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Behind the Scenes: An Interview with NLS Narrator Julian Thompson

Continuing our series of interviews with narrators from NLS’s own studio, I got a chance to sit down and talk with narrator Julian Thompson. Recently, Julian has recorded the liner notes for one of our Smithsonian Folkways books, Richmond Blues (DBM 03642). In addition, he has also narrated a number of books about music and musicians in the general NLS collection. Julian is also an avid music aficionado and collector, and I chatted with him about his experiences at NLS, and his love of all things music.

Katie: What do you do here at NLS and what materials do you work with?

Julian: Well, I wear a lot of hats here–literally and figuratively [laughs]. I narrate audio books, I review, I monitor, and I do our archiving for our books, which includes updating the database. I also work with The Economist every week, which is one of the magazines that we put on BARD, and I do our book production here which entails overseeing the Talking Book as a finished product, and making sure it’s navigable.

I used to work at another Talking Book producer, and was a monitor and a reviewer and Quality Assurance person there. And I had a couple of friends who were actors here, and they told me that I had to come to the library [NLS]. And I’ve been here ever since. I’m not an actor, like most of the other narrators. Most of the people in the studio are actors… but me, I’m not an actor. I’ve listened, I’ve reviewed, I’ve monitored, I’ve listened to so many styles, so to figure out what I liked and what I didn’t like. And there were some people that said, hey you should take a crack at this, and I did.

Katie: What’s your background before you got involved with NLS and talking books?

Julian: I lived out in the [San Francisco] Bay area, and I was raised out there in the Oakland area. I went to school at San Francisco State, I went to community college before that. One of my instructors at the junior college (my Spanish teacher) said to me “Wow, you’re really opinionated! It seems like you always have something to say even when I don’t ask. You should get into journalism.” So I started writing, and I started taking journalism classes. Before I knew it, the editor of the school newspaper, who was the main instructor, she had me writing opinion pieces, and I won awards for these opinion articles I wrote. Then I transferred to San Francisco State, and I got into broadcasting for a while.

As far as music goes, I was always a music fan growing up, mostly hip-hop and new wave in the 80s. When I went to junior college, I took this class that was one of the few music appreciation classes that didn’t deal with classical music. The teacher, when we were talking about jazz, played Bitches Brew for me, and it blew my mind. I had actually met Miles Davis in 1991 or 1992 at the Concord Jazz Festival, about 4 months before he died. I was a bellman at the hotel where most of the musicians were staying. Years later I kicked myself because here I met this guy who is probably one of the most important figures in American musical history, or all music history if you really want to get down to it, and I didn’t even know who he was.

That music appreciation class got me much more open. I got much more into jazz and world music, and then I started working in a record store. I worked for a record store for 6 years, in Berkeley, California, mostly while I was at school. At record stores you work with other people that are into music, and it was such a cross section of people: you had some goth guy, some punk guy, some jazz guy. But we would all listen to each other’s music while we were on the same shift. And you would start really appreciating everyone else’s stuff, and you sort of become an expert in so many different types of music.

KR: Do you play or sing anything?

JT: No. I don’t sing, I don’t play anything. When I was a kid I played trumpet. But it’s something that is one of my biggest regrets in life–that I didn’t pick up an instrument. But, I’ve DJ’d parties, and I used to have a couple radio shows. I worked in Berkeley for this…pirate radio station called Berkeley Liberation Radio, BLR. I had some friends that I brought in and we sort of did a combination of 80s-style music with skits and political stuff, and we didn’t have any constraints. I got to really do a lot of stuff with that.

KR: What kind of music is your go to? What do you typically listen to?

JT: Well, I try and listen to usually about 3 new albums a day. I try and listen to a lot of new music. And one of the things I like to do is go through them and pick out songs that I like and put them on a playlist. Because when you have that many albums, it sort of gets drowned out… so I make playlists of songs that I like off those albums. I’m so used to remembering albums because of the album artwork, but making these playlists helps me remember the albums without the artwork.

I listen to a lot of stuff, but my go-to’s are: everything Jack White, I think that guy’s a genius. I like Frederico Aubele, I like Manu Chao. I like a lot of international music, I like 60s bossa nova and samba. If you look across genres of music from like 1966 to 1973, because there was so much struggle in the world, that’s some of the best music–struggle creates the best music. It really does.

But really, I listen to everything. I have an opinion about every genre of music. And, I read a lot of music books here [at NLS]. There for a while I thought I was getting typecast. I did a book about the sound of Coltrane, where it was a study of the sound. About how Coltrane’s mission, especially towards the end, was just about trying to find a new sound (Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, DB 66428). Where he would go to find it, whether it be India or wherever, he was going everywhere because he wanted to hear a new sound. Because he had heard everything and it had been done.

I did a really big book on Thelonious Monk (Thelonious Monk: the Life and Times of an American Original, DB 71039), I did one on Southern Soul music (Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, DB 73053), which was really interesting. I get a lot of hip-hop books.

KR: If you could narrate a history or biography of any musician or musical artist out there, who would you choose?

JT: Well, I’ve read a lot of musical biographies of people that I love. So I guess I’d have to pick somebody that I haven’t read about…I guess for lack of a better choice, you know, I’d like to do something with Jack White.

If there was a Fela [Kuti] book, I’d love to read about Fela. Because I think he has one of the more interesting stories in music history. Here was a guy who made protest music, and they killed his mother. And his answer was a couple of brilliant albums, one called Confusion and one called Coffin for the Head of State. They finally got him out of Nigeria so that he could record out in L.A. So, probably I guess Fela, because that guy is a fascinating, fascinating person.

KR: Thanks for sitting down and talking with me!

JT: My pleasure.

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