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Julia Egan gets past her past through her music


Songwriter Julia Egan’s hauntingly beautiful song “Insomnia” starts unassumingly, with a deceptively calming two-note theme on the acoustic guitar.

“The memories are coming back, and it’s like a dream,” she says as she plucks out the tune in the living room of her Rochester apartment. “It’s a nightmare. So it’s very eerie. It’s very isolating. It’s two notes, it’s two strings.”

Julia Egan has used the music of her band EMDR to transcend past trauma and abuse. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Julia Egan has used the music of her band EMDR to transcend past trauma and abuse.
Egan emits a ghostly “ooh” and the emotional reality that the song unpacks bubbles to the surface — sleepless remembrances of traumatic moments from an abusive domestic relationship.

“That’s creepy as hell, man. That gives me nightmares every single time I hear my own melody,” she says with a nervous chuckle.

The idea of even picking up the guitar to play music, let alone writing songs to help process her experiences, was practically unthinkable for Egan while in the throes of that relationship.

But that was before she extricated herself from that situation, took part in trauma therapy, and started piecing together the original songs that became the expressive vehicle for her band EMDR.

The band, which she started in 2018, released five EPs’ worth of indie chamber pop music last September. A new single called “Home” is set for release on March 30.

“I’m not the same person sitting before you that I was in that relationship,” she says. “I was way skinnier, I had no energy, and any feelings I felt around playing music were inhibited and shut down.”

The name of Egan’s project, EMDR, comes from the therapy she underwent — Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing — in which patients are induced to recall painful and traumatic memories to address associated but latent negative thoughts and feelings.

Egan says that the eye movement exercises helped evoke a dissociative state that enabled her to look back on the memories with a fresh perspective and discern why she reacted how she did in certain moments.

“Instead of saying, ‘I feel worthless,’ you say, ‘Oh, I wasn’t equipped to deal with that then. I can deal with it now,’” Egan says. “It’s a positive cognition.”

Egan says that realization became the foundation for her music, in which songs such as “Insomnia” and “Zero Accountability” are reflections of her reprocessing her memories.

While it can take time for abuse survivors to trust others, it also takes time for them to trust themselves, says Meaghan de Chateauvieux, president and CEO of Willow Domestic Violence Center in Rochester, which counsels and shelters abuse victims.

“They’ve been told for so long, for so many years that they are worthless, that they don’t know anything, that they’re misinterpreting everything,” de Chateauvieux says. “There’s just horrific abuse and psychological manipulation that’s been happening to them by the one that should really love them the most.”

For Egan, the act of writing music was more important than the storytelling in the songs. She was regaining something that she had lost — her connection to music itself.

Egan was an undergraduate student at Eastman School of Music, studying classical guitar performance, when her boyfriend became abusive. She recalls how he made her feel worthless with petty put-downs and jabs.

“Anytime I would play for that person, they would be unimpressed, unenthused, and they would say, ‘I just don’t know why you don’t prepare more,’” Egan says.

Her abuser’s demand that her playing be flawless was to the point, she says, that she was afraid to pick up her guitar. She recalls hardly touching her guitar back then.

Even after a successful recital performance to earn her degree, she recalls, her abuser sniped at her abilities. After graduating, Egan says she didn’t play her guitar the entire summer that followed, fearing her abuser’s criticism.

“You’re constantly buffering that abuse and saying, ‘No, don’t touch me. Don’t take away the things I care about. For me, that was music and playing guitar, and I felt like I lost that,” she says.

Now 26, she is pursuing her master’s degree in ethnomusicology. Still, her experiences with her abuser linger.

Her song “My Head” — the opening track on the first EP, “Week 1/Anger/Paralysis” — recounts one of her last interactions with him.

He had invited her over to watch sports on TV, and he spent the time texting another woman he was dating. When Egan asked to be driven home, he complied but not without repeatedly yelling, “I fucking hate you!” for the entire five-minute ride. Egan says she began to panic, and even contemplated jumping out of the moving car.

“Abuse can be verbal and physical at the same time,” Egan says. “Of course it’s verbal — he’s speaking, and he’s shouting. But it’s physical because it’s literally hitting my eardrums and literally messing up my brain — my ability to think — to the point where, yeah, I do feel scared. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if he’s going to swerve the car into a tree and get us both into an accident. That’s why it’s physical, because it’s visceral.”

De Chateauvieux agrees that verbal abuse, used as a tool for manipulation, can take a physical toll. Abuse victims can register higher blood pressure, experience gastrointestinal problems, and be susceptible to migraine headaches, she says.

“The ability to think clearly when you’re in a space like that of constant trauma can be really impacted — you’re always afraid,” de Chateauvieux says.

On “My Head,” Egan sings out with pained conviction, “I gotta get you out, out of my head/ I gotta get you out, I gotta get you out,” as if it were a mantra. But she says she still hears her abuser’s angry epithet in her mind on a daily basis.

“Abuse is not just something that you can sense,” she says. “It’s something that lives in you. It’s something that wants to stick around.”

The song “Zero Accountability” was her first after leaving the relationship. Its lyrics reveal how she began to attempt to shed the emotional burden of his torment:

You said it was satisfying watching me squirm/
Well when am I ever gonna learn?
Can you just take it back?
Call me delusional/
I don’t care what you have to say to distract me from the fact that you have zero accountability.

More songs followed. She soon had enough for three EPs. Once she completed “Long Summer,” which would appear on the third EP, she noticed that the theme of each set of songs paralleled the stages of grief. She committed to writing the final two EPs on depression and acceptance, and took the name EMDR.

In making music for the band, Egan held nothing back creatively. It was a cathartic decision.

“I’m just playing music that I really enjoy and lets me explore the expanse of my feeling, which you can’t do when you’re in an abusive relationship,” she says. “All of your feelings get crushed into this tiny box, and you can’t tell them to anyone.”

Daniel J. Kushner is CITY’s arts editor. He can be reached at [email protected].