If many artists struggle with ‘Second Album Syndrome’, the third album is often when everything comes together just right. Radiohead decided to self-produce for the first time and OK Computer was born, one of the most idiosyncratic albums of the last 30 years; Primal Scream exultantly cut loose on Screamadelica, delighting in being freed from the genre shackles of their previous releases. The third album, then, often becomes the moment an artist truly finds their footing. Julia Jacklin didn’t have any issues with her second album, Crushing, an acclaimed collection of sublime songwriting, but on its follow-up, PRE PLEASURE, she sounds fully aware of her own worth as an artist.
In one short afternoon, her conversation with Rolling Stone Australia confirms this. “I keep things very, very close. I don’t share my demos or anything with my labels before the album’s done. I’ve only ever delivered a complete record three times,” she says when asked about the making of her new album. “I don’t like to have anyone in the songwriting process at all. I think I’m sharing my music a lot less than I used to, to be honest.”
In an era where artists seem to be at the mercy of extraneous parties more than ever, such strong convictions are needed. While music is, for the most part, a fiercely solo endeavour for her, Jacklin worked with Marcus Paquin, well known for collaborations with The National and Arcade Fire, on PRE PLEASURE. Yet he was chosen to produce the album without Jacklin ever having known he’d worked with those stellar names.
“I only worked with him because he worked with my friends who are in The Weather Station, and they also play in my band, so it was literally because he was available. I don’t think I’ve ever chosen to work with someone based on what they’ve done before actually. I just want to know if they’re available, if they’re nice, and if they’re good on the computer (laughs). As long as they can get the job done.”
As she then notes, the whole idea of production is difficult to define. “I believe I’ve produced a lot of stuff but I just haven’t been asked to be credited, whereas this was the first time I asked to be credited. The last two records were produced by somebody else but they were just a four-piece band playing exactly the way I would play them live. So what is ‘production’?’ It’s a slippery term. I just think I’m getting more confident in taking credit for it, instead of actually increasing my production duties.”
And with PRE PLEASURE being more overtly produced (“there’s more instrumentation on it, there’s more details in it outside of just a four-piece band”), getting her proper dues was a positive. “It definitely felt more like I was ‘producing’ this time,” she says, “and I had such a good working relationship with Marcus in that respect. It felt very collaborative.”
Crushing might have been a transformative success for the singer in 2019, but the indie-folk world had left her feeling burnt out. It’s why many of the tracks on PRE PLEASURE display a delicate lightness and more unrestrained instrumentation; while that might surprise long-time fans, it was fully intentional on Jacklin’s part. “I wanted these songs to feel more full of life and joyful,” she explains. “The main thing I told Marcus was I wanted to make sure this record wasn’t incredibly heavy to listen to and to play.
“I didn’t know if I could tour three heavy records!” With a hectic touring schedule on the horizon, having greater eclecticism in her setlist was welcome. “I need some moments of joy onstage, so that was a big thing that we had to remember every time a song would be getting a bit heavy. We had to remember to bring it up again.”
Experimentation can be heard in a song like “Love, Try Not To Let Go”, which was Jacklin’s first time playing piano on a record, but she’s bashful about her ability on the instrument. “I wouldn’t say I can play piano. I think I can make sounds on it, but I don’t know how to mix the white and the black keys. I’m either all on the black keys or I’m all on the white keys. I think you can only say you’re a piano player if you can blend the two seamlessly (laughs). So I don’t think a piano album is in my future, it would be pretty bad.” “Love, Try Not To Let Go” is, as luck would have it, one of the album’s finest songs.
There’s another reason Jacklin’s stylistic expansion was needed: making music had started to feel more like a job. “If you’re doing it for a living, it’s like ‘oh, ok, this is what I do now, I make records? That’s crazy, when did that happen?’ In the past it was just one thing you were doing among a lot of other things, but now it feels like it completely defines who I am as an individual, which is pretty intense.”
And she had to be at the top of her game. “I actually think this album was harder for me,” she considers. “On the third album, you have to prove it’s not a fluke, you know? A lot of people said my sophomore record would be the hardest, but I just think they’re all hard (laughs).
Jacklin recorded PRE PLEASURE in Montreal, Canada, and thanks to her growing stature, she was afforded more time to make it. The newfound freedom didn’t sit well with her. “I think free time is my arch nemesis,” she declares. “I much prefer to be very busy and just write a record around things so I’m not overthinking it.
“If I have all this free time, though, the pressure is too much. That’s why I think my last two records were more enjoyable to write because I almost didn’t realise I was writing them because I was so busy. With PRE PLEASURE, I was just staring down the face of my own existence (laughs). I hope I’ll be busier next time.”
When one is constantly surrounded by music in their job, does it become difficult to find pleasure in merely listening anymore? After Crushing came out, Jacklin was feeling this way. It was seeing Robyn perform at Austin City Limits in 2019 that made her rediscover the simple joy of music fandom again. “I don’t think I’ve had such a euphoric viewing experience since I was a teenager,” she recalls. “I was so inspired just as a fan for the first time in a long time. Her set was super inspiring and made me realise how important joyful music is.
“When you’re stuck in the singer-songwriter world, it can get pretty joyless, and it can also be pretentious because we take ourselves so seriously. So I was watching Robyn and realised that her type of music was equally as valuable to human existence as professional singer-songwriter music. It just really made me reconnect with pop music and other ways of expressing yourself.”
An avid fan of Leonard Cohen, this musical epiphany saw the 31-year-old turn away from his classic poetic folk records to check out a much different record. “I was listening to (Cohen’s) I’m Your Man while making my record because I was right near his house. I never really listened to it because I liked his darker shit, but I realised how much I also love his 80s stuff that doesn’t take itself so seriously. It’s just super funny, cheesy, and joyful.”
On any Julia Jacklin record, the feeling that you’re listening to a multi-hyphenate in the making is always present; if the accompanying music was removed, a song like “Lydia Wears A Cross” becomes a stirring flash fiction piece. Does she feel more like a musician or a writer? Could she one day reverse the route of one of her musical icons, the aforementioned Cohen, and become a writer of novels or poetry?
“I would say I’m a singer, then a writer, and then a few rungs down I’m a musician,” she says, gesturing animatedly with her hands. “I think musician is a hard term to define anyway; I definitely don’t think I identify as a musician. That feels like you have to have daily practice, and I don’t really know what I’m doing a lot of the time! I definitely love to sing, and I know how to write, but a musician? I don’t know about that one.”
“Lydia Wears A Cross” details Jacklin’s disorientating memories of attending a Catholic school while not actually practicing the religion. It turns out it was simply the easiest school for Julia to attend because her mum taught Japanese at the high school next door. “I’d be a believer / If it was all just song and dance,” she sings in the song, fondly recalling listening to the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack (“it’s absolutely still my favourite musical,” she tells me).
“I never thought too much about it at the time, it was just what I did, but as I got older I was like, ‘that was such a strange place to send your child if you’re not Catholic yourself’. It’s such an intense time, it’s your formative years, and you’re literally being indoctrinated. When you come home and those beliefs aren’t taken as seriously, there’s a disconnect.”
What about the future? The image of her as a wandering singer-songwriter could be about to change. “I’ve moved around a lot the last five years; chasing things, love, work, something new, whatever and there’s always this fear that I’m leaving good things behind just to go somewhere else and be lonely,” she said in 2020 after releasing the excellent Sub Pop Singles Club 7”, “To Perth, Before The Border Closes”.
Two years later, when the possibility of moving to Europe again – she’s lived there before – is put to her, she pauses. “The longer you leave it the more roots you put in somewhere,” she says. “I feel like Melbourne is the first time in my life where I feel like ‘this is my place’. It’s the coolest city, the hype is real. It’s a very artist-friendly city and not many places in the world can say that.
“I spend so much time on the road that having a place feels psychologically very calming, and I’m not sure I’m ready to give that up anymore.” As if realising something in the moment, she suddenly grins. “We’ll see, though. Life is short. I have many dreams.”
Melbourne is where people like longtime collaborator Nick McKinlay are, who Jacklin credits with the success of her music videos, which are quickly becoming a signature of hers. “We’ve done all the music videos together. I think for me it was just about finding someone I felt really comfortable being with in front of the camera.” The music videos have been getting increasingly cinematic and polished, with the pair decamping to Split Point Lighthouse on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road to film a memorable sequence for “Lydia Wears A Cross”.
As Jacklin pointedly makes clear, though, the end results hide the mental effort needed to make them. “I think people watch my videos and think I’m really comfortable and just assume I love it, but I actually hate being filmed. It’s literally just with Nick I feel so comfortable; we have a lot of respect and love for each other. I know a lot of artists don’t have that and it can be a daunting prospect doing music videos because it’s this weird part of the job that doesn’t come naturally to everyone.
“I think having Nick has been such a blessing for me to actually get good at it in a really comfortable environment. People expect more single releases before an album drops to get the most shit going on. It’s like ‘I’ve got to make five music videos on not much money and with not much time?!’ It’s a lot and I have a real love/hate relationship with that part of the industry.”
Before letting Jacklin return to preparing for her upcoming US tour (“I feel like I need a lot of muscles to tour and they’ve seemed to have disappeared in the last few years. I’m lifting a lot of weights right now”), there’s time to ask one question all singer-songwriters surely dread: where does the vulnerability in her music come from? “My family is like the opposite of an open family, so I think that’s where it came from,” she answers. “It came from just needing a way to express emotion that wasn’t through conversation because that’s just not how I was raised.” After a brief pause, she adds: “It’s a lot less confronting to put your feelings into nice melodies than to say them raw.” That sentence could be Julia Jacklin’s artistic mission statement; it’s a fitting way to end the interview.