An interview with Yulia
Russian artist Yulia Townsend was discovered singing on a local television program by Gray Bartlett and soon afterwards signed with Sony music. Yulia’s sincere delivery and rich voice took her straight to the top of the NZ charts with her albums, “Into the West” and “Montage.” Yulia has performed with classical crossover stars like Russell Watson and Paul Potts and recently made her US debut on the PBS special “Divinas.”
I found it very interesting that you have a mission statement about your music. Can you tell us about it and why this mission is so important to you?
Our family mission statement is to inspire, encourage and empower people to greater self love and the love of others. We hold the practical view that as Christians, the example of our lives may be the only bible some people ever read. So we try to live with grace, wherever possible adding something positive to the people immediately around us. Our music label ‘Oikos’ has a name which is the Greek word for the economy of the household. We originally had a vision for a classical crossover Motown. Berry Gordy started Motown with a simple vision too. We see artists as messengers that are born to inspire the world. The way we are manifesting our vision is to learn the kinds of help that artists need to get their message out. We have been doing this for some time now. And at one time, Glyn owned New Zealand’s largest privately owned music school so we have always had an interest in educating and helping others. We are using state of the art ‘cloud’ technology to help artists around the world through training and mentoring sessions. We also coach artists in critically important ‘soft skills’ like project management, time management, negotiation and how to apply emotional intelligence to succeed in the music industry. We think that it is important to be of practical help and to live our mission statement. We want to help artists to find their voice and to reach their audience to inspire, encourage and empower through their own messages.
You have had an incredible vocal journey from being told you sang ‘like a bear,’ to being discovered on a local TV talent show by Gray Bartlett and consequently signed to Sony. Instead of resting on your laurels, you have chosen to continue to develop your talent through rigorous training. What motivates you to work so hard?
Philosophy can help us to understand mastery. Here is a great quote from Bruce Lee about mastery, “If you always put limits on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.” The beginning of mastery is to understand and respect our incompetence and to begin to learn how to learn. When I teach other artists, the first step is to help the artist to understand that the artist does not know, what they do not know. Anyone with mastery goes through a cycle of awareness in order to grow. This growth cycle naturally includes the reinvention of self as we grow over time. Artists must find their voice, not just for the age they are, but throughout their ages. Who you are as an artist now will vary from who you are at a later stage, to some degree. And developing as a musician is the natural fruit of being inherently creative. If it’s just a job, then it is hard work. If you are creative, then you are simply being who you are, which is not work. It is living deliberately as the person you are.
Part of your development as a singer has been the expansion of your range from contralto to coloratura mezzo repertoire. Did you ever imagine you would be singing in your current range and were you at all nervous about the change?
I call my singing training ‘Find My Voice’ and this is because each artist has their own unique voice based on their physiology, personality and spirituality. One of the challenges that we face as singers is that people immediately want to define who you are as a singer. What genre you are. Are you classical or Pop. Are you high or low. Then you are told “This is the kind of singer you are and so this is what you must do.” From then on, you are caged into serving these limitations, even if they are untrue. Bruce Lee faced the same dilemma in martial arts. The classical styles wanted to define and control him, eventually creating limitations that in fact removed some of the beauty of the art form. Bruce Lee took on and defeated all challengers. To a degree I have done the same thing. The most authentic recognition of my development as an artist is to battle it out in front of audiences. In my last concert in Wellington, NZ last month I received two
standing ovations. If the audience validates my performance, then my voice has all the recognition it needs. Creating carbon copies that all sound like each other is not the path to develop artistry, but it is important to have a mastery of technique. We are often being told to fit into the limitations of teachers who want to direct us into a particular method for their own simplicity. And while this might be an authentic approach, this approach does tend to often funnel singers into the wrong channel for their voice. From a physical perspective, my voice has always been broader than coloratura mezzo soprano. I have a 4.5 octave range. However there is a ‘sweet spot’ in the voice where the voice sounds particularly more resonant and beautiful and this is a physiological thing as much as it is a training thing. This range from D3 to D5 is in the Contralto range. The sweetness of my voice in this register is partly why Sony had chosen ballads with melodies in this note range. I had always been able to sing across the extended range but I had never been trained. We invested in my total immersion in Russian/Italian Opera methods to make sure that I developed the richness of tone and the perfection of technique to improve the beauty and power of my voice for the enrichment of audiences. My motivation has always been to be the best story teller I can and vocal training is an extension of this passion. If you are being authentic then you should never be afraid of becoming who you really are.
Charity has been a very important part of your life and so far you have raised over $1,400,000(NZ). How did you choose which projects or organizations to become involved with?
Many of us have suffered sadness’s of one kind or another in our childhoods which become passions for us later in life. The influences I had as a child have become the passions of my adult life. As musicians are messengers, we each have a story to tell. Once we know our values and have identified our message, it becomes clear who our audience is. I don’t favor one charity over another, but rather as we experience an area where we can help, then we try to act out of good stewardship and pay it forward.
Since your first album was released, you have become a wife and mother. How do you think these changes have affected you as an artist?
I have released several albums both before and during motherhood. In fact we recorded Divinas Live at Chambord Castle in Paris with baby Leon in the green room hanging out with one of the managers for Celine Dion and the video producer for Andre Rieu. The most important thing is to put your family first, have the support of your family and learn how to be a family in the context of music industry. There are some lovely people in the music industry but it’s not for the faint hearted. The major impact of motherhood on me is that I have become completely disinterested with the machinations of music industry in favor of loving my family. This means we choose how we engage in the music industry as a family and we don’t let the music industry define our success. We do it our own way.
You sing in a variety of different languages (French, Italian, Maori, Russian), which is your favorite and what was the most difficult to learn?
Being born in Russian I already spoke Russian and Ukrainian fluently. However I have since studied linguistics at university and have a teaching level of capability and mastery of English. Being a linguist by nature, I have applied the same learning techniques to other languages. Glyn hired language coaches in each of the languages I sing and we conducted a large amount of research into the musicology and histology of songs to discover their true story and meaning. I sing in Russian, Ukrainian, English, French, German, Hebrew, Maori, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. I don’t have a favorite language. Because I am a story teller, my aim is to bring authenticity to the story of the song. So I will study the songwriter, the performers, the culture, the language and then aim to reinterpret the song so that I can share the beauty of the culture and story of the song with the audience. When I get it right, it doesn’t matter what language I sing in, audiences should hear the story in the emotive expression in the subtle inflections of my voice. Taking the time to master the language is also being respectful to the culture and the people behind the language.
Since you are so motivated to inspire others, do you think there will come a time when you would like to teach voice yourself?
Funny you should ask. I have been teaching and mentoring singers for years! findmyvoice.co.nz and onlinemusicmentors.com and
the Yulia & Friends concerts have been running for a long time. It’s only recently that technology has developed to the stage that I now give singing lessons and regularly mentor singers around the world online. Glyn has invested in state of the art technology so I am set up to help singers worldwide. It’s amazing being able to prepare a singer in London for a local concert or coach a singer in Wellington to prepare for a Christmas show. I love it. Because my husband is a brilliant trainer (he coached me!) and he is teaching me to use the kinds of technology and training methods that he has pioneered to transform the accounting industry in NZ and Australia. My aim is to further develop my training content so I can inspire, encourage and empower a generation of artists. And maybe we can sign a few to our label.
On the fashion side, what is your favorite type of outfit to perform in?
I love French fashion and prefer youthful, creative pieces. I don’t so much go for ball gowns. When we entertain audiences it’s about putting on a costume and inhabiting the role to present an authenticity to the audience. Ultimately you wear the costume that fits the message of the show and how you want to express yourself as an artist.
You have performed with orchestras and in more intimate settings with just a pianists or guitarist. Which of these do you like more and you feel better captures your essence?
Music these days is typically over produced, leaving little room for the voice to be the star. This is because most voices are recorded before they are well developed. Producers then hide the deficiencies of the voice in orchestration and in treatments like reverb and overdubs. I am very old fashioned and believe that an artist should be developed to their full potential and only recorded once the voice is good enough. Artists who push their music out too soon and end up failing only have their impatience to blame. For this reason, I develop myself through live shows, often performing songs live for months or even years before they are ever recorded. When I do get into the studio, the voice is developed to such a level that orchestration and production needs to be minimal and the voice can be the star of the show.
Your husband Glynn Mclean is also your manager. What’s that’s like?
On the commercial side Glyn is one of only a handful of people in the world that has launched an artist to an audience in the tens of millions. 51,000,000 people watched Divinas Live at Chambord Castle in USA and Canada via PBS and PBT TV. 9,000,000 Russians have heard and seen me through my win of the European Song Competition in Riga, Latvia. Glyn produces all my live shows. He is an exceptional live sound engineer, stage manager, producer, negotiator and musician. On the family side, Glyn is my soul mate, the great love of my life and a wonderful husband and father. He has dedicated years of his life, never taking any income for his work on my career and has honored every promise he ever made to me. It’s like he is my gift from God.
Looking forward artistically, what would you like to accomplish in the next few years?
Over the next two years I am focusing on evolving my artistry and music business around family. I have established the relationships I need globally to create and distribute my music to large audiences and I don’t need to rush getting albums out. I have complete control of this. I aim to raise the money to invest in owning my own rights holding and then partner with record labels and producers globally. While I am doing this, I want to develop other artists and channel them through my networks. And I am going to further develop myself as an author, inspirational speaker and educator to help artists find their voice.
For the latest information about Yulia please visit her website yulia.co.nz