The Australian artist took a year out from music after her last album left her burnt out by human feelings. Her follow-up finds her singing about platonic relationships and sex, inspired by the pop music that makes you feel like a kid again
When Julia Jacklin appeared on the cover of Loud And Quiet in February 2019, our interview had taken place four months earlier, before her second album, Crushing, had even been announced. She was going to take it easier this time, having toured her debut, Don’t Let The Kids Win, into the ground, taking herself with it and speaking to every known journalist along the way. “Yeah, that didn’t happen,” she says with a laugh today. “I think during Crushing I thought, ‘I’m only going to be young once. And I’m only going to be making music that people give a shit about for a small amount of time. Just say yes to everything.’ I did do that and it kind of fucked me up a bit to be honest.”
Shows supporting that album were eventually winding down when the pandemic drove a nail into the last few and forced an ending. After that, Julia didn’t even listen to music for a full year.
It wasn’t only the intensity of schedule that took “a weird toll” on her; there was also the intensity of the work itself. Crushing is a heavy indie folk record: a heavy listen, heavier to have written, and – well – crushing to perform every night for a straight year, only to then talk about it throughout the days. It was a record that would have struggled to be more candid, predominantly detailing a real life breakup and exploring every meaning of its title, from ‘crushing’ as extreme disappointment to the exquisite agony of infatuation and crushing on someone you hope to one day love and be loved by, down into darker regions where a close friend dies from a long illness. And it was all delivered in an almost uncomfortably close manner, with Jacklin maintaining eye contact and leaving no word open to misinterpretation.
She’s now at the bottom of the mountain again, with a new album to release and good intentions in place. Her third record is the excellent PRE PLEASURE. The title, she says, is an acknowledgement of how she’s spent a lot of her life working hard in preparation for an illusive period of enjoyment that’s forever in the future.
“I don’t want this to feel like ‘the power of now,’” she says, “because it’s the most cliché thing in the world, but you only have this current moment. Each year I think I understand that more than I used to. The last chunk of the Crushing tour I finally got to this point of, I actually have to enjoy these shows. So much of this industry is ‘we’re building’ – ‘we’re building your profile, you’re an up and coming artist’. You’re forever an up and coming artist. But that’s kind of not true. Where I’m at [in my career] is pretty special, and I’m definitely trying to approach this next touring chapter as, really enjoy this and don’t think of it as work towards making sure the fourth record is really the one… But we’ll see.”
PRE PLEASURE was recorded in Montreal in a similar manner to Don’t Let The Kids Win and Crushing, which is to say it was completely different. With every new record, Jacklin chooses a new producer and a new location, books the studio far in advance and then prays she’ll have an album ready to go by the time she gets there. She never does, but she always has some of it. She spent two weeks in an apartment in Toronto, “in a fever dream of stress… but it was beautiful. I was trying to pull together all of my ideas,” she says, “as much as I could.” She blu-tacked reams of butcher paper to the walls, covered in lyrics and ideas. Once recording had begun, when she’d run out of songs she would write in her apartment at night again and bring something new in the following day, to work on with her Canada-based live band. It was the first time she wrote not on guitar but a Roland keyboard, enjoying the sparseness of simple chords and its built-in backing tracks.
She says: “The biggest thing was I wanted it to sound more joyful than my last record. I wanted it to feel a little less heavy. I wanted to make some music that was going to make me feel some sort of joy. Crushing was sad to play every night for two years. Just for myself, and for the crowd, I wanted some more generous sounding music to throw into the set.” She pauses. “Yeah, that’s the main word – generous.
“But I knew the lyrics were always going to be what they were – I wasn’t going to write joyful lyrics because I don’t know how to do that yet… or, no, it’s just not my style. But I was trying very hard to explain to everyone that the album retained dry vocals and scrappy elements but had more pop sensibilities. Constantly keeping that in mind whenever the record started to go sad words sad music.” She raises her arm up and slants it downwards. “I think I achieved it on 75% of the album,” she estimates with a laugh.
It’s a throwaway percentage that feels somewhat true: of PRE PLEASURE’s ten tracks, its two most minimal and slow, ‘Too In Love To Die’ and ‘Less of a Stranger’, pack similar gut punches to those found across Crushing. The remaining 5% is for fans to debate, as I’m sure they will.
Elsewhere, as Julia says, she’s kept a lightness of touch in the music, turning a song about young, vulnerable sex into a sparkly glitter ball moment on ‘Ignore Tenderness’, giving us unmistakeable grunge pop on ‘I Was Neon’ and revelling in quiet-loud-quiet joy on ‘Love, Try Not to Let Go’ – a song about an overwhelming desire for love that’s echoed in the rushes of distortion, which definitely weren’t on offer the last time you saw Julia Jacklin live. Even ‘Magic’ – another exploration into what sex is really like for most of us – peaks triumphantly after a spidery, skewed guitar opening that sounds like ‘Heroin’ by the Velvet Underground.
“I wanted to sing about relationships in my life and make it very obvious that it wasn’t romantic,” says Julia. “That’s something I’ve written about in the past but those relationships are a lot harder to write about. And it’s hard to make it clear that they aren’t romantic songs. I think familial platonic relationships and sex were two things I was exploring at the time with songwriting. But I guess it’s just what was going on.”
Crushing had a couple of these songs too, but they largely got swept up in the breakup album narrative. ‘When The Family Flies In’ could be (and often was) read as mates being supportive after the end of a relationship, but it was actually about a close friend of Julia’s dying of cancer; ‘You Were Right’ was a message to an ex, but it was for an ex-friend, not an ex as we tend to know them in pop music.
“Friendship breakdowns are so intense in a way that’s hard to write about because we don’t have much language around it, and we don’t have much ceremony,” Julia says, noting that she called the final track on the new album ‘End of a Friendship’ to avoid any confusion around what it’s about. It’s a perfect closer; the Twin Peaks score with an orchestral arrangement from Arcade Fire’s Owen Pallett. “I feel like the world would be slightly nicer if we broke up with our friends,” says Julia. “I feel like people are slightly haunted by old friendships because there is no closure.”
People ask Julia about her songs a lot. In a borderline invasive way. What are they about and did this thing really happen to her? She accepts that it’s partly down to the music she makes (folk rock that’s known for its emotional charge) and how her songs are presented (autobiographically, with the vocals high in the mix and poured straight into your ears), but while it’s what makes her music so powerfully relatable, it doesn’t make it any easier. The questions come from fans and journalists, and while I try to avoid going down that road, I fail at least once, even if I ask my question reversing up the street.
The song I want to know about is ‘Moviegoer’, perhaps my favourite song on PRE PLEASURE. It leaps out from the record as the one track that doesn’t appear to feature Julia or her life experiences, but rather tells the tale of a Hollywood film director and a fan of the movies. I offer her my interpretation of the song for her to tell me how wrong I am, if she wishes. And I am wrong. I took this brilliant (quite misanthropic) song and boiled it down to an allegory of loneliness, and how it fits us all the same, whether we’re the millionaire director or the average person watching his film.
“Ooh, I like that,” she says because she’s a nice person. “That’s pretty close.” Then she goes on to tell me what the song is really about: “That’s one I’m actually still trying to figure out. Like, what the fuck did I make?! That song is a swirl of so many things. I was quite angry when I wrote it, which you can tell from how the song sounds. It was a crushing realisation that maybe making and consuming art actually doesn’t make us any happier or feel connected to people in the ways we all like to say it does. I don’t want it to be too pandemic-y, but I’m sure it was exacerbated by that time of how much people were talking about how important art was to make and consume so we could all feel connected during the pandemic. I was so irritated to hear that all the time because, without sounding too cheesy, I think lots of people actually want real human connection, and to be understood by the people in their lives. Y’know, after I got out of that feeling I do appreciate that music does play a role in lots of things and can be very useful, but at the time I was very aware of the limitations of art and that you can’t expect it to fill the void of living in the world we’re living in right now.”
Julia’s answer reminded me of one of the things I’ve always liked most about talking to her about her records. She calls out the things that most indie musicians don’t, and she is loath to talk about what she does in a grandiose way (although I’d argue that that’s for the rest of us to do). She doesn’t consider herself special, even if her talent is. And when I ask her if she’s ever pulled back from including any feelings or experiences in her music, wanting to go there but finding it too much, she says: “It really depends. I never want to be cruel to anyone. There’s definitely a lot of stuff I’d never say out loud. I’m sure we all have that – real gritty shit. I think I’m more wary of being put in a confessional lady singer-songwriter thing. That’s probably what stops me more, rather than caring about being open. I just don’t want to be a cliché. And I do sometimes question how it’s expected of women to be a bit more open hearted and rip-yourself-apart-and-present-it and that’s the only way people will care about your humanity. And I question if I’m playing into that, and that it’s not helpful to me or the world. But I think why it doesn’t bother me most of the time is I know now that most of my thoughts and feeling are shared. One beautiful and hard thing about getting older is realising how much you’re not special at all. Like, every feeling and thought you’ve had has already been had. That can be pretty devastating but on the other hand it’s humbling. Me singing this stuff doesn’t feel that special because I know it’s not a unique thought.”
A year after the Crushing tour finally came to an end Julia started listening to music again. “I love music, but it’s pretty stressful,” she says today. “Making a record and putting it out is pretty intense. I try to find joy in music from just listening to music now. That will eventually lead me back to the joy of making music.
“The indie world is a churning beast of so much stuff,” she says. “I’ve always been very up to speed and I got exhausted by it and just wanted to listen to big feelings with big music.”
The three songs she first returned to were ‘Never Too Much’ by Luther Vandross, ‘Because You Loved Me’ by Celine Dion and ‘Because It’s in the Music’ by Robyn, “songs that sound like they were written by aliens, because they don’t include any of the mundanity of everyday life.”
“I think I was a bit burnt out by human feelings,” she says, “and I was trying to get over myself a little bit. You can get so concerned with being cool – being cool online, and making music, and being irreverent – and listening to Celine Dion, she’s taking it super seriously and not pretending that she doesn’t give a shit, which is the indie brand – to not give a shit while actually giving so many shits.”
Julia grew up with that Celine Dion track, which “sounds like a warm bath”, having heard it on her dad’s 1997 Grammy Winners compilation CD when she was seven. Robyn is of course a more recent discovery – Julia saw her perform at Austin City Limits in 2019. “It was just the best thing I’ve ever seen,” she says. “I felt so much joy and I felt like I was 13 again, which is so beautiful because that’s one of the saddest parts about growing up – you don’t have that unadulterated joy from music as much. But I saw Robyn and it made me feel so good. I think I’d forgotten what pure joy felt like when watching music. And how that is super valuable. Like, people always say, ‘Julia’s releasing a new song, get ready to cry,’ which is nice because I know it’s referencing it bringing out an emotion, but I think people can put more weight on that because it’s dark and real, and maybe not put as much value on someone who just makes you so happy and joyful. It was super inspiring.”
We spoke about similar feelings when Julia came on the Loud And Quiet podcast at the end of 2019. Talking about her teenage self she said: “I just remember feeling so much. I had my JVC CD player and I’d turn that up, lie on my bed, thinking I would die of feelings.”
I ask her how she is now in comparison.
“I think I’m worse. When I was younger I had all of those feelings but I was very shy and I didn’t have an outlet yet. I wasn’t a musician and I couldn’t put it all in songs. I was feeling lots of stuff and you’re kind of learning in what environments you can let it out. I now have a job that literally is about saying the quiet things out loud. Which is so great in many ways. But then you get to the point where you think, oh, there’s definitely another step after the point where you can say everything out loud and put it on paper and write lots of songs… I don’t know what I’m trying to say, but yes, I’m exactly the same.”
Photography by Nick Mckk
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