If you liked this article share it with your friends. They will thank you later.


Julia, U2 and Me – Matt Calman Reflects on the Power of Song

image `Julia Deans by Gary Thomas Photography

Singer, songwriter Julia Deans revisited her creative roots in Ōtautahi last week to perform songs from Irish band U2’s seminal album The Joshua Tree with the Come Together Supergroup. Matt Calman caught up with Julia ahead of the gig to discuss her music career and growing up in Christchurch in the late 1980s when U2 hurtled like a freight train into both of their lives.

The Joshua Tree, U2’s fifth studio album, was released on 9 March, 1987.

The internet age hadn’t dawned yet. It was before you had millions of songs at the tap of your fingertips, when you played lo-fi dubbed cassettes on your clunky double tape deck till it chewed the cellulose into mangled bird’s nests. You used your finger or a pencil to slowly wind the tape back into place. My young daughters neither had the slightest concept of what a dub tape was, nor the patience to listen to me explain it. Boring!

I was just 10, living in Avonhead, Christchurch, in what seemed a fairly barren cultural landscape. It was the second album I owned and it completely captured my imagination. It was from another world. Ireland, its Tūrangawaewae, may as well have been another planet to me. I still have the cassette, the seams of its cover sleeve held together by yellowing 3M magic tape. Printed in delicate gold lettering inside is the dedication to their roadie, New Zealander Greg Carroll, who died the year before. Their song for him –  ‘One Tree Hill’  – still holds a special place in the hearts of many Kiwis. I still admire the terrific black-and-white sleeve photography of the band in the Mojave Desert by Anton Corbijn.

I catch up with Julia a couple of days before the show. She’s exhausted from days of rehearsals in Auckland learning backing vocal parts, and percussion arrangements. It’s been a solid seven-hour day and her mind is swirling with the tangi of a thousand notes, the shaka-shak  of tambourines. We laugh about how we seem to bump into each other once a year somewhere in the country, at winery gigs, merch desks, or in Koru lounges. Julia and my older sister Julie  were thick as thieves throughout high school. I have many half-memories of those days, but we begin to fill in gaps in each other’s recollections. I remember pretty clearly my sister coming home from her first day at Burnside High School excited at having met “a really cool girl called Julia”.

image Image: Matt Calman

They both fell into a really lovely wider circle of mates at school and at our youth group. And they were nice enough to let me tag along with them sometimes.

Julia’s set to play from U2’s impressive back catalogue at the Theatre Royal so my first question is whether she was a actually a fan. The elephant in the room is my own massive obsession with U2 in those days. In fact, Julia remembers the depth of my U2 fandom better than I do.  “It might have even been you that gave me a cassette-tape-dubbed copy of Joshua Tree and I used to just listen to that on repeat hard out,” Julia recalls. “I was about 12 or 13 when Rattle and Hum came out. I remember coming around to your guys’ place and hanging out and you were a massive U2 fan and you were like, ‘this is a much better album’. And you introduced me to [the albums] War and Boy as well.” It’s usually the older siblings who turn the younger ones onto these things, she adds. “So thank you!”

I tell Julia: “I wanted to go to the concert in 1989 at Lancaster Park, but my parents wouldn’t let me. I was too young. But Dad drove me to the top of the Port Hills to listen. Did your parents let you go?”

“Oh hell no!” Julia shoots back. “My parents were like evangelical Christians. I remember hearing them at night. They were sitting in their bedroom, reading the lyrics from Rattle and Hum and saying ‘do you think we should let her listen to this?’ I remember hearing them discuss if it was the devil’s music. I always like a bit of religious imagery probably because of my upbringing as well.”

Religious imagery is in fact sprinkled throughout many of U2’s songs, in response to the sectarian violence of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, dripping with faith, influenced by a country where belief is ingrained in daily life. Ironically, despite the subsequent fervent debate around whether U2 is in fact the biggest Christian band in history, Julia’s parents did indeed deem it the “devil’s music”.

“Is this sort of repression and conservatism something that fed the creatives of Christchurch back in those days?” I ask.

“That and there’s nothing else the fuck to do, especially pre-cell phones and the internet, and heat pumps. It was cold and you sat in your bedroom and you played the guitar and mucked around to keep warm and keep entertained.”

Julia’s earliest performances were singing in church which she “used to really enjoy”. She learnt piano from an early age, and got her first guitar around the time she discovered U2. In her spare time, she busked with Forte her first (all-female) band made up of high school mates. My wife, Ranui, remembers going to see them at the Arts Centre. I have a shaky memory of watching them with my sister in Cathedral Square. Julia remembers heading to Cashel Mall on crisp Friday nights to perform. “Funnily enough … Jason Kerrison would be there every Friday night stealing our spot,” she laughs. “You’d take your turns vying for the best spot … to busk and he would always have this massive crowd around him while he was being the brown Bono basically. All he would play was U2 songs.”

I remind Julia how exciting it was one of our mates was performing to actual audiences. It was next-level exciting when Julia’s second high school band The Far Side (named after the Gary Larson cartoon) went all the way to the finals of the Rock Quest, winning Best Original Song in 1991. Julia was mesmerising. Whether it was singing on the back of a flatbed truck in the Bush Inn Centre carpark to 15 people or at a packed Town Hall,  we all knew she was going to be a star, even if she didn’t know it herself. She had that indefinable star quality that makes her special even then.  “I don’t think it was conscious thing. Things just kind of followed on. I don’t feel I ever forced myself into that.”

After leaving high school, Julia left Christchurch and joined Wellington-based Celtic rock band Banshee Reel, which took her around New Zealand and overseas. Greater fame was to follow with Fur Patrol, and a certain song (Lydia) which spent a heady 19 weeks on the New Zealand Singles Chart, reaching number one on Christmas Eve, 2000. She’s reached critical acclaim with solo albums Modern Fables and We Light Fire, and collaborated with Jon Toogood, Ladi6, Tiki Taane, Anika Moa, and Shayne Carter in supergroup The Adults. The only thing that has eluded her is a big international hit.

“Yeah it would have been nice to have had [that] and not be struggling to pay the rent from time to time. It’s luck and timing, having all the stars align [with] the right team behind you and the right song. Who knows, it’s a mystery.”

One of the challenges facing working musicians these days is carving out space for a career when so many more people are making music due to the mass availability of home production equipment. “It’s great. It’s so much more affordable. But it’s also harder to work out how to pinpoint in terms of marketing and the whole social media thing. And for an old person like me who just has zero fucks to give about social media. It makes everything so much harder,” she says.

“I just want to do the music. I don’t want to have to do Tik Tok videos and selfies.”

Greater competition for the music dollar with touring international acts, coupled with fewer smaller live venues, especially since covid, meant concepts like Come Together were a welcome source of both regular work and income. Ultimately, the stage remains Julia’s happy place.

image Leonie Moreland Photography

“For me I’m a huge proponent of just getting out and playing for people, singing the songs and just performing. Because that’s where you make the actual connections, you know. And it is hard work, but I also find it incredibly fun. The real buzz for me is having that interaction with an audience no matter what size it is.”

Joining Julia on the Theatre Royal stage were Toogood (Shihad, The Adults), Dianne Swann (When the Cats Away), the still-boyish-looking Milan Borich (Pluto) and relative newcomer Jazmine Mary. It feels like a disservice to Mary to call them a newcomer, when it is I who am the newcomer to their music. I must have been living under a rock when their hauntingly beautiful debut album The Licking of A Tangerine was released, its songs slow and steady and devastating like lava flow.

The band backing the “stars” included some of New Zealand’s most accomplished touring musicians: guitarists Brett Adams (The Mockers) and Jol Mulholland (Gasoline Cowboy), drummer Alistair Deverick (Lawrence Arabia), keyboardist Matthias Jordan (Pluto) and bassist Mike Hall (Pluto).

On Thursday night, the stalls in the Theatre Royal slowly filled with a mainly older demographic of concert goers. Many of them were at least a decade older than me . It makes sense. Their interest dates to the genesis of U2 in the late 70s. I was a mere straggler to the U2 party. However, we’re all there to reconnect to the music from our youth, to the music that made us feel something. For me it was the music I clung to as I formed my identity and values. U2 seemed to stand for something greater than themselves. I liked their idealism, and politics. And of course the songs. U2 was the one constant throughout what was a fairly dark and lonely adolescence. The music, for me, was the light.

“That’s a really impressionable age,” Julia agrees. “That’s when you really form … when you really start feeling the big feels and you’re becoming aware of much more adult emotions and starting to take in all those.”

My own daughters are now finding their own U2, committing the lyrics of their favourite artist to memory, disappearing into the melodies, and using music as a conduit for their own strong thoughts and emotions. It’s a beautiful thing to witness.

“[U2] were a really huge band,” Julia remembers. “I think we forget how influential they were.”

I did eventually get to a U2 gig when they returned to Lancaster Park with the Zoo TV tour in 1993. It was magnificent. The zenith of my obsession was meeting Bono outside the band’s hotel at 3am with a handful of other fans. A photo survives of the coolest man on the planet signing the shirt of the least cool 16-year-old in Christchurch. I mean, what the hell was I wearing?

The Come Together show is mimicry in one sense, but unlike most other tribute bands they’re not trying to actually convince us we’re seeing U2. There’s nods to Bono and the lads, the music is faithful to the original, but the performers each have their own considerable skills as front people and musicians. They channel themselves as much as they channel U2.

In the first half they play The Joshua Tree album in its entirety. Jon Toogood stands and delivers With or Without You. The cold-blue downlight matches the original video and I think of Bono swaying back and forth, his guitar strapped to his back. My mind wanders to my wedding when I danced with my wife to this song. I also think of the freezing night in Christchurch – it may have been a New Year’s night – when a youthful Toogood played extremely loudly with his band Shihad. I’m thinking of all the moments Toogood has given us also. Julia sings her favourite U2 song Red Hill Mining Town. It’s one of my favourites too. I watch on like a proud little brother as she commands the stage, her beautiful Bellbird voice crafted across 1000 gigs since that Rock Quest performance. She also sings Mothers of the Disappeared with her hair slicked back at the sides into a late 198os-era Bono mullet.

For the second half each singer chooses their favourite songs from rest of the U2 catalogue. Guitarist Jol Mulholland speaks about the 1989 concert at Lancaster Park. He was 11, and stood and watched The Edge walk across the stage with his Fender Stratocaster, struck the first chords, and his “life changed”. Dianne Swann mentions knowing Greg Carroll and what a beautiful guy he was and that it was little wonder U2 hired him. Milan Borich performs Who’s Going to Ride Your Wild Horses and my mind flashes to listening to it through shared headphones with a girl at my year 9 school camp. When the distinctive slashing-guitar riff of early hit I will Follow rings out two dozen die-hards leave the comfort of the stalls to dance in the aisles.

It’s a night for connecting to the past, of blazing memories, but by the end of the show we’re all fully present , in the moment, engrossed in the music, listening to “some of the best songs of our lives” as Toogood describes them. The show finishes with two songs sung by Mary: U2’s anti-violence anthem Sunday Bloody Sunday, and civil-rights anthem Pride (In the Name of Love). During Sunday Bloody Sunday Mary storms from one side of the stage to the other, throwing their head back, mouth impossibly wide, to unleash their powerful voice. They are unpredictable, dangerous, and utterly compelling. And you can’t help but reflect on how sadly relevant the song still is, with death and misery continuing in Gaza and Ukraine, and everywhere else there is conflict and hatred in the world.

After high school, I moved away from U2 and broadened my musical tastes. Growing up was part of it. Days after the concert, I find myself whistling Red Hill Mining Town at my kitchen sink, a nearly 40-year-old song reawakened in me. Because, after all, good music never dies. It was special  to connect again to the songs that had meant so much to me. And it was special to talk about old times with Julia. But my overarching memory of the night was seeing our mate Julia singing the “devil’s music” like a soaring angel.

The Theatre Royal hosts Come Together Led Zeppelin IV on July 19, and, Come Together The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is on August 30.


Subscribe to our Newsletter

Fill in your details below.