Songs Do Surprise You: Julia Jacklin Transcript

I interviewed Julia Jacklin in Whelan’s on March 30th 2019. She was at the time my favourite musician on the planet and I was listening to her new album Crushing all day every day, so – I don’t know how well it went from my end. I had to work pretty hard to come up with questions other than “Why are you so amazing?” She was great though – gracious, generous and quite happy to get into some fairly serious stuff with me even thought she was just off a ferry, and heading on another ferry in a few hours after her show. The piece is published in Hot Press and I’m posting this because there were bits that I liked that didn’t fit in to 1800 words. The transcript is tidied up a little bit and divided into themes for clarity. Our meeting began with me giving Julia a copy of Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations, which was out that weekend.

JJ: I’m reading a lot at the moment actually, so this is perfect. I’m trying to not use my phone, so I’ve just decided that if I have the urge to pick up my phone, I have to pick up a book instead. So I’m actually just charging through books. It’s amazing. I feel so much better mentally than I have.

NC: Great. Em – your album is amazing.

JJ: Thank you.

NC: My three year old is singing ‘Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You’.

JJ: Oh no! That’s too early.

NC: Today, while I was brushing his teeth, he was singing it.

JJ: That’s very cute.

ONE: EMOTIONS OF TOURING AND PERFORMING

NC: I’m thinking about the process of being on tour with the kind of songs that you’re singing now. You were talking about ‘Turn Me Down’ in DIY magazine and you said “Gonna be interesting touring it for over a year”. And I have thought about that before with people like John Grant. What it must be like to perform such personal material every night on stage to strangers. How is it?

JJ: Yeah, it’s interesting because I feel like it changes every night and it changes as you progress through the songs. A song like ‘Don’t Let The Kids Win’ off my first album, I’ve sung that song hundreds and hundreds of times. And some days I feel nothing. Like, I’m up there, and I’m definitely not looking like I’m feeling nothing, but honestly I’m – I’m quite dead inside (laughs). And I’m thinking probably about the catering or something. But then like last night I just choked up a bit because it just makes me think of things. So songs do surprise you.

This album’s been different than last time because the songs do feel heavier to perform. And it’s not even just me performing them and bringing my own experiences to the stage every night. It’s more that I know now that a lot of people have really delved into this album and it’s brought up a lot of things for them. And so then when I’m performing every night, I feel that pressure that, even if I’ve moved beyond that feeling, if I’m not feeling it tonight, that there’s people out there who are going through that and have come to the show because they are, and I feel like I have to perform with everything I have for somebody else, you know? So, it’s just odd.

NC: It’s quite a lot to carry, isn’t it?

JJ: Yeah. Yeah, it is. It is quite a lot. Luckily it’s only like an hour and a half every day. I think if it was for longer than that, it would be harder.

NC: It seems like it’s an important skill to be able to perform without necessarily having to excavate the emotional origins of the song onstage.

JJ: Yeah. I think this whole job is just, like, bizarre. Whenever I think about it, I’m like: Oh, so I go through something traumatic. I write something privately. I record it semi-privately. And then suddenly you go and perform that version of yourself repeatedly for like a year and a half. It’s very strange. I love it, but it’s strange.

NC: How do you mind yourself?

JJ: I think it’s one of those things that’s not not talked about enough in the music industry and I don’t think there is enough support around it. Because it is quite grueling and especially for someone like me or for anyone who leads the band. Not only are you having to do that every night, it’s kind of your project, so everybody that’s with you is doing it for you. And you’re having to manage a small business on the road and make sure that everybody is financially and emotionally satisfied with the work. I’m definitely getting better. But for the first two years, while there were some wonderful, exciting, amazing times, there was probably some of the saddest and hardest times of my life as well. Just trying to make sure everybody was happy all the time around you is exhausting. You’re not only doing that with your team but then every night you get on stage and you’re like, okay, I’ve got to now make sure that everybody who’s bought tickets is also having a good time. And it can be very easy to just be like, my own feelings will be last on the list. Or I’ll deal with them when I have a day off, and then you never have a day off, so then you don’t deal with it. So, yeah, I mean it’s just not the best environment for people who are struggling as well because it’s also just full of alcohol and like, everybody kind of expects that if you’re a singer-songwriter that you also like to party, or if you’re a musician. So yeah, it’s strange. 

NC: On the emotional demands of your work and the lack of supports. I’m thinking of my own day job in psychiatry. Doctors don’t always look after themselves but about two years ago a few of my friends got together and we have this group every month where we meet and reflect on the the emotional impact of the work. And it’s supportive and a really important point in the month.

JJ: Right, great!

NC: But what do you do? Who’s there for you?

JJ: Well I guess that’s the biggest part is that a lot of this job, part of your branding is to maintain this level of fun and enjoyment. So I’ve had wonderful moments on the road where I start talking to another singer-songwriter or another leader of a band. At first you’re like “How fun’s this, how cool’s this?” And you’re both eyeing each other up, being like, who’s going to be the first one to say “It’s not great all the time, is it?” And then you slowly break down those barriers and then you can get to the core of things.

I think a lot of that’s just based around this job is so rare for most people and it’s, it’s got a lot to do with hard work, yes, but honestly, it’s got a lot to do with luck, timing, and the way you look, and your age, you know. So to be able to get to the position that I’m in is actually incredibly lucky. And you know, whenever I say that, people are like, “No, you’re not lucky, you worked hard”. I’m like, come on. I worked hard, yes. But there’s so many factors that benefit me from the beginning. 

NC: What are they, do you think? 

JJ: I think being young, being, I don’t know, a white person, being, like, moderately attractive, aesthetically pleasing, you know, that’s just the reality of it. 

NC: I suppose being Australian and not, say, Zambian. 

JJ: Exactly, exactly. I mean the music industry is full of middle class white kids from the western world. It’s not like we’re all like the most talented people in the world. Because of that, you’ve gotta be very grateful, which I am, but then it feels like if you kind of make any allusion towards it not being ideal or something, then it feels like you’re kicking all the people who want what you have down. But I guess it’s like: it’d be nice if we could have a once a month meeting of musicians to be like, “Okay, how are we all?” (laughs).

NC: Are there people that you’ve connected with? Aren’t you friends with Adrienne Lenker?

JJ: I know Adrienne yeah. And Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker, Stella Donnelly and yeah, just lots of female singer songwriters, we can definitely have those moments where we’re like, let’s be real about this. And it’s really nice.

TWO: SIMPLICITY IN SONGWRITING

NC: Can I ask you about the decisions that you made in the album? The songs seem fairly direct, musically and lyrically. So how did you arrive at that decision that you wanted things to be – pretty clear.

JJ: That’s just the kind of record I like, you know? Like a Gillian Welch record. You know what she’s singing about, you know what chord she’s playing. It’s not that mysterious. And that’s just kind of music I’m drawn to, but also, that’s my ability. I’m not an incredible guitar player, I don’t know many chords (laughs). I think I’ve got a great ear for melody and I can write lyrics, but in terms of being a technical musician I’m not one, really. And I think when I came into the second album, initially I was like, oh yeah, my second album’s going to be super-produced, because that’s what I felt like a second album had to be. But then when I got there I was like, “But you don’t know how to do that”. You know? Like, I would hate to have a situation wherein I got an a producer that could do all this stuff that I didn’t understand and then create something that I couldn’t even play. I feel like with music, for me, it’s always just like try and document to the best of your ability at the time whenever it is, and then you can’t ever regret what you do because, you know, I can’t play any better than that. I did my best, I think. And I feel like as well because the lyrics are so direct and stripped back, any over-instrumentation would have taken away from that. And lyrically as well you feel like good songwriting means you have to be very poetic and metaphorical, and have all these tricky things that don’t make sense really but sound interesting. As I’ve gotten older I’m like, oh, that’s not true at all. Like, if you write a good song that people can understand instantly, it doesn’t mean it’s not good just cause it’s easier to process.

NC: [Waffly question about Jacklin’s singing, her voice carrying a lot of emotional information, so the songs surrounding the voice maybe need to be kept simple — not too sure what I was asking here.]

JJ: I think my singing’s changed a lot over the years, especially since the first album. I am surprised that I sing the way I do because I did classical singing for a long time and I feel like that should have stamped out any individuality. That was my experience – of being scolded for ever trying do my own take on anything. Well, I think a lot of that with my voice is that with this album particularly, I really wanted to just have the vocals right in the front and I wanted to record them very intimately with the microphone, whereas with the first album I was just kinda like, can we put a whole bunch of reverb on there?  And I just was a lot more self-conscious as a person and an artist, so I just kind of wanted to cover everything with just like a padding of effects and safety. Whereas this new record, I just finally understood. I think when you’re younger and you first started making music, everyone tells you, oh, imperfections make music what it is, you know? And you’d be like, no they dont, shut up! I want to be perfect, you know, I suck and I want to be perfect. And if my voice wasn’t just like perfectly in pitch or whatever, I would just have to re-record it. And then I realized that just makes, especially with my kind of genre, like pretty bland, non-feeling albums. So with this one I was like, I’m just going to sing the way I sing.

NC: Did you have to work your way back to your own voice, in a way, then?

JJ: I think so. I don’t know. I think I was just like, yeah, I don’t know, I just wasn’t afraid of it anymore. I wasn’t worried. I trusted whatever came out of my mouth. I think when I was younger, I didn’t fully back myself vocally. I’d always, every night I’d be like, oh I don’t know what’s going to going to happen. Whereas now I just, I have full faith in whatever happens (laughs). 

THREE: THE INDO PIECE AND SEXUAL PREDATORS

NC: You came in to a piece I wrote in the Irish Independent.

JJ: I think I tried to read that, but it has a pay wall.

NC: Yes. I was asked to write a piece about predatory men. I cited you at the end in a way that I’m not totally sure was right. So I wanted to check. I ended by saying that maybe we should stop agonizing over whether we can watch Woody Allen any more. And I wrote: “I propose that we use what we can, including our cultural choices, to ensure that women now and in future don’t have to sing songs about their bodies being the property of careless men.” That was a reference to ‘Body’. “And I propose we cease agonizing over whether to keep listening to predatory artists. We can just let go. Perhaps listen instead to the women who survive their predation. They might have important things to tell us.” Is that too strong a reading of your song?

JJ: Ah, thank you. No! I like that. That’s nice. Cause I do feel like that sometimes. When we are agonizing over Ryan Adams, I’m like, man, there are so many better female singer-songwriters and male singer-songwriters than Ryan Adams. I mean, sorry if you’re a big fan. Like when people for years have told me that I need to listen to him because he’s so incredible and Id listen and be like, he’s a decent singer songwriter, but I don’t get it. And then when this came out, a few people were like Oh no, but he’s such a hero. I’m like, I don’t know if I have the time to be in that discussion because I just feel like that would never happen with a female artist. We just don’t get the same kind of leniency. We can’t be disgusting people in our private lives and still have people listen to our work. So yeah: that was very nice. I think we should listen to more women.

NC: One interesting question to me was: if you’re going to decide you’re turning away from those guys, who do you turn to? I read something you said about your song ‘Convention’, which refers to Donald Trump at the Republican Convention in 2016. About why do we pay all our attention to the worst voices. That song is nearly three years old now. Do you think in the intervening period, have we got any better at listening to voices other than that kind of voice?

JJ: Yeah, I think so. Some days I feel very disillusioned by the world, but I do feel like even though we’ve got a long way to go, I do feel empowered as a woman, as to people actually listening to what I have to say. Even with this album, I feel like people really listen in a way that I was worried about. I was worried that I would put this album out and I was going to get thrown under the bus. Written off as like, she did it for the press, or for the #MeToo movement. I did get a few comments like that and they go Oh, Julia’s gone political. Which I find hilarious that if you speak about your experiences, just basic human experiences as a woman, it’s political apparently. But I do see a shift in the way that – it just feels like women in music are getting pushed to the front in a way that I hadn’t seen before. I feel like people are genuinely being believed. There’s definitely a big group of loud people in the Internet who are always going to be misogynists, so I don’t really have any energy or time to try and convince people like that, that they’re wrong. But I think that maybe there’s some people on the fence maybe starting to listen a bit more.

NC: It’s quite a powerful thing, isn’t it, to say to somebody like you that by describing your own experience you have gone political and that somehow invalidates what you are saying. Like: I’m sorry, who’s decided this?

JJ. Yeah, it is silly. Yeah.

NC: But it happens.

JJ: Yeah. It’s a great time to be a female musician, but then it’s also like if you write about like feminism or just your body or whatever, it’s like this hilarious idea that it’s a trend at the moment. It’s trendy to be a woman, apparently, at that this moment in time. I feel better about it though. My stepdad gave me a book the other day. I think its very easy to think that every single thing is totally shit right now because it can feel like that so much. And my stepdad gave me this book about 1960s Australia, and oh my God. Yes, things aren’t great now, but to see actually how far we have come. In Australia you still needed a husband’s signature to get a credit card in 1968 or something. In 1975 you couldnt get a bank loan. So that put things a little bit into perspective for me.

FOUR: BODY

NC: I will finish up because I think we’ve probably done half an hour and you’re busy. But can I ask this: Is the person in ‘Body’ angry, or not angry? Because the song can make the listener feel angry.

JJ: Ha. I don’t know. To me — no. Or at least, not angry because I feel like the person in ‘Head Alone’ is angry. Right? I always feel like ‘Body’ and ‘Head Alone’ are sister songs.

‘Head Alone’ to me is when I’m feeling empowered and when I feel like what I say actually matters and maybe that if I ask for space, or if I advocate for myself, that people might actually listen. And so I feel encouraged, but also, you know, I feel angry about it and there’s nothing else I can do than scream a pretty self explanatory line like the pre-chorus line (“I don’t want to be touched all the time“). Whereas ‘Body’ is more resigned to my fate as a woman in this world, that maybe things would never improve and maybe no matter what, no matter what you say or try to explain or express your humanity to people, there’s always going to be these deep-seated ideas about what I’m supposed to look like and what I’m supposed to do and how I’m supposed to behave in my private life and my public life, that I’m going to essentially die without ever being able to break free from or change people’s minds.

But then sometimes with ‘Body’, I feel like on the one hand its defeated – I’m defeated – then on the other hand there is something quite empowering to me about the end line (“I guess it’s just my life / And it’s just my body”). Because sometimes it’s actually really nice when you realise, especially with a certain person in your life who maybe treats you poorly or treats you differently because you’re female, there is something nice to suddenly just be like, well: There’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing I can say. There’s no amount of communication or anything that I can say to change this person’s mind. And, like, now I can move on.

I think it’s when you’ve got that middle room, when you think, if only I can just show them the statistics of female sexual assault or maybe if I can really show them the facts. Maybe if I can tell them personal anecdotes to make them understand why this certain thing is traumatic to me, then maybe they’ll change. And that is way more exhausting sometimes. And some people are just always going to be the way they are. It’s not my job to convince people or to change people’s minds. It’s not my job at all.

FIVE: FAVOURITE MUSICIANS AND WHY

NC: Let me ask you about musicians or records that you really connect with.

JJ: Probably my biggest one that I listened to the most would be Leonard Cohen. Gillian Welch, Fiona Apple, and a guy called Andy Shauf. Oh, he’s very cool. I toured with him and it was a bit awkward because I was just very obsessed with his music. They’re probably the four artists that I return to over and over again, and will always listen to their albums from start to finish and get completely immersed in what they do. Whereas there’s other artists I love, obviously, maybe not ones that I will continuously return to like some sort of little home.

NC: I saw Fiona Apple mentioned elsewhere this week as being very important to another musician. I don’t remember who. I missed the Fiona Apple boat at the time.

JJ: Well, I think I missed the boat at the time too, because alot of people’s perceptions of her were just so different to what my experience was like. I think she was really, she was kind of blown up when she was 18, 19, to superstardom. So I think a lot of people know her just as this young person who kind of went a bit crazy, you know. Whereas I had just kind of followed her personal life and I was too young to know that period. But Extraordinary Machine was one of the first albums I heard, which was her third album and I was 13 and my first boyfriend introduced it to me. It was just one of those moments that I’ll never forget because it was like the first time I heard something that that I really liked and I didn’t feel like I was being told to like it or my mum listened to it or whatever. It was the first thing that I went like, oh, I really like the sound of this and I don’t particularly know why. But then, over the years, it’s just – she’s an incredible lyricist. She has a way of talking about the dissolution of love in a way that I totally needed and related to. I don’t feel like many people write about it the way that she does. Yeah. She’s great. You should have a Fiona Apple period.

NC: You said that when you play these people’s music you get immersed in it.

JJ: Yeah, completely immersed, and I think it like reminds me of why I do this. I think it’s very easy to get so lost in this industry, to be like, why am I doing this? Is it cause I’m a massive narcissist? Is it because I like the sound of my own voice? Is it because I enjoy socializing? Once you get into the industry, it can be quite confusing for me. And so I feel like they’re the kind of artists that I listen to going like, oh that’s right, it’s because I love songwriting and they’re all masters, just absolute masters of the song.

NC: Did you learn a lot from these people?

JJ: I think so, yeah. Definitely, when I first started song writing, I think most people do this, you basically feel like you’re, you know, deconstructing a meal backwards. I’d listen to Gillian Welch’s ‘I Dream a Highway’, you listen and you’re like, OK, this makes me feel this and this and this and this – why? And I think she in particular made me go, OK, you don’t need a chorus in every song to make people connect with it. Like with ‘Body’. That, I reckon, came from my love of her music because she doesn’t lean into the typical songwriting structures. She doesn’t just give you verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge. There’s definitely a few songs on this record where I think I was just more confident in my ability, so I didn’t feel like I had to squish every idea into that kind of structure. That I felt like I could just experiment a bit and try not to do that a few times. Yeah. It’s nice.

NC: Where else would you say there’s an experiment with song structure?

JJ: Well yeah, like ‘Turn Me Down’ is one, and ‘Body’, and ‘Head Alone’. I mean,that is a verse, pre-chorus, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, chorus, chorus, chorus, chorus. That never really repeats. I think if you heard my first album, it’s a bit more formulaic, songwriting-wise.

NC: I’m thinking about the structure of ‘Body’. It’s got this really nagging quality. Like, I was wandering round the house for days, going what is it about this song? You know the way it resolves? That’s seemed like a deliberate songwriter move.

JJ: Are you saying about ‘Body’?

NC: I am saying about ‘Body’. First of all the chords aren’t all in the same key, and then they are, just when you get to “I guess it’s just my life, and it’s just my body”, which is like, to me, that’s the message of the song. This fucking sad, resigned moment of – you’ve no right to be angry. Just take it. I felt like you did that musically. [I’ve written about this here.]

JJ: I think with songwriting, that for me especially, I’m not, because I’m not a technical musician, there’s no real like: “And then I thought, I will now use this code and that will make this happen!” It’s just like, I try every chord in my small knowledge book and then I’m like: that, no, no, yes, great! Just a lot of trial and error, really. It’s not some wonderful secret craft.

NC: An Irish interest question really to finsh up. In ‘Pressure to Party’, there’s this wordless vocalising at the end – is there a little Dolores O’Riordan in there?

JJ. Oh, no. I’ve gotten that a couple of times, it’s nice. Yeah. It was definitely not intentional, but nice outcome. Yeah. Well, thank you. Thank you for the book!

NC: Hope you enjoy it. Here’s a pic of my son who was singing ‘Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You’ by the way.

JJ: Ah, he’s lovely. [Indulges interviewer by looking at interviewer’s phone wallpaper.] It’s funny the people you find that connect with your songs. Last night in Manchester, I was looking out in the crowd during ‘Head Alone’ and there was this was this old man in a flat cap, punching the air, yelling ‘I don’t want to be touched all the time‘. And I thought: You are not who I thought I was writing this song for.”

There’s Only So Much Sorrow You Can Drown: A Lazarus Soul’s ‘Funeral Sessions’

Son I best be going, don’t know when I’ll rise again / Son I’m sorry that our prospects are so bleak / A funeral’s a sad excuse to see your only son / But I’ll be back to my old tricks within a week”

‘Funeral Sessions’ from The D They Put Between The R & L

A Lazarus Soul’s record The D They Put Between The R & L is officially out on May 3rd. It’s out at the time of writing on May 2nd, really, as the CD copy I ordered online arrived today. I’ve had a Bandcamp copy for a couple of weeks now and Brian Brannigan’s vital, furious, tender songs have soundtracked my trip in to work in Inchicore for the last few days. I’ve been the guy on the Luas shaking his head at the brilliant bitter poignancy of ‘Lemon 7s’ (“Smoking Lemon 7s through a broken bottle neck / Pills ground down like powder, til your problems are no louder than / A little infant whimpering for Ma to come and help.”)

The D They Put Between The R & L is a dense, tense, explosive, and novelistic record about life in Dublin now and in the last fifty years. It is huge and teeming with life and death. It is crisply and economically performed by Brannigan, Joe Chester, Julie Bienvenu, Anton Hegarty, Vyvyenne Long, and Steve Wickham. They perform in such a way as to frame and illuminate the stories Brian Brannigan is telling. These are songs celebrating people in the inner city and raging against lives being decimated and those doing the decimating.

I’ve spent a few minutes trying to come up with a sentence that captures the content of the songs on this album, and I can’t, and why would I? There’s too much going on. I wrote “novelistic” above, but it’s nearly more like a series of poetic short films, Kieslowski’s Decalogue only on Dominick St. I can’t not quote ‘The Long Balconies’ here: “First day of April 1963 / Mother fell into the lap of luxury / Still tells of the day they handed her the keys / Second floor palace, the long balconies / They did a little dealing in the shade / But of the cops and priests they were afraid / They hung the washing out there on parade / There was good drying.

And I won’t attempt a hot take. It would be a mistake to give some unnecessary overall impression of  The R & L without another couple of dozen listens or so. It might be enough to say that it will clearly demand and reward all those listens at least. It is one of those that you want to stick right back on once you’ve just finished playing it. And records like this have layers. You think you have a favourite song, and you do, but then another one, that maybe you missed something subtle about on first listen, sneaks up and takes its place. I’ve come to consider this in an album as a sign of mastery.

So I only wrote this to convey some early appreciation of A Lazarus Soul’s accomplishment, and to give a quick mention to the R & L song I’m playing most right now. It was my wife who honed in on ‘Funeral Sessions’ the first time we played the record at home and it does capture you. The song’s narrative is a father’s apology and hard-earned advice to his son. They meet at a funeral of a friend who died of an overdose; he “scored bad gear on Henrietta Place”. The father has had to leave because he is afraid that if he stays he too  will die: “The boys I ran with dropping off like flies”. Even now, he knows that he has to get away again or he’ll “be back to my old tricks within a week”. Before he says goodbye to his only son, who he never sees, he gives him one piece of counsel: Leave too.

Some of why we connected straight away with this song is simply its irresistible musicality. Joe Chester’s acoustic guitar has an electric immediacy and Vyvyenne Long’s cello underpins the melody with a haunting counterpoint.  And some of it, for me, I suppose, was how it gives voice to people and stories I encounter every day.

I didn’t grow up in town but I have worked in the south inner city on a community mental health team for about ten years. Mental health crises here are complex: depression and psychosis and suicidal behaviour fuelled by poverty, trauma, deprivation, systemic neglect and drugs and alcohol. All of these things are intertwined. Things keep changing for good and ill but it seems that drugs are more lethal than ever. Crack cocaine took its time getting here but it is ravaging long balconies right now.

So the story told by the father in ‘Funeral Sessions’ is all too familiar and the song is so devastated and resonant and brutally truthful. The father’s escape has left him stalked by guilt and sadness, and “There’s only so much sorrow you can drown“. ‘Funeral Sessions’ ends with the father’s admonition to the son he says he had to leave to save his own life, and it’s a hard one: “In my head on a clear day / I hear my late great father say / You come from here you only got two routes / Be a drunkard and stay local / Be a gearhead, go to town / Or you take your second chance and you get out.”