Q&A With Northern State's Julie Potash

The mini-profile of Northern State that appears in the November 1 issue of Westword springs from the following maxi-Q&A with Julie Potash, one of three MCs in the sprightly hip-hop act. It’s her second interview with the paper, but the first one to actually appear in print; a previous article intended to advance a 2003 gig was pulled at the last minute. (Read the previously unpublished offering here.) As a result, the chat builds on an earlier conversation even as it unveils details about several tumultuous years in the band’s career.

The dialogue begins with a discussion of Northern State four years ago, when the performers were assembling All City, their first album for massive Columbia Records, following the release of an indie favorite, Dying in Stereo. Along the way, Potash talks about the reasons the relationship with Columbia went south; describes a period of limbo that ended with help from producer Chuck Brody, who she and her fellow rhymers met during the All City sessions; and details contributions by the Beastie Boys’ Adrock and a subsequent deal involving Mike Patton’s Ipecac imprint. But she also weighs in on female performers who sell themselves sexually (Nelly Furtado comes in for some especially acute criticism); discusses the pressure she felt from certain friends and relatives to leave music for a more standard-issue occupation; reveals how Oprah Winfrey and Vera Wang helped determine the direction of the latest Northern State recording, Can I Keep This Pen?; and gets political when the topic turns to Hillary Clinton, on whose 2000 senatorial campaign Potash worked.

To learn more, elect to read on:

Westword (Michael Roberts): I interviewed you back in 2003 for a show that was supposed to happen in Denver. I wrote the article, but then you guys canceled at the last minute.

Julie Potash: Right.

WW: Do you remember what happened? Was the whole tour canceled? Or just the Denver date?

JP: The whole tour was canceled. That was years ago. I can’t remember exactly why, but I think it was poorly organized or something like that and we just decided not to do it. We had different management at the time, and we were a very different band at that time.

WW: Obviously a lot has happened since then. When we spoke, you were very excited about the work you were doing on the Columbia album. I think you’d already worked with Muggs from Cypress Hill and you were going to work with Pete Rock. You told me you were going to get him to autograph your vinyl copy of Illmatic

JP: Oh my God! Yeah!

WW: Did you do that?

JP: I did do it, yeah. That was a really exciting time. Working with Muggs and Pete Rock and we toured with the Roots and worked with ?uestlove on that record. That was really the best thing that came out of Columbia, and the reason we signed with Columbia is that they allowed us to A&R our own album, whereas some of the other majors we were talking to weren’t so into that. So we did, and we made a really critically acclaimed record. But unfortunately, by the time we returned the record to Columbia, they’d merged with BMG and nobody on our team was there anymore. It was like a real shit show.

WW: So that was the problem – the people who’d been your supporters were suddenly gone?

JP: Yeah. And we’d made a great record. It really did get amazing reviews. It was in the top fifty of the year in Rolling Stone and this, that and the other thing. It’s funny: We made this new record with Chuck Brody from Shitake Monkey. He produced the majority of the record. And we met him at the end of the last record. We were like, “Oh my God. This kid has this really great sound. It’s different.” It took us so long to make that record that we’d really evolved by the end of it, and we were ready to make more songs with him. We were like, “Oh, we met this kid. He’s the one, blah, blah, blah.” And they were like, “No, you’re done. You’ve spent all your money. The records over.” And we were like, “O-kay…”

WW: Did the company treat the CD as a write-off?

JP: No, I don’t think so, but it’s hard to really know. At the time, we were a really self-involved band. We self-managed for years and we do that now, and it’s been great for us. But at the time, we had a manager, and he was kind of in between us and the label, which never really worked for us. And we didn’t really know what was going on all the time, actually. I’m just really happy that time is over.

WW: Did it make things more frustrating because you were hearing everything secondhand?

JP: Yeah. We never really knew if things were being sugarcoated. So we lost a lot of momentum. But we self-managed ourselves into the best record of our career, with the best producers we’ve ever worked with – and it’s the best tour of our career. And they played one of our songs on Grey’s Antatomy two nights ago, which is really cool, and we’ve got a record that comes out in Japan on Wednesday. We’re going to go over there in the early new year. All these things where we’ve gotten ourselves back into a good situation. We self-managed ourselves into a good situation the first time with Dying in Stereo, and then kind of took a left turn that we knew might not work. The Columbia thing? We knew it might not happen, and when it didn’t, it was no great surprise, even though it was a great disappointment. But now we’ve bounced back, and I’m really proud of us.

WW: So when you’re self-managed, how do you get a song placed on Grey’s Antatomy?

JP: I think that happened in large part because of Ipecac, our amazing label. Do you know Ipecac? It’s run by Mike Patton…

WW: I do – and I was going to ask you about it. It would seem that would be the ideal type of label for you, coming out of your situation with Columbia – a company with an artist in charge.

JP: Totally, and it’s really interesting. We made the record independent, financed it independently, and Adrock’s on it, and that happened independently, and Chuck Brody’s on it, and it was really exciting in the end, all that collaboration. But we didn’t know in the end if we were going to put it out ourselves. Was it going to be a nice memento for our bookshelf? Were we going to sell it online? Were we going to put it out on a major? Were we going to put it out on an indie? We really didn’t worry about it until the end, which is how we did our first record, and that was definitely the best way to do it. When we were finished with it, we were like, “Does anybody care?” And some people did care. We talked to a couple of different labels, and then we talked to Ipecac, and they were like, “Oh my God, we love this record. Patton loves this record. We want to put it out.” And they sent us a deal the next day. That’s a really good example of the differences between a humongous major label that takes forever to get deals done and an awesome indie that gets everything done overnight.

WW: How long did it take you to get off Columbia?

JP: Like two years.

WW: Was it a big, litigious situation? Did you have to get lawyers involved?

JP: Yes and no. If we had really fought for our record, it would have been, but they weren’t going to give us our record back. When we kind of got the memo, it was a hard blast. But eventually, we were like, “Okay, we’re not fighting for our record. Just let us out of our deal so we can do a deal again.”

WW: You mentioned that Chuck Brody worked with you on the Columbia album. Was he on staff with the label? Or when you guys did Can I Keep This Pen?, was he an independent who was doing it because he wanted to?

JP: It’s actually really interesting. He did two songs on Jennifer Lopez’s new album, which I think came out last Tuesday on Sony. And what ended up happening is, he worked at Sony’s studios for years and years, worked on some huge, gigantic pop records that you know. And he ended up making relationships with a lot of artists there, and now that he’s an independent record producer, he works with a lot of those people now. He did J-Lo’s record independently, he did our record independently, he has his own studio in midtown, and he’s kind of killing it. He’s doing some really great projects right now.

WW: I get the sense that for you guys, though, he was involved because it was a labor of love on his part.

JP: Totally. We had all become friends from the Sony thing, and then he left Sony and we left Sony, and there’s always this kind of camaraderie among people who leave and go out on their own. He had done that, and he took a lot of clients with him. So we started working, and the first song we wrote was “Away Away.” He wrote the music, and I heard it on one of the hard drives one day in the studio, and I was like, “This is cool. I’m going to write a song to it.” The band was kind of on hiatus then. We didn’t know what we was going on. We didn’t know if we were allowed to make another record. We didn’t know if we wanted to. But then [Correne] Spero came over to my house and I said, “Hey, do you want to hear a song I was working on with Chuck Brody?” And she was like, “Yeah.” So I played it for her, and it had a chorus and maybe one verse. And she was like, “Can I take it home and rap on it?” And I was like, “Okay.” So she took it home and rapped on it, and Sprout [Robyn Goodmark] rapped on it, and we took it back to the studio, and he recorded it for free or whatever. We were just feeling it out. And then he was like, “I made this other track. Do you want to listen to it?” Like that kind of thing? And we were like, “Oh my God. Are we making another record?” And at the same time, we hear from Adrock, who we’d met years before at the Voodoo Festival. He’d done a remix for us of a Pete Rock song, which never really came out; Columbia wouldn’t put it out. I still have it on my shelf.

WW: So that’s why you were talking about something new for your shelf. You’ve got some really nice things on your shelf already.

JP: Yeah, exactly. I’ve got this great Pete Rock song on my shelf that nobody’s ever heard. It’s ridiculous. So anyway, Adrock was like, “Hey, if you guys need any more remixes, call me. I’m at home for another month,” or whatever. And we were like, “Dear Adam. We’re not on Columbia anymore, and we’re making a new record. Do you want to come to the studio and produce some songs on our record?” And he was like, “Great. I’ll be there tomorrow at four.” Do you know what I mean? It was that simple. And he came in, and it was really kind of cool, because Chuck Brody came in – he was like a member of our band. And so when Adam came in, it was the five of us in the room making music. It was very different from when we were at Columbia and we were flying all over the world and there were a million people up in the studio and that kind of ridiculous stuff. It was just the five of us in a room, making a song, which was really cool.

WW: You mentioned that you weren’t sure if you even wanted to make another album, and there were lyrics on the new disc that made me wonder about that. In “Cold War,” there are lines that say, “Everybody’s talking ‘bout getting married/Everybody’s talking ‘bout having babies/Everybody’s talking ‘bout making money.” Did you have friends or relatives say to you, “Well, you had your shot and it didn’t work out. Now it’s time to get a real job”?

JP: Oh sure. Spero wrote that song and those lyrics are really directly related to our lives and the time it took to fly around the world and put out this record nobody heard. And meanwhile, everyone we knew got married, had babies, got rich, moved to the suburbs. Know what I mean? And those were not the choices that we made. We made very different choices in our lives. And every day, my family, who made those choices, they’re like, “Oh, I wish I was you, doing this and that and the other thing,” and then sometimes I wonder if I should have gone another way. But I think we all have a really strong commitment to what we’re doing. We took our lives in another direction, and I think anytime you do that, there’s a little bit of feeling like, “What if we’d made some easier choices? What if we’d done something a little more traditional? Would our lives be different? Would they be easier? Would they be harder? Would we be happy?” But I feel really lucky all three of us are really on the same page about what we’re doing with our lives, and we were never traditional girls who wanted to do traditional things. That’s pretty obvious because of the path we’ve chosen. So I hope we can inspire other people to do untraditional things and make different choices with their lives.

WW: You told the story of “Away Away.” Was that the moment when you realized, “Hey, we want to continue to do what we’re doing, and not make the choices so many other people think are the wiser ones”?

JP: I think so. We were all writing music and writing songs and doing all kinds of other musical things after that happened with Columbia. Personally, I think I was in a kind of weird denial state – like, “Whatever. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. I’ll just be in another band.” And then I started a rock band on the side, just for fun. But when we started writing together again, it was like, this is it. This band is kind of blessed. We’re not the most successful band or the richest band or whatever, but good things happen to us and people support us and people get onboard. Like, Chuck D wrote about us in Elementalmagazine when we were, like, in the throes of nothing. It had been, like, two years since we’d been in the news, and Chuck D’s like, “This band’s good. I’d like there to be more hip-hop bands like this.” And Adrock’s calling us up on the phone and wanting to do a record with us. Every time we get together and do this, the magic kind of happens. Like when Chuck Brody said, “I’ll do this whole record with you. Fuck it. We’ll just work it out later.” That’s a huge thing coming from someone like that, and I think when that happened, we were like, “Wow.” So things always seem to work out for the best.

WW: When we spoke a few years ago, one of the topics we touched on was you feeling that you wanted to be a positive role model for young women out there. That sounds like it’s still an important thing for you.

JP: Definitely, although I think it’s a little less literal in our music now than when we wrote “Girl For All Seasons” [from All City]. But it’s definitely still there. I think it’s more by our actions at this point.

WW: So you don’t need to say something specific now. You get that message across more by the way you live your lives and run your career.

JP: Yeah. Actually, I saw Vera Wang on the Oprah Winfrey show talking about her new line, and she just sort of nonchalantly said, “I’m doing this with color and this with fabric, and I love turtlenecks, because they make a statement about coverage.” And I was like, “That is so cool.” She’s this really big, famous, very successful designer, and she’s making a statement about coverage – and what I think she meant was, I’m not letting the models walk around with their titties hanging out. You know what I mean? She’s making a statement, and that inspired me so much. It’s like, we’re making a statement about so many things, too, just by doing what we’re doing, without having to spell it out.

WW: In many ways, the misogynistic nature of so much hip-hop, and the exclusion of women in positions of power, has gotten worse instead of better.

JP: It has, and an artist like Nelly Furtado really bummed me out more than, like, a Rihanna. Here’s this woman who’s clearly a great writer and a great singer and a great performer and a really beautiful woman who was already so successful, and then she comes out with this new album with Timbaland about being promiscuous, and it frustrated me so much. It disappointed me so greatly, because she was someone who had it all and could do whatever she wanted, as opposed to, like, a Britney Spears. So that felt like a real setback to me – when an artist like that chooses to go that way.

WW: The new album also includes a number of overtly political songs, like “Cowboy Man.” Was that a statement you felt you had to make, given the way things are going in this country?

JP: Yeah, definitely. That’s a huge part of our lives in real life, so that’s why we put that out.

WW: I know you worked on Hillary Clinton’s New York senatorial campaign back in 2000. Are you doing anything for her presidential run?

JP: I’m not doing anything specific, like volunteering, because we’re on tour, and I think her campaign is probably being run out of Washington. But I definitely support her, and I also support Barack Obama. I think he’s a really exciting candidate. And we’d also support Al Gore if he decided to run. It’s really exciting to have two, and maybe three, candidates that you feel passionate about. It’s like, “Oh my God.” I really love Barack, I have to say. I’ve really paid a lot of close attention, and I have a lot of respect for him.

WW: At the same time, the political material doesn’t dominate the entire album. There are a lot of songs about your lives in general. Is that a balance you want to maintain?

JP: Yeah. But this record’s also a lot more musical, and I think a lot of the energy that went into attempting to writing really profound rap lyrics went into writing melodies and keyboard lines and guitar lines and tone structures and singing and harmonies and things like that. So I think naturally that’s what makes this record so good and so much better than any of our other albums. It’s really musical.

WW: Is there a song on the album that you think exemplifies the leap in development that you made?

JP: I think there’s a few. I think “Better Already” is a great example of a song like that. I think “Good Distance” is a great example of a song like that. I think “Mother May I?” is another example. “Away Away,” obviously. “Fall Apart” is another one. (Laughs). I’m naming every song on the album that has singing on it. But there are a lot of songs that we were more involved in the music than we have been in the past.

WW: You sound reenergized about your career – that this isn’t a one-shot thing, but a continuing project.

JP: Yeah. I feel really proud of this album, and we just got back from our Canadian tour, and it was really awesome to play music for people every night and have them want to buy the record. It’s great that people love what they hear and then they buy the record. This is a business, but it feels good to sell a product that I believe in. And when I sell people the album, I know they’re going to go home and love it. I know they are. I’m not just saying that. And they do.