Interview: Julia Stone Goes Solo for the Summer

Eight years after her last solo record, Julia Stone has released Sixty Summers – a powerful rebirth for one of Australia’s most prolific artists. Emerging from the wildernesses of folk and indie-rock, predominantly created with brother Angus as part of their sibling-duo, with Sixty Summers Stone solo-dives headfirst into the cosmopolitan, hedonistic world of late-night, moonlit pop. We caught up with Julia to discuss the new record, working with the likes of St. Vincent’s Annie Clark and The National’s Matt Berninger, and life away from music…

Many thanks for the digital ‘chat’ Julia. It’s a real honour, I love your new record and I can’t wait to see you playing your collection of new songs here in the UK in the near-future.

No worries. And looking forward to playing in the UK again as well. Hopefully soon.

By all accounts, the last few months have been really busy; putting the finishing touches to new album Sixty Summers, re-imagining the singles on EP Twin and releasing some gorgeous seasonal covers on EP Everything is Christmas. Is there a specific reason for this flurry of creativity?

The flurry of creativity has been a few years on the boil. All I wanted to do for a few years was record. So I made a lot of music in 2018 and 2019… and then 2020… and I wasn’t releasing anything. I had a lot of songs/ideas that I wanted to get out. 2020 was the year where I couldn’t go anywhere and be distracted by touring so felt like a good time to finish things off and get them out into the world.

It’s been six or seven years since your last solo work. Did you have a particular intention to create something distinctive from The Memory Machine and By the Horns before you started to record the songs or was it more organic than that?

I guess like most things in my life, my realizations have been gradual. I can’t pinpoint a particular moment where I’ve woken up and thought ‘wow now this makes sense’ (being music or anything) it’s slow moving. Something feels right and I have to do it a bundle of times before I realise that’s what I want to do. Those moments that felt good musically were happening when I was writing music with Thomas [Bartlett] for this record. I felt comfortable to explore different sounds to write music to but it took me a while to really know that was the direction I wanted to take. This record was about be finding that side to myself with writing that I only could through working with Thomas and Annie.

Fiona Shaw of band Dry Cleaning said, “Speaking your lyrics is acting, more than singing is. Everyone knows what it sounds like in a person’s voice when they are irritated, or when they are in love. The voice changes, and it doesn’t whack you in the face – it can be quite subtle and creep up on you more.” Vocally, album opener ‘Break’ and track five ‘Dance’ have this same, spoken quality at times. Do you recognise this concept in your vocal approach?

That’s a really great way to describe spoken word in songs. I didn’t think of it like that. For ‘Dance’ I honestly just couldn’t find a melody that felt right for the song. I started speaking as the music played and it felt right. It felt romantic. ‘Break’ happened because it felt like the only way to work with the music that was playing. I loved the sound of the track Thomas had made and I just wanted to be a part of it. That was the way I felt a part of it. It was all new for me but also just felt natural and normal to use my voice in that way.

The record is blessed with a satisfying unpredictability, with each song a creative contrast to the previous track. How important were people like Thomas Bartlett, Annie Clark and Matt Berninger in contributing to this particular quality of the record?

For me when I look at the body of work it feels really evident that the collaborations are what makes it unique, both as a record and each song from the other. Each song had so many different minds, hearts and hands adding their magic. One song had Stella from Warpaint’s drumming, another had Greg Leisz, pedal steel legend. Then of course, Annie’s guitar playing, singing and production. Thomas’s beautiful gentle touch on piano and extraordinary sensibility. Dann Hume’s writing, Eric J Dubowsky, Matt’s beautiful vocals. People would pass through the studio and bring something to whatever song we had open. I think that attitude crossed over to all aspects of making Sixty Summers. When I watch the film clips, when I see the images, when I hear the sounds, it’s all in there that it was that true collaboration. We had fun. We were free. That’s how we did it. That was my intention, and it came to life.

There appears to be a conscious shift towards a more colourful, pop, dance vibe on this record and I was reminded of artists such as Lana Del Rey, Madonna and Kylie upon first listen. What were the first records that you really remember obsessing over when you were younger and have these records found their way onto Sixty Summers?

Oh I obsessed over so many different records growing up. I loved Nelly Furtado’s ‘Whoa Nelly’ as a young teen. I loved Mariah Carey’s ‘Fantasy’, The Cranberries…I loved 90’s Madonna. Then because of my parents I had influences of rock groups like The Angels, Midnight Oil, Crowded House, The Rolling Stones and my sister loved Grunge music so we had Nirvana, Oasis and Foo Fighters playing in the house. A home that loves music is such a mixed bag. It wasn’t until I was around 15 that I became consumed in the songwriter style of music like Joni, Leonard, Bob, Guy Clarke, Hank Williams, Emmy Lou Harris and so on. 

If you were stuck in a musical decade then, which one would you choose?

It would have to be the 60’s and 70’s, I would have enjoyed being at Woodstock. I love so much music out of this period of time. Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin… and then when bands like Weather Report were the kind of band that thousands of people would come out to watch, the kind of band that were signing the biggest deals with labels. What a time. It was a great blend of improvisational music meeting traditional folk songwriting.

There’s a sophistication to the pop of Sixty Summers and this seems to be reinforced by the inclusion of acting royalty Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover in the video for ‘Dance’. Did you know Danny could move like that before he was cast? He’s amazing!

Isn’t he amazing! I had no idea. Just loved him as an actor and thought he would be the perfect person to tell the story.

Kacey Musgraves’ collaboration with Troye Sivan was inspired. With Sixty Summers’ foray into dance/electronica, can we expect any more collaborations with other artists of the genre in the future?

I hope so. My favourite thing in the world is to collaborate so I just want to keep doing that… and I love this genre of music so will keep doing it as long as I feel inspired to.

You recently described ‘I Am No One’ as the most satisfying track to play live. It’s probably the only song that feels like it could belong on an Angus and Julia Stone record, darker and full of lyrical connections. Were these intentional and what makes this song so satisfying to play live?

I really love that pedal steel line to be honest. Something about it gives me goosebumps. When the song kicks in I just feel gently taken away with the repeating line and I get lost in the vocal lines. I wrote that song so many years ago. It’s so familiar to me. I think songs like that, that have been in your life for many years can be very soothing to perform live. It’s like getting into trackies and having a cup of tea.

Angus has his hands full with Dope Lemon and you will no doubt want to take Sixty Summers on the road in the near future. Can we expect a new Angus and Julia Stone record in the near future?

It’s hard to say with the uncertainty of the world at the moment. I would think at some point we’ll work together again. If history is anything to go by.

With your collaboration with Angus along with your solo work, endless tours and promo responsibilities, you must be pretty busy. What are your passions and interests outside of music?

I adore my dog. I love learning about mental health and ways to be helpful in that space. I enjoy listening to podcasts. I like the occasional squash game (although I’m terrible), I’m a fierce 500 player (card game) and I very much like being in nature.

Finally, to steal a Guardian newspaper Q & A question, what is the most important lesson life has taught you?

Be the person you want to be every moment you remember to be that person and when you forget, try to remember, at the very least, to be kind. 

Question from Iain Fox