Julia Jacklin on the joys of touring, recording and chimes
Melbourne-based folk-rock artist Julia Jacklin’s latest album, Pre Pleasure, is both intimate and cinematic from cover to cover. The stories she shares could be anyone’s as she draws out the sting from strained relationships, the confusion of faith and the frequent quagmire that is love. Yet she savors those stories, seasoning them with alarming (and often charming) detail.
“I wasn’t raised in an environment where language was used to express love and care,” Jacklin once explained, “[so] part of my songwriting process is me trying to rectify that [and] force myself to put words to those feelings.”
Jacklin not only has a knack for writing heartfelt and exhilarating takes on the mundane, but also crafting exhilarating guitar hooks to accompany them. Her talents only broadened on Pre Pleasure as she tried piano on for size, and also co-penned and employed orchestral arrangements from Canadian composer Owen Pallett.
In short, Pre Pleasure (which you can pick up here on Polyvinyl Records) uses Jacklin’s indie-rock foundation to hunker down and explore, drawing out even more impact through additional, emotional sonic layers.
Jacklin took the time to chat with 88Nine before she stops in Milwaukee for a performance this Sunday at Turner Hall Ballroom (tickets available here). We talked about everything from Robyn to RVG, “transitional hangs” as an Aussie touring in America, and what it feels like to deconstruct and discuss Pre Pleasure nearly one year after its release.
The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
So, what was on the home turntable or the stereo when you were growing up?
Well, I have two parents — divorced parents — so it was a very different vibe at each house. My mom's was like Doris Day, the Drifters, Ella Fitzgerald and then, like, heaps of Irish instrumental music. Then my dad was pretty cool in that he loved Björk and Tori Amos and Billy Bragg — lots of singer songwriter stuff. I had a pretty good musical education from my parents, I think.
Yeah, it sounds like it. I wish I had a dad that listened to Björk.
My dad's an accountant. Not that that says anything about accountants, but he just had a very eclectic music taste, and he didn't play music himself or anything, but …
Incidentally, you just covered a Björk song with RVG, is that right?
Oh, yeah. Yeah, like two years ago.
“Just.” [laughs] That’s the coolest. Now it comes full circle.
What’s the predominant sound of your city of Melbourne right now? Who are some Australian artists that you really love that maybe people in the States don't know about yet?
Oooh, well, I mean RVG, as you just mentioned … they just released their third record called Brain Worms, and yeah, they're like my favorite band, ever. Just great homies. The lead, Romy, is a great songwriter, and it's just really good, good music. There's another person, Maple Glider, another great Melbourne artist [who] just announced her second record. But yeah, her first record is so beautiful, it'll kill you.
Well, we are playing “Brain Worms” from RVG [on 88Nine], so I guess we’ve got to get on Maple Glider next.
Yeah, yeah, check it out.
How did you come to live in Melbourne? Did you choose that city, or did it choose you?
I lived in Sydney for a long time. I grew up in the Blue Mountains, which is close to Sydney, and I moved there when I finished high school. I feel like Melbourne did choose me. I would go down there to play a couple of shows and stuff, which was always kind of scary because Melbourne felt like the coolest place in Australia; it was a different music scene down there, and I always just felt very at home there in a way that Sydney never, never got into my bones, my soul. And then I moved there in 2017, and it genuinely feels like I grew up there.
I don't know, there's something about Melbourne that I just can't quite describe. It just feels very uniquely Australian, and in this beautiful way it’s unique in Australia for how much it cares about art as well. Because Australia doesn't like really give a s*** about artists, so Melbourne is like a safe haven, I think.
Right now, as we're talking, you're in Montreal, which I think is very kind to artists as well. So it's probably inspiring to be in those cities, but once you go away from them, you notice the stark difference, so it just makes you appreciate those places all the more.
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
Being from Australia, I'm sure you've answered this a million times, but I'm curious to know: As a touring musician, what are the challenges of touring anywhere outside of Australia in particular? I can imagine the long flights and packing enough clothes (for one) can be challenging enough.
I think it's just financially impossible for 99.9% of artists. I feel really lucky that I broke through at this particular time, before the industry had changed that much with streaming.
I definitely prioritized getting an international fan base first, because it's just a bit tough in Australia. It's kind of got that classic “cultural cringe” thing where we don't take artists seriously unless America does. It’s also a very small population, so you can't tour much in Australia. I mean, you do an Australian tour, and it takes like three weekends and you're done. Visas are expensive. American working visas are really expensive. It’s just really expensive to leave.
What’s challenging for me (the more I do this) is I have to be away for a really long time because even if I have a three-week break, it's stupid to fly back to Australia, so I'll kind of just hang out somewhere. I’ve had a lot of weird, three-week “transitional hangs” in random places over the last 10 years. But, yeah, the issue is money.
That’s an extra special thing that I think most American bands would never consider because it's so easy just to tour in this country.
Yeah, you can just work so much more in America. You can live somewhere, and then you can just go and play shows every week for like a whole year, and you still won't have played in every place in America. Whereas there's just not enough work in Australia, but then it's really hard to leave.
Hopefully, that changes at some point.
Yeah! I mean, geographically, I don't think anything's going to change.
Got to work with what you got.
We are, unfortunately, just very isolated geographically, which is, yeah, just a big factor in it. I do hope things change, but I have no idea how they will.
So you’ve just got to roll with it for now, right?
Yeah. I think the younger generation has a better handle on the internet and making the most of that. But yeah, I mean, I don't know. I don't know what that meant, what I just said. [laughs]
It's early still. I understand the gist. [laughs]
I wanted to talk a little bit about your record, which came out about a year ago at this point. I love the songs because they're so cinematic, but they're relatable. You feel like you're listening to a movie, but you're the star of it.
So when images start coming to mind for a new story or a new song for you, does your mind lean more cinematic automatically, or do you tend to start with a more bare-bones story and then embellish a little as you go?
I always think of music as being cinematic and expansive, and it was nice with this record to actually get to use an orchestra for a couple of songs. I guess I'd always heard that in my mind but never been able to actually make it happen, so that was really nice.
Yeah, I don't know. I have such songwriting amnesia, honestly. [laughs] So I made it a year ago, and I just can't even really remember how I made it. I wrote a lot of it in the two weeks before I recorded it, so it was very stressful. But, yeah, I always see a car driving away whenever I'm writing songs, you know? Like the rolling credits of a film I feel is what I'm always thinking about.
You immediately made me remember Good Will Hunting and the end-credits song by Elliott Smith.
There are a lot of scenes like that at the end of movies. I haven't yet gotten my song on the end credits of a film. That's a goal.
Oh man, we’ve gotta work on that. [laughs]
I feel like I've got some songs that would work really well, but I haven't gotten the call yet.
Maybe this interview will put it out in the universe.
You just mentioned you book studio time before you finish writing records and that it’s stressful. Do you think that, even with that stress, you work better with those challenging deadlines?
That's something I'm really thinking about a lot lately. On the one hand, it definitely has worked for me, but it hasn't made the experience particularly enjoyable, especially with this last one — I think because of the pandemic.
I don’t know, I just felt like I was running out of time, and I just felt a lot of pressure with an indie-rock career. You’ve just got to get the record out there while you're still young and, you know, visually appealing or whatever the hell. Which is annoying because I wish that wasn't the reality. I don't particularly think it is always the reality, but that's definitely how it feels.
So for this record in particular, I think I really pushed it to the limit because I probably had written about 40% before we even got into the studio, so I was writing stuff kind of manically.
But I really like the record. I'm pretty happy with how it turned out, but even though it works in some way, right now I'm just trying to make my artistic practice a bit healthier. I'm trying to write without a purpose, write without this pressure on my back, and just try and not get too caught up in the whole idea that I only have this small window to be listened to. Trying to push back against that internal narrative.
It's kind of like when people tell you that you should enjoy the everyday moments of life because life is short and then you stress out about enjoying life. [laughs] That's what that feels like: “Oh yeah, quick make this record, but enjoy it.”
Yeah, I know. It's like all advice is … yeah, nothing really sinks in. [laughs]
On this record, you took more of a break from guitar, and swapped in learning and writing on keys. What was it like training your musical brain and your body to go from playing the guitar to playing something like piano?
I was just getting stuck in ruts with guitar, playing the same stuff all the time. And I don't know how to play keys in a way where — like, I literally don't know what any of the keys are? I'm sure this is common, but my brain does not understand patterns. That side of my brain is, like, missing. [laughs]
So I can learn chords on the piano, but I will forget them. I can't retain that kind of knowledge, which is incredibly frustrating. But it's just one of those things when you try and flip it and be like — well, there's something liberating about not knowing what you're doing and not being able to remember that stuff because, I don't know, it just felt like all new to me.
And I didn't feel constrained by music theory. Not that you can listen to it and be like, “Whoa, it's crazy. She's not following any methods of music that we've heard.” But it's more like I felt like a bit of a beginner again. We kind of all need to do that with making music, because once you start feeling like you know what you're doing, the music can get a bit boring or something. [laughs] So, yeah, it just felt playful. It just felt really playful and fun.
I think the second song on your album was the one I was drawn to most because of the piano, and I never would have been able to tell you “don't know what you're doing” because it sounded lovely.
So … what's the second song? I can't even …
Is it “Love, Try Not to Let Go”?
Oh yeah! That one’s cool because I wrote it, like, the day before we recorded it in the apartment I was renting in Montreal. And when we got into the studio the next day I was like, “Well, I'll just play it, but then we'll get an expert in because everyone in my band can play keys better than me (and the producer). So, yeah, I'll just lay down the draft, and then we'll get in a pro.” But I don't know. It's kind of nice because everyone was like, “You can play it! Just you do it.”
I want to go back because you mentioned strings on the record, and Owen Pallett arranged the strings on Pre Pleasure (which I love), and it was recorded by a full orchestra in Prague (according to your Bandcamp). So what was it like working with him? And what's your favorite song on the record that he arranged strings for?
That was a whole new experience. It was really cool. I don't think the reality of how it worked is what people would imagine [laughs]. It was really quick. I sung the melody off what I wanted the strings to be based around into my phone. I basically texted it to Owen. The next day, he had MIDI recordings of what the orchestra could sound like.
Then, a couple of days later, I was driving across America, and I was in a Route 66-themed motel, and I was watching on Zoom. I never even talked to Owen, but he was on the Zoom, and then this full orchestra in Prague is also on the Zoom, and he's talking to the conductor, and they played through the songs twice. Then it was done. It was like 40 minutes.
Yeah. It was very just like “meat and potatoes” of making music.
That's very efficient and magical at the same time.
Yeah, it was! I was kinda like, “Wow, this is so weird and very simple.” And I always thought those things were out of reach for me because it's just like, how do you get an orchestra on your records? It turns out that's how. And it's not that complicated.
There's something so beautiful about watching an orchestra in Prague play these beautiful arrangements of my music, and I was just like in a hotel room on Zoom. But, yeah, I really love both. They just did two songs and I really love “End of a Friendship” just ‘cause [for] that song in particular, I wanted it to feel cinematic — the end scene of a film of that friendship or something. And I felt like that worked.
That is the coolest. I absolutely love the strings. And now that I know the backstory of that, it feels even more magical. I felt like the piano and the strings carried a lot of the emotions that you wanted to convey on this record, and you had mentioned in some interviews that you had wanted to make a more joyful record this time around. Do you equate those stringed instruments with “joy” more than you would electric guitar?
I mean, maybe. It's funny answering these kinds of questions a year on because when you do press for an album, you say so much garbage because you're having to talk about a record that you haven't yet lived in, lived with, toured with.
I don't even think I understood those songs yet when I made it, and it came out like six months later. It was really quick. I was doing all these interviews, and I'm like, “I don't even know what I'm talking about.” I think I initially wanted to make a more joyful record. I don't know if I did, though. I don't think I did. I don't think that record is joyful, but I do think that, yeah, maybe … I guess piano has more of a tinkly sound. [laughs]
I read that, and I think I remember reading about how you saw a show of Robyn’s, who really inspired you to add a little more joy to your next record.
That's a funny thing because whenever you make records, you go in with all of these big ideas, and then you get humbled every day and you kind of have to work your way back to who you actually are.
When I first started making this record, I hadn't listened to singer-songwriter, indie music for two years. Like I wasn't interested. I was like, “I don't want to listen to that stuff. I want to listen to Robyn and Celine Dion. I want to listen to big, beautiful, grand, pop music.”
I was listening to heaps of The Cranberries, and I came in to make Pre Pleasure, and I was telling the producer Marcus [Paquin], “I want to sound like The Cranberries and Robyn and this.” And then I showed him the songs, and he's like, “Well, you haven't written those kinds of songs.” It was kind of funny how all my influences for this record I don't think really ended up translating in a way that I thought they would.
But, I don't know, that's kind of the beauty of making records. They’re just super-humbling, and they make you remember that you are only you. And even if I want to be Robyn, I am not, and I am me, and I write folk songs, and I don't like dancing, and I'm an introvert. I'm just not going to make that kind of music.
You can carry a lot of inspiration, but it comes out in different ways that are more subtle sometimes, you know?
Yeah, I think the only thing with Robyn that you would hear in the record is, like, I added chimes?
Chimes are in a lot of her recordings, and I play them on stage, which, you know … people think they're cheesy, but to me they're just joyful and fun, and they sound beautiful, and I don't know …
I mean, you need to start the chimes revolution somewhere, right? [laughs]
Whenever people criticize the chimes, I'm like, “You need to learn to love yourself.”
That's right. [laughs]
Life is short. Chimes are beautiful.
Yeah, they're lovely!
Has playing these songs live felt a little more light to you than playing your previous record, Crushing? Because you've mentioned, too, that for Crushing, that tour was a little intense. Has this tour been equally intense? Are you feeling more of a buoyancy?
Yeah, it was probably the hardest record to make but the best record to tour. It's been my favorite touring experience of my whole life during this record. And there's so many factors to that. I'm in a better place, like I have a really good band, a really good team, everybody's very respectful, and it's a very positive work environment, which is not always the case in this industry.
I don't know, it's just felt very affirming, and I guess some of the songs are just like a bit more. … I don't play guitar all the time, so I’ll grab the mic and just, like, croon, which is so nice. It’s been really nice. It's a cool point in my career to have three records to pull songs from as well. It feels like you can just play all your favorites.
That's awesome. It's a good place to be where you can reach back in your catalog and your old stuff feels new again, right?
Yeah. And you can just change the set list up. Yeah, it's really nice.
I wanted to talk a little bit about one more thing before I let you go. Your tour in the States has you playing with Black Belt Eagle Scout and Kara Jackson, and now you're opening up your Milwaukee show with Macie Stewart. What can you share with folks going to your Milwaukee show at Turner Hall about Macie, if you're familiar with her music, and your own set coming up here in Milwaukee?
I don't know too much about Macie except that she's, like, a musical whiz. I just know her from friends who she’s filled in for. She filled in playing keys in The Weather Station.
There’s this story of (last year or something) that their keyboard player got COVID, and they had this big show, and they needed a keys player, and Macie got the call and stepped in last-minute and was able to absolutely nail the keys parts of The Weather Station, which are pretty complicated. And she’s just been touring with Kevin Morby and playing violin with Kevin.
I'm really excited to meet her. I always love being around people who are really good at music because I want them to teach me things because I feel like I have some strengths, but I love being around really good instrumentalists because that's not my strength. I always just want to see what they're doing. So, yeah, she's going to be great, and I'm really looking forward to her set as well.
And my set! I mean, yeah, it's just gonna be me and my band and all the songs, and I'm pretty good at performing. I think I've been doing it for a while, so, you know, you'll get your money's worth.
And it'll be fun I’m sure, too.
Playing Turner Hall is great. It’s a great room, so you'll have lots of adoring fans.
Oh, sweet. Yes, I'm really looking forward to it.
Well, cool. We're looking forward to you visiting Milwaukee a lot. It's been almost a year since you released your record to Polyvinyl called Pre Pleasure, and I'm so excited to see you perform these songs and seeing you in real life.
Thank you so much.