Sometimes an album will come on to your radar that stops you dead in your tracks and demands your full attention. When we hit play on Juliet McConkey’s debut album, Disappearing Girl, and the the Virginia native’s opening vocal hits strikes a wonderfully haunting chord, we were hooked.
In fact, McConkey’s voice shines throughout. It lends itself perfectly to storytelling, whether personal or fictional, and the sparse instrumentation featured throughout the album’s nine songs allows it to shine. Disappearing Girl is an album that draws you in, makes you listen, makes you think, and truly appreciate the power of lyricism and artistry.
We chatted with McConkey about recording Disappearing Girl, several of the songs on the album, what she hopes listeners take away from it, how she’s spending her time away from the stage and more!
Pro Country: Who are some of the influences you’ve drawn on that have had an influence on your sound?
Juliet McConkey: I think that question will always have somewhat of a fluid answer, but for this record specifically, we leaned on Patty Griffin’s 1000 Kisses record and Gillian Welch’s Revival for sonic inspiration. As writers, they’re two of my heroes for sure, but from a production view, those records do an amazing job of being lyric-centric and minimalist while still being warm, full and unique. We were going for sonic cohesion without too much predictability; I was more concerned with giving the songs what they need rather than trying to mold to a specific sound or genre.
PC: At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in music?
JM: I think I was dreaming it up for most of my younger life, but I didn’t really decide to do anything about it until a couple years ago, which spurred my decision to move to Texas. I had just graduated after four years of thinking I was going to be a physical therapist and realizing my heart wasn’t in it. I also knew I wouldn’t commit myself to music unless I removed myself from my comfort zone, so I set my sights on Austin. I was enchanted enough with the idea of living in Texas that I probably would have moved here regardless of music, but “Live Music Capital of the World” sure has a nice ring to it too. It felt right, so I went for it, and haven’t had a single regret since [laughs].
PC: In 2018, you relocated to Texas and won the Blue Light Singer/Songwriter competition. What kind of validation does that distinction give you at such an early point in your career and so soon after moving to Texas?
JM: It’s always validating to have people listen to the words. It’s what means the most to me, so winning the competition definitely felt like a confirmation of, ”Hey, you’ve got a lot to learn, but you’re on the right track.” I think it’s always important to remember that songwriting competitions are subjective by nature and there’s always plenty of other folks out there who are much better than you are [laughs]. My goal will always be to get better at writing songs; bad songs can be sung pretty, but that doesn’t mean they should be.
PC: What emotions were you feeling as you were preparing to release music for the first time with your debut album Disappearing Girl?
JM: Aside from the obvious joy and excitement that I’m sure everyone experiences, it was a whole lot of “am I doing this right?” and “am I doing enough?” The actual making of the record was an incredible experience, and the only thing that went off without a hitch. As nervous as I was about working with the total pros that Scott Davis, Richie Millsap, Trevor Nealon and Steve Christensen, they put me right at ease and we had three magical days making beautiful noise and enjoying the hell out of Houston. I feel very lucky that we got to record just a few weeks before the world shut down. After that, I spent the next several months feeling like I was tripping over every obstacle I came across [laughs]. My catch-phrase for this damn year has been “No easy buckets!” That said, it’s not lost on me that I was fortunate to be making and putting out music at all. I have a wonderful support system, which is so important in this crappy pandemic year that I’m sure has been a lot tougher on others than it has on me. I’ve learned so much by navigating an imperfect process, and I’m very happy to have made a record I’m proud of.
PC: What went in to the decision to release “Hung the Moon” and the lead single from Disappearing Girl? What do you think it is about that song that has allowed it to connect with listeners the way it has since its release?
JM: At live shows (haha, what are those?), “Hung the Moon” was always a personal and fan favorite, so it felt like a natural way to try and introduce myself. It felt like the right song to let people know what they were getting into with me [laughs].
PC: “Disappearing Girl” opens its album with a ballad of murder and a missing body. Can you talk about why you chose to open the record with that song and why you chose to make it the title track?
JM: That song just felt like the right one to set the tone of the whole record. I chose songs for the record based on what I thought was my best material, and it wasn’t until after I’d done that that I realized there were similar themes woven throughout. My boyfriend, James Steinle (another great songwriter I’d recommend checking out) was actually the one who suggested the title for the record, as “Disappearing Girl” kind of perfectly encapsulates the different stories of unfairly obscured women present in many of the songs.
PC: “Tempered Hands” is one of our favorite songs on Disappearing Girl. Can you talk about the inspiration behind that song?
JM: The term “tempered hands” came from something my Mom said to me a long time ago. I think we were washing dishes, and she had the water much too scalding hot for me to stand. When I mentioned it, she said she had “tempered hands.” I’m not sure why, but that idea just stuck with me forever I guess. I was contemplating the idea that some folks are accustomed to situations that to others might be unbearable, specifically in a relationship setting, and came up with that song.
PC: You mentioned in a previous interview that some of the stories crafted on Disappearing Girl are fact while others are fiction. How important is it for you to be receptive of the stories of others and to be able to craft stories that are based in fiction?
JM: I think being receptive to the stories of others is just as important a life skill as it is a songwriting tool. I think everyone can benefit from being observant. My favorite songs are the ones that you can feel how the writer dug deep into known realities beyond the surface, whether heavy or whimsical, whether the listener ends up relating personally or thinking, “Holy shit, I’ve never thought of that before.” Upon reading that back, I think that was my super wordy way of saying “very important.”
PC: Do you have a favorite song on Disappearing Girl? If so, why is it so special to you?
JM: Another fluid question, cause that could always change [laughs], but I think once we wrapped everything up, I was kind of surprised by which ones were my favorite, and since being concise will never be my strong suit, I think I have three. “I’ve Got A Dollar” ended up sounding very different than how I used to play it live, and it completely changed the way I felt about the song. I always liked the subject matter, but we slowed it down, and Scott suggested that gently lilting rhythm that it has now. The take on the record is actually the first time we played it all together all the way through. It was meant to be a practice run, but Steve hit record and we kept it. So that one will always be special because of its moment of studio magic. “Good Times on the Horizon” is another favorite; I like a sad song with some rueful optimism. And “Like a Rose,” which I wrote about a week before we recorded and decided to add last minute. I just love the melody of that one, as well as Trevor’s gorgeous Wurlitzer playing.
PC: What do you hope listeners take away from Disappearing Girl after listening all the way through?
JM: Well I guess I hope they enjoyed their listen [laughs]! If they didn’t, I hope I was able to give them some food for thought. It’s a slow, melancholy pile of songs, so there was a fair bit of apprehension that the decision to release this kind of record might go over how it usually does playing those songs in a loud bar [laughs]. I’ve had the experience of a song of mine shutting up a room, and I’ve had the same song be hollered over. I gave Scott free reign for production, and I think he made this record sound exactly like it was meant to. I’m really happy with it and I hope it makes folks feel something.
PC: You’ve opened up for major artists like LeAnn Rimes, Kelly Willis and Jaime Lin Wilson, among others. What can you take away from those experiences that you can use in your own career moving forward?
JM: Those women are pros, and those opening slots gave me a little high to ride on for a while. When you’re accustomed to entertaining the corner of a restaurant or bar, playing those gigs is really fun! I’ve learned to be grateful for them, and I’ve learned a lot about professionalism from watching them.
PC: 2020 has altered most of the plans of artists. Of the things you can control, what are your plans for the rest of the year and going into 2021?
JM: My boyfriend and I moved out of our house in Austin a couple months ago. Neither of us felt right about playing shows right now, and sitting around in our house in the city was getting depressing, so we decided to take advantage of the extra time we’ve been granted, save some money on rent, spend some extra time with family and hopefully gain some new experiences along the way. We’ve been staying out on his family’s ranch in New Mexico, helping out with the day to day there. In the Spring, we’re headed to where I’m from in Virginia to help out on my family’s fruit nursery for a few months. Gigging may be taking a backseat, but the music making’s not; we’re just trying to make lemonade out of this year! Whenever it feels right to play live again, I’ll start putting my efforts back into that. We’re lucky to have family that was into the idea of us hanging out and working for room and board [laughs]. When we got the idea into our heads, it felt like the silver lining to this whole mess, and an opportunity we probably won’t ever have again, so why not make the most of it!
*All images courtesy of Juliet McConkey Facebook page*
**Juliet’s music is featured on The Best of Pro Country playlist!**