.

Was there a defining moment in which you realised this?

I was in Pitch Slapped (one of Berklee’s leading Acapella groups) for almost two years, and that was an amazing experience because it taught me how to listen, and how to blend. Vocal training-wise, it was the most amazing training. But I think after a while I sat back and thought, “what do I want to do? Is Acapella my path, is it the end goal?” And I decided that it wasn’t—my writing and my music was the goal. That’s why I quit Pitch Slapped, because I needed to put time into my art. The group had everything I loved in one place and all my friends were in it, but it wasn’t serving my purpose. I really wish I had done a lot more shows, too. I did my caf show, but I wish I had gotten a loft show, and booked more stuff.

Were there any experiences at Berklee that you felt did help you in the direction of your purpose?

Yes! My first and only Caf show (Cafeteria, a performance venue at Berklee), because that show was my first show ever. Before then I was always performed in other peoples’ shows, but I never had a show that was about me, my music, and people coming to see me as an artist. I was so anxious about that show and so stressed, but once it was over and peoples’ reactions to it were really genuine, I realized how good it felt and that I wanted to do more.

That was a turning point for me where I started to really focus on my music, my arrangements, how I wanted to present myself, what I was wearing, and what I was about. I really had to think hard about what I wanted to do. It felt good to focus on me and figure out what I’m about. You spend a lot of your time here at Berklee supporting other people and looking at everyone else, but that was the first time I had to figure out what I was about.

Who inspires you?

Julia Michaels, Joni Mitchell—all because the truth is within them and they’re not huge, showy artists. It’s all about the music first, and then everything else is secondary.

Music is the core! And you’d think that would be every artist’s thing, but it’s not. Artists are known for different things, but every time I listen to Julia Michaels or Joni Mitchell I’m feeling something, which is stuff that I like to tap into with my own music.

That’s what I respect so much in your music - honesty is the hardest thing to do.

I used to beat myself up so much because even in my last year at Berklee, I always thought, “Why am I not working on my music? Why don’t I have music coming out?” And then I was talking to you yesterday and thought, you know what? I just wasn’t in the mindset. I wasn’t ready. Now I feel like I’m making music that’s organic, and it’s real, and it’s right. And if I were to do it because I pressured myself, it just wouldn’t have been the same. I came to Berklee not even thinking that I was going to be an artist or a writer. I didn’t consider myself a songwriter.

Had you written before?

Kind of, but if in my first semester here you were to ask me if I was a songwriter, I would have been unsure when I answered—not shy, I just wouldn’t have called myself a songwriter. I’d say “eh, I’ve written one or two, but not really.” I only started describing myself as a songwriter in my third year, so it took me that while to assure myself that I was good at this and I liked it.

I used to be so stressed about what other people thought, and now I’ve decided to just say “I like it, and I don’t care.” I think that comes with just being out of this [Berklee] environment, too. It took a while; I just wasn’t ready, and in the moment I didn’t want to admit that or see it for what it was.

What advice would you give to people who are about to graduate?

Go to the Career Center! Seriously, it’s such an underused resource. I felt good about graduating because I had gone and talked to them about what I wanted to do, and it was just little things they did that helped massively. Getting my resume prepped by them, making sure my cover letter looked good, asking things like how did my website look, did I need cards etc. All those things you don’t think about in school are the things, the minute you get out of school, that you need to have ready. The amount of times I get asked at gigs if I have a card or a website is crazy. So for everything that needs to be tight and ready to go when you’re out, go to them. These people are gonna look at you and help you figure out what you need in order to thrive outside of Berklee. These are the people who are connected to everyone out there. When companies or labels want to connect with Berklee kids, they’re the people to go through. I didn’t start doing that until my last year, and looking back I should have done it even more. Definitely go to the Career Center, 1000 percent.

If there are people you want to collaborate with or people you feel like you haven’t had a chance to talk to—professors, older students, kids in your grade—go talk to them! Once you’re out, you’re out, and you’re in the thick of the community that you’ll be growing with later on. So go do it now, establish those connections now, because guaranteed you’ll run into those people later on. And be nice, because when professors in class always say “be nice to everyone, you never know who you’re sitting next to,” it is actually so true. You literally never know. You should just be a good person, and if you feel like you haven’t been, you should try.

How do you #getinthegroove?

That’s a good question! Every day I think about what I want. I bought a whiteboard and wrote down my dreams so that every morning I wake up and have to look at them. It also helps a lot saying what I want out loud. I never used to do that because I didn’t want to say what I wanted, but now I’ve made a list of goals—like writing every day or in five years, I want a song that charts in the Billboard Top 10. You know what I mean? If it happens, it happens, but I think I can totally do that. Saying things like that helps me stay focused, because that’s not actually far from where I am.

Julia Gartha


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