Marina Belica and Julie Flanders are classmates, best friends, and creative partners. They met as first-year roommates at Yale and have remained kindred spirits ever since, performing and recording music that has been seen and heard by millions. Together, with composer Emil Adler, they formed October Project, a pop rock project known for its piano-driven music and vocal harmonies.
In the past decade, Marina and Julie have created a series of intergenerational music and art projects – such as 2021 Telly Award-winner The Virtual Choir of Joy as well as The Book of Rounds and Return To Me – that have involved more than 100 Yalies.
Their latest project, The Worldwide Choir of Return to Me, is slated to debut on June 21, which doubles as worldwide Make Music Day, to, as Marina noted, “encourage everyone, young and old, professional and amateur, to make music, with the greater mandate of encouraging people to make music across the duration of their lifespan.” Return to Me includes the voices of 25 Yale graduates in addition to a cello arrangement from their classmate Evan Ziporyn ’81. It is performed by renowned Yale School of Music cellist Maya Beiser ’87 MusM.
In advance of the debut, the two friends took some time to answer our questions. Here is what they had to say:
Tell me about how you first met. Did you suspect early on you would be lifelong friends?
Marina: We became BFFs before the term existed! The dean responsible for looking at our applications and putting us together was clearly a genius. We were in a Vanderbilt suite (two bedrooms and a living room) that we dubbed Never Never Land, each sharing a bunk with another roommate. Eliza Gaynor Minden ’81 had the top bunk in my room, and we are all still very close. Julie and I discovered that we were each the fourth of five children, the first girl, aspiring concert pianists, and when we visited each other for the first time over break, were shocked to find that we also had the same bedspreads at home! Our husbands even have the same birthdays! We could fill a book with the number of coincidences between us. We’re really like sisters.
Julie: Day 1 at Yale, Vanderbilt Hall, Marina was the first person I met. All four roommates in that suite self-described as neat. Only one of those four was neat. The rest of us were a tornado. Since this was the year of the dining hall strike, we spent a lot of time in that room together and learned to fry eggs in a popcorn maker. We had a working fireplace. Marina and I were both, at that moment, music majors. She graduated still a music major. I ended up in English lit.
After graduation, did you keep in touch? Go your separate ways? And how and when did you come back together?
Julie: From that first day at Yale we have always been in touch and had much creative, social, and family time together. At this point we are family.
Marina: We have always been close. We each gravitated toward New York City after college, attending a BMI Music Theater Workshop together with Julie’s now husband, Emil Adler, honorary member of the Class of 1981. My first job in New York was as a P.A. for the music director of The Pirates of Penzance, then starring Linda Ronstadt, and Julie did publicity for the Whole Theater in Montclair (New Jersey), founded by Olympia Dukakis. Most importantly, she and Emjl had been writing songs together since high school and had amassed a trunkful of incredible songs and one day had the idea to start a band.
When did you first work together professionally? And how did that come about?
Marina: We did our first evening of original music together in our senior year at Yale. We auditioned and selected a cast of four performers and put on a full production with lights, sound, a director, a choreographer, and a band.
Julie: Our senior project was called Measure by Measure, which was a cabaret musical. Maury Yeston was the supervising professor on that, and Emil Adler, our third in October Project, was already collaborating with us back then. We then attended the BMI Musical Theater Workshop in NYC with Lehman Engel and Maury Yeston. And that led to the formation of October Project.
How long after Yale did it take for October Project to officially come together?
Marina: After spending our 20s establishing a foothold in New York, October Project took form in our early 30s. Originally founded as a trio featuring Julie, Emil, and a singer, we expanded to an eclectic group of five, with a rock n’ roll guitarist, a latin percussionist, a classical nerd (me) added to the singer, the master’s in composition and theory (Emil), and the actress and literature major (Julie). We built our initial following in Manhattan clubs and coffeehouses (even CBGB!) and were signed to SONY/Epic out of a tiny venue on the Lower East Side. We’ve since performed in Europe and in all but two states here in the U.S. We have been blessed ever since with a devoted international following and have over 50 million views on YouTube.
Julie: From writing for theater, Emil and Julie began writing pop songs, Marina kept singing and music directing, and October Project formed around a group of friends who all wanted to collaborate toward having a band that could record and perform together. We surprised ourselves by getting signed to a major label out of the same club (Cafe Sine) at the same time as Jeff Buckley.
How would you describe your music? And how does your relationship factor into that?
Julie: We do not niche or define ourselves into a category. We do not do “pre-fab” or market-driven music. We create from a sense of inner guidance rather than outer-referenced trends. We do not ignore what other bands do – we love music and take in lots of different artists and appreciate their work – but we find our own weird way.
Marina: Our professional relationship is nourished by our personal relationship, and a lot of what we put into the world has to do with riding the bumps of life and bringing them through our own lives and out into the world as music and experiences that people can share that speak to what’s important to us and hopefully to them. We try to find an audience of kindred spirits. I would say our relationship is lasting, and because of that, resilient and flexible and dynamic. For many people, after a long period of time, their professional relationship wanes. With us, I feel like our professional relationship right now is flourishing. We are age defiant and rule defiant. And we don’t really care what people think of us anymore, so we do bold things.
You noted that you’ve involved more than 100 Yalies in your projects over the years. Was that a conscious effort? Or did it happen organically?
Julie: We always felt like Yale was an emotionally important place for us. We kept meeting and mentoring Yalies and did a Master’s Tea at Morse, which led to us creating a campus-wide recording project which included students and grads from many ages, singing an arrangement by Keiji Ishiguri ’10. Marina had been the pitchpipe of the first coed a cappella group at Yale so she had always been very involved in group singing and alumni supporting of other musicians.
Marina: We both share a deep and lasting connection with Yale and have maintained close ties with classmates. We have performed for many of our reunions and were on the committee for our virtual reunion last year, producing an Arts Showcase featuring many of the outstanding arts professionals in our class. We went on to record our first iteration of The Book of Rounds at Morse with a choir of singers exclusively from Redhot & Blue and the Whiffenpoofs, with vocal arrangements created by Keiji Ishiguri, who had been pitchpipe for both groups at Yale. The Yale Camerata gave the first East Coast performance of selections from this work, which premiered in Austin, Texas. And our virtual choirs, which are open to all who are interested, have each included dozens of Yalies across decades of graduating classes.
You’ve adapted your work to fit the virtual space. Was that a direction you were moving in over the years or a response to the pandemic? And how has your work in that space been received?
Marina: We are ourselves a collaboration, each with particular skills and strengths to contribute, each open to the contribution, strengths, and inspiration of colleagues and contemporaries. During the pandemic, we realized we could help other performers through the pandemic lockdown by working in the virtual realm. We met first with Eric Whitacre, the “father of virtual choir,” to talk about what the experience would include, and then chose the round “Joy” from The Book of Rounds precisely because we wanted to bring joy to what was then an especially joyless time. We reached out to all of our various communities (which, in addition to our fan base, included Yale classmates and friends from singing group days) and so was born our 2020 Virtual Choir of Joy. It went on to win a 2021 Telly and Anthem Award, accumulate over 100,000 views on YouTube, and was in contention for Grammys for Best Choral Performance and Best Arrangement.
Julie: We really created our virtual choirs to answer a need people had to connect, to sing, to express, and to feel alive again in music. Musicians are natural and trained collaborators. We wanted to provide opportunity and help to colleagues and to invite people from all over the world to share something positive, not just a virus. We were astonished to win a Telly Award and then an Anthem award and to have a hundred thousand views of the choir. It was a very challenging thing to put together, but it was worth every moment of challenge.
How did your experience at Yale shape the artists you’ve become today?
Julie: Yale nourishes the arts, favors the arts, respects and elevates the process of becoming an artist through education, discipline, collaboration, and excellence. But most of all, there is so much joy in the arts at Yale. It's such a rich and expansive environment for creating.
Marina: Yale brought us together. We did our first musical work together at Yale, and it created a trajectory into our future as best friends and collaborators. My time as pitchpipe of Yale’s first coed a cappella group, Redhot & Blue, also deeply finetuned my appreciation of harmony. We’ve had mentorship from people at Yale – Maury Yeston was an early inspiration for us both as entering students, Maggie Brooks took us under her wing years later when we were launching our first choral project – and in turn we have offered mentorship to the students there. Our first recording of The Book of Rounds included a choir of singers from Redhot & Blue and the Whiffenpoofs; our subsequent choral recording of that piece with Chorus Austin, who performed the world premiere, was in contention for a Grammy for Best Choral Performance last year.
What is next for you and the October Project?
Julie: We are finally releasing our own album, The Ghost of Childhood, and are ears-deep in creating our next group project with Keiji Ishiguri, a piece that addresses the refugee crisis. We are hoping to do something, perhaps at Yale in the Schwarzman Center, that brings together different disciplines of students and alumni to create a powerful performance and recording.
Marina: Collaboration will continue to be a focal point for us going forward. Our next release is a gorgeous music video of “The Angels in the Garden,” a song from our upcoming October Project album The Ghost of Childhood, that features the artistry of a Ukrainian sand artist named Kseniya Simonova. A winner of “Ukraine’s Got Talent,” we were thrilled to be able to help support her creative work at a time so disastrous to the arts in that part of the world. We are reaching out to other international artists to create a second video for the album as well. We also have a new choral work that we would like to premiere at Yale, and Julie will have commissions with the Venezuelan composer Carlos Cordero in 2023 performed at the Kennedy Center and by the Philadelphia Mendelssohn Chorus, one the country’s longest standing musical ensembles. Ever forward.