New artist Julie Roberts recently visited the CMT offices at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning — a time practically unheard of for a musician. While most folks can barely grumble their coffee order at that hour, the 25-year-old darling of Lancaster, S.C., was eager to talk about the inspiration behind her debut single “Break Down Here,” working as a secretary for the man who ultimately signed her to a record deal — and those persistent comparisons to Faith Hill.
CMT: What do you remember the most about filming the “Break Down Here” video?
Roberts: Two things stick out in my mind. First of all, I woke up at 3:15 that morning and drove out to the shoot at 4:30 a.m. What I remember & was pulling up and there being so many people there working on the video. I actually thought there was going to be another video filmed at the same time because I didn’t know what to expect! & There were so many trailers set up and so many men out there, it kinda made me nervous immediately. “All those people are there for me?” And also, because we were in the desert, I thought it was going to be really hot. And it was freezing. In the rain scene, everyone had on coats and [were] standing in front of heaters. I was about to freeze. I promise you, it was between 30 and 40 degrees. I was expecting it to be super-duper hot because of the desert. I’d never been out there. It heats up a little during the day, but this was in January.
Did you have somebody behind you picking up the stuff you were tossing out the window?
Yes, we did. We had a car driving right behind us. Police would block off the road so that a car could drive behind us and also because I wasn’t a very good driver. Sometimes I actually was driving. Sometimes they were pulling me. The steering wheel was really loose, and it was an old car, so it was hard for me to steer and do other stuff at the same time. (laughs) They blocked off the road just for the amount of time it’d take me to drive down to one end and then turn around and go to the other end.
I had a walkie-talkie beside me, and Steven [Goldmann, the director] would be in the car behind me, talking to me. “Julie, drop the locket,” you know? And then they’d pick it up. We had three snow globes but we waited until the end to do those, because we couldn’t redo those, because they broke.
When I listen to your record, it’s really pleasant to hear you singing, instead of just hearing a bunch of production.
Thank you. Brent [Rowan] produced it, and he’s known for letting the singer be the singer, and not trying to cover the singer up, and I really appreciate him doing that.
What were some of your goals going into the studio?
Well, we set a lot of our goals prior to going into the studio. We found songs that I believed, songs that were close to me. And then going in the studio, our goal was — because I believed it in my heart — to convey that to the listener. When we did vocals, it was always just Brent and myself. Nobody else. So I’m able to get into that place and convey the believability. That was my goal.
Why did “Break Down Here” appeal to you?
About three years ago this August, I was working as a receptionist at Mercury [Records in Nashville]. Mama was back in South Carolina living by herself. She was in a not-so-great place in her life, and she needed a fresh start. So I started faxing out her resume & and she got a call and an interview at a mattress manufacturer. When they offered her a job that day, she knew this was where she was supposed to be, no question. So Mama has a ’91 Ford Escort, and she still drives that. We’ve always had troubles with it. One day she’ll get a new Escort (laughs) or a new car, but right now, that’s what we can have. And it always breaks down.
Mama was moving up here, and I said, “God, please don’t let Mama’s car break down. Help her get here because I don’t want anything to change her mind and go back.” When I heard “Break Down Here,” it was Mama’s story. Even the line about the cigarette and “I’m down to my last drag.” Mama smokes. She’s gonna stop when my song gets into the Top 10, she promises me. I’ve been on her my whole life. She’s living here now, and when I heard that song, I knew I had to do it because it’s all about her. She’s got her fresh start, and she’s really happy. That’s why I want her to quit smoking, because she’s got a shot now.
What characteristics do you and your mom have in common?
We’re both very driven. We’re goal-oriented. We set goals, and we never take our eyes off those goals. & We’re hard workers. We’ve always had to work hard for everything. Nothing’s ever been given to us. We’re strong in our faith. We rely on our faith a lot, for life. It’s a huge part of our lives. I think that’s it. We both like to have fun and be happy. We’re both a “cup is half full, not half empty” kind of person. We’re always optimistic.
Why did you decide to move to Nashville?
I always wanted to sing from the time I was really little. It’s been my only goal. Mama put me in these beauty pageants when I was little. I couldn’t even read or write, so she would fill out these forms for me, with hobbies and your favorite food and stuff, so the judges could interview you. And my ambition would always be to be a country singer like Barbara Mandrell. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I wanted to do it even before I could write.
So I moved here, but I didn’t know how to break into country music. Trisha Yearwood has always been somebody I’ve looked up to, and I read a lot about her and learned that she went to Belmont University. I learned that when I was in high school, so I said, “I’m going to Belmont, too, and maybe I can figure out how to make it in country music.” I knew I couldn’t go to Belmont for four years, because I couldn’t afford it, so I did really well in high school and got a scholarship to go to USCL [University of South Carolina in Lancaster] and got to go there for free. Everything was paid for. Then I got a small scholarship to come to Belmont my last two years. Got loans like everybody else. (laughs) I’ll be paying back those loans forever. At least it’s a tax write-off.
After interning for two years, you got hired at Mercury Records and ultimately became the assistant to Luke Lewis, the president of the label. Why didn’t you ever tell him you were a singer?
I had always heard at Belmont that if you work at a label or intern at a label, you’re there to work for the artist. You’re not there to pass your tape around, and I was scared I’d get fired. I had car payments and had to live. I couldn’t get fired. So I didn’t. I played at night with some guys I went to school with at Belmont, but we played in little places like Guido’s or Harvey Washbanger’s. We played at little places like that and nobody came. Maybe my roommate and one of the guys’ girlfriends would come, but nobody in the industry knew. If they did, they never said anything, and I never offered it.
One night we were playing at [the local club] 3rd & Lindsley, and they were announcing it on a non-country station. I don’t even know what the other stations are here, but it was another station. One of the guys that worked there asked, “Do you play in a band, because I heard on this station today that you all are playing.” And I said, “Yeah, but don’t talk about it.” And that was it. So I didn’t tell anybody, especially didn’t tell Luke because I was scared I’d get fired, and I wanted them to know me for me and my work ethic. I didn’t know if I would end up at Mercury. I didn’t know if I’d get a record deal at all. It’s what I wanted. It’s my only goal. I didn’t have a back-up plan. I just wanted it to happen on its own.
Some of our viewers are comparing you to an early Faith Hill. What is your reaction to that?
I love it. I’ll take it any day. I’m a huge fan of hers. I think she’s a great person to be compared to. I’ve always loved her music and her early music especially. As far as looking like her, as some people say, I’ll tell you what my Mama says: “Just tell ’em you’ve got good genes!” (laughs)
What do you think when people say you’re being positioned to take Faith Hill’s place at country radio?
I don’t know. That’s not really my goal. I want to make my own way. I want to have my own audience. If it overlaps with hers, and we share the same fans, that’s awesome. Because I’m a fan of hers, and I love her music as well. Of course, I want to be everywhere. If that happens, it would be awesome. I’m definitely not trying to take over her. Of course, I want to be where she is. I’m just going to keep working to get there. I’m not stopping. Like I said, I don’t have a backup plan.
More than once, I’ve seen your video out of the corner of my eye, and I thought it was Faith’s “Cry” video. Did you realize your videos would be so similar?
Hmm-mmm. No. Never did. We did the rain scene in the car because in the song, she’s driving and it’s raining. I never thought about it and, honestly, I didn’t see any of the playbacks when we were filming it. I never really made the comparison between her and me until I started hearing it. And even when I saw my video, it never hit me then until someone pointed it out to me. But when we were making it? No, I never thought about it.
From getting started to now, what has been the most difficult part?
(long pause) Nothing. I tend not to complain. I scanned groceries for two and a-half years before I worked at Mercury. I guess the hardest part for me is just managing my time, but I love everything. Every day is very different. I love that. It’s what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s not hard. It’s just what I love. I love meeting people. I love doing interviews. I love playing live, taking my music out to everybody. I love every aspect of it, and it’s not hard, because it’s what I love. It’s not really a job. People say, “What do you do for fun, Julie?” And this is what I do for fun. This is my hobby. And I get to do it as my job.