When freshman Julian Eisner walked into a Bloomington recording studio in February, he was nervous. He had been playing music for nearly his entire life, and he wanted to get his ideas out of his head and into people’s ears.
But the actual process can be nerve-wracking. When he emerged from the studio a few hours later, however, he told an old teacher that he was pumped.
“He could barely keep a lid on his tenacious and mischievous muse after that,” the teacher said. Julian officially began work on a studio album. He never finished it.
Julian died on April 27. He was 20 years old.
Julian was born on June 24, 1991, in Pasadena, Calif. He developed a love of music early in life, quickly becoming a fan of Tom Petty and Elvis Presley. He began playing guitar when he was 5 years old. At age 8, Julian tried his hand at piano.
His mother Lyn said Julian’s tendency to play music by memory rather than through reading sheet music drove his teacher crazy.
“We frustrated each other much during those years and pleasantly sparred,” said Nellie Burruano, Julian’s piano teacher.
Burruano, who began teaching Julian the year he took up piano, said his sense of music was so intuitive that her efforts to teach him must have sometimes felt like she was trying to pound a square peg into a round hole. But she persisted, knowing he would need the knowledge in order to communicate with other musicians who were not as intuitive.
“My goal was to teach his fingers to move and give him foundational chord theory and reading skills,” Burruano said. “I always felt there was greatness in him. Truly, not just saying that. I was looking forward to his first Grammy and, in 35 years of teaching, I’ve never said that about anyone else.”
Julian also studied classical guitar but quickly applied his skills to playing rock and blues tunes — genres he adored for their freer form.
Julian’s interests were not limited to music. After his family moved to Pennsylvania, he won the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association state doubles tennis championship as a freshman in high school. At Mercersburg Academy, the school he would graduate from, Julian was the third-leading scorer on his varsity basketball team.
In addition, his mother said he was an accomplished rock climber, kayaker and even impressionist, doing imitations of Larry the Cable Guy, President George W. Bush and Sméagol from “Lord of the Rings.” He also had recently tried his hand at screenwriting, creating rough drafts of scripts with his best friend Barrett Helzel.
“He could do it all, and he did, with passion and amazing drive to make himself better and better,” Helzel said in an email.
Still, his friends and family said, music was his true love.
“He was a one-man band with the writing skills to bring it all together in song,” Helzel said. “He was a mentor, my soulmate and my best friend. Anybody who was lucky enough to know him in his too-short years understands who he was and the legacy he leaves behind.”
Several small colleges were interested in Julian’s basketball skills, Lyn said, but the one-man band had other plans.
“He knew that his passion was music and writing, so IU seemed the right fit,” Lyn said.
While studying journalism at IU, he turned his attention to drums, an instrument he had only recently starting playing. He quickly impressed his teacher, IU Associate Instructor Zach Compston.
“He was very talented,” Compston said. “To him, music wasn’t just an activity. He wasn’t just trying to fulfill an arts credit. He was a musician. It was about way more than just playing.”
Julian’s friend, freshman Tori Roper, said she was also impressed by the musical talents of Julian, who she considered to be her other musical half.
“I knew from the moment I saw him with a guitar in his hands that he was something special,” Roper said.
One of the first times the two met, Julian asked if he could see Roper’s guitar. She handed him the instrument and, unembarrassed by the crowd of students milling around him, he played a few of his favorite tunes.
Then he looked at her and said, “let’s write a song.”
“Right now?” Roper recalled asking. “Everyone is right here.”
“So? They’re not paying attention. How about this?”
Julian played a few chords and Roper immediately began finding words to put with the music. Before the two freshmen had even exchanged phone numbers, they had written half a song.
“All we needed was a bridge,” Roper said. “I realize that might sound crazy, but I swear that’s how it happened.”
A few months later, joined by their friend Gemma Tidman, they entered a recording studio and began creating a demo album. They planned for the demo to be released at the end of May.
The night Julian died, he had just recorded the bass line for one of the demo’s tracks, Roper said. She said she hopes to use the track and the many other instrumental parts Julian had completed to finish one of the band’s songs.
When Julian died, the band hadn’t yet decided on a name. But Roper said she and Tidman plan on going with Julian’s top pick: Villain, My Victim.
Even when not playing drums or working on the album, music was not far from Julian’s mind. He regularly wrote about local musical acts for LiveBuzz, an Indiana Daily Student blog.
Burruano said she once received a phone call from Julian at 12:30 a.m.
“Nellie, I just realized how many trillions of dollars have been made on three chords,” Julian said. “Trillions! It makes me sick.”
Burruano said the incident still makes her laugh because the statement is so true. She said memories like this one are still fresh in her mind, and it’s hard to think of her old student as being gone.
“I believe Julian is in a place where every musician is an intuitive musician,” she said. “And he’s got a whole lot more than three chords to work with now.”
When friends and family were asked to speak about Julian, his musical talents often dominated their accounts, but he is also remembered as a caring and loyal friend to many.
“He was talented, sensitive, hysterically funny, passionate, loved and loving,” his aunt Stacey Eisner said.
Compston said Julian was extremely approachable, aware and always willing to learn. Roper said he treated everyone as though they were a close friend.
Lyn summed up her son in one brief but encompassing phrase: “He was our bright, loving, unique, introspective star.”
Originally published in the Indiana Daily Student.