Story and photo by Lee Gutowski
Riverwest musician, composer, educator, artist and community supporter/promoter Julie Brandenburg is inspired, and an inspiration. Recently transplanted back to the neighborhood after owning and living in a home in Wauwatosa for over a decade, the Wisconsin native has been literally taken hostage by music – quite happily so – for pretty much her entire life. As a two-year-old, Julie could plunk out tunes like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “Here Comes the Bride” on the toy piano her parents had given her. “I would hear a tune and could immediately play it,” she admits. One afternoon while her mother was baking and hanging out with a friend, the friend heard Julie’s playing and was taken aback by the child’s natural ability. She expressed her surprise to Julie’s mother, but Mom, being used to her daughter’s “child’s play,” was practical. “Oh, she always does that,” she said. Her friend replied, “No one does that! My kids have instruments too, but none of them do that!”
Julie related this story over a beer at the Riverwest Filling Station one evening. She laughed when she summed it up. “And that’s when my road to poverty began. That’s when we knew I would never be rich.”
That road to her full (albeit not particularly full of material possessions) and rich (in other ways) life has been at times arduous and rocky. But Julie has an even-keeled take on the hard times. Of her current circumstances, she says, “I don’t make tons of money but I do have a lot of time for what I love to do. I would rather take the time to be an artist and just have fewer things. I didn’t get a car until this year and last winter I was riding around on my bike. I’m glad I had to do that, because it showed me that I could do it. And now I really appreciate my car!”
Brandenburg worked a few jobs while putting herself through school at UWM, where she earned her BA with a focus on music education and vocal studies. She then went on to get her MA (also from UWM) in Music Theory and Composition. “I honestly never thought I’d see the light of day,” she says of those workaholic days. “But I’m just so grateful that it’s paid off and I have the degrees and experience under my belt. Now I can make a living doing what I want to do.”
Julie’s been playing and performing for years, and has opened for various national acts including Green Day and Lowen and Navarro. Her past band projects enjoyed sponsorships of GHS strings and Zildjian cymbals. Besides her solo work, she has a band, Brandenburg 4, that she is currently recording in her studio. It may interest you audio geeks to know that in her studio she runs ProTools along with Sibelius, Peak Audio and Waves Renaissance plug-ins.
Julie has been an instructor at MATC since 2003. In the past, she’s given group lessons in Milwaukee Public Schools, and currently she rounds out her very busy schedule giving private piano and voice lessons and teaching music composition in her studio.
Interestingly, despite her early predilection for music, Julie wasn’t necessarily encouraged to be a musician. She persisted nonetheless. “I guess since I was smart, it was expected I could be a doctor or lawyer or something like that. You know, something I could make a living at,” she explained. “But you know what? I finally realized that it wasn’t something I could do anything about. I never had a choice. The music just always came.”
The music may have always been there, but the life she’s built didn’t come easily. Julie related the story that night at the Filling Station.
“I bought a house in Wauwatosa in a mistaken effort to grow up in my 30s. I lived there for a pretty long time, but it got to the point where I really couldn’t afford it anymore, and wasn’t enjoying being a homeowner … I remember I had spent like three weekends in a row scraping and painting my garage, and I realized ‘I don’t want to be doing this! I want to be writing music!’ I decided I was going to sell the house. I decided this right around the time that the housing market tanked, and my family was like, that’s a terrible plan. But actually it was the perfect plan, because I ended up getting a tenant. He could afford it, and moved into the house and I moved into Riverwest where I could afford to live. Eventually, everything worked out and my tenant bought the house.”
“I was without a piano for a couple of months while I was in transition in my living situation, and I didn’t have anything to play on. And I was having withdrawals. It was like, I need this [playing air-piano], I really need this!” With her tenant moving in and her belongings boxed up, Brandenburg was getting desperate to find a place. Then her boyfriend saw a sign advertising an apartment for rent on Center Street, in the building that used to house the famed Jazz Gallery music venue from 1970s-80s. Serendipity is a beautiful thing, and Brandenburg fell in love with the cool old place. Reopened as the Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts in 2012, the space is owned by the Riverwest Artists Association and stages jazz performances, art exhibits and other community-centric events. Julie’s been hosting Second-Tuesday night open mics and helping out with promoting the happenings there.
That recent night at the Filling Station, a nice little crowd of folks enjoyed a performance by one of Julie’s students, Cody Steinmann. Many among the crowd were Julie’s former or current MATC students, like Robert Dalsbo. According to Dalsbo, “Out of all the relationships between faculty and students, the feeling you get as a student of Julie’s is more like a family dynamic.” Chris Willis, another student, said that Julie’s reputation preceded her. “I had heard from some of her old students that she was a very supportive and honest teacher,” Willis said.
Want to enjoy some of that Brandenburg inspiration? You can get a taste by listening to her weekly radio show, “Compose Yourself,” on Riverwestradio.com on Wednesday nights. “It’s a two hour variety show focused on songwriting and composing, but involves all aspects of being a musician in all genres. We play original regional music and have guests on every week to talk about their work.”
You can link to Julie’s blog here: composeyourselfpodcast.wordpress.com