Interview

Julia Stone: ‘When it comes to love, there’s a toxic belief that we should look for the bigger, better deal’

The Australian singer-songwriter’s new St Vincent-produced album steps away from delicate folk music, and instead confronts the reality of death and relationships where you’re at the mercy of someone else, she tells Helen Brown

Wednesday 28 April 2021 14:07
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Julia Stone: ‘’A friend pointed out that we probably only have 60 summers left to enjoy. That woke up parts of me that had been sleeping for years'
Julia Stone: ‘’A friend pointed out that we probably only have 60 summers left to enjoy. That woke up parts of me that had been sleeping for years'
H

ow do you feel about dying?” That’s the question singer-songwriter Julia Stone thinks we should all be sitting down and asking each other. “I learnt to meditate on death as a teenager when I was backpacking in India,” she tells me, via Zoom, from her home in Melbourne, Australia. “You had to imagine you have a year to live. Then six months. A week, 24 hours: where do you want to be, who do you want to be with.”

It was an intense experience that the 37-year-old star credits with sharpening her youthful focus on what was “of value” in her songwriting. But after 15 years of making gorgeous, folky records (both on her own and with her twin brother Angus) she was left coasting until a conversation at a party gave her a second, sharp kick up the mortality. “A friend pointed out that we probably only have 60 summers left to enjoy.”

The realisation, she says, “woke up parts of me that had been sleeping for years” and gave her the courage to strike out with a bold new electric sound on Sixty Summers: a thrilling third solo album that, she says, “feels like a first record”.

Taking a steadying swig of white wine, Stone tells me that despite being a household name in Australia and a critics’ darling around the world, her heart was “racing with excitement and anxiety” before they played the first single [“Break”] on the radio. She had no idea how people would react to the shivering, shimmering layers of voltage in which producers Thomas Burnett and Annie Clark (aka St Vincent) had helped her dress her hauntingly romantic songs.

There are blasts of brass, Jackson Pollock splatterings of electric guitar, glam stomper basslines and giddy beats over which Stone’s sweetly grazed voice asserts a supple authority. It’s a record that will appeal to fans of artists like Maggie Rogers, who also combines the earthy grain of folk with the adrenalin of dance music.

“In the studio,” Stone says, “Thomas and Annie are the King and Queen of ‘F*** It’. They helped me reveal parts of myself I’d never explored so deeply before.” So while she says her first two solo albums “felt like side projects” from her award-winning work with her more introspective brother, she says “Sixty Summers is a celebration of me finding my own voice.”

As her husband (producer/musician James Gilligan) gently shepherds their excitable dog, Red, from the room, Stone says she wanted to write love songs that challenge “the toxic belief in our culture that tells us to keep looking for the bigger, better deal. Being attached to the rush of endorphins you get on first meeting? That’s not sustainable. You miss the opportunity to connect on deeper levels, find out what really scares or moves somebody.”

Stone credits her grandmothers for inspiring her to push her emotional boundaries. “My dad’s mum died two months ago,” she says, “with her hair perfectly set and full face of make up: incredibly sexy and glamourous to the end. My mum’s mum is the opposite. A tomboy, a practical woman and a fixer of things. But they both lived as adventurers and romantics.”

On one side of the family there were cattle farmers and on the other, sailors. The Stone kids grew up learning to tie knots, driving trucks around the farm from the age of 12 and listening to their dad’s wedding band rehearsing. Julia’s first love was acting. She loved to pretend her body had been possessed by “a strange creature from another planet and walk around the house working out who this ‘Julia Stone’ character was.” She scored a part in Aussie soap A Country Practice when she was just six years old.

“Acting gave me confidence to write and sing my own songs,” she says. “So I would just get up in assembly and perform these little melodies about peace, all a cappella. But things changed when I went to High School and people started to make fun of my ‘chipmunk’ voice. It was quite high and thin before I went through puberty. My mum has such a deep, loud voice that the only way I could make myself heard was by adding higher harmonies.”

Julia and Angus started out making music independently in their teens. They made separate demo recordings to sell at their low key shows around Sydney. But their aunt, a music industry expert, suggested they try working together and their 2006 Chocolate & Cigarettes EP scored them instant airplay and deals around the world. Travis frontman Fran Healy was so seduced by songs like “Paper Aeroplanes” that he invited them out to his house to work on their next EP, Heart Full of Wine, and debut album, A Book Like This, both released in 2007.

In the early days Julia tells me she “took a pride in confounding gender stereotypes by being the one who drove the sweaty van everywhere, reversing up those tiny lanes in Paris”. She also says that being in a band with her brother “meant I was never subjected to unfortunate masculine behaviour. But the few times I did sessions without him I noticed the change in atmosphere. I had an awareness that for young women going out alone with just a guitar the world is a more dangerous place.”

Brother-sister duo: Angus and Julia Stone at the ARIA awards in 2010

The duo’s second album, Down the Way (2010), featured “Big Jet Plane”, which became one of the biggest Australian songs of the past decade and won Single of the Year at the 2010 ARIAs. But behind the scenes the siblings were pulling in different directions, and they split up after touring the record. “It always felt like it was Angus’s songs and my songs,” Julia told Australia’s Triple J radio station. “We hadn’t found a place where we were genuinely listening and appreciating each other’s point of view in the studio. The idea of doing that again for both of us wasn’t appealing.”

But after a couple of years during which it was rumoured the pair didn’t speak, they were coaxed into reuniting by US producer Rick Rubin in 2014. The result was a more uptempo third album – Angus & Julia Stone. Today Julia says that she’s proud of “the joy and magic in what I do with my brother, because something special has to happen for two very different, unique humans to come together and tell a story that makes sense to both people”. But she also feels that their blended identity came at the expense of their individual voices. “We’ve found those in our new solo work. You can hear that we feel free now in a way we were both seeking for years.”

Julia tells me Angus was one of the first people to hear songs from Sixty Summers. “He told me I had to put out ‘Break’ first, because it was so different to anything I’d done before.” With a bouncy-chiming sonic backdrop that Clark describes as “Call Me Al” through the looking glass, it has a momentum that Stone says was created by Burnett – “a groove that was pulling me along in a way that I couldn’t stop”. She says that giddiness guided a narrative about a relationship in which “you’re at the mercy of somebody else’s power over you – and it feels extraordinary although it also feels that you might be broken”.

Stone tells me she drew on “those times when I really didn’t have control – I had to go with the wave and the more I resisted the more I drowned. I’ve had those relationships and afterwards there’s a period of time when letting go of the fantasy you’ve lived with for so long can feel like cutting off a limb. You’re so hurt.” The song’s Calypso-ish chorus runs: “Darling, darling, I think that I might break” and in the video (directed by her old friend Jessie Hill) Stone leads a troupe of long-gloved dancers through Mexico City.

‘We’ve found our own voices in our new solo work. You can hear that we feel free now in a way we were both seeking for years’

As a pop fan often bored by videos, I was surprised by how gripped I was by all the videos Stone has made for this album. They’re exquisitely shot and emotionally nuanced short films. Most remarkably, the video for “Dance” stars Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon as a couple who’ve met online preparing for a first date. It’s a tender, euphoric delight. The video for “Unreal” imagines Stone as the dead girlfriend of a man who tries to create a robotic replacement. And the video for “We All Have” – a spare, lullsome duet with The National’s Matt Berninger – finds Stone on an abalone fishing boat off the Tasmanian coast.

“Tazzy is such an extraordinary place,” she says. “I think it’s where I’ll end up living. The director had this idea because his family have always been abalone divers.” The marine mollusc, she says, “are very sought-after creatures with amazing pearlescent shells. There’s a lot of money in diving for them but you're alone a lot. We spent day after day on the boat. I learnt how to set up the generator and feed the oxygen to the diver. I also learnt to cook abalone – fry it quickly in garlic. It’s so tasty!”

Stone says that visiting Tasmania – where there were almost no Covid cases – allowed her to cut loose after being masked and isolated in Melbourne. She had made the most of her lockdown, training as a counsellor on an anxiety support helpline and promoting “Songs for Australia” – a covers album she curated to raise money for those affected by the 2020 Bush Fires. But, as a woman used to spending 10 months of the year on tour, she had yearned for social contact.

“The freedom we felt arriving in Tasmania was palpable,” she says. “Especially when we met a bunch of kids who invited us to a bush doof [rave]. It felt amazing to dance for the first time in 10 months. I was overwhelmed by the liberation of moving like that out in the wilderness.”

Being on the boat also helped Stone find echoes of her family’s sailing past in her own emotional journey. “The life of a sailor is all about not knowing what’s around the corner,” she says. “You embrace not knowing when the next storm is coming. I realised I’d been playing it too safe with my music for too long.” She smiles, rocks back in her chair and finishes her wine. “I wanted the unknown. And I found myself in it.”

Sixty Summers is out on 30 April

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