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Indie musician Julia Jacklin’s third album rejects her ‘sad girl’ image to reveal a new self-confidence. By Esther Linder.

Singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin

Singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin.
Singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin.
Credit: Nick Mckk

From the top of the lighthouse made famous by the ABC children’s comedy series Round the Twist, Julia Jacklin is waving to you in red lipstick, red gloves and a floppy sailor’s hat. In the music video for “Lydia Wears a Cross” – the lead single from her third album PRE PLEASURE – Jacklin waltzes to her own tune along the beach in front of the lighthouse and in the streets of Northcote. She’s playful, deadpan and distanced as she conducts an invisible orchestra with gloved hands.

Jacklin didn’t realise until after filming that the lighthouse in her video was so iconic. While on a regional tour of Victoria and New South Wales last year, she was told the lighthouse in Aireys Inlet could be rented for a couple of hours. “I think I just said on stage, ‘I need to make a music video next week, and I don’t know what to do. Can anyone get me into the lighthouse?’ ”

Jacklin’s music is variously described as intimate, tender, heart-rending and raw. She frowns when she tells me people say her songs require “getting ready to cry”.

“People did say they love Crushing but they don’t listen to it every day because it’s really intense,” she says. Across her discography are stories of falling out of love with a partner, estrangement from a mother, waiting for a friend’s family to fly in before their funeral and other ultra-specific and devastating accounts of love and loss.

She rejects the “sad girl” moniker that’s been given to her by so many: she would never use the term about her music. “That’s not what I set out to do. It’s just a very easy little box to put people into.” Throughout our conversation, Jacklin is diplomatic and restrained; she holds her distance. On her third album cycle of press, touring and publicity, she is doing things her way.

While Jacklin’s first album, Don’t Let the Kids Win, brought her international attention, her second, Crushing, released in early 2019, cemented her place as a definitive storyteller of the Australian indie-pop music landscape. During the lockdowns in Melbourne, many people felt the album was a perfect expression of the anguish of the lost relationships and time during those many days spent inside. The album’s carefully choreographed structures of denouement, where lovers and friends are addressed in brutal and precise verses, almost always return to a woman debating her sense of self, singing, “I raise my body up to be mine / I don’t want to be touched all the time.”

 

Raised in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, Jacklin grew up listening to music. Her father plays piano, her stepfather sings and her mother sang in choirs when Jacklin was a child, although her family didn’t think of itself as musical. “I think I’m realising as I get older how much music was a part of my upbringing in a way I didn’t really recognise at the time,” she says. Her first performance was at age six on national radio, singing the Doris Day song “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps”. She took classical singing lessons as a child, before turning to folk, pop and blues.

Jacklin attended a Catholic primary school and religion is a recurring motif in her new work. “Lydia Wears a Cross”, a subtle departure from Jacklin’s previous work as a chronicler of heartbreak, is a curious exploration of her religious childhood.

At first, Jacklin took to religion with fervour. “I loved so much of it, that was the confusing part,” she says. “I loved singing. I loved all the drama of Catholicism without really understanding what I was doing.” As she grew up, wanting to join the ritual morphed into the reverse. She found she enjoyed being the sole unbaptised parishioner at Mass. Later she began to understand how much she had absorbed “really toxic world viewpoints” around sex and sexuality. “It is basically [that] you are defined by your sex life or your sexuality. I think that was so, so incredibly damaging to me and so many people that I know … It can just be with you for your entire life, if you don’t check it.”

She describes years living in Sydney, working for a decade in various hospitality jobs while studying for a degree in social policy. As part of the band Phantastic Ferniture alongside Elizabeth Hughes, Ryan K Brennan and Tom Stephens, Jacklin eased into indie-pop and cut her teeth as a songwriter. As she talks about her first forays into music, there’s a blunt ease to her ownership of what she made, an absence of the cringe or self-doubt that afflicts so many of her peers. “When you’re younger, you really question your own tastes,” she says. “But I think I have been particularly lucky – for whatever reason, I have always kind of trusted my own taste.”

Her first original music was recorded on GarageBand. She made music videos using screen recordings from other videos she found online and uploaded them straight to YouTube. “I would write a song,” she says. “I would record it, I would make a video, I’d upload it to the internet, I’d go to work and then I’d come home and … check to see if anyone had commented.”

These days, she says, the web is a vastly different place. “I think I care about myself a lot more than I used to, so I am careful about how I use the internet,” she tells me. The overwhelming pressure to be always online, always available, is negotiated in her conversation as guardedness, holding herself away from the noise and chaos.

She refers to many of her colleagues in a way that reminds me of classmates: there’s a sense they leaned on each other as young musicians to ease the growing pains. Jacklin makes regular appearances at the shows of friends, often singing supporting vocals for the likes of Stella Donnelly and Camp Cope. Her first tour performance for this album will be at the Here and There Festival, in California, an event that’s curated by fellow musician and friend Courtney Barnett. Getting back on the road feels like “an insane thing to do”, she tells me. “It’s a very weird lifestyle that I was very used to and very good at. But I also didn’t take care of myself as much as I should’ve.”

 

During the pandemic, Jacklin “wasn’t a musician – I was just not existing in that world”. Crushing was written while on the road for her first album and in many interviews from that period she mentions how shattering it was to be away from home for so long. “I think if I had gone from Crushing and then continued to tour and continued to exist in that space, maybe I wouldn’t have had as much clarity,” she says. But amid the chaos of 2021, after a year and half when she felt almost completely divorced from music, she came back.

Putting her guitar away, Jacklin started writing her third album on a “little shitty keyboard” that allowed her to set aside her usual methods of songwriting, which always sprang from blues and folk roots. While this new album still features her signature reserved vocals and sparse guitar riffs, which unfold into expansive soundscapes, it offers a shift from her previous records.

Recorded in Montreal with her North American touring band, the album includes songs developed over three years and others written during the four months she was in the city. “I need a lot of dopamine and new sights and sounds in order to make things happen,” Jacklin says of the choice to record in Canada, which she calls “a second home” thanks to regular tours. Each of her albums has been recorded in a different place – Don’t Let the Kids Win was put down in Christchurch, Crushing in Melbourne. Jacklin says this album is about “loosening her grip”. “It’s very simple but I just like it,” she says. “It’s the first record that I’ve actually been listening back to. You know, my first two, I made them and just never listened to them again.”

At the end of her last tour earlier this year, at the Melbourne Recital Centre, she wept on stage for the first time. “My mum always says to me – or people who aren’t musicians – ‘I don’t know how you do it! I don’t know how you get up in front of people and do what you do.’ And I’ve always been like, ‘Oh, I just do it’, and that’s fine,” she says. “But that was the first time I was like, ‘This was actually really intense.’ ”

It’s perhaps strange that she hasn’t wept in performances before, given her penchant for writing songs that are tagged as heartbreak material. She shrugs off the emotional constructions that others give her work. “It’s not just the singing of the songs,” she says. “It’s more the responsibility you have as well, as an artist, because you know people are coming to the shows with lots of feelings. And you have to – even if you’ve sung the song a million times, it’s like, you can’t just phone in those songs, you know?”

Intimate music often begets intimate questions. Jacklin’s diary-like lyrics mean that fans and interviewers tend to assume her work is biographical. Jacklin relates being asked by a journalist if a song about sexual assault was based on personal experience. “It’s almost like people want you to be so traumatised – rather than just someone who’s a good songwriter.”

This clearly frustrates her. She says she is asked too often whether her songs are personal. “People are obsessed with wanting to know how much is true and how much isn’t true. And I’m like, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not relevant.’ I’m a writer, I’m writing things.”

Often fans assume a personal relationship – she tells me of being repeatedly DM’ed on Instagram with requests – usually from men – for favours, such as sending a video of herself singing “Happy Birthday” to someone – usually the guy’s girlfriend. “It’s hard, because you also don’t want to disappoint people. But you are going to disappoint people,” she says. Her job, she says, does not extend to unpaid emotional labour and it doesn’t offer access to her personal life.

In PRE PLEASURE, Jacklin’s sense of self is potent. Songs such as “Magic” and “Ignore Tenderness” are written by someone who is aware of her power and will use it. “I Was Neon” flirts with losing what she’s gained, but at the same time acknowledges: “I quite like the person that I am.”

“I think it’s been earned, you know, that feeling,” she says. “When you’re younger, it’s really hard to make music you actually want to listen to.” Jacklin is comfortable acknowledging a line in PRE PLEASURE where she mentions watching porn: as an adult, her sense of Catholic shame has diminished. She is in control of her narrative now, a long way from the young woman who felt that she was required to give everything to people interested in her music.

Now the two-handed nature of being known and knowing herself has translated into making art that can be joyful, as well as intimate. Jacklin cites a performance by singer Robyn at the Austin City Limits festival in 2019 as a “generous offering” made directly for the delight of those watching. With the confidence of someone who has performed for so many, so often, Jacklin’s songs are now not just for heartbreak but for her own delight.

“I’m not even sure if it comes through the music, but [I’m] just allowing myself to have a bit of fun and allow the music to be a bit more joyful and open – a bit more generous,” she says. “I know once you release it, it’ll find who it needs to find.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 27, 2022 as "Finding the joy".

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