Julia Brown used to have a love-hate relationship with the guitar, but she’s learning to love it more.
The instrument did not come naturally to the New York City-based singer-songwriter at first. Piano was her first instrument; she only picked up the guitar shortly before she began recording her first album, “Jubilant Newborn Alien Haze,” in 2001. At the time, she had barely played live, and was looking to perform more as a solo artist.
“We understand ourselves a lot better now,” she said from her home in Brooklyn, speaking of her relationship with the instrument. “The guitar, there’s something really friendly about it, being able to put your fingers on the strings. It was so unfamiliar, and I didn’t have the baggage that I had with the piano, so I could let myself play it however it is that I play it, and that’s how I got started. I started writing, and I took a few lessons, but playing scales didn’t hold a lot of interest for me.”
Working with band
This learning curve on the instrument was part of the reason behind the seven-year wait between her debut and 2008’s “Strange Scars.” In the interim, the Richmond, Va.-born musician played as much as possible and wrote as much as possible, spending two years playing with a band before striking out on her own.
Bryan Thomas, Julia Brown
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: The Bread and Jam Cafe, 130 Remsen St., Cohoes
How Much: Free
More Info: 326-2275, www.breadandjamcafe.com
Today, she continues to play solo with just an acoustic guitar. She’ll be at the Bread and Jam Cafe on Friday night, opening for local Albany singer-songwriter Bryan Thomas. It will be her first appearance in the area since performing at the Moon and River Cafe in Schenectady last summer, a stop on a Northeast run through New York and Vermont.
Brown is looking to step up her touring schedule even more than in the past, for good reason. She recently became a full-time musician for the first time in her life, after losing her job.
“In the back of my mind, I always knew I would want to transition out,” she said. “That transition was forced on me, but it’s not a bad thing at all. It’s really great to just soak in music full time.”
She first moved to New York City in the late 1990s, and has been living there ever since.
“I went to school at NYU — that got me out of the house,” she said. “It was a way for me to move without having my parents freak out — go to school and get a really good scholarship. But I always knew I wanted to make music; I was always writing songs.”
The life-changing moment for Brown came when she saw Squeeze’s Glen Tilbrook play a solo show at the Mercury Lounge. After that, she began working on her first album in earnest.
“Before that, I had been to Madison Square Garden, and had that as my conception of what it’s like to make music for people,” she said. “When I saw Glen — to see one person onstage with an instrument, singing to a crowd, doing all this great material, it was like, ‘OK, that’s what I want to do.’ ”
One listen to either of her albums reveals Brown’s eclectic taste, from soul and folk to atmospheric rock bands such as Radiohead and Elbow. Tracks from “Strange Scars” such as “Ayn Rand” and the pseudo-industrial single “Pieces of the Species,” which was recently made into a music video, offer up lush arrangements and angular electric guitar riffs quite different from her solo acoustic shows, although all of the songs started out as acoustic numbers.
“I find that because these songs all start off as sort of solo acoustic, me in my bedroom, they do take on a slightly different picture on the record,” Brown said. “But there is something really liberating about being able to interpret the song onstage in the same way I wrote it; in a way, it’s like I’m in my bedroom again. There’s an intensity to it, that I feel, anyhow.”
Intensity is a running theme in her songwriting. She tends to write off of her own emotional experiences — many of the songs on “Strange Scars” focus on turbulent relationships.
Shocks to body
“I figured out I’m a really kinetic writer — the things that happen emotionally, that hit like socks to the body,” she said. “What are things that happen to you that shake your world up and cause shocks to the body? They tend to be turbulent; they tend to be not so happy or positive — I won’t say not positive. I won’t say I always try to look on the bright side. When you’re looking for truth, and discover something that’s true, that’s always positive, even if the truth isn’t pretty.”