Julia Dratel
Julia Dratel Credit: Andrew Clinkman

Julia Dratel, 30, is an events producer, curator, radio DJ, activist, and visual artist. She’s taken photos for album artwork by Circuit des Yeux and Devouring the Guilt and created music videos for Health & Beauty, Mind Over Mirrors, and Spirits Having Fun. She’s also curated night two of the Elastro A/V Fall Festival at Elastic Arts on Saturday, October 9, which includes sound and video performances from Forest Management, Carol Genetti, and Dratel herself.

As told to Leor Galil

My mom is a painter, and she would take me to the studio with her when I was a kid—I would just sort of be there with her all day. I grew up in New York City—New York City apartments are small if you’re not, like, crazy wealthy. My dad is a huge music head. My babyhood bedroom was where he kept all his records; it was my crib and then ten cabinets of records.

When I was in middle school and high school, I started to make lots of mixes for friends. I’ve always been an obsessive completist—I would listen to a record, and then I would want to know everybody who played on it, and then every record that everybody who played on it played on. And then I would make, like, six-disc sets for friends. 

I don’t play music, but I tried when I was younger. I would always want to play an instrument, and people would tell me, “Your hands are too small.” Or, “You can’t do that.” It was really discouraging, but then it pushed me to the other parts of music.

I got involved in music in Chicago initially through WHPK. I was a DJ starting in 2009, my first year at University of Chicago, and I did a show called Souled & New, which technically still exists, although I haven’t been back to do it live during the pandemic. At the time, there were some cool concerts being booked at the station, and I would go take photos there. I’ve also always been interested in film, movies, and visual art. I didn’t set out to go take photos of lots of concerts—it just was like, “I’ll bring my camera,” and then I ended up enjoying doing it.

I met Daniel Wyche and Paul Giallorenzo, and they ended up asking me if I wanted to produce shows at Elastic; I was interested in booking experimental shows, and I had done photos there. That was the first base where I did shows more regularly, and it came out of the photography stuff. I still do a lot of photo stuff there as well. That’s one of the spaces that has really encouraged me to do a little bit of everything, and not necessarily have something I do as “a lane” or anything but rather different situations calling for different parts of myself. They have always welcomed that.

The Union of Musicians & Allied Workers—I’m pretty sure I got invited to a new-member meeting by Izzy True (I made a music video for them) and I think Curt Oren, who is also in Izzy True. At first I was a little bit cautious, because I’m not a musician. I think they invited me because I’m both sort of in the music world but also the organizing world, and I use a lot of those parts of myself, interchangeably, in both worlds. I really like doing cultural organizing, and I’m also interested in organizing within arts communities and labor organizing. One of the things that’s really cool about UMAW is there’s a lot of people who are first-time organizers—this is maybe the first political organization they’ve been a part of. That is one of the things I find really exciting—this new group of people being activated. 

Julia Dratel shot, edited, and codirected this Izzy True video.

I’m involved in the abolition subcommittee as well, on the national level. One of the things that has been really important to me is organizing with incarcerated people for their own self-determination, because so much of what incarceration is about is taking away somebody’s agency. One of the things that we’ve been doing in UMAW nationally is this thing called “Instruments Into Prisons,” which we’ve been doing with this label Die Jim Crow, which is based out of New York. We’re basically taking requests from incarcerated musicians to fulfill needs for recording equipment and music. So far we’ve been able to fill a bunch of different requests by a whole bunch of musicians. People are starting to record with them, so I’m really excited to see what happens with that. 

I was a volunteer with Chicago Community Jail Support. Me and my fellow coproducers, we all came together to do a fundraiser compilation for Chicago Community Jail Support. It was starting to become clear that this mutual-aid project, which is totally volunteer-run and -funded—it’s not a nonprofit—there was a consensus forming within the volunteer base that this was going to be a long-term project. People wanted to keep going through the winter. We wanted to do a fundraiser compilation to basically get this van and other things to winterize the operation. 

There were a lot of musicians involved in jail support, which kind of makes sense; you’re thinking about people who are grounded during the pandemic but have a van, but also can talk to people and stuff like that. A bunch of us who were musically minded came together and started working on trying to create this comp [Warm Violet], which we wanted to be a trip through the Chicago music scene. We focused on not really boxing ourselves into any one genre or type of music; it really was supposed to be a little bit of everything.

The Warm Violet compilation benefiting Chicago Community Jail Support

We put a lot of thought and effort into just making sure that there was intention put into every little part of it, from the people who ended up being part of the comp music-wise, to the cover, the inner art, the sequencing. The day that was, like, “Oh, this is really coming together” was when a couple of us sat on Zoom for a few hours sequencing it. It’s like 46 tracks. It took a while. That’s what was exciting about making this Chicago-centric compilation that also benefited this mutual-aid project that was abolitionist: trying to make sure that even though we all came at it from different musical networks, that we were putting it into this whole project that made everything come together. 

One of the things that the Chicago music scene has taught me is to be able to do things for fun, but also for each other.