Colors of Chords

An Interview with Jules Belmont ’13

by Katharine Reece MFA '12

Jules Belmont wearing headphones

To be a young artist is to perch on top of Masada in Israel, imagining the mass suicide of hundreds of Jews during an ancient Roman siege, and compose the ostinato of an unbirthed song in your head. To be a young artist is to close your eyes while playing Cuban music in a tiny bar in Brooklyn, while a tribe of people groove with their hips and shuffling feet. It’s to sit with young children at a local music store and teach their small hands to love the neck of a guitar—to summon out of them the knowledge you know they have, about rhythm, sound, and beauty. To be a young artist is to know profound gratitude when one doesn’t have to take undesirable jobs to enable the pursuit of art.

For Jules Belmont ’13, to be a young artist is also to release his first full-length album, Archival, less than a year after graduating from Sarah Lawrence. Belmont has been playing music since he was 12, when he decisively told his fairly famous guitarist father, “Music sucks.” At that point, it was more that piano lessons sucked. When he alighted upon the guitar and learned to play Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” his attitude permanently shifted. A few years later, he was opening stadium shows for Lupe Fiasco while touring in high school with a hip-hop band he created. He often drove home to western Massachusetts from New York’s Webster Hall at 2 am on school nights after opening sold-out shows. Music had become the sun, moon, and the stars.

Belmont now lives with his girlfriend and their cat in Kensington Gardens, and they recently bought a 1993 Ford station wagon so he wouldn’t have to haul 40 pounds of equipment on the subway to trek to his shows and rented rehearsal studio in Gowanus. In addition to performing in various bands and making his own music, Belmont also supports himself by teaching guitar lessons. He hasn’t had to take a single job beyond the purview of music, and when it comes to “making it” as an artist in New York City, that’s a big deal.

Belmont is on the cover of the spring 2014 Sarah Lawrence magazine, titled “The Heart of Music.” He and I talked one evening in late December at his apartment before driving to his show at a tiny bar called Barbés, where he would perform with a Colombian dance-style band called Cumbiagra. He talked about the similarities between composing music and painting a picture, and shared the story of composing two of the darker tracks from Archival, which you can listen to below.

Reece: In this issue of the magazine, we’ve been talking about creating music and how a composer gets started—and whether it’s similar to writing. Do you start with an idea or a sound?

Belmont: Until my senior year, I had never thought about—put me in a studio, what would I make? What do I have to say artistically? That’s a different leap of faith to make than what’s required to just play music. I’ve started compositions in a couple different ways. Because I have been a player so long, I kind of go backward. I’ll be practicing and come to a part I like and go, “Oh, that’s cool.” I remember things more by pictures and sounds, so composing [is inspired] more by places I visited, things I did, some feeling that comes to me, that I then try to capture.

Reece: How do you do that with music?

Belmont: Music is kind of a palette, just like colors. To me, a certain chord sounds green, and some sounds are more dark green. It becomes a palette that you have to sculpt together.

That’s what happened to one of the tunes on my record. I started it the spring semester before last year, after I did Birthright [an educational trip to Israel] over the summer. Do you know what Masada is at all? In the middle of the desert in Israel, there are these huge rock formations and a plateau on the top, no trees. Two thousand years ago, there was a little city, a collection of Jewish people were living there. It’s this precipice and plateau with only one way up, and the Romans invaded and surrounded it, trapping this entire group of Jews. Many of them committed mass suicide. I climbed Masada at sunrise and wrote part of one of the songs from my record looking down. The way these rock formations are set up, it looks like they don’t end.

This song is called “View from Masada”—there are 30 tracks of different percussion on it, meaning different drums, different shakers, whatever. So it’s a huge palette to draw from. I tried to paint a picture, to make it feel like what it felt to be there. Hopefully you can hear the wind, it’s really trippy and disorienting.

"View from Masada" - Archival - Jules Belmont

All of my songs on Archival are instrumental compositions. I write for all the instruments, but it comes in parts, and usually stems from solo guitar, from a strong chordal structure or maybe just a melody. Then from there, I tend to use a lot of percussion. My work isn’t through-composed (composed in linear order) in the way that classical music is composed. The trumpet part, I did that a week and a half ago with a friend who is a classically-trained trumpeter. I told him the story of Masada and said, “Okay, for tone and texture, I want you to think of that experience, and think Sketches of Spain and Bitches Brew,” which are two Miles Davis records. He nailed it.

Reece: Would you say you think in sounds?

Belmont: I don’t know. There are always sounds in my head—I think there are always sounds in anyone’s head—but I think it’s whether you’ve learned to go with it. You have to train your mind to think about those sounds. Say, as we’re talking right now, if there was music in the background, my brain would be like—over there. Sometimes a melody will just come, and I’ll be like, “Oh, I’ve got to do something with that.”

Reece: How do you know when you’ve found something?

Belmont: You don’t, unless it’s something really special. And if I don’t do something with it right away, I’ll forget it. In this Cuban duo I’m in with my friend Victor (pictured on the back cover of the magazine), my mind is always flushing out new ideas. I tend to never play anything twice. I can’t play the same song twice, which is good and bad. Good because it’s creative, but bad because I can’t replicate everything I want to.

Melody, harmony, and rhythm—that’s what people define music as being, and it’s kind of true. They’re in a circle together. You can start at one place, but there’s no melody without some kind of harmony, and there isn’t either of those without some kind of rhythm attached to it. Now I can hear a line in my head and for the most part, play it back, and see where that goes, and let it take me somewhere.

Reece: Where does it take you, or where has it taken you?

Belmont: I’m angling myself into sounding what I would hope to sound like. I don’t consider myself religious, and definitely consider myself more of an atheist, but culturally, I’m figuring out what it means to be Jewish. I grew up in a rural community in Massachusetts. I don’t align myself with much of Judaism in a global sense. But the spirituality of it is what’s key and what’s interesting and what can really help people. I guess it’s weird—I have a lot of Jewish themed songs on here, and I didn’t plan for that at all. I don’t think that’s an aiming goal of the project. But my track “Scorch the Sun” is about the shellings last winter in Israel and Palestine.

Reece: When you say “about that”—because it’s instrumental and there aren’t words that are about that—does that mean you’re comparing music again to painting? How is your song “about” that?

Belmont: That was a feeling, a very dark feeling. I didn’t have cable growing up, besides CBS and those channels. But then in college, I eventually moved to an apartment off campus with my friends who had cable, and it became sort of overload. The way news is portrayed now is way too intense. The way they were covering the shelling was too much for me, I couldn’t watch it. These are real people being affected, this isn’t The Matrix or some movie. It was a dark winter, where I spent a lot of time recording and writing in [music faculty member] Glenn Alexander’s office, which was so gracious of him. I spent a lot of nights there, in Marshall Field at Sarah Lawrence. So I would leave my apartment and go there with, “God, this is all so fucked up” in my brain, thinking about what was happening, and immediately the melody for “Scorch” came out. Within an hour or so, I had written a whole piece of music, which to this day, is still the most harmonically complicated thing that I’ve written, but it’s also just cohesive in that a melody strings through the whole thing.

"Scorch the Sun" - Archival - Jules Belmont

I’ve showed you the two darker tracks. I’ve gotten different responses to “Scorch the Sun”—some people find it kind of sensual. I did write it in this dark moment, but it was also a hopeful moment.