Noe Valley Voice December-January 1997-98

How 'Jewels' Created Her Musical Gems For Kids

By Erin O'Briant

Folksinger Julia "Jewels" Blagden is glowing. "I'm going to have a permanent smile on my face all the way through Christmas," she says.

That's because the 37-year-old Church Street resident just returned from riding in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. She grinned and waved at the crowds, and hummed along to tunes from her new children's CD, Jewels and the Gems: The Ruby Red Album.

"I was a honey bear on the Mother Goose float, and my music was playing from the loudspeakers. NBC even broadcast the album on TV as the float went by," beams Blagden. Despite the high winds, she heard cheers from family and friends. "I was born in Manhattan. This was kind of a homecoming for me."

But she's glad to be back in Noe Valley, her home for the past three years and the oyster for her pearl of a singing career.

"I'm just so grateful to the store owners in Noe Valley, I can't thank them enough," says Blagden. "They really took a chance on me."

She's referring to shops like Little Bean Sprouts, Small Frys, Cover to Cover, and Streetlight Records, all of which agreed to carry her new CD.

On Saturday, Dec. 6, Little Bean Sprouts will host a special "Jewels" sing-along. Kids under 7 are particularly invited to the concert, which kicks off at 11 a.m. at 3961 24th St. (across from Bell).

Blagden says she'll perform most of the 13 "gems" on her album, including "Eency Weency Spider," "On Top of Spaghetti," and "I've Been Working on the Railroad." She'll also lead a chorus of "Jingle Bells" and any other holiday requests the children might have.

The Ruby Red Album was mixed at Live Oak Studio in Berkeley and produced by Blagden's own record label, Sparkling Records. "Jewels" does the lead vocals and harmonies, and is accompanied by live and synthesized instruments (mostly piano and strings) arranged by co-producer Joe Francis.

Blagden says one of her biggest influences is Joni Mitchell, but her style is often compared to '60s pop star Carole King. In her live performances, she and her young audiences sing and clap along, and, of course, walk their fingers "up the water spout."

Album listeners will note some unusual twists to the classic children's songs. For example, Blagden uses a Julie Andrews­type accent on the rhythmic "Grandfather's Clock." And her version of "Eency Weency Spider" includes two new original verses. Still, the traditional folk songs like "Drill Ye Tarriers, Drill!" and "Amazing Grace" are wonderfully melodic and will appeal to all ages.

"I put songs on my album that parents would like too," she says, "because the kids will want to hear it over and over. This album is really aimed at the whole family. It's something fun to do in the car. And it gives grandparents something to do with their grandchildren too." The lyrics are included on the album jacket, for those who may have forgotten the words.

According to Blagden, Noe Valley is the ideal spot to try out new songs for children. "Families in Noe Valley really care about their kids' education and entertainment. People are starved for this type of music. There's just not that much good quality kids' music out there."

She has no children of her own, but "I loved singing in the car when I was growing up. And I used to be a teacher -- I've always been involved with kids."

Blagden sang while attending college at Vassar in New York, and even released her first album -- this one aimed at a grownup audience -- with an a cappella student chorus there. She dropped her music studies, however, after graduating with degrees in education and international management.

After a stint teaching first and second grade, a year as an English teacher in the People's Republic of China, and several years of seven-day-a-week management jobs, Blagden decided to resume her musical career in 1994. "I started singing again and found that I had really missed it." Her voice teacher also pushed her to do something creative with her talent.

Within a couple of years, Blagden felt she had acquired enough expertise to record and produce her own album. "I quit my last job in January of 1997, and the album came out in August 1997. The whole time I've been both recording and marketing it."

Since then, Ruby Red has really started to shine. It's selling well on the East Coast, says Blagden, and the San Francisco Symphony just bought 500 copies to give as gifts to the children of benefactors at its "Deck the Halls!" concert Dec. 6. Blagden has also been invited to perform for the International Diplomacy Council on Dec. 13.

This fall she led singalongs at Barnes and Noble bookstores. "I was prepared for everything," she said of her first appearance, "except for looking out at 40 to 50 pairs of little eyes, staring back at me like I was a genie coming out of a bottle. But the kids absolutely loved it!"

The Macy's gig was another bonus. "I went to them to pitch my album, hoping they'd sell it in their stores, but they liked it so much, they wanted me in the parade!"

After the holidays, she'll start work on the sequel: the Emerald Green Album, scheduled to roll out sometime in 1998. For information about the entire line of Sparkling Records, give "Jewels" a call at 282-7448. Or come see that charmed smile at Little Bean Sprouts this Saturday.