Julie Feeney: A one woman band

Julie Feeney recorded her remarkable debut album in her bedroom. She produced and promoted it herself. It won a major prize - and then Sony BMG came calling. David Sinclair meets her
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There are renaissance women, alpha females, killer queens and superbabes. And then there's Julie Feeney. Artistic, athletic and academic in equal measure, she has worked as a dancer, a model and a lecturer. She is a classically trained singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist. She has written, arranged, performed and produced all 13 songs on an extraordinary debut album, called 13 Songs, that has won awards and sold 5,000 copies in her native Ireland.

And, until the end of last year when she won a recording contract with Sony BMG, she managed, promoted and financed the project herself. "It's not rocket science," she's fond of saying.

We meet in Feeney's flat in Dublin. There's a keyboard and a multitrack recording device on the kitchen table, and boxes stuffed with stationery, press releases and CDs are scattered around ("My offices," she calls them). There are awards on the mantelpiece, and one is for the Choice Music Prize Irish Album of the Year 2005.

Against a wall stands a giant presentation cheque for €10,000 (£6,600), her Choice prize-money. "The money was gone within three hours," she says. "I paid off my Visa card and paid for a batch of CDs to be manufactured."

Feeney, 28, seems to have lived three people's lives already. She is multilingual and has three Masters degrees. Her parents separated when she was very young, and she was raised by her mother, a school principal in Galway, who instilled high expectations in all her children.

"My mother is an absolute perfectionist," Feeney says. "I could never live up to her standards. Staying with my mother was such a disciplined upbringing. I wasn't allowed to go to discos or whatever they called them. And I'd say, 'But everyone else is going.' She'd say, 'You're different to the mob, so what's the problem?' It was her way of protecting me from the world. Which was actually fine; I wouldn't have gained any more experience from going to those awful discos anyway."

Feeney went to boarding school, which she loved, and then to University College Cork for a degree in music and psychology. She studied at Trinity College, Dublin and at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. She studied organ, orchestral clarinet and violin.

But her first instrument, she says, is her voice. Much has been made of the fact that on the opening track of her album, a bittersweet lullaby called "Aching", she holds a note for 30 seconds. Does she use circular breathing, like a jazz saxophonist? "No, I'm using my diaphragm muscles. It's just a matter of training."

After her studies, she landed a job as a choral singer in the National Chamber Choir of Ireland. She also took on modelling work as a way to earn extra money. "I couldn't really be bothered with having to be all kind of dollybirdy," she says. "I did a bit of catwalk, but they were all about 7ft tall, a bit freakish some of them. So it was mostly photographic, and I did a lot of live art modelling."

Does she enjoy sitting still for long periods? "Yes. I'm good at it, if I have my focus. I start planning things."

Does she meditate? "I probably should. In terms of relaxing, what I love is water sports; kayaking, windsurfing, sailing, water-skiing. I've got good balance and I'm stronger than I look. The power of nature is amazing when you learn how it works."

Indeed, Feeney begins to seem like a force of nature herself. She is driven to succeed, yet seems comfortable in her skin. She carries her achievements with a light touch, proud and pleased yet retaining a mischievous sense of wonder, as if it is all just a bit of a lark. She is sleek and beautiful, but she has braces on her bottom teeth, giving her the slightly awkward look of an ingénue.

Somehow, she found the time to write songs, 13 of which she recorded - in her bedroom - in September 2004. Combining her classical training with an interest in pop, dance, theatre, opera and literature, she produced an album that defies categorisation. Ethereal, mysterious and utterly mesmerising, it sounds the way Björk might have done if she had come from a land of mist and rain instead of ice and snow.

Feeney set about creating the artwork and raising cash to get CDs pressed and sent to the media and record companies. She borrowed, heavily. "The way to do it is to keep your repayments regular, keep paying back the interest, then they will lend you more. I did lie about it, from time to time. I asked for a top-up of six grand, and he said, 'Well, Julie, what purpose is it for?' I said it was for new windows."

At the end of 2004, she made a video for one track, "Fictitious Richard". It is an ambitious piece of work, complex, funny and nightmarish. There are dwarves playing a spinetta and recorder, a car decorated with fairy lights, and Feeney lying in a bath full of leaves and branches like a wood-nymph version of American Beauty. Towards the end, the lyric breaks into Latin. "'Fictitious Richard' is about a holier-than-thou kind of person," she explains. "He's been a choirboy, so he's saying stuff like that."

The shoot took two days and employed a crew of 13 people. Feeney paid the actors and caterers, but she made an agreement with the director, Vittoria Colonna, that she would only pay her fee if she signed a record deal.

Two years later, Colonna and the lenders have been paid and Feeney is signed to major label. She has a booking agent to sort out her gigs. And she has "taken on" a manager, Dave Dorrell (who also manages the Pet Shop Boys).

How has she done it? "I started sending out albums in August 2005. I sent out a CD and a handwritten note to everyone, about 500 in all. If someone at [the Dublin TV station] RTE showed interest, I'd get a taxi and take a CD to his house. I was the taxi queen of Dublin."

One package reached a journalist at The New York Times who reviewed the album, calling it "a charming, urbane and dreamy record". And in January 2006, up to her ears in debt, she heard she'd been nominated for the Choice Music Prize, Ireland's equivalent of the Mercury.

"It gave me enormous validation," she says. "But you don't know whether everyone's going to love your music and it's going to be commercial.I can't imagine what it would be like to be No 1 in all the charts. I think I'd prefer to be a little bit more elusive."

Having managed her own affairs for so long, Feeney is not about to let her record company or management get too far ahead of themselves. "I think a manager is somebody who carries out what you, the artist, want them to do," she says.

That's not how a lot of managers see it. "No, they don't. But they wouldn't last five minutes with me if they thought like that.

"It does sound like I'm a control freak, but I do know how to delegate," she says, a little unconvincingly. "You have to sort through the things that have to be done. I don't want to freak people out too much. Just a little bit."

13 Songs is on Red Ink/Sony BMG