- 20 May 19
Having played a superb sold-out Dublin show for her acclaimed record Crushing, indie-folk star Julia Jacklin talks about the inspirations behind the record, and reflects on the influence Me Too has had on her creative output.
“It’s funny the people that connect with your songs,” muses Julia Jacklin.
It’s the afternoon of Jacklin’s Dublin show at the end of March – a sold-out Whelan's date. We are sitting near the stage in the venue and I’ve just told her, to her slightly aghast amusement, that my pre-school son sang her song ‘Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You’ while I brushed his teeth that morning.
“Last night in Manchester,” she laughs, “I was looking out into the crowd during ‘Head Alone’. There was this old man in a flat cap, punching the air, yelling, ‘I don’t want to be touched all the time’. I thought, ‘You are not who I thought I was writing this song for!’”
Julia Jacklin is an Australian singer, songwriter, guitarist, and band-leader, who released an extraordinary album, her second, called Crushing, in February. She writes and sings as she speaks, with clarity, humour and candour. She may have to get used to her songs being cherished by people she did not expect to cherish them.
In one way, songs on Crushing like ‘Head Alone’, ‘Body’ and ‘Turn Me Down’ are specific to the experience of one ridiculously talented Australian woman at the end of this decade. But they are also all-encompassing. To borrow a phrase from Rónán Hession’s Leonard And Hungry Paul, these tunes find Jacklin “smashing open her personal experience to release the universal experience within”.
Like her hero Gillian Welch, and also Sufjan Stevens – whose Carrie & Lowell matches Crushing in crisp artistry and emotional heft – Jacklin uses her craft to say big things in miniature. A good example is the opening ‘Body’. Jacklin takes a carefully drawn scenario and uses it to illustrate a wider truth about the relationship between men and women in 2019. It’s like a five-minute, three-act play. Act one: the protagonist leaves her feckless boyfriend, who she has tolerated too long. Act two: rejoicing in her newfound autonomy, she remembers that he took an intimate photo of her, with which he now cannot be trusted. “Do you still have that photograph? / Would you use it to hurt me?”, she asks. The question is not answered, so the answer is yes, and entitled, reckless revenge can be expected. It could happen at any time. Act three: resigned resolution. “Well I guess it’s just my life / And it’s just my body”, the singer sighs.
When I first heard ‘Body’, it nagged at me for days, because I found it difficult to tolerate its apparent surrender. I wanted to punch that guy. I ask Jacklin if the protagonist was as accepting as she sounded – surely, she was as angry as the song made me? “Ha! I don’t know,” she replies. She pauses, reflectively. “To me – no. Or at least, she’s not angry, because I feel like the person in ‘Head Alone’ is angry, right? I always feel like ‘Head Alone’ and ‘Body’ are sister songs.” ‘Head Alone’ is the second song, with the self-possessed and seething refrain, “I don’t want to be touched all the time / I raised my body up to be mine”.
Jacklin’s performance on ‘Head Alone’ is like a purifying flame. “‘Head Alone’ to me is when I’m feeling empowered, and when I feel like what I say actually matters. And maybe if I ask for space, or if I advocate for myself, that people might actually listen. And so I feel encouraged, but also, you know, I feel angry about it, and there’s nothing else I can do than scream something like that pre-chorus line. “Whereas ‘Body’ is more resigned to my fate as a woman in this world; that maybe things would never improve and maybe no matter what – no matter what you say or try to explain – there’s always going to be these deep-seated ideas about what I’m supposed to look like, and what I’m supposed to do.
“But then sometimes with ‘Body’, I feel like on the one hand I’m defeated, then on the other, there’s something empowering about the end line (“I guess it’s just my life / And it’s just my body”). Because sometimes it’s really nice when you realise – especially with a certain person in your life who treats you poorly or differently because you’re female – to suddenly going, there’s nothing I can do. There’s nothing I can say. There’s no amount of communication that can change this person’s mind. And now I can move on.”
I tell Jacklin I had written a piece for the Irish Independent about sexual predators in the arts, and that the piece cited her. Using ‘Body’ to make my case, I wrote that we should listen not to predators, but instead to women who have survived their predation. “Nice. I like that,” she smiles. “Cause I do feel like that sometimes. When we are agonising over, like, Ryan Adams, I’m like, man – there are so many better female singer-songwriters and male singer-songwriters than Ryan Adams. I mean, sorry if you’re a big fan. And then when this came out, a few people were like ‘Oh no, but he’s such a hero.’
“I’m like, I don’t know if I have the time to be in that discussion, because I just feel like that would never happen with a female artist. We just don’t get the same kind of leniency. We can’t be disgusting people in our private lives and still have people listen to our work. So yeah, I think we should listen to more women.”
Jacklin’s song ‘Convention’ laments the rapt attention that we pay to the worst men among us; the convention in the title is the one at which Donald Trump accepted the Republican nomination in 2016. I ask Jacklin if she thought we had gotten any better in the interim at listening to more valuable voices.
“Yeah, I think we have,” she says. “Some days I feel very disillusioned by the world. But I do feel like even though we’ve got a long way to go, I do feel empowered as a woman, as to people actually listening to what I have to say.
“Even with this album, I feel like people really listen in a way that I was worried about. Because I was kind of worried that I would put this album out, and I was going to get thrown under the bus in terms of being written off as like, oh she did it for the press, you know, for the #MeToo movement. I did get a few comments like that and they go, ‘Oh, Julia’s gone political’. Which I find hilarious, that if you speak about your experiences, just basic human experiences as a woman, it’s political apparently.
“But I do see a shift: it feels like women in music are getting pushed to the front in a way that I haven’t seen before. I feel like people are genuinely being believed. There’s definitely a big group of loud people on the internet who are always going to be misogynists, so I don’t have any energy or time to try and convince people like that, that they’re wrong. But I think there are some people on the fence maybe starting to listen a bit more.”
In an interview in February, Jacklin said of Crushing’s ‘Turn Me Down’: “Gonna be interesting touring that for a year!” The song recounts in granular detail a relationship breakdown on the road from Sydney to Melbourne. It contains a bridge that is like its own in-song aria, as Jacklin, who is a classically trained singer, repeatedly implores “Oh please just turn me down / Why won’t you turn me down?” in an aching, swirling crescendo.
Thinking about on ‘Turn Me Down’ and ‘When The Family Flies In’ – Jacklin’s gorgeous meditation on grief and regret – I wondered about the demands of performing highly personal and deeply felt songs night after night. “It’s interesting, because I feel like it changes every night, and it changes as you progress through the songs,” says Jacklin. “A song like ‘Don’t Let The Kids Win’, off my first album, I’ve sung that song hundreds and hundreds of times. And some days I feel nothing. Like, I’m on stage, and I’m definitely not looking like I’m feeling nothing, but honestly I’m quite dead inside (laughs). And I’m thinking about the catering. But then, like last night, I choked up a bit because it just makes me think of things. So songs do surprise you.
“This album’s been different than last time, because the songs do feel heavier to perform. And it’s not even just me performing them and bringing my own experiences to the stage every night. It’s more that I know now that a lot of people have really delved into this album and it’s brought up a lot of things for them. And so when I’m performing every night, I feel that pressure – that even if I’ve moved beyond that feeling, there are people out there who are going through it. I feel like I have to perform with everything I have, you know?”
Jacklin is careful to note the luck and privilege that she says allow her, as much as her talent, to gain this audience: “I mean the music industry is full of middle-class white kids from the western world. It’s not like we’re all like the most talented people in the world. So you’ve got to be very grateful, which I am.”
Still, it all sounds like a lot to carry. “Yeah, yeah it is. It is quite a lot. Luckily it’s only like an hour-and-a-half every day. I think if it was for longer than that, it would be harder.” She takes a second. “I think this whole job is just, like, bizarre,” she says.
“Whenever I think about it, I’m like: Oh, so I go through something traumatic. I write something privately. I record it semi-privately. And then suddenly you go and perform that version of yourself repeatedly for like a year-and-a-half. “It’s very strange,” she decides. “I love it, but it’s strange.”