A whiskey-soaked siren
Armed with an accordion, Sacramento singer-songwriter Julie the Bruce squeezes out gypsy, cabaret and punk tunes
She stands just about 5 feet 2 inches and looks about as powerful as a pixie, but Sacramento musician Julie Bruce could blow a brick house down with her formidable voice.
Although she covers such songs as the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” Bruce wields a decidedly un-rock ’n’ roll instrument: a Sonola accordion. And when she plays, people pay attention.
Bruce performs at local coffee shops and venues under the “Julie the Bruce” moniker, but she can also be found busking on city streets of downtown Sacramento on the occasional weekday afternoon. She’s been a fixture of the local music scene for nearly 20 years, but her current project, best described as a mixture of prewar cabaret, post-punk riot grrrl and gypsy-folk music, is her best work by far.
Bruce writes most of her own music, with a few covers thrown in for good measure. Her ballads sound like Scottish drinking songs with a punk-rock ethos, and her voice bellows like that of a whiskey-soaked siren who’s pissed at the world.
By age 12, Bruce was already elbow deep in music. She often found herself alone with nothing but her thoughts. And so she turned to music.
“I didn’t have a very good family situation,” Bruce says. “I would [lock myself] in my bedroom a lot when I was a kid, and I had to escape into music to figure out a way to express myself.”
At that point, Bruce hadn’t had any formal musical training and didn’t even know how to play an instrument—but she wrote songs anyway.
“I just knew what [the music] was supposed to sound like in my head,” she says.
As a teen, Bruce would get together with her friends and sing under a bridge.
“There was a really good echo out there,” she says. “We’d sing stupid songs from Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.” She also made a habit of writing songs in her head as she walked home from school.
In the early ’90s, Bruce got her first official music gig playing in the Phlegmings, a punk-rock band. Back then, she was a starving student who had purchased a drum kit, bass and bass amp with a college grant. She started on drums in the band but eventually switched instruments because the group had a difficult time finding a bass player.
“I was pretty terrible at the drums, anyhow,” Bruce says.
Shortly after, she and the entire band moved into one house together in Midtown.
Over the years, Bruce played different instruments in different bands, including a stint as the first singer for local punk staple the Secretions.
In the late 2000s, she also hosted a matinee kids show at the Javalounge coffee shop. It was during one of these shows that she first performed on the accordion. She’s been in love with the squeezebox ever since.
Actually, her love for the instrument dates back more than a decade ago, when she saw singer-songwriter Mark Growden perform in Sacramento.
“He was so intense, and his voice was so dynamic,” Bruce says. “I was totally impressed.”
There were a few failed attempts at playing the accordion, but Bruce finally hit her stride.
The instrument is key to her songwriting, she says.
“I’ve always had a lot of melodies going through my head, and the accordion is the only thing that has been able to really express them,” Bruce says. “They just kind of come out.”
Currently, Bruce is in the process of recording tracks for an upcoming album. Ultimately, she says, she’d like to devote her life to music.
“I would love to be able to make music all day,” she said. “If someone wanted to squeeze the teat of my brain and milk the music out of me, I would [let them] do it.”