[HOMEMADE POP] Julie Vitells grew up in what she calls "a pop-culture vacuum." With hippie parents and a natural proclivity toward "old-timey stuff," the young musician—who spent her early years between Albuquerque, N.M., and an ashram in India before her family moved to Portland—learned banjo and guitar primarily as a means of playing traditional folk and bluegrass songs. That style, learned while hopping trains as a teenager, translated well to Portland venues like the LaurelThirst and Alberta Street Pub, where she was long a staple. Then, about five years ago, Vitells decided to try writing her own pop music.
"I had an ex-boyfriend who wrote songs, and I'm kind of a word nerd," Vitells says via phone from Pendelton, where her band, What Hearts, just played the Great Pacific bakery and bar. "I thought, 'If he can write songs, surely I can write songs, too.'"
The pop songs Vitells began penning as she built a small all-female band, some of which were featured on What Hearts' 2010 Songs From Marjorie EP, are perhaps most notable for their lack of influences. Vitells' conversational songwriting style reminds at times of Kimya Dawson or Paul Simon, but mostly it sounds like an extremely skilled amateur teaching herself the ropes.
That's not to suggest that Vitells is a novice songwriter. The 10 tracks collected on What Hearts' new self-titled full-length are not only extremely catchy and well-crafted with airy vocal harmonies that take unexpected dives and flights and toy with twang, they're also a little mysterious. On "Dear Brother," Vitells is both loving and scolding her sibling. "Undoubtably in your new town, you have better weather/ Undoubtably in your new town, the bands that come through are better," Vitells sings. "But if you were in a coma, the people who would care for you are here."
"It's about an ex-boyfriend who wanted to move away and go to grad school in Philadelphia," Vitells admits. "I thought I'd cleverly disguise this by calling him my brother and no one would ever know." (It didn't work.)
Other songs on What Hearts are just as fascinating in riding the line between autobiography and fiction; revealing and teasing—Vitells' songs are as clean and narrow as nature slides seen through a View-Master. (Her sister is a recurring character—but only sometimes, she explains, is her sister really her sister.) She does credit one strong influence, ex-Portland quartet A Weather, for shaping that songwriting style. "It would make me so happy to listen to their album and feel like I was getting a glimpse into Aaron Gerber's universe," she says. "But not fully, because he wasn't giving me everything."
Vitells' is such a unique artistic vision that you'd almost hate to see it tamed, but she says her What Hearts bandmates are certainly schooling her on contemporary music. "It's really fun for me to try to catch up on the stuff everyone else knew 100 years ago," she says. "My method so far has been so intuitive that it would be good to come at it with a little more knowledge."
As What Hearts grows, Vitells also hopes the band will seem a little less "cute," a word she's sick of hearing. So far, the results have been mixed. "I keep on making decisions I think will take us farther away from that—like, I'll get an electric guitar," she says. "But people just keep thinking it's cuter than ever."
SEE IT: What Hearts plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., on Sunday, May 20, with Houndstooth and Calico Rose. 9 pm. $5. 21+.