Tanja Cilia

Freelance Writer

Lady sings the blues!




Saturday, June 7, 2008, 00:00 by

Tanja Cilia

Lady sings the blues!

Julie Zahra, on a holiday from school in more ways than one, talks to Tanja Cilia

Ihave a talent, a wonderful thing; everyone listens when I start to sing…” Julie Zahra would never say that. She is too humble. But the words were written expressly for her. We met at St James Cavalier where, over a Kinnie (“I miss this so much in Britain ‒ if I could, I’d take back a barrel with me! And a truckload of Twistees!”) this doe-eyed beauty with the perfect complexion told me about her life, her career, and her hopes.

There was a time when the favourite singer of Julie (born Julie Ann, on March 25, 1982) was Enya – these days, however, she looks towards opera singer Edita Gruberova, alternatively known as the Queen of Coloratura and The Queen of Bel Canto, for inspiration.

However, when I tell Julie that the timbre of her voice resembles that of Katie Melua, she looks pleased, blushes, and says I am the first person to have paid her such a great compliment.

I ask her whether, given the choice, she would rather make it as an opera star, or as a jazz or pop singer. She hesitates for an infinitesimal second… and finally with a wistful sigh, says that she really does not know.

However, it will certainly not be an operatic aria that is being cut as a single come summer.

So far, this record, which will be launched with Musical Identity UK, has three working titles, none of which really rings her bells – and it is being targeted for the British market, rather than the local one.

Not because of marketability or promotion purposes, really. We happened to be listening to Magic radio, and during all the time we were there, there was only one record by Amy Winehouse played – the rest were (relatively) old favourites that the Maltese public still devours… something that we had been aware of, and had commented upon. This is the raison d’être of the station, after all – but it also highlights the fact that as a nation we do tend to be stuck-in-the-mud with regards to our tastes in “modern” music.

“That is what I mean.” The Maltese public would still flock to a concert by Duran Duran, as well as by legends Elton John and Tina Turner. But would they turn up for Jamiroquai or the aforementioned Amy Winehouse?

There’s a worthy string of “names” behind Julie’s musical formation… she took the first step on the road to musical stardom at the age of four, when she joined Lilian Plumpton’s Fgura Church Choir. She was taught to play the piano by Lydia Gerada, and Beatrice Brockdorff was her lyrics coach. Her very first singing teacher was Doreen Galea.

Along every step of the way, she found people who encouraged her because she could, to use a cliché, make it if she tried. Julie even tried acting for a while – in fact she even had a role in Dejjem Tiegħek Becky for old time’s sake.

Despite the fact that one of her hobbies is window-shopping, Julie is not just a pretty (make that beautiful!) face, or an airhead. She has a degree in sociology, and also a PGCE in Social Studies. “I find that both these help me in my career and also in my daily interactions with people. It’s nice to interrelate on a deeper level rather than just small talk when you meet someone.”

So how did this Maltese singer from Fgura end up teaching singing and musical theatre in the Performance Academy at Newcastle in the UK?

“It was happenstance really ‒ and the day job does pay tuition and rent fees! My original intention was to go to Newcastle to pursue a career in singing, and to keep studying lyric singing and jazz… I saw the advert in the local press, saying that there were job openings for singing tutors. I applied, was short-listed, went for interviews and got the job!”

She makes it sound all so simple ‒ despite later admitting when presses that, yes, there had been strong competition for the vacancies.

It’s definitely not like something out of Fame, she says. It’s the ultimate Sixth Form College where there are several courses at all levels. From GSCE to post-graduate, including the International Foundation Programme (IFP), National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ, mostly read by international students) and many others.

Perhaps inevitably, I ask what being in the Eurovision was like. “It was exciting and challenging, and one of the highlights of my career to date. It is very hard to match performing live for millions of people around the world. You get to be an A-list celebrity for a few days!”

“It had good memories, when taken in context. I am doing other styles, so I’m staying away from ‘festival music’ now.”

This led us to whether she thought too much pressure was put on the person(s) representing Malta, result-wise. “This is inevitable because it is practically the be-all and end-all of festivals in Malta. If there were other equally selected platforms for us, the load would be more widely spread, and there would be more opportunities for a greater number of people.” And I add, maybe different types of opportunities, too. As it is, we are figuratively putting all our eggs into one basket, overloading it until it reaches breaking point.

Julie nods, and adds “It seems like it is par for the course to complain about the sections – local, semi-finals, and the eventual winners… I don’t think there is any control over the way the selections take place, and it’s always a Pandora’s Box going to the Eurovision Song Contest…”

As for whether we ought to keep on participating, she grins and says “Why not? It’s still good publicity for the Maltese islands and for the artistes, in its own right. There are many other countries that do not really need to participate in the Eurovision but they still do.”

Julie has found life in Newcastle vastly different from her relatively quiet hometown “in all spectrums; size, public transports systems, mentality, attitudes, climate and environment”. She feels blessed that during this past year she has been given the opportunity to advance her skills and improve her talents, in ways that might not have been possible locally. Judie can decode Geordie, and is well on the way towards speaking it fluently!

Her eyes sparkle when she says that she will remain in touch with the Maltese public.



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Tanja Cilia

Freelance Writer

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