Yulia MacLean's big break

IN LOVE: Singer Yulia and her manager and husband Glyn MacLean.
IN LOVE: Singer Yulia and her manager and husband Glyn MacLean.

Russian-born Yulia learnt to sing in her grandmother's kitchen in Volgograd, Russia - around the time her father tried to kill her with an axe.

He "abandoned her" when she was 5 years old. She emigrated to Christchurch with her mother in 2002 and, after being discovered by Gray Bartlett at 18, two years after arriving in New Zealand, landed a deal with Sony.

Now, Yulia says, she's "taking her voice of rare beauty" to the North American market, and has two-time Grammy Award-winning producer and composer Craig Leon behind her.

Leon discovered The Ramones and Talking Heads, among others, and worked with Blondie.

"It's one of the greatest achievements to date in my career," Yulia says. "I've got a lot of expectations and pressure, having had two back-to-back platinum No 1 albums, so people are expecting something incredible from me."

After Leon heard online recordings of her live tour of New Zealand, she was invited to London to audition in front of Leon, who was searching for a mezzo soprano singer for international female singing group Divinas, for a PBS Special Divinas Live at Chambord Castle.

At the audition in London, Leon signed Yulia to a four-album career launch project with the Divinas concert DVD, CD and PBS TV show.

In March, the television show screened in the United States to a potential audience of 51 million viewers. A follow-up programme will air in the United States in June.

Yulia will join the other members of the Divinas, including Irish singer Meav, for a 25-date tour of the United States in September. Pre-production has begun for her next solo album, to be released in 2014.

"I have been introduced to the US market," Yulia says. "Fifty-one million Americans have seen me."

She first came to the attention of Leon, who has worked with singing greats, including the late Luciano Pavarotti and Blondie, after he discovered some of her music online.

"Craig's opinion on my voice - in his words - he said has been looking for an artist whom he can have as much success with as he did with Blondie," Yulia says.

I got in touch with Leon so I could hear in his own words his thoughts on Yulia.

He replied: "The way that Yulia uses her voice is unique in that she can be pure and angelic for one passage, and then alternatively follow that with a low, intimate and sensual presence, often within the same phrase. I'm looking forward to doing more recordings with her."

The executive producer of Divinas, Gustavo Sagastume, who has worked with international artists including Andre Rieu, David Garrett, Yanni and many others, was also brought in to co-produce the Divinas project, and Yulia says his network of connections is also "opening doors".

But how did she get to this point?

Yulia released her debut album Into the West in 2004. It reached No 1 on the album chart, as did her second album, Montage.

"I started out as a folk singer/songwriter," Yulia explains. "Then I was signed as a classical singer to compete with Hayley Westenra in the New Zealand market."

When she left Sony, there was a brief dalliance with the idea of becoming an air hostess - "I liked the idea of serving people" - then she attempted to reinvent herself, moving from popera to rock. A raunchy new look and a performance of her song Love Siege on the Good Morning television show, the Kiwi equivalent of Tom Cruise's couch jump, drew comparisons to Charlotte Church.

"I'm not like Charlotte Church," Yulia told me at the time. "I don't drink, I don't go to pubs, I don't write songs about sex. I think it's a bit unfair. I got the idea for the outfit from Mila Jovovich in Resident Evil ... there was a bit of negative feedback from my underpants flash when I was rolling around on the floor on TV. I was so excited ... I was improvising."

Looking back at the performance now, Yulia describes it as "creative".

"I believe that was a stepping stone to find the true artist within."

It was around this time she met Glyn MacLean, while performing in the Christchurch musical, Urinetown. He became her manager.

"I was playing a 70-year-old lady. I invited my friend, and they brought Glyn with them. After the show we caught up and had hot chocolate and coffee and a chat," Yulia told me in 2008.

"I still had my grey wig on, so when he met me I was 70 years old, and that would have been a greater age difference."

When she was 22, and MacLean 39, the pair became engaged and issued a curious press release to this effect.
It was so spectacular, TV3 reporter David Farrier got a friend to sit in a bathtub in the middle of a park and read it out on national television.

The pair married in Christchurch on February 10, 2008, and invited fans to attend their wedding. In June a flame war erupted on online music forums when commentators made references to spiking her drinks. MacLean retaliated with words to the effect of "you'll never work in this town again" and police became involved.

A foray into the opera world didn't last long.

"Glyn took me to the patron of New Zealand Opera, Jeremy Commons, and, on assessing my voice, said that perhaps we shouldn't go too deep into classical and perhaps not go into operatic music. The strict operatic training might ruin the individuality I had my voice," Yulia says.

She took a hiatus to study with the relatively unknown Christchurch-based Ukrainian baritone and violinist Valeriy Maksymov.

Representing New Zealand in 2010, she won the Grand Prix award in the European Song Competition in Latvia with a rendition of the French chanson song L'Hymne A L'Amour.

"That proved the direction I took was the right one. The genre that I will be pursuing further is chanson, the genre made famous by Nana Mouskouri."

She and MacLean had a baby, Leon, who is now 19 months old. She loves motherhood but struggles sometimes.

"I love it but I underestimated the challenges of motherhood," Yulia says. "Unfortunately, my mum doesn't support my music career, nor some of the choices that I've made, she hasn't been around much to help, even though she's still based in Christchurch. I don't want her to feel uncomfortable, but it has been tough, and it's hanging over me a little bit like a dark cloud, but you learn to deal with it. I have the support of friends and my husband."

She says MacLean was "amazing".

"When I married Glyn, I never expected the marriage to be that good. I thought 'this is the best man for me', but, at the time, little did I know that Glyn would be such an amazing strength, amazing business partner and a father. I never had that, my father tried to kill me with an axe and abandoned me when I was 5.

"My marriage is my greatest gift. When I grow up I'd like to be like Glyn."

Baby Leon goes with her to every gig, she says, and she'd love to add to her family.

BIG BREAK: Yulia says her career is still going places.
BIG BREAK: Yulia says her career is still going places.

"I never stop thinking about having more children."

In Germany, she's planning to launch her record label, Oikos Music - "Oikos" means harmony in the household.
Yulia is registered as an intellectual property name in New Zealand. For the overseas market she's not sure whether to add her surname yet.

In press releases regarding Yulia, the phrase "voice of rare beauty" appears frequently. I ask if this phrase is also intellectual property.

"That hasn't been trademarked but it is my brand positioning statement."

It's not a comfortable subject, but Yulia has suffered from depression for years and is working with a clinical psychologist to help her manage it. She channels her emotions from a tough life into the show, but needs help to keep them in check offstage.

She supports many charities and has helped raise over $1.4m for Kiwi causes.

"This year, it is what Glyn and I are focusing on, doing charity concerts.pire, encourage and empower people who need it."

This decision was prompted by a girl who attended one of Yulia's Christchurch shows. "She was wheeled into the auditorium with her oxygen tank, she had terminal cancer and not long to live. She said to me after the show that her only dream in life was to hear me perform live. She changed my life more than she would know. That sentence changed my attitude towards performance."

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