Julie Amici & Dean Mueller – I Loved You So
Julie Amici & Dean Mueller make Americana in the old-school sense. Their new LP I Loved You So is a thick, low-simmering stew of country, folk and blues peppered with subtle hints of jazz and gospel. In the last few years, this melting-pot of traditional American sounds has taken them from their hometown of Portland, Ore., all the way to Memphis, Tenn., where they’ve been recognized by the Cascade Blues Association not only as recording artists and performers, but also for their nonprofit work—bringing the gift of music to disadvantaged children, people with autism and the elderly through the Mudd Nick Foundation, United By Music and their own organization, Fly Me to the Moon, operated in partnership with the Oregon Music Hall of Fame.
The story of I Loved You So—the follow-up to their 2017 debut EP Yellow Roses—begins with Julie & Dean winning Cascade’s Journey to Memphis competition. “We started writing some pure blues songs for Journey to Memphis, and it really lit a fire under us creatively,” Amici says. ‘I Wanted You,’ ‘Sardines & Saltines,’ ‘Turn the Key’—those songs ended up being the spark that led to this new record.”
When it came time to refine and record the new material, the duo partnered with producer Alan Jones (Esperanza Spalding, Kelly Joe Phelps), with whom they’d worked on Yellow Roses. “I met Alan a dozen years ago,” Mueller says. “He’s a world-class jazz drummer and educator who learned by hanging out with guys like Art Blakey and Elvin Jones and touring all over Europe. Julie and I played a weekly jazz-standards program with him—we had such a connection that we invited him to work on some originals with us.”
“Alan has a pretty avant-garde approach to music,” Amici says. “He’s extremely knowledgeable, and has seen and done it all. While jazz is his area of expertise, he’s really keen on a good song—strong lyrics, relatable stories that draw you in. He helped us a lot with the lyrics and song structures. The partnership works because each of us contributes something meaningful. I write a lot of the songs, so I provide the seed, Dean is the soil, Alan is the water, and together we grow this beautiful music.”
For the sessions, Jones was on drums and percussion, and Amici handled the bulk of the lead vocals, with Mueller also singing a few songs and playing rhythm guitar, as well as electric and upright bass. On keys, they tapped Dave Fleschner, who’s made a name for himself playing with Blues Brothers-inspiration and Bonnie Raitt / Santana / Robert Cray-collaborator Curtis Salgado. And on lead guitar, they employed a rotating cast—secret ingredients chosen specifically to enhance each genre in Julie & Dean’s Americana stew: Mike Gamble played the spacier, more atmospheric parts; depending on the track, Alan Hager—who has also recorded and toured with Salgado—brought a traditional Chicago-blues feel or a slick Nashville sound; Thad Beckman handled the acoustic country & blues numbers; and Chris Carlson (Mueller’s bandmate in Portland’s Duffy Bishop Band) added his jazz-inflected chops to the mix, as well.
“Compared to Yellow Roses,” Amici says, “I Loved You So is a little grittier, more electrified, and sexier… I hope!”
“It’s definitely less wholesome,” Mueller agrees. “On the first EP, Julie wrote most of the songs, and they had roots in her childhood. It was very meaningful to her, and it was sweet because Julie is sweet. I Loved You So is more collaborative—more a combination of both our musical personalities.”
Julie Amici & Dean Mueller met on the Portland music scene, and started playing together in 2014, building their rapport on live tributes to Patsy Cline, Nina Simone and John Prine. Mueller—an award-winning musician who’s performed with everyone from contemporary-blues mainstay Corey Harris to the late legends Honeyboy Edwards and Pintetop Perkins—had just started booking a music series at the Lake Theater in Lake Oswego, Ore., and he and Amici played there regularly, developing their sound and a strong local following. Before long, they were touring up and down the Oregon coast (where Amici had previously fronted a six-piece jazz band), and throughout the Pacficic Northwest, including regular annual performances at Portland’s Waterfront Blues Festival.
“We work really well together,” Amici says. “I can be a little bit up in the clouds—that makes me a good songwriter maybe. But Dean has a more linear thought structure. He has great ideas, good contacts, he’s a hard worker, a good business person and he gets things done. We communicate really well, too.”
“And Julie is an incredible singer,” Mueller says. “She’s got a powerful stage presence, and the audience always loves her. From a songwriting standpoint, she’s super creative. Working with her has empowered me to write more on my own, too.”
Many of the standout tracks on I Loved You So embody this collaborative spirit. There’s the countrified trio of “Frame It on the Wall,” “Flannel Shirt” and “Daddy,” the hypnotic rockabilly vignettes of “Turn the Key,” and the heartbreaking yet silver-lined gospel-blues of “Read Through Tears,” which Mueller began writing in the wake of the Pulse nightclub massacre, and finished as more horrific mass shootings unfolded at a country-music festival in Las Vegas, a church in Texas, and a high school in Parkland, Fla. The song would ultimately become a tribute to the anti-gun-violence March for Our Lives.
“It’s a difficult song, and at first it was really hard to sing,” Amici says. “Dean was voicing his grief, but I thought we needed to add a little hope to it, too. I didn’t want the song to be divisive or to draw lines, either. I wanted it to bring people together, to shed a little light.”
“It really turned the song around when Julie added the verse, ‘Burn no bridges, draw no lines in the sand / Build no walls, draw no lines in the sand / Walk with me in the light, take me by the hand.’ You could see it progress from just being this deep anguish to, ‘What can we do about this?’ The answer is to turn away from hate.”
Julie & Dean use their music to make a positive impact whenever possible. This is achieved mostly through their work with nonprofit the Mudd Nick Foundation, United By Music and their own Fly Me to the Moon project. With Mudd Nick, they’ve secured grants for or an Oregon school district, bringing expert musical-enrichment workshops to geographically isolated and economically deprived students, who then get to perform professionally alongside their teachers. Similarly, with United By Music, they offer autistic adults a chance to perform music in front of an audience. And with Fly Me to the Moon, Julie & Dean bring the joy of live music to entertainment-starved senior centers. Their song “Blind Beulah,” from I Loved You So, was inspired by this work, for which they were honored with the Cascade Blues Association’s Back What You Believe In Award last year.
“Any way that we can give back to the community is very meaningful to us,” Amici says. “Any way we can go beyond the typical ‘I’m performing in a club now’ approach. That’s great, but at some point you have to look at the bigger picture, and think, ‘How can we use the power of music to make a difference in the world?’”
Julie Amici & Dean Mueller’s I Loved You So is out April 10.