Gainesville, Florida-based singer-songwriter Travis Atria returns to 360°Sound to chat about his ambitious orchestral album – and second as ATRIA – entitled Juliet. Atria, who fronted the indie rock band Morningbell for a decade, previously spoke with us about his psychedelic soul ATRIA debut, Moonbrain.
Atria is also an accomplished music journalist. He penned the biographies Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield and Better Days Will Come Again: The Life of Arthur Briggs. In this interview, Atria discusses the fascinating Shakespearean influence on the new album, recording with an orchestra for the first time, singing into the microphone that Paul McCartney used, and more.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°: Juliet is a concept album based on a Shakespeare volume set you found. Each book had an inscription from Ralph to Evelyn along with the month and year it was bought, 1914. Tell us about how that inspired you.
Travis Atria: The album came from these miniature leather-bound volumes of Shakespeare I found in a used bookstore over 15 years ago. They’re really tiny, maybe three inches tall. I tried to imagine Ralph and his love story. I just took what I could from the books, which wasn’t much.
I figured Ralph was persistent. He’s clearly very motivated. He’s very into Evelyn because there are 16 of these things over a period of months. He must have been artistic because of the beauty of the way he signed his name and the fact that clearly these two bonded over Shakespeare. They must have shared that as a love. I even thought about their names. Ralph sounds very kind of working class, short and abrupt. And Evelyn is so graceful and rich.
I came up with the idea that maybe Evelyn was out of Ralph’s league, and he used Shakespeare as a way of trying to purchase entry into her world. Then I filled in all the other stuff. I used stuff that’s happened to me and my family, the stories I’ve heard from people, and just things that have stuck with me, and I just plotted it out that way.
What are some ways in which Shakespeare crops up in the lyrics?
For every song except for maybe one, there is some sort of reference to or direct quote from Shakespeare. I’ve always been a lover of Shakespeare. My version of teenage rebellion was when I was a freshman in high school and it came time for them to teach us about Shakespeare, they presented it to us as like, “We have to get through this; you’re not going to like it. It’s going to be hard to understand, but you have to read it.” And so, my rebellion was like, “Well, I will like it.” I was really cool as you can tell.
I’ve loved Shakespeare ever since then. As I grew older, it stuck with me, and I could understand it better. I read the plays for enjoyment. I really do think he earns the reputation as the greatest writer in the history of the English language. As I was writing the lyrics for the album, it was fun to go back through the plays and sonnets and try to pick out lines that I might be able to use. Lines that Ralph might have been attracted to and might have thought were romantic or good to use on Evelyn. Every song has little bits. If you look for them, you’ll find them. That was a lot of fun for me because it was also a chance for me to share that love of Shakespeare with people.
Tell us about the recording process with a makeshift orchestra and an 18-piece choir.
It was very, very different from anything I’ve done before. So different in fact that I was asking the guy who runs the label I work with if I should put it out under a different name. I thought if people listened to my last album, Moonbrain, and then put this on, they would think, “Am I on the right Spotify channel anymore?” I just didn’t know if it would be too much of a jump.
I’ve spent the last 15 years or so making rock ‘n’ roll with soul influences, but I felt like for this album, it needed something that was a little more classic. I wanted to write something that Frank Sinatra would have sung. A huge influence for me making this album was Sinatra’s 1969 album Watertown. It’s also a concept album of a love story. Also, his Christmas album was an influence. I’ve always loved it. Stylistically, I knew the songs had to be a bit more appropriate to the time period and the love story around Shakespeare. As we were recording it, the producer, Ryan Williams, and I kept saying, “What do you call this?” And we never really came up with an answer.
I wanted it to be highly orchestrated. I worked with the guy who worked on the final album for my band Morningbell 10 years ago called Bôa Noite. He did all the orchestration on that album. I had some very specific ideas of what I wanted for most songs, but a couple songs, I’d just say, “I want something here.” And we would work together to make that a reality and come up with an actual score. It was a great chance to showcase the talent in Gainesville, which is where I’ve spent most of my life as a musician.
I put together a makeshift orchestra and an 18-piece choir. The choir was from a local church. We just kept coming up against these things, like, “I’ve never had a timpani on an album. Can we find a timpani?” Okay, we found one. “Can we find a real harpsichord in Gainesville? I don’t want to do a keyboard patch; I want a real harpsichord.” Every time we would run up against one of these big challenges, we would say we can’t stop now. We’ve already done all this other crazy shit.
It was the first time I’ve ever done music in a studio. I always did stuff in my home studio. I knew that for something this complicated and with this many parts I needed to have somebody whose job was to record it. I just wanted to come in and play. I worked in a studio called Black Bear. The producer, Ryan Williams, was a protege of Bruce Swedien, probably the most important audio engineer ever. He’s most famous for recording Michael Jackson’s Thriller. But he also worked with essentially every important artist of the 20th century.
We were recording based on Swedien’s principles. He was very big on not using studio tricks. Like if you record it right, it will sound good. Sadly, he died in 2020, so I didn’t get a chance to work with him, but I did get a chance to work in his studio, and I recorded all the vocals on this old microphone he had had since the ‘50s. He used it on every session he ever did, basically from Duke Ellington to Paul McCartney. Singing into this microphone that Michael Jackson, McCartney, Sarah Vaughn, and all these huge people had sung into, my knees were shaking. So intimidating. And we got to mix the album on his mixing board. It’s called Harrison Console. It was used to do Thriller. It was just a phenomenal, joyful experience.
It sounds like it was an expensive album to make.
It was by far the most expensive out of all my albums. That’s part of the reason we always recorded in my home studio. I would come up with an idea and then flesh it out by recording it. But I knew I didn’t have that luxury for the songs for Juliet. I had to come in knowing exactly what I wanted. I had to make choices before I started recording, which I wasn’t used to. But I think it worked. It made the songs tighter.
Ryan, the producer, has been a friend of mine for almost 20 years. He gave me a dream of a deal. The guy who orchestrated it and helped me get all the musicians together didn’t ask for any money. I kind of forced him to take some money. We would tell the musicians, “Listen, we don’t have a huge budget.” A lot of people were very generous to make this happen. I was trying to do something that you’d need a major label studio budget to do on basically no budget. When you’re involved in the close-knit community as I’ve been, it’s like we’re all friends. They don’t mind helping because it’s fun to be a part of a project like this.
I saw where you joked on Instagram that you need everyone to stream your album 10,000 times.
I still wouldn’t get much from that. I think, in some ways, it’s the worst time to be making and releasing music. It’s not just the fact that Spotify rules everything, and it is the absolute worst. I don’t know how we all let this thing take over. It’s the worst way of experiencing music. I think it’s so impersonal. And it pays nothing.
Also, all of the little outlets are gone, like blog culture doesn’t really exist anymore. Music writing doesn’t really exist anymore. There’s no way of even telling anyone you’ve done something. It is a really weird time to be making music. Luckily, for me, this particular album was something that I felt compelled to do. And I just didn’t care and still don’t care what happens to it. I just wanted to make it.
Check out Travis Atria’s previous recordings on travisatria.com