Cast your mind back to 2019 for a moment, to an era which many have labelled ‘the before times’. The idea of a global pandemic seemed almost far-fetched, and the notion of musicians being unable to achieve any of the goals they set for themselves – be it touring, recording, releasing, or otherwise – felt impossible to grasp.
Many of us felt as though things would continue on as normal into the foreseeable future, with 2020 simply set to serve as another chapter in a never-ending story.
For musicians such as Brisbane’s Jack Bratt, that chapter was going to be one of the most exciting to date. Unfortunately, life had other plans, and as one of the country’s hardest-working artists, he found himself needing to pivot in order to keep that story going, ultimately emerging out of the other end of things having turned situational lemons into musical lemonade.
But before we get to the denoument of this tale, any good story needs to start at the beginning, and for Bratt, that story – the one which sees him evolve into a life-long musician – begins all the way back when he was a young kid.
Growing up in the ski fields of Jindabyne with a musical father, it almost seemed inevitable that Bratt would end up in the family business, but after years spent growing up in pubs and witnessing his father play live, it was his early teen years that saw the musical seed begin to germinate.
“When I was in primary school, I went to this open day at the local high school,” he recalls. “They were demonstrating some of the programmes they had, like arts and skiing and all that kind of thing. And there was a band made up of the students and they played ‘Under the Bridge’ by the [Red Hot] Chili Peppers. That just blew my mind that people not that much older than me were playing instruments together as a unit. I realised that was possible.
“It lit the fire of that possibility, and then all of a sudden I just went and grabbed one my dad’s guitars and just started figuring things out. And I realised pretty quickly that my ear was quite good as far as I was able to kind of figure out what I wanted relatively quickly just by listening to things and then replicating it on guitar.”
“It’s kind of been the most prolific songwriting period of my life in these last two years.”
With a musical upbringing, the osmosis of such an environment allowed him to get started rather quickly, with his technical ability following closely behind. Soon, Bratt was performing in bands at every opportunity, with names such as Shifter, Blonde on Blonde, and the Golden Age of Ballooning all peppering his resumé. Though a member of nine bands at one point, these days, it’s just the Golden Age of Ballooning that he spends his time with.
“We’re very light on with how much we agree to do,” he explains. “I think we did two gigs last year, but obviously with the virus and stuff like that, it makes it a little bit more difficult. We kind of like have little bursts of creativity, and we actually have an album that’s finished, but it’s just in various stages of mixing. But it’s a slow moving project.
“For a long time I was contributing to Golden Age and approaching it more from a production sense because I wouldn’t come with ideas, but I would bounce ideas off Wolfe [Peterson, vocalist], suggest things and maybe write guitar parts. But I would never kind of come in with with with the initial skeleton of the idea like that. I took a long time of writing music and having the initial burst of creativity coming solely from me.
“So that was really exciting when a couple of years ago when I started doing that again, and now it’s kind of been the most prolific songwriting period of my life in these last two years,” he adds. “I think just because there’s so much time of being forced to be quiet and stay still and sit still.”
It was in late 2019 that Bratt’s name became much more well-known, taking out the annual Grant McLennan Fellowship and bringing home a $25,000 winner’s cheque. Though a creative powerhouse, Bratt is indeed a humble musician, and doesn’t view it as the logical, natural progression of his lengthy career, but rather, he looks back on it with a sense of extreme shock that he managed to come out on top.
“My partner at the time, she suggested that I apply for it, and I thought that would be a really kind of cool or exciting thing to kind of get the cogs turning again to me, just something to work towards,” he recalls, noting that it was not only the first grant he had applied for, but also an extremely complex process.
“I wrote music for it, recorded it at home, and then I tried to do it the best I possibly could with my limited technological skills,” he says with a laugh. “I’m still pretty green when it comes to the actual technical aspects in the studio.
“My goal was really just to get to the final four. I thought that might be within reach. And when I was announced as on the shortlist for the final four, it was just such a huge form of validation, because of a lot of roadblocks and things that I’ve faced over the years in various bands. Just getting close and then there’s a big no waiting for you at the end of the hallway.”
But what was it that got him over the line? While being a self-described obsessive of both McLennan and his band The Go-Betweens wouldn’t have been enough, Bratt does admit that there was something of a connection between him and the iconic artist, though the pair never crossed paths.
“I’m such a fan of music history and, just immersing myself in things that I get interested in. And luckily, I was in the same city that that Grant lived for a large portion of his life,” Bratt notes. “I was lucky enough to have people at my disposal that I could ask about him because I unfortunately never got to meet him.
“We would have been ships in the night, because our favourite bar was the same bar; Ric’s. So the last couple of years of his life, he was pretty much a a mainstay at the end of the bar. I would have been going on a Friday Saturday nights, and so we probably just would have missed each other.”
“I’d been pretty beat down by the industry for a few years and this was a really good ‘phoenix from the ashes’ kind of opportunity for me.”
But just being passing ships in the night and being a fan of McLennan’s work wasn’t enough for Bratt. Admitting that the last thing he had won was a swimming competition as a five-year-old, he viewed the prospect of winning such a grant and having the opportunity to uphold the legacy of its namesake as a major task.
Immersing himself in the community, speaking to those who knew McLennan, and ultimately showing a great level of respect for a music scene that is so vital to what makes Australian music so beloved is what Bratt feels allowed him to gain an edge over his fellow entrants. But in addition to the music he recorded for his application, he notes that it was almost time for his story to take a new creative turn.
“I’d been pretty beat down by the industry for a few years and this was a really good ‘phoenix from the ashes’ kind of opportunity for me,” he notes. “And the judges, I think they really saw that in my application and in my music.”
As 2020 came around though, Bratt admits that he felt a little bit uneasy about how well things were going. Not only were his beloved LA Lakers doing well, but the Grant McLennan Fellowship win had taken place just days before musical idol John Frusciante had rejoined Bratt’s favourite band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It felt like something had to give.
Ultimately, the COVID-19 pandemic soon took hold, putting an end to Bratt’s self-described “Summer of George“, and disrupting his plans to head over to New York City for six months.
“The whole concept behind the Fellowship is just to be an artist and to have the opportunity to just live and breathe,” he explains. “Being an artist without having to go to work every day or and being in a in a foreign place where you don’t have your normal support system, whether that’s a blessing or a hindrance.
“You’re kind of caught in the middle of a situation you’re not familiar with new and the opportunity to gain that inspiration from a place that you’re not used to being in. And Grant’s favourite cities were Berlin, London, and New York. I was very thankful to have had the opportunity to live in London and Berlin before and I’ve always loved the states and luckily been there a lot to tour with bands over the years and the opportunity to spend time in New York was just too good to pass up.”
Sadly though, the then-nascent pandemic put an end to these plans, and with Bratt finding himself now stuck in Australia for the foreseeable future, he grabbed the opportunity to keep fans engaged by releasing his debut single, “Spades”, in April.
Having written the track as part of his application process for the Grant McLennan Fellowship, it also served as the first taste of his debut solo album. Plus, arriving at a time when the future seemed more uncertain than ever, it left Bratt feeling somewhat empowered to go forward and keep doing what he had been doing.
“It kind of got me rolling and the excitement and just the validation I felt was great,” he says. “I wanted to kind of put something out before I went overseas just to have something out there as kind of as a bit of an introduction to me. And I guess it was kind of a good bridging song.
“It’s almost like a safety song in a way that you get in my past musical experience and sound that’s very similar to what I’ve done before, but still kind of looking towards where I wanted to go,” he adds. “Because I wanted to be a bit more sonically adventurous and diverse, and how I want to sound my tastes and are different now.”
Indeed, “Spades” was the first in a long line of singles that would follow over the next two years, and helped to kick off Bratt’s solo career by presenting itself as something that would be “less of a shock” for people to hear. Additionally, it helped make it easier for Bratt to step out as a solo artist for the first time, with the overwhelming positive reaction serving as validation that he had done something right.
“I want to be a career artist; writing music and releasing albums for a very long time until I’m not really able to anymore.”
“It’s just a first step,” he explains. “I want to be a career artist; writing music and releasing albums for a very long time until I’m not really able to anymore. And I just realised that I needed to just start now because I’ve left it so long already.
“You can’t spend your entire life trying to write your perfect first album. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes you don’t. But I just needed to start today and have something and have have the first body of work out there so I can start working on the next one or so.”
Arriving on January 21st, Bratt’s debut solo album is Slow Release a record that encompasses his musical influences and combines to form a cohesive body of work that is as powerful as it is slick. Musically, it feels almost reminiscent of music icons such as John Frusciante or John Mayer, while it sounds luscious and mesmerising thanks to the production talents of Joel Myles.
“I had to pivot because it was very apparent pretty quickly that this wasn’t going away, that we might be stuck, and my plans to go New York would be completely trashed.”
However, for an album that feels like it’s the product of the almost 20 years Bratt has spent as a musician, it’s backstory isn’t quite as lengthy, with the vast majority of the record was written when he suddenly found himself with a lot of time on his hands in 2020.
“When we had that first lockdown, I was writing a bunch of music already,” he recalls. “And then the rest of it, or maybe like 70% of it, happened in in that first 2020 lockdown. I had to pivot because it was very apparent pretty quickly that this wasn’t going away, that we might be stuck, and my plans to go New York would be completely trashed.”
Applying for another grant through Arts Queensland to fund the album, Bratt received another $10,000 to aid in its recording, then approached his producer to explain that they might as well make hay while the sun shines.
“I was going to write the first album when I was in New York and then come back, so obviously, I’ve done everything backwards, but I just felt like I could waste any more time,” Bratt explains. “I wasn’t really prepared to just sit on the couch for a year. I wanted to get working on it, and then I brought a couple of other songs in during the recording process as well.
“Luckily, it was two things. One, I was lucky enough to be able to get the funding to pay for it, and two, just not wanting to be complacent and kind of let any momentum that I’d already started to kind of just stall because of the pandemic.”
After years spent in bands, Slow Release gives Bratt the chance to let his full creative palate shine. Stepping away from the usual democratic nature in which bands usually work, it allows him to take charge, to let his own work take centre stage, and to also assert himself as the artist he wants to be.
“When you’re really striving to succeed as a band in the music industry, when it stops being that initial joy of just people playing in a room together and making art for the sake of it, playing with your best friends, and when you start to have a bit of momentum and you’re releasing singles and starting be played on the radio, your priorities pivot,” he explains.
“And that’s when problems start to enter into it, and trying to keep everybody interested and invested and motivated emotionally, financially in a musical project all the time is impossible, really.”
Noting that the general life of a band involves so much sacrifice, he explains that it’s easy for band members to suddenly find themselves lacking the drive and motivation required for a group to maintain the momentum needed to forge ahead with great success.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the freedom.”
“The decision to be a solo artist was [that] it’s up to me how hard I work, and the project is as successful as that. It’s a result of how hard I’m prepared to work at it, and I don’t have anybody else to basically slow the momentum down,” he explains. “It’s really great working with Joel Myles, my producer, because it is still extremely collaborative as far as the creation of it goes and bouncing ideas about how to market the project and stuff like that as well.
“But ultimately, it’s up to me,” he adds. “Having that control, there’s a lot of freedom in that. You have to be prepared for the the positivity surrounding the project and the rejection surrounding the project. That’s obviously a negative. And also you don’t have as much joy to celebrate the wins because you’re not putting each other on the back and, you know, breaking through a threshold with with your with your bandmates.”
Of course, with the amount of freedom that a solo record can bring it, so too can it become a daunting prospect for any artist stepping out into the world without the assistance of a larger project behind them. For Bratt though, any sort of fear is quickly replaced by the sort of nervous energy that the liberation of crafting a solo record can bring.
“There’s a lot of freedom in it as well because I can write and release whatever music I want to, because it’s it’s authentically me,” he explains. “I don’t feel like I have any kind of sound or anything to abide by. I’m just going to release the music that I want to release from now on. I’m sure that there’s going to be lots of twists and turns and that’s that’s really exciting.
“I don’t have to worry about anybody else not agreeing with me artistically about the project should sound like. Yeah. And and because I’ve had so long being in bands, I’ve kind of had the other experience over and over and over again. So it’s really exciting having a new experience and just seeing what that’s like. So it’s not as scary as you think it is, there’s a lot of excitement in the freedom.”
“I’m just going to release the music that I want to release from now on. I’m sure that there’s going to be lots of twists and turns and that’s that’s really exciting.”
At its heart, Slow Release is stunningly-cohesive record, almost something akin to a throwback to the era in which records weren’t created to simply exist as a vehicle for singles, but rather, a snapshot of an artist’s creative output.
“That’s really what I wanted to do in a world of singles and streaming,” Bratt explains. “I really wanted to do something kind of that was important to me, and I always just wanted to make an album that was supposed to be listened to top to bottom.
“When I discovered Frank Ocean and that Channel Orange record, just hearing that for the first time and being like, ‘this is so strange to listen to on the first time through’, but it just like gets into your skin and it just every time you listen to it, something else pops out and and you gravitate to gravitate towards. So that’s the kind of album I wanted to make, and those are the records that I’ve always loved course.”
But it’s not just a record that sounds good and is full of the sort of thing that rewards a fan for their repeat listening, it’s also an album with themes that are close to Bratt’s heart, ultimately serving as a linear snapshot of the last seven years of his life.
“A lot of it is about unanswered questions and just me kind of putting things into perspective and how I feel about things.”
“A lot of it is speaking in retrospect about experiences and how I feel about them,” he notes. “‘Will You Ever’ is the beginning of it and it kicks off the record. It’s not in order of how they were written, but kind of the experiences that they represent. That’s pretty linear as far as the track tracklisting, because I really wanted it to be something that you listen to top to bottom.
“A lot of it is about unanswered questions and just me kind of putting things into perspective and how I feel about things,” he adds. “When I was writing ‘Spades’, a lot of it had to do with pressure from society about where you should be at a certain point in your life. I was kind of looking at other people around me and at my dad and thinking, ‘I’m in my early 30s, and by the time dad was 34, he’d had me.’ And he’s actually been married before, he was on his second marriage and stuff like that. And I was kind of thinking, ‘We aren’t at the same crossroad of lives.’
“And I just thought, ‘Does this make me a failure? Am I not hitting my stride? Am I not where I’m supposed to be?’ And just that negative social pressure as well. Y’know, everybody’s getting married and having kids, and here I am making an album, my first record. It’s like I feel like I’m late for everything.”
As Bratt finally releases Slow Release (admitting that its title has several meanings, ranging from the slow release of chemicals in anti-anxiety medication to the fact that it’s taken 18 years for a solo record to arrive), it feels as though the future is once again somewhat open-ended.
Though it’s hard to say whether live performances will take place given the complexity of some of the material on the record, there is some light at the end of the tunnel that is these last few years, with Bratt finally making his way to New York City at the end of March to begin writing once again. In fact, just this week, he even set his sights on album number two, meaning that there’s plenty of work for him to focus on in the states.
“I would like to do some recording over there as well,” he notes. “I’m going out to Joshua Tree on the way to Rancho De La Luna, where [members of] Queens of The Stone Age did the Desert Sessions and stuff like that.
“I’d like to do some at Electric Lady, Jimi Hendrix’s studio in New York, but predominately just write and just have a bit of a time away from from Brisbane and and my life. I just want to have some great experiences and and see where see where it takes me from there.”
Jack Bratt’s Slow Release is officially released on Friday, January 21st, with pre-orders available now.