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Sunday, Nov 18, 2018
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Hitting the right notes

ST. PETERSBURG - What an awesome night. That's what the young woman is thinking as she stands between home plate and first base at Tropicana Field, belting out a spot-on rendition of the national anthem before 20,000-plus baseball fans. She hits every note, and the crowd goes wild. Then she catches the eye of her husband, standing on the sidelines holding their 6-month-old son, Zion. Both are beaming.
"It doesn't get much better than this," she thinks. But it does. In the first inning of that evening's rematch between World Series opponents the Tampa Bay Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies, her husband, Ben, rips a two-run homer. The Rays win 10 to 4. "It was a blast," a giddy Julianna Zobrist says later. "To be out there doing what we've been called to do, and to have Zion, our greatest accomplishment, with us, made it all the more special." Now in his fourth year in a Rays uniform, Ben, 28, is one of the team's hottest rising stars. The switch-hitting utility player will make his first appearance in Major League Baseball's All-Star Game on Tuesday. And Julianna, 24, is making a name in the Christian alternative pop-rock scene, with occasional concerts and the release of her first CD, "The Tree." Baseball fans get a snippet of the title cut at home games every time Ben comes to bat. He has picked it as his walk-up song. "The lyrics are so powerful," he says. "It's about how death couldn't hold Christ and because of that, we can be saved from death as well." That faith serves as a deep bond between Ben and Julianna, but it's not all they share. Both grew up in Midwest Christian homes with fathers who were ministers. They come from big families - six siblings in Julianna's, five in Ben's. He was a freshman in college and she was a junior in high school when they first learned about each other through Julianna's sister. At first it was an e-mail relationship. When they finally met in person, Ben was smitten by her spirit and sweetness. He asked her politely if he could call her for a date. As much as she had enjoyed their correspondence, she declined. "I was going off to school in Nashville to pursue my music degree, and he was playing baseball in Illinois. The timing wasn't right," she says. "But he was very respectful." He couldn't forget her. Love has a way of finding a way. The two reconnected when Ben transferred to Dallas Baptist University, which Julianna's brother-in-law attended. Love blossomed. Ben got drafted by the pros out of college, went into the farm system and moved to Nashville in the off season to be closer to Julianna. They married Julianna's senior year. He would pursue a future in baseball, she in music. She got her degree in commercial voice at Belmont University and starting building her own career. "She's as talented as anyone out there," he says proudly. "She's got creative gifts ... the ability to write music and depth to her songwriting that a lot of people don't have." Mitch Dane, her Nashville producer, has another description for Julianna. "Charisma. She's got it," he says. "And that will take her far in this business. She's creative, she's listenable and she's got great talent. But just as important, she's got a personality you can't forget." Following her heart She says she came "right out of the womb" with a love for music. When she was 4, Julianna couldn't get her brothers and sisters to listen to her. So she found a captive audience: She dialed 911, the one number she knew, and sang "Jesus Loves Me" into the phone. Her dad, an evangelical Bible-based pastor, encouraged her to follow her heart. She trained classically for 15 years, learned the keyboard and delved into favorites like Gloria Estefan and the Beach Boys. She never sang with the church choir, preferring solo work and dancing instead. "That's something I will always appreciate. In my house, we could listen to all kinds of music, not just Christian," she says. In a competitive industry that is undergoing significant changes, Julianna knew she needed more skills than a good voice. She worked as a personal assistant to a Christian artist and took positions managing various facets of the industry. She wrote her own songs, drawing inspiration from sermons she heard, Scriptures she read and her own experiences. Like a lot of emerging singers, Julianna couldn't bank on getting a recording deal. She had to get noticed first. So she invested about $20,000 into developing and producing "The Tree." It's available online at iTunes, where customers can download music, and CD Baby, an online record store that sells albums by independent musicians. She posed for a sultry-looking portrait for "The Tree" while eight-and-a-half months pregnant; hence, she put a lot of emphasis on the neck up. One of her trademarks when performing live is funky glue-on eyelashes. So for the CD cover, she donned feathers on her lashes. "After a 12-hour photo shoot, it got pretty painful," she says with a laugh. The next level Now she's in the promotion phase. She knows it will take "a few lucky breaks and God's grace" to go to the next level. She says she's patient. "The important thing was to complete the project," Julianna says. "I did this as much for my son as I did myself. How can I tell him to pursue his dream if I didn't pursue mine?" A reviewer for a Christian relationship magazine wrote that Julianna's electro-pop, high-energy debut album "fits no Christian music mold and puts to rest any argument that Christian music is boring and repetitive." Another reviewer called the music "heartfelt, heavily produced and makes great use of ear-catching tones and noises." With Zion's arrival on Feb. 1 and the baseball season in full swing, Julianna doesn't have immediate plans for a second recording project. Instead, she's using this time to devote to songwriting and rehearsing with a local band. She still takes occasional road trips with her husband; this time, with a baby in tow. In deference to both their careers, the Zobrists split their time between a town house in downtown St. Petersburg and a home in Franklin, Tenn., outside of Nashville. They're having the time of their lives. But they say they don't forget what's most important to them. "Our faith is everything to us. If everything else fell apart, that's something that wouldn't," Ben says. His wife seconds that. "We know how blessed we are. We're grateful for all the gifts God has given us," Julianna says. "But if it was all taken away, we would be just as in love and just as happy. And just as thankful."

Reporter Marc Lancaster contributed to this story. Michelle Bearden can be reached at (813) 259-7613. To hear Julianna Zobrist's music, go to: www.myspace .com/juliannazobrist.

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