Marin Musical Mompreneur Julia Norton

April 29, 2013

Julia NortonIf you've enjoyed any of the numerous song-filled offerings from Bay Area Children's Theatre, then you might very well already be familiar with the work of Marin mom Julia Norton, who serves as musical director for many of their productions, including the current Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Musical. She's also a composer, singer, award-winning recording artist, and teacher.

Marin Mommies caught up with Julia and asked her a few questions about her career, music, and what she and her family love about living in Marin. Learn more about her at www.julianorton.com.

Q: Please tell us a little about yourself. What's your background, and how did you get your musical career started?

A: According to my mum, I have been singing since before I could talk. I remember writing my first song with my best friend Lynne when we were 5 or maybe 6. It wasn't much to speak of lyrically and had lots of "la la las" in it, but we thought that if we wore matching pink cardigans, we might fool the public. Aged 8, I joined the village church choir with my mum. It was a 14th-century church and had gargoyles and gravestones carved in old English lettering. There I fell in love with early music, close harmonies and the dark and twisty lyrics that went with them.

After that I sang in folk festivals all around the UK, namely Peter Gabriel's WOMAD, and was the opening act for many of the most influential names of the British folk circuit. Despite this I still believed a career in music was unlikely, so I completed a humanities degree and sang on the side, I lived in Africa for a while and learned to drum, and when I returned to London studied Jazz for two years and became very interested in improvisation.

Ihad been teaching singing on an off since my teens, but was particularly interested in the relationship between the voice and the emotions. In 1998 I began a training in Voice Movement Therapy with the founder, Paul Newham. It's basically using the singing voice as a tool for expressing your emotional self and expanding your creative horizons. I completed my training in 2000 and moved to the Bay Area with my Californian husband. I am currently the only registered practitioner on the West Coast. Then, when I got pregnant with my son in 2001, I realized that in all my years of singing I didn't really know any lullabies. So I began searching them out and started teaching them to other pregnant mums from our apartment in Gerstle Park. Later, when the babies were born they came too and the 'mommy and baby sings' classes began. 

Q: What's your favorite thing about creating music for children and families?

A: When I was researching lullabies in 2001, I listened to a lot of recordings and at the time the market was filled with high soprano voices and electronic keyboards—not my thing at all. I reacted by making a little CD that a few people I know still have, called Acoustic Folk for Little Folk. It's instrumentally stripped down and has songs from Appalachia, England, Africa, and Scotland all accompanied by drums, guitar, penny whistle, and recorders I think.

In 2004 I made Lullaby Island at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. This is not really a collection of songs, as much as a baby "concept album" (LOL). You are lured in by gentle waves and told how your bed is going to transform into a little boat and take you to Lullaby Island where you'll be greeted by singing fairies. The songs are interspersed with bird song from the British Isles to give it a forest island kind of feel. Some songs are traditional, others are Victorian poems that I've set to music, others are improvisations from start to finish. I'm delighted to say it won a Parents' Choice award and was highly recommended by Mothering magazine among others.

Aside from recordings, I worked a bunch with Doyle Ott at Children's Fairyland in Oakland, writing and teaching songs for kids shows he had written and also Splash Circus in Emeryville. Singing live for kids doing circus was an insane amount of fun! They were so brave and inspiring. I'd love to do more of that. There was a period of time when I was doing a lot of "Mommy and Baby Sing" classes in the area, but I ended up getting so busy with other projects that I had to step back from that, which was a shame, because they were very sweet and I loved to watch them grow and change every month. I still do these occasionally for libraries, because I have a soft spot for children's librarians.

These days, aside from private lessons, most of the work I do with kids is through the San Francisco Opera Guild’s "Book to Bravo" program. Myself and a colleague go into a 5th- or 6th-grade class and help the students to write an perform a mini opera in 10 weeks! They do everything themselves, from writing the script and songs, to making the props and costumes! Even though I’ve now done about 15 of these operas I’m continually amazed by what they can come up with and how exciting the process is. Week five usually feels like being in a room full of spinning plates and I panic and think "we’re never going to pull it off," but they always, always do. Right up to the last moment they get stronger and more confident. Kids are pretty amazing.

Q: What musicians and musical genres have inspired you?

A: I have so many influences across genres but for brevity’s sake I’ll stick to my top 10 in no particular order. These folks have knocked my socks off either for their vocal quality or dexterity or their commitment to the emotion behind the song or both! 1. Ella Fitzgerald 2. Billie Holiday 3. Kurt Elling 4. Meredith Monk 5. Joni Mitchell 6. Maria Callas 7. Mark Murphy 8. Frank Sinatra 9. David Bowie 10. Edith Piaf .

Q: What are your upcoming musical projects?

A: I do a lot of music directing work with Bay Area Children’s Theatre, and their production of Knuffle Bunny just opened recently at the Freight and Salvage. It is a lovely musical and I cried every time I saw Trixie (played by Ally Johnson) sing "Aggle Flaggle," a huge tragic ballad with nonsense words. Mind you she is also dancing with a giant Knuffle Bunny puppet made by another Marinite Peter Parish.

Just before that I finished working with Sarah McKereghan and YES! at Manor school in Fairfax, we did a production of Alice in Wonderland with 64 kids and two casts! They were fabulous.

This week I have a world debut of a Book to Bravo opera version of The Prince and the Pauper written by 5th graders at Sts. Peter and Paul school in North Beach, in two weeks a new version of Peter Pan will debut written by 6th graders at St. Thomas More school, also in San Francisco.

I have also just found out that I am going to be writing a brand new musical for Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s 10th anniversary season! I’m super excited about that and will keep you posted.

Q: What are your family's favorite things to do in the Bay Area?

A: We see a lot of music and theatre, go to the beach, farmers markets and hike daily in the sleepy hollow open space with our little rescue dog Penny and play (and work) in the garden of our home in Terra Linda.

Q: What do you love the most about living in Marin?

A: The smell and the people! Having lived in London for years before moving here, I was really struck by how incredible Marin smells. You can almost smell how good it is for you. Yes, I have taken to hot tubs, but am still a bit scared of mountain biking! I love how close we are to everything, culture, wild open spaces, great schools, the Wine Country!

But I think I have to say that more than anywhere else I have ever lived, I have never experienced such an incredible sense of community as I do in Terra Linda. We socialize with our neighbors regularly and the mommy friends I have here make my busy rehearsal and teaching life possible, they are great women and so incredibly supportive. My husband recently started working at Telltale Games, also in the neighborhood, so he has been able to trade in his three-hour daily commute to Redwood Shores, for a before-school bike ride with our 10 year old son. Wow, that has been a game changer. These days I can’t imagine living anywhere else!