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July 19, 2012
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Meet: Madam Jules

By Chad Taylor

Madam Jules plays a benefit show for Brian Ledesma with Mindrite, Pie in the Sky and Come Unity on July 21 at Bombay Bicycle Club. Show starts at 8 p.m.

Madam Jules stands unique in Des Moines’ alt rock scene, for a couple of reasons. Most obviously, there is the talent of its singer/songwriter, the titular Julia Mahlstadt.

“I started writing music, actually started doing hip-hop and R&B hooks, when I lived down in Austin, Texas,” Mahlstadt said, sitting outside the Royal Mile. “That’s how I first started, and then I needed to communicate with musicians to be able to transpose what I’m hearing in my head to make an actual song out of it.”

From there, Mahlstadt began learning guitar and evolved from writing R&B rhymes to sussing out chord progressions and creating songs on her own. But things really took off for Mahlstadt artistically once she moved back to the capital city.

“I hooked up with Donnie Mengwasser from Mindright,” recalled Mahlstadt. “We’d gone to high school together, he’s an Indianola alum. He said, ‘I hear you’re singing and writing; I record.’ And at first I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever, cool.’ But eventually I went over there. I’d worked with a lot of people who didn’t understand my writing style, and he was like the first one who was able to really grasp onto it and create the feel that I was trying to convey.”

While she continues to play rhythm guitar in Madam Jules, Mahlstadt’s true instrument is her voice. Listening to her, whether it’s live on stage or in the band’s first album, “Part of the Equation,” the immediate take-aways are the clarity, strength and emotion of her voice. Her vocals are plaintive and sexy, and her voice lends a weight to her words that belie her 26 years.

For the past year, Mahlstadt has played and recorded alongside drummer Cody Smith, bassist Jared Williams and lead guitarist Blake Brennan. But the band added another dimension its sound in June with the addition of guitarist Jayson Kempf.

By adding Kempf to the lineup rather than simply swapping out lead guitarists, Madam Jules has added a different level of complexity to its sound.

“It frees up everything,” said Kempf. “When it first started out as a songwriting aspect with just Jules and her acoustic guitar, it was simple — just a four-chord progression or something like that. And then bring in two other guitars into the mix on top of it; it has the effect of bringing in different dynamics and different levels of syncopation.”

“I love it,” adds Mahlstadt. “For me, there’s times where we’d have a practice and I’d start singing stuff and (Jayson would) be playing the same notes after he’d been going off on a tangent and all of a sudden he came back and he’d be matching up with what I sang and I’d be like, ‘How does he come up with that?’ But that’s Jason.”

Kempf’s transition into the band was made easier, thanks to his comfortable working relationship with Brennan, the band’s other lead guitarist.

“I’ve been playing with Blake for nine or 10 years in Mindright,” said Kempf. “So we play together like a married couple does that’s been together 50 years: ‘Oh, you’re gonna do this? Then I can do this then.’ ”

The band has gigs lined up around the city through the summer and up to October. After that, the immediate future of the band is on hold, due to Mahlstadt’s other project. (She’s a mom-to-be.)

“I’m due 12/12/12,” she beamed. “Hopefully around October, we’ll finish out any gigging, then November through February writing more stuff.”

Once she’s ready, expect new music from Madam Jules featuring the full lineup.

“What’s recorded now is just my guitar and Donnie. In the springtime, I hope to be ready to hit it hard.” CV

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