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Artist on Artist: BIGSOUND-Bound J-MILLA and Joan & the Giants

Before they headed to BIGSOUND, Rolling Stone AU/NZ asked J-MILLA and Joan & the Giants to get to know each other better

J-MILLA and Joan & the Giants

L-R: J-MILLA and Joan & the Giants

James Wajura, Ashlyn Burley

For the most powerful heads within the music industry in the Southern Hemisphere, the 21st edition of BIGSOUND is an unmissable date on the calendar. For artists, it’s an amazing opportunity for networking, performing, and potential breakthrough (just ask Tash Sultana and Flume). Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley will be lit up by some of Australia and New Zealand’s most promising acts, with a plethora of industry critics, fans, needle movers, and label representatives crowded its streets in search of the next big talent.

Two artists heading into this year’s BIGSOUND in confident mood are J-MILLA and Joan & the Giants.

The former released his latest searing single, “On My Soul”, last month, collaborating with composer and musician Nick Wales to bring the song to life with a stirring string arrangement (performed by Wales and violinist Veronique Serret). “On My Soul” was a bold declaration of intent by the NT rapper, a more dramatic offering compared to his more anthemic club bangers.

Perth’s Joan & the Giants, meanwhile, have impressed in 2023 on two singles, “Cool Kid” and “Sleep Alone”, combining entrancing rhythms with Grace-Newton Wordsworth’s powerhouse vocals.

Ahead of their respective BIGSOUND showcases, Rolling Stone AU/NZ asked J-MILLA and Joan & the Giants to get to know each other better, and you can read their full conversation below.

Joan & the Giants Interview J-MILLA

Throughout your life, what made you want to pursue music and did you find yourself connecting with hip hop/pop growing up?

Growing up, music was always around. Making music was a way of expressing feelings and became a powerful coping mechanism. 

Your song “Unlock the System” made me cry, it’s incredibly powerful and vulnerable all at once. I love the line “reconciliation is what we all gotta spread.” How have you found the process of writing these impactful songs, and how does it feel to perform them live?

I wrote “Unlock the System” after hearing some horrific news in the Yuendumu community that involved a boy being shot dead by a police officer – I felt as though this could have been one of my brothers or cousins and it made me feel vulnerable. Having the opportunity to perform these songs makes me feel honoured and privileged about my culture and is a great way to spread awareness. 

BIGSOUND is coming up real fast, how are you feeling about it all? What can we expect to see in your BIGSOUND live set?

I AM FEELING EXCITED AND READY TO GO! Expect nothing but energy, passion, and rawness. 

What’s been the best musical experience of your life? If you had to pick one memory that you’ll store as a core memory forever, what would it be? 

BASS IN THE GRASS 2022 was my favourite experience being on stage. There were like 16,000 people all roaring at me, blew my mind and it made me hungry for more…

J-MILLA Interviews Joan & the Giants

Guys, really nice to connect with you like this. I don’t know about you but I’m pumped to showcase at BIGSOUND. How are you feeling and what can I expect to see at your show? 

We are so pumped to play BIGSOUND! It’s our first time showcasing, and after applying for the last few years the timing feels right. Our show is a mix of raw, giant energy, and emotional, honest lyricism. We love creating a beautiful, intimate space where we can talk honestly about our stories, but also have a lot of fun with the audience.

Our genre is mainly centred around alt-pop/rock with a twist of folk storytelling. You can expect to see me in bare feet, singing my absolute heart out, and jumping around the stage like a wild woman with my very sweet and not so scary giants.

I read somewhere you said that writing the song “Sleep Alone” was cathartic and that you nearly gave it up. Was it transformational when you finally finished it and if so how?

It was transformational finishing this song! It felt like pushing a boulder up a very large hill, but when we got to the top, it was sweet relief. I wrote “Sleep Alone” on acoustic guitar, and it was really folky at first. We wanted it to have a big, ethereal sound with anthemic pop production. We couldn’t seem to find the right direction or drum feel, and restarted 15 times. I was also going through a lot personally and it just became overwhelming.

Our producer Dylan Ollivierre encouraged us to keep going with it and push through, and I’m so glad we did. The day I recorded my vocals, there were many tears in the car on the way to the studio as I was going through a heartbreak, singing about loneliness – it was all too real haha. I just poured everything into those vocals, and that was probably the quickest part of the recording process. Finishing “Sleep Alone” felt truly cathartic and I am so glad we didn’t give up.

The meaning behind “Sleep Alone” sounds like a pretty hard thing to go through – how’d you come out the other side and kill the rumination? 

Around the time of writing and recording “Sleep Alone”, I was going to therapy and that was really helpful for me. I had to focus on my mental health as I was battling with it. One of the best things I ever did was going to therapy on a weekly basis for over a year and just talking about my life for an hour. I discovered all kinds of feelings and memories I wouldn’t talk about with loved ones, and the process of healing happened somewhat unconsciously. For me, talking about things out loud really helps kill the rumination.

As a rising act, what are your greatest hopes and fears about performing at BIGSOUND and touring the East Coast for the first time?

BIGSOUND is a BIG new adventure for us, and I am nervous as I can sometimes be super awkward meeting new people – think of me as Jess from New Girl – but I’m really trying to have a positive mindset around it, and cannot wait to soak up all the incredible music and make some new friends.

We toured NSW and VIC for our debut headline East Coast tour in July this year! I was really nervous before doing it as we had nine shows in 12 days and I booked the supports, accommodation and car, so I was scared something would go wrong and maybe a website scammed me or something. Thankfully it all went to plan, and we had so much fun!

The audiences were beautiful, and we can’t wait to go back. The craziest moment was when a couple that saw us at a festival in WA drove three hours from their rural town to Mornington to watch us play and then drove back at 12am after our show! I couldn’t believe the commitment and was super touched (I cried after they left).

What’s your favourite music industry moment? Like working with a cool producer or a mad gig or whatever.

I think my most favourite music moment was in 2019. We’d just started Joan & the Giants, and we had played over 50 shows around WA already that year, working on our live performance. Aaron, our guitarist/co-writer, is from a remote Indigenous community in the Kimberley called Beagle Bay, and we decided to put on a show in Broome which is close to his home. For some reason, we chose a large venue and around 25 people came to the show -most of whom where Aaron’s family haha – but we put on the best performance we possibly could and went so hard on stage that night!

After the show, a guy came up to us who organises a big festival in Broome, and asked us to headline it that year to over 7,000 people. Our biggest audience was around 70 people at that point, so we were shaking in our boots but said, “HECK YES!”

So we did it, we headlined the Shinju Matsuri Festival on Cable Beach with an original set to over 7,000 people and also played a 12-minute medley at the end to the fireworks which I had to count down! I’ll hold onto that one forever.