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Small town artist, big time dreamer

human interest




Small town artist, big time dreamer

Julie William's commitment to realizing her full self

Reed McLaurin


Remember back in high school when you used to do things besides schoolwork? Things like sing, dance, play an instrument, or volunteer? But at Duke you just got too ‘busy’ to keep them up. (Don’t get me wrong. I’m just as guilty as the rest of us. I ‘did what I had to do’ when I stopped playing tennis and guitar.)

In a culture that normalizes hyper-focus on academic success and the pursuit of lucrative futures, those students who lead multifaceted lives stick out. From the day I met Julie Williams during our DukeImmerse: Uprooted/Rerouted program in Spring 2016, I knew that the warmhearted, versatile first-year had a unique perspective on her Duke career. I sat down with the accomplished junior to discuss her life as a Small Town artist and her refusal to compromise on her passions.

As a high school student in Tampa, Julie excelled in her classes, volunteered at a hospital where she was a former patient, and sang covers as part of an acoustic duo. She saw these three facets of her life—academics, service, and singing—as essential components that she would work to replicate during her college experience. In her first year, the Reginaldo Howard Scholar readily found success as a student and volunteer.

In her push to get involved in academic and service opportunities, Julie sidelined her love of music and singing. Going into her sophomore year she asked herself: “How am I going to get this?” First, she auditioned for the Jazz Ensemble and became a vocalist. She had heard of Small Town Records (STR), Duke’s student-run record label, but was nervous about getting involved. She had never made her own music or asserted herself as an individual artist.

But nothing spurs rash action like a deadline. “I was sitting in my bed, and it was 9 o’clock at night. I see something on Facebook that says: ‘Last chance to apply to be a Small Town artist,’ and it was due at midnight. So I just attached my Soundcloud and went for it.”

After being invited to perform for Small Town’s exec board, she was selected for the final round of auditions at a crowded Coffeehouse. The following night, as she stood in line for Hillary's midnight rally in Raleigh to kick-off election day, STR exec called her to say that she had been selected as an artist. “I was really riding a high and hit a really low low the next day.” (Same, Julie.)

Now that she’s on the inside, Julie has been impressed with the depth of support STR provides its artist. With its six departments—Music & Production, A&R/Management, Visual Media, Marketing, Events & Outreach, and Audio Engineering—STR has each aspect of an artist’s career covered. Julie has found these mutually beneficial partnerships between people who want to build different skills in the music industry instrumental in her artistic development.

“Take Me Home,” Julie’s single, is a perfect example of the STR process. Where Julie once found the songwriting process “daunting,” co-writing with other STR artists has “transformed [her] artistry” by lowering these inhibitions. Former STR President Serges Himbaza approached Julie with the first verse and the chorus of a new song he thought she’d be good for. After working together to find a second verse and bridge, "Take Me Home" was born.

But finding a balance between her 'normal' Duke self and life as an artist wasn’t easy. “The notion that you have to have one or the other is something that I at first struggled with.” A conversation with a childhood voice teacher helped Julie put her decisions in perspective. She assured her: “Both of those things are inherently you. By giving either up, you would be hurting yourself.”
Julie knows music will always be part of her life. Surrounded by so many people in STR who share her passion and want to support her growth, she is determined to make the most of her music career while at Duke. Where most students would be happy with solid grades as a PubPol major and Spanish minor, she plans to graduate with a full album in her portfolio.

Long-term, Julie wants to be in a big city that will let her continue to grow as a policy professional and artist. “I actually find a lot of similarities between my academic and professional interests. I like people to feel good when I sing. And I think the goal of people who work in policy is to make sure that people feel good, that people feel safe. If I can do both in both spheres, I’d feel complete.”

Somehow I think Julie will find a way to do just that.

If you're interested in Julie's music, check her out on the following platforms:

Instagram: juliewilliamsmusic