Julia Dratel, music curator and visual artist

Julia Dratel, 30, is an event producer, curator, radio DJ, activist and visual artist. She has shot photos for album covers for Circuit des Yeux and Devouring the Guilt and created music videos for Health & Beauty, Mind Over Mirrors and Spirits Have Fun. She also hosted the second night of the Elastro A/V Fall Festival at Elastic Arts on Saturday, October 9, which features sound and video performances from Forest Management, Carol Genetti, and Dratel herself.

As said to Leor Galil

My mom is a painter and she used to take me to the studio with her when I was a kid – I kind of stayed there with her all day. I grew up in New York. Apartments in New York are small if you’re not, like, insanely rich. My father is a great conductor of music. My childhood bedroom was where he kept all his files; it was my crib, then ten record cabinets.

When I was in middle school and high school, I started doing lots of mixes for friends. I’ve always been an obsessive finalist – I’d listen to a record, then want to know everyone who’s played on it, then every record everyone who’s played on it has played. And then I was doing, like, six-disc boxes for friends.

I don’t play music, but I tried when I was younger. I always wanted to play an instrument and people said to me, “Your hands are too small. Or, “You can’t do that.” It was really daunting, but then it pushed me into other parts of music.

I first got involved in music in Chicago through WHPK. I was a DJ from 2009, my freshman year at the University of Chicago, and I did a show called Soul & New, which technically still exists, although I haven’t returned to do it live during the pandemic. At the time, there were cool concerts that were reserved for the station, and I would go and take pictures there. I have also always been interested in cinema, films and the visual arts. I didn’t plan on going to take pictures of a lot of gigs, it was just like, “I’ll bring my camera,” and then I ended up loving it.

I met Daniel Wyche and Paul Giallorenzo, and they ended up asking me if I wanted to produce shows at Elastic; I was interested in booking experimental shows and had photos taken there. It was the first base where I did shows more regularly, and it came out of the photography stuff. I still take a lot of pictures there. It’s one of the spaces that really encouraged me to do a little bit of everything, and not necessarily have something that I do like “one way” or whatever, but rather different situations that appeal to different parts of myself. They have always welcomed that.

The Union of Musicians & Allied Workers – I’m pretty sure I was invited to a new members meeting by Izzy True (I made a music video for them) and I’m thinking of Curt Oren, who’s also in Izzy True . At first, I was a bit cautious, because I’m not a musician. I think they invited me because I’m both in the music world but also in the organizing world, and I use a lot of those parts of myself, interchangeably, in both worlds. I really enjoy doing cultural organizing, and I’m also interested in organizing within arts communities and organizing. One of the things that’s really cool about UMAW is that there are a lot of people who are first time organizers – it may be the first political organization they’ve joined. . That’s one of the things that I find really exciting—this new group of people is activated.

Julia Dratel shot, edited and co-directed this Izzy True video.

I am also part of the abolition sub-committee at the national level. One of the things that’s been really important to me is organizing with incarcerated people for their own self-determination, because a big part of what incarceration is is taking away free will to someone. One of the things we’ve done at UMAW nationally is this thing called “Instruments in prisons,” that we did with this Die Jim Crow label, which is based in New York. We basically take requests from incarcerated musicians to meet the needs for recording equipment and music. So far we’ve been able to respond to a whole bunch of different requests from a whole bunch of musicians. People are starting to record with them, so I’m really excited to see what happens with that.

I was a volunteer with Chicago Community Jail Support. Me and my fellow co-producers have all come together to do a fundraising compilation for Chicago Community Jail Support. It was beginning to become clear that this self-help project, which is run and funded entirely by volunteers – it is not a non-profit organization – there was a consensus forming within the volunteer base that it would be a long-term project. People wanted to keep going through the winter. We wanted to do a fundraising compilation to basically get this van and stuff to winterize the operation.

There were a lot of musicians involved in prison support, which makes sense; you think about people who are grounded during the pandemic but have a van, but can also talk to people and stuff like that. A group of us who were musically minded got together and started working on trying to create this composition [Warm Violet], which we wanted to be a journey through the Chicago music scene. We focused on not really locking ourselves into any particular genre or type of music; it was really meant to be a bit of everything.

the warm violet compilation for the benefit of Chicago Community Jail Support

We put a lot of thought and effort into making sure there was intent in every little part, from the people who ended up being part of the musical composition, to the cover, the interior art, the sequencing. The day that was, like, “Oh, this is really getting closer,” was when a few of us sat down on Zoom for a few hours to sequence it. It’s like 46 tracks. It took time. That’s what was exciting about making this Chicago-centric compilation that also benefited this abolitionist self-help project: trying to make sure that even though we all came there from different music networks, we put it in everything this project that brings it all together.

One of the things the Chicago music scene taught me is to be able to do things for fun, but also for each other.

Briana R. Cross