Expanded Roster | Julianna Zobrist on Identity, Authority, and Pulling it Off
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Julianna Zobrist on Identity, Authority, and Pulling it Off

By: Kelly Wallace

Julianna Zobrist is a lot of things. She’s a musician, a motivational speaker, a lover of fashion and art, and now the author of a new book, “Pull it Off.” She sat down with us at The Peninsula Hotel last week to talk about the book, Raphael’s “The School of Athens”, and, naturally, your subgenual anterior cingulate cortex!

First, why don’t you just tell me a little bit about where you grew up and how you got to where you are now?

Julianna Zobrist:  I was born in Iowa City, studied classical music for 15 years. I’m one of six siblings, which is fun. Then, my husband and I met when I was a junior in high school, we’ve been lifelong friends. I went to Belmont University to study music, and graduated there with music and business degree, got married to my husband, and his wedding gift to me was an 88-key MIDI keyboard.

So, I traveled around with him, recorded my own music, wrote all of my own songs. Those songs and the messaging really became the expanded version of my heart, just like “Pull It Off” is.

When did you start to be interested in music? And where did your interest in fashion come from?

JZ: Music, forever. My mom says that I sang before I talked. I was always interested in music, and like I said, studied classical music, as well. I was a classical piano player for about 15 years, and then also voice. When I went to Belmont University, I studied, they call it commercial voice, which is more just, you can major in more of pop music, or jazz, or rock, or something.

Fashion has always been a love of mine. I love any fun, creative, colorful way of expressing myself and fashion is just another way to do it, for me.

When you first started to step more into the spotlight, what was that like for you? How did you adjust to having that kind of platform where you could really do what you wanted to be doing and have an audience for it?

JZ: I loved it, because I love people. I love to connect with people. I love knowing them, and I love knowing where we connect with each other, and how we’re similar. That was so fun for me, to be able to meet everybody, and to know that we were like-minded in so many ways. That was very fun for me. The difficulty that comes along with some of that is that you receive more input,  you receive more opinions from people.

I would imagine that you get a lot of unsolicited feedback.

JZ: Yes, we definitely do. There’s a chapter in the book called “Don’t Should on Me.” That addresses, in a tongue-in-cheek, humorous way, how to combat all of the opinions that people have about you and the way that you need to be living your life.

Do you feel any responsibility to be a role model, to do things like this, to share that positivity and the lessons that you feel like you have to impart to people?

JZ: I wouldn’t say responsibility in any kind of burdensome way, it doesn’t feel like a burden. It really does feel like a joy, especially with the messaging that our culture can feed us right now, one of perfection, or one of, “Be fearless, and don’t care about what people think.”

The rest of us are going, “But we do, still. How are we supposed to navigate that?” I count it such a great privilege to be able to write down my thoughts and what has worked for me, when it comes to the messages and things that I know that we’re all being bombarded with.

Writing music, I assume, is very different from writing a book, in process and experience.

JZ: It definitely is, yes.

Tell me a little bit about that process, 209 pages isn’t easy!

JZ: No, it was not easy to do. 52,222 words was a much different process, namely because when you’re writing music, you’re inhibited, not in a bad way, but there are boundaries to music because of syllables, and because of rhyme, and because of length of song. You can’t have a four hour long song, which is what my book would be, if you were to sing it.

Writing music, in some way, is, I would never say easier, but you have more parameters to it, just simply by nature of it being a song. When I began writing the book, I thought, “I have all of the words. I can truly just become really obsessed with the dictionary,” which is exactly what I did. I was very patient with myself to find the right word, the intentional word for whatever it was that I was trying to communicate.

How long did it take you to write the book?

JZ: It took my five hours every day for eight months.

When people read it, what would you say is, if you could identify one lesson that you really want people to take when they finish the book, what would you say that would be?

JZ: I would hope that when people finish the book, that they walk away feeling their worth, knowing their value, that it’s innate, that it’s intrinsic. It’s been given to them. It’s not going anywhere. And really, that when we believe and know our worth and our value, on the other side of that is where our courage comes from and our confidence.

One of the things you talked a lot about in the book is your relationship with your faith, and how that plays into your identity. Do you just want to talk to me a little bit about why that’s so important to you and how that’s shaped you as a person?

JZ: Yeah, definitely. My faith is so interwoven in who I am, it’s hard for me to differentiate between the two. It’s also very important to me to be sincere in the way that I’m communicating. My faith is that part of my journey, as well.

The most simple way I think of communicating what it is is it comes back to this idea of worth. I believe that God created all of us. It says that he created us in his image, with his likeness. If I am to believe that to be true, which I do, then that means that you display a picture of God, and of his character, and his proclivity, and his image, that I don’t display, but I display a different part. Likewise, every person in this room is displaying a different part of his character, and his personality, and his image.

When we can come to grips with that, then that, for me, has just been liberating, because now, it doesn’t matter that we look different, or that we have different gifts, or that we express ourselves differently, because it’s no longer a competition. It’s no longer you against me. It’s all of us collectively, together, displaying to the world different images, and pictures, and expressions.

A lot of mothers I’ve met have expressed that it can be hard to maintain your individual personality and your identity without letting your family take that over in some way. Is that something that you felt like happened to you? How did you really feel secure in being you, and your own person, and whatever that means, totally separate from your family?

JZ: That’s a great question. I think every mom is blindsided by that reality. There is a moment in time in which you truly are just nose to the grindstone, and being a mom, and never getting out of sweats. However, there’s a chapter in the book called, “The 5:00 Glass of Pinot”.

There is and always was, for me, this temptation to just live for the end of the day, like, live for nap time, live for my glass of wine. I realized that I was selling myself short, you know? That wasn’t accurate. When you think that you’re worthy and you’re valuable, then you have something to offer the world. I think being a mom is one of the most beautiful responsibilities and roles that there can be, but that doesn’t mean that you’re not still who you are.

So much of my message in the book and “The 5:00 Glass of Pinot” is, you don’t have to live just for that. You can keep your foot in the door. Really, that’s my only encouragement. Who’s telling you that you can’t pull off in life what it is you want? Maybe it’s as simple as picking up a book at nap time instead of turning on the TV, or maybe it’s as deliberate as getting out the paintbrush that’s been dry for 10 years since college, and just trying to tap back in, invest back into your own heart and your own mind.

As you said, there’s a lot of pressure in the world we live in now, especially on women, especially on young girls. I think a lot of people say, “You can’t,” as opposed to, “You can.” What would you say to someone who’s maybe younger, who wants to do big things like you are, who might not feel like they can or like it’s for them?

JZ: That’s why I titled the book “Pull It Off”, because that’s what I get all the time. “I could never pull that off. I could never pull that off.” I started asking the reverse question and just saying, “Why do you feel like you can’t pull it off? Who’s telling you that you can’t? Is it time? Is it family? Is it resource? Is it religion? What are the inhibitors in your life that are keeping you from doing what it is that you want to do?”

It was so interesting, because honestly, 9 times out of 10, there was no answer. There was no specific answer. It was just genuinely their own insecurity or their own self-doubt. There’s disconnect between their worth and value and expressing themselves fully, or investing in themselves, or in their career, or whatever it is that they were wanting to do. The messaging of “Pull It Off” is basically that. You’ve got to define for yourself what it is that you want to pull of in life and exercise your courage to be able to pull it off.

It sounds like your family has always been really supportive of you, have you always felt like they were happy for you and your career?

JZ: Definitely. They always have been. My husband, from day one, like I said, he bought me an 88-key MIDI keyboard. That was his gift to me. I don’t think my dad would have let me walk down the aisle should my husband had in any way tried to limit me. It’s sort of a logistical nightmare for us to navigate both of our careers with three children, but it’s important for us to maintain our passions while still keeping everything in perspective and having our priorities really set.

In the beginning of the book, you talk a bit about your wedding. For folks who haven’t read it yet, do you want to talk a little bit about what you said, and why that’s an example of the lessons you’re trying to share?

JZ: I’ve tried to communicate it in a tender way. You want to have champagne, but you’re afraid that other people are going to care that you’re having champagne, or you want to wear a pink wedding dress, but you feel like maybe you shouldn’t wear a pink wedding dress. You want to have carrot cake, but maybe somebody will be allergic, so you kind of shut down all of these things. At least for me, I shut down all of these things that would have been an honest and fun representation of me and what I love, because I was just afraid. I was just afraid of what other people would think of me. I was afraid of them not approving of me.

That’s where I realized that all of these shoulds of the world, we either live tethered to them, or we untie ourselves from them and live in freedom, and just put your hands up in the air. If it’s not hurting anybody, then why do we care so much? Why are we so inhibited by what somebody may or may not be thinking about us? There is so much liberation when you let go of that.

When you feel that sort of pressure or self-doubt from all these different places, how do you get yourself back into a positive headspace? It’s hard to maintain 100% confidence in yourself all the time.

JZ: Yeah, definitely. I think that that is one of the main things that we have to reframe in our heads. There’s not any kind of reality in an absolute message of fearlessness, or not caring, or total confidence. That doesn’t exist. Nobody has that. What we can relate on is that we all have insecurity. We all have self-doubt. That happens on a daily basis.

One of the tools that I talk about in the book is where courage comes from in the brain. It comes from this part of the brain called the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex. The amazing thing about this part of the brain is that it functions more like a muscle than it does an organ. You’re able to actually train it to get stronger, and stronger, and stronger. While fear will never cease to exist, or insecurity may never cease to exist in our lives, we get stronger in the way that we fight against it and use it.

When we affirm that fear’s not going anywhere, we can think about how to use it. Then, fear becomes a catalyst. It becomes something not to be afraid of, but you can look at it as your door to walk through. You have to walk through it to be able to get that courage and that confidence.

You split your time between Chicago and Nashville right now. Tell me a little about what you like about Nashville and why that’s home base.

JZ: We’ve lived there for 16 years, since 2002. Our best friends live there. We live on a farm. We live in a barn. I just so enjoy having the space and being around nature. Nature is one of those things that, from childhood, has always been a source of inspiration for me.

Chicago is obviously very different than that. What inspires you about being here?

JZ: it’s the diversity of the people. Diversity of thought, and of ethnicity, and all of the museums, and getting to go to all of the museums. I love the art culture here. It is really fascinating, to me.

Is that something that’s been a benefit of trying to manage two difficult schedules? You get to see a lot of places, you get to experience a lot of new things.

JZ: Yes, absolutely. I’ve said so many times that my favorite thing about our lives is just getting to offer our kids a pretty broad perspective of the way that you can do life. There are so many places to live and see. None of them are bad or wrong. It’s just your own taste, it’s your own proclivity. What is it about this place that you love? I do make a point, whenever we’re traveling, to go to all of the art museums, in all of the places that we travel.

Given all of the travel, the work, and having three children, where did you find time to write?

JZ: I called it my office, but it was my piano room. I have this blue velvet sofa that I just hunkered down on while the kids were at school. They home-school. While they were doing school, and my two-year old was entertained by my friend, that’s when I would just force myself to get into this creative mind and this creative space. I’m annoyingly obsessed with the calendar and really scheduled out everything down to the day.

What do you feel like doing this taught you about yourself? Because, obviously, a lot of what you write about is identity. Do you feel like you found something new in yourself?

JZ:  Yeah. It felt way more simple than I ever thought that it would. I felt like everything about my faith, about what I knew, became more simple. Maybe it’s because I realized I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew.

One of my favorite art references, speaking of art, is Plato and Aristotle, and how Raphael did the School of Athens. The whole picture is showing us all of these chief thinkers of the time, all of these philosophers, mathematicians, writers, astrologists, that are all gathering around together, and talking, and discussing, and having dialogue over these issues. It’s really eye-opening, and yes, simplifying for me to just think we might always be asking these same questions. That’s okay. That’s why I think it’s so important to give ourselves tools without thinking that the end goal is to figure it out, or the end goal is perfection, or the end goal is to know that I’m right, and I can stake my ground on it.

There was something really liberating about going, “I don’t know as much as I thought I did.” That’s okay. That’s actually a really peaceful and confident place to be.

What made you decide you were going to write a book?

JZ: It was honestly the need. After my shows, my favorite part is getting to talk to people. I realized that although, circumstantially, our lives all looked very different, the 12 year-old girl was hearing the same thing as the 84 year-old woman, like, the message of don’t “should” on me. All of these “shoulds”, all of these pressures that we can feel, that we can put on ourselves, that was being communicated across generations.

After I realized that, I was just so lucky to get to go around and speak about this for a while, for an entire year. As I was speaking, I began doing my research and writing down my thoughts. In that way, it was an organic process. “Pull It Off” is basically the result of that journey.

You mentioned it briefly before, but do you want to talk a little more about the title?

JZ: It really is the question that I get asked all the time. “How do you pull it off?” Or, “I could never pull that off.” If I hear that one more time, I’m just going to lose my mind! I’m kidding.

We sort of sell ourselves short. I think that we all do that, in some way. When you realize your worth and your value, even in your own expression, then that can be the catalyst. I want people to reframe it when they think, “I could never,” fill in the blank. Why? Be willing to answer that question for yourself.

I know it just came out, but I’m sure people have read it already. What’s the reaction been like so far? Is it scary at all?

JZ: I am thrilled. It’s a little bit scary, just like if you were to walk into a room naked. It’s scary at first. Then, it’s like, “What you see is what you get,” you know? Nothing I can do now! It’s already out there, so I have nothing to be afraid of.

I definitely was as sincere and honest as I could be. I think that that’s what’s resonating with people, just the willingness to talk about things that are not addressed very often. It’s been fun to see just people responding with really attaching themselves to different chapters, because the book is pretty broad. It addresses authority, and where all of these insecurities come from, and why we do this to ourselves, and then, in turn, why we do this to others, and then how people do it.

We do hit a number of different topics. It’s been really cool to see people respond and go, “Oh my word, I loved the part about emotional laziness,” or, “Oh my word, I loved verbal gymnastics. That was so inspiring to me.” I’m grateful that everybody is finding something for themselves.

What are you working on next? Are you going to focus on writing more in the future?

JZ: In the next few months, you’ll see more music. We’ve written and recorded some new stuff, which’ll be great. A lot of live performances. Writing is just a part of what I do on a daily basis, so yes, of course, that too.

A sequel?

JZ: Maybe a sequel!

What was it like seeing your book in a bookstore for the first time?

JZ: Oh my goodness, I cried. I was so emotional. We were in New York, and I was literally overcome. I truly was. It felt so intimate and extraordinary, like nothing I’d ever felt before.

Do you think about that now, sometimes? What does it make you feel like to know anybody can go into a bookstore, and just buy your life story?

JZ: Really, really good, that’s why I did it! I want to share my heart. I want to help. I want to connect, if I can. For some reason, people have always come to me and wanted my advice. I feel so thankful to have had the opportunity to go, “Here you go. This is all the advice I could possibly give you in the best possible way.