INTERVIEW: Julia Stone

Through the release of her third solo studio album ‘Sixty Summers’, Julia Stone has made the record she’s always wanted to create. Upon a first listen you might be taken aback by the experimental nature of the production that steers her away from her folk roots and into a heavier pop soundscape. But this album is ultimately inspired by the nostalgia of her youth and is a pure celebration of the memories she’s shared in the dark that have formed who she is as an adult and as a singer-songwriter.

Written in-between touring the last Angus & Julia Stone album ‘Snow’, the songs playful foundations started to take shape quite naturally with collaborator Thomas Bartlett (Sufjan Stevens, Norah Jones). With the sound already leaning towards a pop sentiment, St Vincent jumped on board to co-produce and help further break down the walls and hone the vision of dancing in the street under the night sky that she had for this record. 

While ‘Sixty Summers’ hears her in a different but reassuring light, there are still moments inspired by folk music with dreamy harmonies transporting you to a different place which has always been her forte. Her songwriting is rich with vulnerability as she unravels her emotions candidly and explicitly, and this may just be the most honest we’ve ever heard her.

I recently chatted to Julia Stone about the experimental nature of ‘Sixty Summers’ and how it was truly a labour of love with her fellow collaborators, as well as explored the creative processes behind songs like ‘Substance’, ‘Who’, ‘Easy’ and the nostalgic title track. Check it out BELOW;

THOMAS BLEACH: Your third studio album ‘Sixty Summers’ is a cinematically bold and experimentally charged collection of tracks that hears you stepping into a heavier pop soundscape. Why did now feel like the right time for you artistically to step out of your comfort zone and create something that maybe people didn’t see coming? 

JULIA STONE: When we started to write this record I was right in the middle of touring ‘Snow’ with Angus, and I think with our project we found a style of music that worked for both of us. We are two very different artists and we needed to find this sound together. Initially I really liked writing folk music as I grew up with 70’s Americana playing in the house. So the first style of songwriting I graduated towards was the more traditional singer-songwriter. I learnt to play the acoustic guitar and finger-picking guitar as I was inspired by artists like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Guy Clark and Hank Williams. 

But through my teenage years I really loved clubbing, loved going out, and loved dancing, and I think that part of me has always been there. After playing a gig I’d always want to put on dance music or go out and have fun. I started to find myself dancing onstage at any chance I could if a song had any sort of beat. Whereas Angus was really into the Dope Lemon style of psychedelic rock. So as Angus and I kept developing both of those interests they formed into songs like ‘Chateau’ and had a bit more four to the floor feeling. That started to feel really good but it wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be, and exactly where Angus wanted to be individually. So as we were touring ‘Snow’ I started writing with Thomas Bartlett, and I felt like every time I went to his studio in New York I wanted to write pop choruses and that was something he was really celebrating in me. 

Each time I’d turned up to the studio he would have a new beat for me, or a new track to write to. So there wasn’t the initial idea to “write a pop record” as I was just doing it because it felt really fun and a nice way to spend time. And then after when we had about 30 songs, and Angus and I stopped touring, the conversation then came up that maybe we should turn this into a record and maybe there’s some special songs here. They felt really good and strong, and that’s when Thomas brought Annie Clark (St Vincent) on board, and that’s when it really came together. We had ‘Break’, we had ‘Unreal’ in really good shape, we had ‘We All Have’ in good shape, but she completely transformed ‘Who’, ‘Dance’ and a few others. She also picked out the songs from the 30 that she thought would make a good record. 

TB: ’Substance’ is immediately a song that stands out with its Lorde and St Vincent inspired production contrasted with its emotional realisation of wanting something deeper. Can you explain the creative process behind this particular track? 

JS: I initially wrote that song with Vera Blue and Dann Hume in Sydney. I was actually writing for Celia’s (Vera Blue) record and we had done a couple of songs together, and Dann was who I did ‘Fire In Me’ with. We were talking about that feeling of having someone want to be with you for the wrong reasons and you think that you’re together but at a party they call you their friend and you’re like “ah, this feels uncool” *laughs*. So we had a good time writing it reflecting on our mutually uncomfortable experiences. But the song was initially for Celia and she decided to pass on it as it wasn’t sitting right with the rest of the tracks, so I asked if I could sing it for my record and she said that I could. 

She sang it in a completely different way, so I had this song that was in a totally different key and I had to think about how I was going to bring this into my own way and that’s when Thomas and Annie worked their magic. Annie found this incredible beat with a cool groove and we took it down a few keys so it sat in a better part of my voice. It really evolved into this really listenable song and I really love the way the choruses pop out. 

We had way more pre-choruses and we stripped it out. Dan actually said that it’s like a Chanel outfit as you put everything on and then you take one piece off right before you leave the house. And that’s what it felt like as we had too much on there, and it started to feel better and better the more we took off. 

TB: The lyric “took me to a party, introduced me as a friend” hurts every time you say it. So when you hear that lyric back now, do you find yourself sitting in the pain of how that originally felt, or does it feel therapeutic now?

JS: I mean one of my favourite emotions to sings song with is anger, and I know that is kinda fucked up but I really like songs that bring that out of me, and ‘Substance’ is one of those songs. I don’t ever look back at my life and blame anybody or talk shit about anybody, but I do look back and think “we could’ve done it better. We could’ve been kinder to each other” because at the end of the day all we have is how we treat each other. 

When I sing a lyric like that I feel like the anger comes out of me and it’s really fun to sing in that place because it has so much force and power. It sounds so exciting when you have that behind you. I guess it’s also cathartic as I’d like to think as I get older that I would never let that happen again. I don’t think I’d be introduced as a friend, and if I was I’d certainly be saying something about it. 

TB: The title track ‘Sixty Summers’ gives me some nostalgic Fleetwood Mac vibes meets 2021, and had me absolutely living for the trumpets. What was it about this song that felt like it embodied the whole vision of the record that you wanted to name it after it? 

JS: I grew up playing trumpet, that was my first instrument, and I really wanted it to be throughout this record as a featured instrument. And the song ‘Sixty Summers’ in itself really reflected why I made this record and what it was about.

Annie as a producer is really hardcore with me in a really good way. I have a tendency at times in the studio to get to a point with a song and think “that’s probably close enough. That’s pretty good”. And Annie would always call me on it and be like, “you can do better”. I really liked that as I could do better. There were certain lyrics initially on the record that were maybe a touch lazy. They were close enough to explain what I was trying to say, and she would say “I think you can say this better. Explain to me the story behind this because I don’t understand it, and I don’t understand why you’ve chosen these words”. I would then justify it and she’d said “no, there’s a better way to say that”. 

‘Sixty Summers’ actually started off as a song called ‘Better Like This’ and she kept saying to me that she loved the song but wanted to know more about it as there was something missing. I started telling her about this song and how there was this period in my twenties where I was living in London and touring a lot in Europe and the UK. Every Australian summer we would come back home to spend Christmas and New Years with everyone which was always quite different to being in the UK winter. 

I’d always spend time with this particular friend and her and I would have this beautiful summer of being with our families, being in the water, and we’d go to parties. But they started to feel like they were coming and going. All of a sudden it was summer again. One night we were at this really fun party, and we were on the dance floor and she very urgently grabbed me by the shoulders and said to me “can you believe we only have sixty summers left”. And I felt this urgency and pain around it as it’s not that long *laughs*. I had thought about how short life was, but I’d never felt it in that way. When it was put into a season context I had this real grip and feeling that I was going to get really old quickly. So while I was telling Annie that story she was like “that’s the song. Sing about that, and what you’re going to do with your sixty summers”. So I adjusted the lyrics to tell that story. 

The first chorus is about when you’re a kid and you don’t care about what you’re gonna be or where you’re going to go and you only care about the people you’re around, having fun with them, loving each other, and treating them good. The second chorus is then about getting it all wrong. You followed the fame, the money, and the things you were told were meant to be good and actually at the end you’re left with this suitcase you’re carrying around that’s heavy and feeling like you missed out. So we really wanted to build upon that in the outro, and it was really fun to sing as I get wail, which is something I don’t usually get to do with my voice. 

So that was the reason we chose this song as the title track as this me making a record I’ve always wanted to make and living my sixty summers in a way that felt authentic and honest to me. 

TB: Another favourite of mine on the album is ‘Easy’. Where in the creative process for this song did you decide to do the contrasting double vocal melody in the verses, because that was quite an innovative and cool direction to take it in.

JS: The verses in that song started of as really melodic, and it was feeling really wordy. There are a lot of counter melodies in the chorus that makes it feel like a “chorus-chorus”. So I started to feel like I wanted a breather from the melodies, and it was around the time we were re-working ‘Dance’ with the spoken word part. It felt really nice to have space from the melodies and just speak it out, so I decided to try it out on ‘Easy’. I loved it, and so did Thomas and Annie. It really gave the chorus the real punch it needed, and it felt like we landed. But then we started to miss the melody, so Thomas came up with the genus idea to pitch shift the original signing version and make it really high in the background just to let the listener know where the melody was. It’s an earworm of what the melody used to be. We really cared about all of these details, and we put in a lot of time. Thomas and Annie are incredible, and a lot of these moments just happened from them playing around with things. 

TB: On ‘We All Have’ you sing with The National’s Matt Beringer about allowing time to show the truth and path instead of overthinking it. So reflecting back on your career, when was a time you wish you could travel back to and play this song so you could explicitly hear this advice? 

JS: God, probably the whole way through *laughs*. In terms of my career, I think it had to go this way. I look back and I think about how proud I am of all the music I’ve made along the way. Particularly with Angus, I’m really proud of the journey we’ve been on and what it’s meant for our family. I wouldn’t change any of that. I do have regrets, but they’re more personal regrets like “I wish I had that song when I was coming out of relationships that hurt me”. In those moments I would really appreciate knowing that it’s just going to be time. It can’t just instantly change, you have to sit in it and it’s uncomfortable.

TB: ’Who’ is probably the album’s most surprising track with its heavy dance-pop foundations with it’s pulsating rhythmic beat shining through it. Was this song as liberating to record as it feels listening to it? 

JS: Yeah, totally! ‘Who’ was initially just piano and vocal. And then Annie came in and she was like “I want to hear a 90’s Madonna beat underneath this”. It was one of the first songs she worked on and it really excited me. Within 3 hours the song and sound was so different. She just tore the song to shreds and put it back together in the most amazing way, and we were just so surprised with how well it worked. 

I was so used to singing the song in this really gentle way and she kept going “sing it like you mean it”, and that was the first experience I had of Annie really pushing me. So that song really showed me just how fun it was going to be working with her. I thought maybe the whole record was going to sonically end up like ‘Who’ for a minute, but it didn’t, and I’m so glad ‘Who’ ended up on there because it is so different. 

‘Sixty Summers’ is out now!