With Derealization, Julia Kugel (The Coathangers) regained her voice and returned to her acoustic roots
If singer and guitarist Julia Kugel had not lost her voice, then she wouldn't have made her new album Derealization. It started when Kugel, known for her work with punk-rock band the Coathangers, experienced pitch deafness. By 2019, it became difficult to sing, hindering her ability to play shows and be creative.
“I was just not able to hear myself,” Kugel says on Zoom from her home in Long Beach, California. “I was in a low place. I was having trouble projecting, really hitting notes. I didn’t really sing anymore.”
Kugel began her journey to regain her voice by facing her challenges. It was following this difficult period that she made Derealization under the name Julia, Julia. While Kugel has released music apart from the Coathangers, like the projects Soft Palms and White Woods, Derealization is her first solo album as Julia, Julia. Like the moniker suggests, this release reflects the individual journey of the self by the artist who made it.
The genesis of this pop record with elements of folk can be traced as far back as the worldwide lockdowns of 2020, when Kugel’s personal difficulties coupled with collective setbacks prompted existential reflection. “When the shutdown happened, it was really confusing,” Kugel says. “I think a lot of my struggle was dealing with the reality of what is reality and exacerbated by the 2020 shutdown."
During this difficult moment, Kugel began her journey to healing. First, she had to figure out the right way to move forward. “One of my favorite quotes is, ‘When you’re going through hell, keep going,’” Kugel says. “I knew that something was bad and had to take a step.”
To recover her voice, Kugel began by going back to the basics through YouTube videos. “When the break happened, the shutdown, I started doing YouTube tutorials,” Kugel says. “Doing scales, figuring out how to breathe properly.”
YouTube proved to be an educational resource for Kugel to recover her voice. On Derealization, with airy vocals on “I Want You” or delicate singing on “Do It Or Don’t,” it sounds like Kugel never lost her voice.
As a form of catharsis, Kugel turned to surfing. Born in Belarus and raised in Atlanta, Kugel didn't have access to the water as she does now as a resident of the West Coast. While she had been surfing before the lockdown, the limitations of the shutdown made this healing mechanism a logical and organic choice.
“When you’re surfing, you’re working with what you’re getting,” she says. “If the ocean is really rough, you’re probably going to get worked. That really helped me a lot to focus my mind on something else, to distract my mind from the other anxieties of the real world that were happening.”
Kugel even found similarities between surfing and performing onstage. That also turned out to be healing. “I got the same feeling from surfing, where you’re exhausted and you’re spending your energy,” she says. “It was my way out.”
At some point, Kugel realized that losing her voice was a manifestation of something beyond singing. She turned to eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, an intense form of therapy also known as EMDR.
“I was in a constant state of anxiety and fear,” Kugel says. “It clicked in my brain, and the next day I woke up, and I wasn’t freaking out. I was walking around being like, ‘Wow, I’m not terrified!’ That was important in the healing process.”
Kugel knew that only by making new music again would she recover her ability to sing. In 2021, she began making Derealization. After that, when she felt like she could sing again, it was a creative and personal triumph. “Once I started making this record, that’s when I got my voice back,” she says. “It was like a sense of self that I hadn’t really had since the Coathangers started when I was very sure of myself and what I wanted to say.”
Making new music again reminded Kugel of the creative impulses that drove her to make music in the first place. While creating Derealization, Kugel went back to her origins as a musician by playing the acoustic guitar and the piano, giving the record a stripped-down sound.
“It was cool to put some of that in, put some organic, unamplified stuff in there,” Kugel says. “It was just really exciting. No fuzz pedals or whatever!”
In the end, Kugel decided to release Derealization under the name Julia, Julia instead of Soft Palms or White Woods. “It left me nothing to hide behind,” Kugel says. “First name Julia, last name Julia.”
While making the record, Kugel discovered the word “derealization,” which relates to the feeling of detachment from surroundings. It was during this discovery that she knew that this would be the album's name. The concept of derealization is alluded to overtly on the track “Fever In My Heart,” particularly when Kugel sings, “Am I somebody else? Am I losing myself?”
“Derealization is feeling like you’re in a dream feeling,” she says. “You don’t know reality.”
For Kugel, music was the way and destination during this difficult time. What began as a journey to understand who she was concluded with a testament to it. On “Do It Or Don’t,” Kugel sings, “Reap what you sow, but who can tell what will grow?” As Derealization shows, the answer turns out to be a renewed sense of purpose and meaning, both creatively and existentially.
“Everything on this record has meaning,” Kugel says.
As Kugel looks back on her whirlwind journey, she finds that music is more than just a balm during difficult moments in life. It is a radical tool for growth and transformation. Her relationship with music now is all the more meaningful because of it, and she's embracing the future with excitement.
“I feel like I’m back, baby!” Kugel exclaims. “I’m so excited. I find myself staring off into space again, thinking about songs, thinking about what I want to say, instead of being fearful of it.”