Australia’s Julia Jacklin decided she wanted to be a singer after watching a Britney Spears documentary when she was 11 years old. Just over a decade later, she found herself recording her debut record Don’t Let The Kids Win, performing at SXSW and announcing a world tour before the record was even released.
Just as comfortable with her band on stage as she is alone with her guitar for a record store performance, Jacklin’s understated sound is not to be underestimated. Something deeply moving happens when the strums of her Fender intwine with the sound of Jacklin’s astonishingly emotive voice. Her use of space and warm guitar tones propel her lyrics into the depths of the heart where nostalgia and loss are stirred into a quietly unnerving awakening. Jacklin’s authenticity and talent as a songwriter leaves a deep impression.
After wrapping up a Canadian Music Week show and an in-store performance for Record Store Day, Julia Jacklin sat down with Stories Behind The Songs in Toronto and shared the story of how her dreams blossomed into reality, her recent battle with self-doubt, and how she’s discovering the shape of her next album.
You’ve described yourself as a daydreamer and that you like to write when you’re observing people and eavesdropping. You’ve also said that you write well when you’re stuck in one place like a train or a plane or a bus. Since you’ve been touring for such a long time now, have you been inspired to write new music during your travels?
Julia: Yeah, this tour’s been really great. I set myself this goal of writing a song for every city I visit and I ended up writing a lot more because it doesn’t matter if I don’t finish it or if I think it’s bad, I just have to do it. And that’s kind of freed me up because I think for a while I’d start something and I’d go, “This isn’t good enough for a second record. Stop it.” I’d give up way too early.
I’ve also had a few days off which I don’t usually have. Yesterday, and this is probably slightly illegal, well… maybe not illegal, but I sat in a café and just listened to this conversation of these women sitting next to me for like, three hours and I wrote down [laughs] a lot of what they were saying because it was really fascinating! I was so intrigued by the fact that they were talking about something quite personal openly in a café and it was quite deep. Just the interaction between these two women who were clearly very different with very different ideas about this certain situation that one of them was going through. It’s just moments like that that you don’t always get on tour because you’re always just go, go, go! On this tour I’ve had more time off so I’m able to go and sit somewhere for an hour, like in a park.
The idea of writing a song in every city seems like a great writing exercise. When you mentioned how you would scrap songs because you didn’t think they were good enough for a second record, I feel like that can really block you and pile up and get pretty dark.
J: Oh totally. It was getting very dark. I was getting to the point where I was like, “I don’t even know if I’m a good songwriter.”
J: I was like, “I think that I was a good songwriter when I was 22 and I just happened to be going through this period of my life where I wrote these songs and I happened to make this record and now I’m kind of like, performing me as a 22-year-old every night but this is not me now. Me now is not a writer and not a good musician…” I was going through this horrific spiral of creating self-doubt. And it doesn’t make you enjoy performing because you’re going like, “I’m kind of lying to everyone.” I’m doing all these interviews and they’re going like, “So you’re this amazing songwriter” and I’m like, “No I’m not. I used to be.” But I’m not going to say that in an interview, you know? But it was like, as soon as I went, “You know what? Don’t think about it in a way of ‘Julia Jacklin’s got to write a song for the next record.’ Just write stuff everyday. It doesn’t have to be good. It doesn’t have to be finished. It doesn’t have to be anything. It can be about whatever. You can just listen to someone’s conversation and write a song from their perspective. Not every song has to be deep, emotional and super personal. And that’s just been amazing for me.
J: It’s interesting because sometimes I’m like, “Ugh, I don’t think about that at all anymore” or “I don’t feel that way” but then I’ve had these moments lately where I’m singing these things – and this is going to sound really wanky – but I’ll be learning things from them in a weird way. Especially when I’m having moments of real self-doubt or sometimes I’ll be singing “Don’t Let The Kids Win” and it’ll make me go like, “Fucking call grandma back.” There are definitely nights when I’m not feeling it but I have to get there. And I definitely realize that when you’re younger and you’re not feeling it, you just get up there and you’re like, “Whatever. Here’s my song. Take it or leave it.” But now it’s like, no, this is my job. People pay for tickets. I owe them something so you just have to get in the headspace and I don’t find that emotionally trying. That’s just about being a performer. But there are really beautiful moments where I’ll literally be singing a song and I’ll be like, “Oh man, that’s really insightful Old Julia!” [laughs]
J: Yeah. I can, actually. I’ve written quite a few songs for it now. I think for a while I was a little worried that it was going to be too much from the perspective of a touring musician and that it wouldn’t be very relatable for anyone who isn’t a touring musician, but now, I guess I’ve noticed a big shift lately. You know, I’m 26 and there feels like there’s genuinely a very big difference between being 26 and being 24 because I can say now that all of my friends are starting to move away from this place we lived in and going off and making bigger decisions with their lives and actually making decisions that will take all of us away from each other. I’ve noticed a lot of my songs now are about my friends and how our relationships are changing.
J: I was in this band with my best friend Liz [Elizabeth Hughes] and when I joined it I could hardly play guitar. I would just sing high harmonies to her songs. And so, it was a natural progression for me to try and learn some guitar because I felt a little useless in the band. Harmonies are nice but I also felt a bit awkward on stage because I was like, “What do I do with my hands?” So, when I was learning guitar I thought, “Maybe I should give songwriting a go.” Then I started bringing songs to the band so the band started being my songs and Liz’s songs and we’d swap lead vocals and I think just eventually the set felt strange because it was clearly divided between Liz and me. Not in a weird way, just like, I would sing mine, she would sing hers, and the songs were starting to sound quite different as well. And so, we started a crowd-funding campaign for our second EP and then one day were just like, “Do we actually want to do this anymore or are we just doing it because we feel like it’s what we should do?” and we just broke up right there and then and went out and had a drink and all hugged and it ended. I think that once that happened, I felt sad but fully relieved because I could do my thing and she could do her thing and explore our different styles.
J: Yeah! Totally. Liz has always been a very big inspiration to me because she just seemed fearless when we were younger whereas, I could sing but I never really wanted to sing in front of people. Like, I’d be happy singing at a concert or something but I wasn’t someone who would be in a shared house and be comfortable singing in my room practicing because I wouldn’t want anyone to hear me. Whereas I lived with Liz and she’d just play guitar every day, sing at the top of her lungs practicing, getting good at her craft while I was very shy about it. And so, through her I saw that you just kind of have to put yourself out there and just do it even if you didn’t feel ready to do it because that’s the only way you’re ever going to be ready. I was almost like her little student. She’s like a year older than me. [laughs]
So at that time, you were in university working two part-time jobs and wondering if anyone would ever hear your music. Then, flash forward to you recording your record in New Zealand and announcing a world tour before your album is released! Take me through the process of being the person who is writing music hoping to make it, not really having any established connections in the industry, to all of a sudden getting these big opportunities. Do you remember a moment that you were like, “Woah, this is going to change my life.”?
J: Yeah, like, the chat is always about when or how you’re going to make it but no one really knows what that means or how to do it or who to talk to or what it even looks like to be a professional musician, really. So, yeah, I just set the deadline to make the record and up until that point I’d gotten a song played on radio like, twice. It wasn’t in rotation or anything. A few people kind of knew who I was in Sydney but it was like, super low-key, nothing that exciting at the time. I was just like, make the record, don’t even think about the future just do that and we’ll figure it out once we finish the record. I’d already met my now manager and he was probably my only industry contact person. He apparently was trying to get me to sign with him for like, a year, but I didn’t realize that. It’s like when someone has a crush on you and you’re just like, “Oh, I just thought we were mates or something.” Like, I didn’t realize that’s what it was. I wouldn’t have ever even thought that I could get a manager. You don’t even think like that in the beginning. And so, I made the record and a small label from Melbourne contacted me and that was the first time I thought maybe it could go somewhere. But I was also like, “Don’t get too excited because it could be nothing.” And a few things started shifting but, you know, they’re all really subtle. And then my manager applied for me to play South by Southwest and I was like, “That’s ridiculous. I’m not going to get in.” And then I got in and I was like, “Cool. That’s amazing but I’m not going to be able to afford to go.” And then I was like, “You know what? Just save up at work. Just go by yourself. Just play it solo. Who cares if no one comes, it’ll be a good story for the grandkids.” And then my friends who are in my band were just like, “Oh, we’ll pay our own way. We’ll come with you. It’ll be fun. We’ll go to New Orleans after and we’ll have bonding time and we’ll hang out.” So we all went and just a week before that I released my first single and people at South-by liked it and that’s kind of when it all started changing for me.
J: Yeah, yeah! Exactly. Yeah, it’s hard to tell. People think it’s just kinda like you play a show and some dude in a suit is there and he like, clicks at you [snaps her fingers] and he goes, “You’re going to be a star! Sign on this dotted line!” but it’s actually like five years of tiny little shifting plates and finally you find yourself here and you’re like, “What the hell?!”
J: It’s totally different than what you imagine being a musician is, in a way, because it’s fun but it’s not like, “TOUR! FUN!” because you’re doing it every day so like, you don’t want to go out drinking after every show and hang out because you just feel terrible. So that’s the first kind of shock where you’re like, “Actually… this is a job.” And it’s a 24 hour job, almost. You’re just always on the go. Which is odd. And you’re also spending kind of an unnatural amount of time with people which is something that you don’t think about in the beginning but then you’re like, “Actually, this is quite crazy that I’m spending like, a month in a car with three other people and we sleep sometimes in the same room and we’re on stage every night together.” That can be really beautiful one minute and really awful the next minute. That’s something that you have to work really hard on – being a good person and a reasonable person in those moments. Everyone is going to crumble at some point and everyone is going to want to go home or is going to get angry and it’s unreasonable and you have to just figure out ways to let things go. But I feel like now I’ve figured out a lot of stuff and I now have these incredible friends for life.
J: Um, not heaps because I’m usually with good friends and in this day and age you can contact your family all the time. I honestly miss female company quite a lot. That’s probably the one thing I miss. I find that I don’t realize I’m missing it and then when I meet up with a female friend or even a woman that I haven’t even met yet, I’ll end up saying all of this stuff that I usually wouldn’t say to someone I just met. [laughs] There’s just something about female company.
Read the stories behind each song on Julia Jacklin’s debut album with our Behind The Album: Don’t Let The Kids Win – Julia Jacklin feature.
Follow Julia Jacklin:
Twitter: @JuliaJacklin Instagram: @juliajacklin