Portrait

A bagel and a coffee with Holly Rankin, better known as Jack River. By Brodie Lancaster.

Singer-songwriter Jack River

“I think a lot of young people are feeling a little bit frozen today.” When we speak, the first thing on her mind is not the record she’s about to release or the national tour she’ll embark on soon. When we speak, it’s just days after the federal election. A vote that reinstated a government that will continue to hold power until she turns 30. “We are feeling the generation gap in knowledge harder than ever before in Australia,” says Holly Rankin, “and we’re really aware that a lot needs to be done to change it.”

Later, we’ll talk about social media and how our relative ages – she’s 27, I’m 29 – meant we grew up in a strange limbo, innately understanding the internet’s power but, as children, largely crafting our identities and priorities away from its influence. “I feel like we live in a pretty forward-thinking world online,” she says, “but it’s not a true reflection of the world.”

Rankin speaks of the “physical” repeatedly: physical work, physical conversations. She wants to find a way into the places where those intent on ignoring the warnings about climate breakdown live, the places where there is work to be done – far from the digital world. She wants to force her work as a musician and her passion for politics into collision.

That’s how most know her: as the beloved pop artist who performs under the name Jack River. And that’s ostensibly why I’m talking to her today, but she seems just as concerned with how I’m feeling, what my thoughts are in the post-election haze and further afield, in light of the recent threat to abortion rights in the American south. She’s curious and thoughtful in conversation. Like a bowerbird collecting pretty things, she seems to reach at shining slivers of ideas, pocketing them and logging their existence for some yet-undetermined concept.

The options seem limitless and impossible at once.

“We want to do something, but it feels too massive and we’re afraid to ask ‘dumb questions’,” she says. “I don’t know what to do, but I’ve got to do something.”

This need to locate her place in the world and contribute drove Rankin to conceive an event called Climate Hour, hosting a panel of climate experts ahead of her glittering adolescent fever dream of a concert at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre. “I don’t feel like an expert at all, but I’m super ready to ask dumb questions on behalf of whoever needs them asked.”

A pop artist holding court on the climate emergency may prompt scepticism, but Rankin forged her music career with ulterior motives sketched out from the beginning. After high school, she alternated studying political economics and working on music, returning to study environmental science before music drew her back and held her fast. But the boundaries between the two began to fade and the potential to combine them emerged.

“I really honestly went into music with an intention to bring my environmental and leadership and political passions into music,” she says now, a steely determination working itself into her voice. “I wondered, when is the time to bring them into my music career a little more?”

Describing Rankin as “wise for her age” would be to discredit her peers who are similarly passionate. But she is intimately familiar with having to grow up fast. When she was 14, her 11-year-old sister died in a spa accident. Rankin started writing as a way to externalise her emotions, but it took almost a decade for the resulting songs to emerge, blinking, into the light on her 2018 debut album.

Sugar Mountain is named after Neil Young’s “quaint little tune” Rankin says she returned to often for comfort in those years. It was only upon deeper analysis that she was able to figure out why the song struck her so personally. “It’s about lost youth and looking back on what you had to leave too soon,” she says. “That really helped me understand how I felt about my own youth because it kind of ended at age 14, when most people’s went on.”

The album’s opening track, “Her Smile”, she says, is the most directly she’s ever written about her sister. “Sonically it tries to paint a picture of the fragility of grief and also the mysticism and hope and wonder of it,” she adds. “It’s a cathartic thing to be talking about those wishes that weren’t fulfilled.”

This preoccupation with youth has pushed Rankin to continue exploring the consequences of the absence of a typical adolescence. The album is equally fixated on Rankin’s own loss and on the images of adolescence beamed from Hollywood. These simple and contained visions of teenagehood served as false promises to kids in small towns – kids like Rankin, who grew up a self-described tomboy in the coastal town of Forster on the New South Wales mid-north coast – whose lives were less obvious and tidy.

The name Jack River, which Rankin adopted while picking “pirate” alter egos with childhood friends, has served, when needed, as a costume and a character. More than just an alias, it became an escape hatch from reality to a place where things are limitless. You hear that in the songs: airy and vast, with a fixation on space and infinity.

Now Rankin is older, though, and the stakes in her life are higher, she tells me. “ ‘Holly’ feels more infinite and complicated than ‘Jack River’ does. But Jack River is a place to go, where I can fulfil weird styles or sounds. And then I can shut the door and walk back into my Holly life.”

Behind that door, she’s still working on a plan, years in the making.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 8, 2019 as "A River runs through her". Subscribe here.

Brodie Lancaster
is a critic and the author of No Way! Okay, Fine.