“I feel a bit unprepared. I guess most people must” – Gary Meyler in conversation with Julia Jacklin
Having begun the year playing open mics in her hometown of Sydney, Julia Jacklin’s subtle shift from factory production line worker to international touring artist has been seamless. Even since we spoke in June, the Australian alt-country songwriter has announced significant U.S. and European tours as well as citing an October release date for debut album, Don’t Let The Kids Win, on Transgressive Records (Alvvays, Two Door Cinema Club, Marika Hackman) so there’s no sign of Jacklin sitting still. Despite a dearth of material to preview ahead of our chat, the slow shuffle of Pool Party – the first cut from the album – has transfixed my ears and heart since the start of summer. We catch up ahead of her National Gallery of Victoria appearance in Melbourne with Julia slightly sleepy eyed thanks to a 4.30am rise.
Don’t Let The Kids Win was recorded at New Zealand’s Sitting Room studios with Ben Edwards (Marlon Williams, Aldous Harding, Nadia Reid). What was he like to work with in the studio?
Wonderful and hilarious. I’m not sure if I’ve ever laughed that much in my life. I lived at his house with his partner and young daughter for the whole recording process. I had a small cabin out the back and the whole place had a view of Lyttelton harbour. I was kind of dreading it because my previous experiences with recording weren’t great, I just used to put so much pressure on myself to be perfect and to play and sing everything perfectly, and I think I just ended up producing pretty lifeless recordings. The process used to remind me of being at an athletics carnival when I was younger. I’d just be super nervous and stressed, and want to put my head down, try and make it to the end without falling over, then not do it again until I had to. Ben figured out ways to get the best take out of me. He was also keen to try anything I suggested. He sings some heavenly choir backing vocals on Leadlight and watching him sing that has to be one of my favourite recording moments.
The studio can be an expensive place to make mistakes. What was the biggest lesson learning throughout the recording sessions that you will take with you into the studio for the next album?
I think just accepting that things are going to change in the studio. They’re not going to sound like the demo and they might not come out exactly how you thought they would. Don’t flog a song over and over again because you have this inflexible idea of what it should be. Also make sure your drummer has a valid passport before you book him flights!
Which song on the record are you most proud of and why?
I’d say the title track, it was the last song I wrote for the record. We tried doing it a few ways but in the end we kept it pretty simple and I just really like it. The song sums up the last two years of my life really.
What did you care about most when you were 10 years old?
I remember entering a poster competition for the Sydney Olympics where you could win a t-shirt. I worked really hard on that poster, really hard; I was a good student. Anyway, I won and it was this amazing moment when I stood up to start walking to the front but this kid named Jamie called out: “her mum did it”. All the kids started saying my mum had made my poster and I cheated, which I didn’t! I worked really hard on that poster. I really liked my teacher Mr. Downey that year and I think I struggled with wanting to be cool and have cool friends but also wanting to do well at school and please my teacher. I was also really into Star Wars at the time and was completely in love with Mark Hamill.
Tell me a bit about what it was like growing up in the Blue Mountains.
My mum’s house has a really big backyard with a fire trail that leads to a lookout so I spent a lot of time roaming around down there. It was a pretty tame suburban upbringing; bushwalking, camping with friends on the weekend, trying all the dance styles on offer at the local dance school and being shit at all of them, Musicals, athletic carnivals, sneaking out of home to stalk the streets and kick things around pointlessly, being a cold and insecure teenager at Katoomba Winter Magic Festival every year, wanting to fit in with the stoner crowd, pretending I was into Aussie hip hop.
I’m originally from by the sea and miss it every day. Besides the obvious, what specifically makes your childhood home feel like home for you?
I do really like going home just to have a bit more space to drive to the upper mountains and go for a walk or go down into my backyard. We’ve got this old tennis court in our backyard that used to be the local tennis court. It’s all overgrown now but we used to camp on it as kids so I like walking down there. Probably just hanging out with my family in the lounge room, sitting too close to the heater and reading through old diaries, Watching Dawson’s Creek with my younger brother and yelling at the TV when they make bad decisions.
You originally had plans to be a social worker. What in particular appealed to you about going down that route?
I’m not really sure, that’s just kind of what I always wanted to do. When I was younger I went between wanting to be a novelist, an army officer or a social worker. But I hated loud noises as a kid so I had to rule out the army. I went to Uni to do English Literature but then I had a strange few months in Bath, England where I spent a lot of time with a family friend who is a social worker and when I came home I switched degrees. I like talking to people and I like listening to people’s stories and I don’t like every day to be the same.
Was there a lightning bolt moment when you decided, yep, I’m going to write songs for the rest of my life?
Well I’m not sure if that’s happened yet! I hope that’s what happens. I’m just focusing on this collection of songs and seeing where that takes me. I’m trying to figure out right now how to be a songwriter because it’s only been in the last few months that people have really been calling me that. I feel a bit unprepared. I guess most people must.
In the Janis Joplin documentary, Little Girl Blue, she was always worried about what they thought of her at home. Is there extra pressure or expectation coming from a family full of teachers?
I kind of think it’s the opposite. Because I’m the first person in my family to pursue music, everything is exciting to them. I think if I came from a musical family they might have more of an idea of how hard it is and what certain things actually mean. My family hear me on the radio or see me in the paper or something and are super excited. They were skeptical at first of course but they all have my back now.
What records were lying around the house when you were little?
The ones that stick out to me from my childhood would be: Doris Day’s Greatest Hits, Andrew Sisters’ Greatest Hits, ‘Talking to the Taxman About Poetry’ by Billy Bragg, ‘Riverside’ by Luka Bloom, ‘Staring at the Sea-The Singles’ by The Cure and ‘Post’ by Bjork. Deep Purple’s ‘Strange Kind of Woman’ is a defining song from my childhood. I feel like that was one of the first songs I can remember singing around the house and thinking, maybe I can sing?
You have been compared several times to Angel Olsen who I have been fortunate enough to work in recent times and, although I love her records too, it is in a live setting that you truly get to experience that intensity and the precise delivery of her songs. When you have your songs written and your music technically accomplished, how do you go about working on your phrasing and delivery?
I think that comes from playing the songs live over and over again, you test out certain things and sometimes they stick and sometimes they don’t. I phrase things live quite differently to the album now but then sometimes I go back to the original way. I sing a lot in the car, a whole lot! The same things over and over again working out the phrasing in traffic jams.
Coming from a classical singing background, did you completely rebel against it after a while or was it a gradual transition to more contemporary alternative music?
I don’t think I was ever a very good classical singer. It’s a serious discipline and I was never that into it, I think I was rebelling against it from the start but it was the only kind of singing lessons near my house. I’m really glad I have that foundation but I think I was always a bit resistant. I remember getting in trouble after a concert when I was around 13 or 14 for adding too much personal flair to a piece. That sticks in my mind as a moment when I thought, hmm maybe this isn’t for me.
With the likes of Aldous Harding, Courtney Barnett, The Goon Sax, yourself and more making waves in Europe, there seems to be a healthy migration of southern hemisphere music at the moment. Why do you think that is?
I’m not sure, I think we’re pretty isolated from the rest of the industry so people are interested in what we’re getting up to down here. Also it costs so much to get out of the country that, once we land in Europe, we work hard to get noticed because we have to make that flight cost worth it! We don’t know if or when we’ll be able to afford to come back.
There is a lot of consternation regarding government input (or lack of) for the arts in Ireland at the moment. Itís more a case of great art being made despite the government. What kind of support systems are available in Australia for up and coming bands? How important are these supports?
Sounds Australia has been incredibly supportive of me and countless other Australian musicians. I’ve played their showcases at SXSW, Great Escape and Liverpool Sound City. They’ve been denied funding in the recent budget so it’s a huge blow to up and coming musicians trying to enter the international market. I played three of their showcases at SXSW and it was instrumental to me getting attention overseas. It’s bullshit and I feel really sad for Australian artists hoping to be heard at these massive festivals.
Having just completed your first U.K. tour, what were the highlights?
The Great Escape festival was really great with some of the biggest crowds I’ve played to. The punters at the festival seemed really supportive of the artists, with them through the whole set. I loved seeing Pumarosa again I saw them at SXSW and they make me really happy.
What do you do to amuse yourself on tour?
We like acting together. Taking on characters for an unhealthy amount of time or trying accents. Eddie (guitarist) has started to do some kind of self taught Irish dancing which he pulls out at inappropriate moments which is something that can completely change my mood for the better if I’m feeling a bit weary. I also like collecting key rings. I love key rings. I got a good London red post box one. My friend from home likes them so I try and get her one too.
What bands are playing on the tour bus stereo?
Our bassist Harry was the only one with a phone that we could connect to the stereo. He really likes Billy Joel. We’ve also been listening to Kevin Morby and badbadnotgood.
Dates at Electric Picnic (4th Sept) and The Grand Social (11th Nov) have been announced for Ireland. Will this be your first time visiting?
I’m not sure yet how long I’ll have after the festival to hang around but at the moment it seems pretty free but my schedule seems to get busier every day. I have been to Ireland before as my parents are big Irish music fans. I think they’ve seen Luka Bloom about 30 times. So we went there when I was a teenager but I definitely didn’t appreciate it at the time. I was focused on trivial things like boys and what parties I was missing out on back home so I’m very keen to go back as an appreciative adult.
Julia Jacklin plays End of the Road, Salisbury (3rd Sept), Electric Picnic, Stradbally (4th Sept) and The Grand Social, Dublin (11th Nov).
Don’t Let The Kids Win is out 7th October 2016 on Transgressive Records