Bluebook Emerges From the Darkness With Optimistic Voices

Bluebook celebrates the release of Optimistic Voices at hi-dive on Saturday, February 12.
Bluebook celebrates the release of Optimistic Voices at hi-dive on Saturday, February 12. Rett Rogers, Douglas Spencer and Hayley Helmericks
Julie Davis started Bluebook as a solo project nearly two decades ago, singing and playing upright bass over beats and loops. But over the last five years, Bluebook has grown into a quartet with the addition of a trio of local music veterans: keyboardist Jess Parsons of the indie-folk duo Glowing House; drummer Hayley Helmericks, former frontwoman of Monofog and Snake Rattle Rattle Snake; and, most recently, guitarist Anna Morsett of the Still Tide. All three musicians also add stunning vocals.

Davis, who’s worked with Nathaniel Rateliff, Gregory Alan Isakov, Ian Cooke and many others, didn’t recruit the three to be part of Bluebook. "We forced ourselves upon her,” jokes Helmericks, adding that they were all big fans of Davis’s music.

And they keep the music going. “Honestly, I keep wanting to quit," Davis admits, "and the only reason I don't quit is because I'm like, ‘These women are so good. I have these three brilliant frontwomen who are gorgeous singers, mistresses of their instruments, songwriters who are supporting this project' — and that's keeping me from blowing it up."

While Bluebook’s last release, 2018's The Astronaut’s Wife, features just Davis and Parsons, its new album, Optimistic Voices, is the first as a four-piece. Bluebook will celebrate the release with a show at the hi-dive on Saturday, February 12.

“I think the real thing about this album — the most moving thing about it — is the energy that comes from the band,” Davis says. “And that is very true to the way that the arranging and the process of putting the songs together happened. I wouldn't have been able to do this without these women. As soon as they started adding stuff to it, it just became better. The keyboard parts and the drums, and when Anna joined us and then we realized how much treble we were missing. We had no treble at all.”

Before Morsett joined, Davis notes, there was a lot of low end from Davis’s upright bass, the tom drums and Parsons’s keyboard, which all played into Bluebook’s dark soundscape. Although the new album is called Optimistic Voices, that signature darkness is still embedded in the lyrics, as Davis was dealing with depression when she wrote some of the new songs. But Parsons’s harmonies and Morsett’s guitar playing add a lighthearted contrast.

Morsett’s guitar parts "are very soaring and reaching out of that darkness,” Davis says. “I didn’t feel that was possible, and that kind of gives this new complexity that I didn’t hear before. Having Anna creating this counterpoint, it makes the songs richer and almost illuminates some of that tension between the major chords and the darkness of the lyrics. I just feel it was this missing piece that we didn’t know we needed. I’m so excited about all the layers on there."

When writing lyrics for the album, Davis says she delved deep into her mind, exposing her fears that she had wasted precious time. She had been ruminating over regrets, desperate to change what cannot be changed and to control that which cannot be controlled.
She initially thought about opening the album with Bluebook’s dreamy take on “Optimistic Voices,” first sung in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz as Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow skip to the Emerald City. “I like to open sets with that song,” Davis says. "I feel like it's very dramatic; it's almost like a palate cleanser or something.”

But both James Barone, who recorded, produced and mixed the album, and Davis’s husband, Joseph Pope III (bassist for Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats), suggested moving it to the end, after the song “Paperwhites.”

“My grandmother always sends me a box [of paperwhite flower bulbs] for Christmas," Davis says. "Last year, I was so depressed I couldn't even open the box. When I finally did open it in January, they had already started growing in the box." She was struck by how the paperwhites grew in the darkness.

“It’s like they had hope that whatever they were reaching for was actually there, even though they couldn't see. They had this faith,” Davis reflects. “And I wanted that for myself. So when we ended up putting those two songs together at the end, I started to see how even though I’m full of regret and I've wasted so much time and I'm sad, it's what's inside of me [that I'm] struggling and fighting with. And the album ends on an optimistic note.”

The Wizard of Oz was released as war was spreading across Europe, and the peppy original recording of “Optimistic Voices" — with lines like, “Step into the sun/Step into the light” — was quite a contrast to the looming darkness of the war.

“We are in a very dark time, as we all know,” Davis says of today's times. “It's such a beautiful song and I think no one often listens to the lyrics or thinks about them because it's so fast and it's so silly.”

The impetus for writing the other songs on Optimistic Voices was simple: Davis didn’t want to keep performing older material. With a goal of writing a new album before the winter solstice, Davis went to Santa Fe in October 2020 and penned five songs anchored by piano chords that Parsons had shown her, rather than building around bass lines, as she had previously done. In addition to Davis playing more electric bass, the album marks a departure from loops, which had been a facet of Bluebook’s music from the beginning.

“I think that having the live drums made it breathe more and [be] more alive,” Davis says. Helmericks explains that adding drums brought the songs to a more organic place, since the members weren’t tied to playing over loops.

While Davis wrote the music and lyrics for the album, Helmericks says that making Optimistic Voices was a truly collaborative process. “We brought our own thing to it in a way that wasn't always [Davis’s] songwriting style,” she adds. “We were able to collaborate, and we just all did it very well, I think.” One of the reasons was that all of the members have "longstanding friendships with each other beyond musical working relationships."

Parsons thinks that Bluebook feels like more of a traditional band now that there are multiple layers to the collaboration, compared to when it was just her and Davis. “Everything to me feels more complete,” Parsons says. “It's like the idea that we started is just really coming together more and more the longer we all play together.”

Morsett says she’s honored to be part of Davis’s dream team because she’s such a massive fan of every member of the band, and has been inspired by them since she moved to Denver in 2013. “These are my heroes,” she adds. “Coming at those songs from this space of reverence was kind of interesting. ... I do feel such gratitude getting to play these songs, let alone just be around powerful women. I think I've longed for that my whole life.”

Not only has Helmericks been the only female in previous bands, but she remembers playing shows where she was the only woman in the bar. “I've come a long way from feeling like I need to present in a kind of tough, androgynous way to just being like, ‘I’m okay with playing in a feminine way,'” she says.

Morsett, too, had been working mostly with men. “I don't think I realized just how much armor you put on going into those spaces or being in those projects,” she says. “When you take it off to be in a place with people that you really love and trust and you feel safe with, it opens this whole other door to a different kind of creativity that took me a long time to get to within my life, in other bands and within my own project."

But with Bluebook, "it was just immediate," she concludes. "There's such a safety and vulnerability just being around powerful women who are encouraging and supporting other women, and suddenly having a crew of people who support you in such unique and very true ways. It's really powerful.”

Bluebook, with American Culture and Allison Lorenzen, 9 p.m. Saturday, February 12, hi-dive, 7 South Broadway, $15.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon