From Kanye to KISS, East Nashville artist Julie Sola makes the stars shine
With Nashville all but shut down last month due to ice, artist Julie Sola was forced to stay a few extra days in sunny Las Vegas, which is where she had been for much of 2015. Sola was working as wardrobe manager for Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Rod Stewart, who performed a series of shows at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in January and February.
Over the last decade or so, Sola also has been wardrobe manager on tours for Kanye West, KISS, Clint Black, Motley Crüe, and Madonna, which causes her to spend a great deal of time apart from her husband, guitarist Sergio Webb. Webb also tours regularly with a number of artists, including Americana icon David Olney and indie folk singer Amelia White.
“When I interviewed with Rod Stewart, he asked me if being apart from Sergio so much would be a problem,” Sola recalls. “I told him that we’ve been doing it for years, and that we make sure when we’re together that it’s quality time.”
Stewart gave her the job, and she now works with him several times each year. “The Vegas residencies are ideal, especially at Caesars. Celine [Dion] designed it [Stewart’s dressing room], and it’s beautiful,” she says. “Rod always writes secret messages for Elton [John] with a Sharpie somewhere in the dressing room.”
Sir Elton John, a fellow Brit and Hall of Famer, often takes up residency at The Colosseum after Stewart and uses the same posh dressing area. “This time he wrote on the wall above the door,” Sola says. “It’s usually some football [soccer] reference, ribbing him about his team [Watford Football Club].”
Sola got her start in wardrobe management through her sister, who has a degree in costume design and is a wardrobe manager herself. “I have a younger sister — she’s who brought me into the wardrobe world,” she explains. “Clint Black was my first gig. I was with him for three years (2002-2004). He was the best band for me to go out with the first time. I learned that I can travel well and take care of wardrobe. I learned road etiquette.”
Sola also tours with KISS, the face-painted wildmen who have boasted being “the hottest band in the world” for more than four decades now.
“KISS does their own makeup, and Rod does his own hair,” she says. “And I had a case the size of a refrigerator just for Clint Black’s cowboy hats when I toured with him.”
For KISS, she preps the costumes, including Gene Simmons’ knee-high, stacked-heel demon boots, before every show, and cleans and repairs them afterward. She says Simmons is warm, funny, and personable. But when the makeup goes on, his personality changes to the cape-wearing, fire-breathing, blood-spitting, bass-playing persona generations of fans worldwide adore.
“They’re tame until they go onstage,” Sola says. “And when they come off, you never know what you’ll get. But they’re great with the fans and the crew, and they joke around with everybody.”
Some of her favorite moments with KISS come in the relative quiet prior to the start of yet another flame-filled show.
“Gene, who is huge even before he puts the boots on, just sits there waiting in his monster makeup and costume, and I give him a red Life Saver—that’s what makes his tongue so red,” she says. “Then it’s time for them to go onstage.”
On their 2014 tour, KISS would open the show atop a light rigging shaped like a spider. One night, the venue’s ceiling wasn’t rated to support the weight of the band as well as that of the lights.
“They don’t like change, they want everything to be the same,” Sola says, not just of KISS, but of headlining artists in general. “[KISS’s manager] told them, ‘You’re not going to ride the spider tonight.’ Gene was like a little boy. ‘But I want to ride the spider!’ he said. After the show, I told him how funny that conversation was, especially with him being in full costume and makeup.”
One image that she can’t get out of her mind — for better or worse — is that of the Starchild Paul Stanley in full makeup and teased hair, and little else, doing a little cleaning in the dressing room before a show. “I turned around and there’s Paul Stanley,” she says. “And he’s vacuuming up the powder wearing a thong in full makeup.”
When it comes to dressing rooms, no one is more particular than Madonna, who has carpenters build her dressing room in each city.
“She’s got a pit crew that comes in and builds it,” Sola explains. “Furniture, drapery, carpets, too. They build it for each and every show. She also has a personal gym built separate of the dressing room.”
Motley Crüe’s dressing rooms are adorned with candles, skulls, and velvet curtains. And she describes Kanye West in terms that might surprise some. “Kanye is very soft spoken and appreciative backstage,” she says. “He was great. Nobody believes that, though.”
Sola grew up in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., but later moved to Artesia, N.M., where she would graduate high school. She remained in Artesia into her early 20s, marrying and divorcing a bull rider before moving back to San Juan Capistrano.
"I had just moved back to California from New Mexico literally the day before I met Sergio,” she says. Sola and her mother were at the Swallows Inn bar (named after the birds that formerly famously inhabited the region) when Pinto Bennett, the legendary bandleader of the Famous Motel Cowboys, introduced her to Webb, who was still getting used to his newly adopted stage name.
“Pinto walked me over to him and said, ‘Hey, Sergio! Look what I found,’ ” Sola recalls. “But Sergio was still a new name to him, and [he] introduced himself as Mark.”
The band would stay in town for another 10 days or so, and they would date when the group returned every couple of months. As her romance with Sergio evolved, she realized she was on her way to fulfilling a childhood prophesy of sorts.
“When I was a child, I would joke that when I’d grow up, I’d meet a cowboy in that bar and marry him, and with Sergio’s band being the Famous Motel Cowboys, I realized, ‘Oh my god, I’m dating a cowboy I met at that bar!’ ”
Webb invited Sola to join him in England — he had a two-month tour over there. She said she’d go, but only if she could find work to support herself while abroad. “I was very independent,” she explains. “So I told him that I was not going to England just to hang out with him, I was going over there with a purpose.”
Drawing on her experience as a horse trainer — she previously had worked for Charlie Whittingham, who trained Ferdinand, the winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby — she took an assignment working for the senior trainer for the Queen of England.
“I worked for one of six trainers for the queen at her stable,” she says. “I saw her horses, but I didn’t get to meet her.”
The couple moved a round quite a bit and were living in Jackson Hole, Wyo., before relocating to Nashville in 1994. They spent a year in West Nashville, then bought a home on the East Side in 1995. They got married the following year in a small courthouse ceremony with Phil Kaufman, aka the Road Mangler, serving as best man.
“We moved here because that’s what we could afford,” she says of East Nashville. “But once we moved here, we started meeting musicians and artists. Todd Snider was living over here then, so was Chuck Mead. Mac [Hill] had just bought Radio Cafe [now Mad Donna’s], and that was the buzz over here back then.
“There really wasn’t that much going on over here at the time other than Radio Cafe,” she continues. “Franne Lee, she designed all those costumes in the early days of Saturday Night Live — The Bumblebees and The Coneheads — she was a huge character. She, J.D. Wilkes, and Leslie Patterson-Marx started the Plowhaus co-op. Then came the Slow Bar, and that was really the start.”
Their one-story home has high ceilings, hardwood floors, and terrific acoustics, which makes it ideal for “pickin’ parties,” as she calls them. Over the years, a lot of notable musicians, past and present, have tuned up and sung along. “Townes Van Zandt, David Olney, Chelle Rose, Gail Davies, John Hadley, Phil Kaufman — the list is long,” she says.
With colorful walls and lots of windows, the home is also conducive to Sola’s work as an artist — she creates hand-pulled prints, books, and textiles that she sells at Fat Crow Press, her gallery in the Idea Hatchery on Woodland Street near 5 Points. She learned her skills as a typesetter and printmaker while working for Hatch Show Print whenever she wasn’t on tour.
“Every time I would come off the road, I’d work there,” she says. “I was up there for eight years between touring. I took 2011 off, and all I did was work at Hatch and do art festivals. I would work on three posters a week. We all did. We did a lot of CD covers, [and] I headed up the posters for the presidential debates for CNN all over the country.”
It was through Hatch that Sola first came to do some work for Willie Nelson.
She has done some additional work for Nelson since then, carving his face for a 4th of July poster and designing the image for his “merch bag.”
“I needed Willie’s album title for the Hatch poster I was designing,” she says, referring to the poster for his 2009 appearance at the Ryman Auditorium. She called Scooter Franks, one of her contacts in Nelson’s camp, who happened to be seated next to Willie on the tour bus at that very moment.
“I heard Scooter say, ‘It’s Julie, she needs the name of the album.’ It put him on the spot, and then and there, he named the album American Classic. The next day, Willie sent me a dozen yellow roses thanking me for helping him name the album.”