Jaguar Jonze: “Fear and I are redefining our relationship with each other”

After a whirlwind 2020, Brisbane’s Eastern-cowgirl rock star emerges stronger than ever as the ‘Antihero’ Australia needs

Jaguar Jonze is on the move. While conducting our NME cover interview, the artist otherwise known as Deena Lynch is working on her new year’s resolution: getting in her 10,000 steps a day. It’s an amusing sight, even through Zoom – she’s in an oversized pink cowgirl hat, chatting through AirPods and sipping a hot chocolate while cheerfully roaming the streets of north Brisbane. When faced with a more serious question, though, she stops dead in her tracks, and doesn’t move on until she’s done it justice.

As Lynch later admits, her resolution is a consequence of contracting COVID-19 in March of 2020, a year where “obviously, nothing went to plan”. She continues, “I now know that I have a new body from after COVID, which is riddled with fatigue. I can’t do what I used to anymore, which was to run on adrenaline and exhaustion.” Maintaining her mental and physical health is a daily struggle. And yet, Lynch is becoming more and more Jaguar Jonze – the titular ‘Antihero’ of her upcoming EP – each day.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Jaguar Jonze
Credit: Dom Gould for NME, illustration by Spectator Jonze

Jaguar Jonze is an unforgettable stage name. It begs the questions: who could possibly have the confidence to go by such a name, and what could their music sound like? In her social media bios, Jonze dubs herself an “Eastern cowgirl howling at the rising sun”. You could call her music Spaghetti Western Pop: full of dusty twang and atmosphere, yet crisp, modern production. Her debut EP, last year’s ‘Diamonds & Liquid Gold’, introduced Jonze with an ambitious flourish, with songs ranging from the desperate and frenetic – ‘Kill Me With Your Love’, ‘Rabbit Hole’ – to the dreamy ‘Beijing Baby’.

Lynch wields supreme control when she sings: always dramatic, but never over the top. But her earthy voice doesn’t soar above the music, as most pop singers do: it sits embedded within the grit of her four-piece band. On stage and in the studio, Lynch is accompanied by Joe Fallon, guitar; Jacob Mann, drums; and Aidan Hogg, bass and co-producer, who helped imbue her sound with a deep, bluesy rock’n’roll swagger. Lynch attests, “I see us as like Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. I am Jaguar Jonze – that is my alter ego. But the boys and their band sound also make up the soul of Jaguar Jonze. It is nothing without them as well.”

NME Australia Cover 2021 Jaguar Jonze
Jaguar Jonze on the cover of NME Australia #15

Jaguar Jonze is just one of Lynch’s many creative outlets. There’s Dusky Jonze, the portrait photographer who captures her subjects at their most vulnerable, yet empowering moments. There’s Spectator Jonze, the kitschy pop-art painter and designer who’s collaborated with the likes of BMW and Christian Louboutin – and now NME, through the illustrations that adorn the photos in this cover story.

And then there’s Jaguar Jonze herself, who’s both the subject and the protagonist of her visuals – typically draped in glamorous costumes and bright, even harsh colours, staring into the camera with an intense gaze. The first time you click around her four Instagram profiles and realise that Jaguar, Spectator, Dusky, and Deena are all the same person, you have to wonder: are these the alternate identities of a superwoman? Or is she just a regular person who’s really, really busy?

NME Australia Cover 2021 Jaguar Jonze
Credit: Dom Gould for NME, illustration by Spectator Jonze

Deena Lynch was born in Japan to an Australian father and Taiwanese mother, and moved to Australia when she was six years old. While waiting for her mother to gain citizenship, she spent years between homes. As a survival mechanism, she developed what she’d come to understand, years later, as complex post-traumatic stress disorder.

As for popular music and art, “it was not encouraged,” Lynch recalls. “I grew up in a traditional conservative Asian family, where classical music equals intelligence, and every other form of music equals rebellion.” During high school, she would draw in secret, lest it get burned or thrown out. “It wasn’t something that I ever felt was me, because I was never allowed to explore it.”

“I’m realising that I’m the antihero of my own life”

As a young adult, she “was fully a corporate suit”, working as a business analyst and marketing manager. But after the abrupt death of a close friend, she felt the urge to change paths. Inspired by dark, poetic troubadours like Jeff Buckley, Johnny Cash and PJ Harvey, she took up singing, songwriting and the guitar all at once.

Many of us dream of mastering a skill or an instrument as an adult, to find a lifelong missing piece of the puzzle. Lynch is indeed self-taught in all her creative pursuits, but it’d be more accurate to say that she found her calling. For several years, she toured and self-released two albums as Deena, playing in a more singer-songwriter format. She describes that time as “a bootcamp education. I did everything wrong as Deena, but it was a learning experience”.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Jaguar Jonze
Credit: Dom Gould for NME, illustration by Spectator Jonze

Lynch eventually assembled a band around her, and developed a fierce onstage persona that her friends initially dubbed “Panther” – which morphed into the Jaguar Jonze moniker. With all that she’d learned, she re-debuted in late 2018 as Jaguar Jonze with the mournful, striking single ‘You Got Left Behind’ – which led to her signing to Nettwerk Music Group. Her artistry had finally caught up to her ambitions.

Deena Lynch seems to have no regrets about her zig-zagging journey. “Maybe that’s what caused my rebellion, in the end: being deprived of music was what ended up catapulting me into the heart of it. I feel like I’m now living my childhood, and I get to discover music all the time.”

2020 was supposed to be Jaguar Jonze’s year. It started with her biggest platform to date: a performance at Australia’s second annual Eurovision Decides contest. She didn’t win, but she sure as hell made an impression with ‘Rabbit Hole’, a song inspired by her experiences with PTSD. It was a perfect introduction to her impulsive, frenetic performance style – in fact, it was so energetic that she dislocated her shoulder on live television. Of course, she didn’t miss a note.

“I honestly kind of black out when I perform,” Lynch confesses. “I’m a crazy primate-banshee thing, wanting to express all the pain and emotion that I can’t do in my day-to-day life. I’m one big dork!”

NME Australia Cover 2021 Jaguar Jonze
Credit: Dom Gould for NME

In March, Jonze and her band were in New York about to embark on a tour. As COVID hit the U.S. and their dates were cancelled, they found themselves confined to a one-bedroom apartment for four days, searching for a way home. Lynch and bassist Aidan Hogg wrote ‘Deadalive’, the propulsive future lead single from ‘Antihero’, to work through their anxieties. She sings, sounding numb to the pain around her: “Lock me up, leave out the parasite… / Lock me up so I can go and fight… / Deadalive / Running so empty like we’re gonna die!

The song turned out to be an omen. On the way back to Australia, Lynch contracted COVID, making her one of Australia’s earliest public figures to come down with the disease. She went out of her way to be transparent about her condition, documenting much of the recovery process on Instagram. Lynch ultimately spent 40 days in a sophisticated virtual hospital setup in Sydney, and was discharged with a story to tell: “Can anyone say that they released their debut EP on the back of an ambulance while they’re getting shipped to the hospital with COVID-19? I just thought it was extremely funny. That will forever be my first EP release.”

“Being deprived of music was what ended up catapulting me into the heart of it”

In July, Lynch had become privy to several women’s accounts of sexual harassment by a prominent Melbourne photographer. A survivor herself, she opened up her Instagram inbox, making it a safe space for other women with similar experiences. Once the floodgates opened, the sheer volume became staggering. In the end, over 130 women came forward with allegations of harassment against the same man. Lynch shared their stories anonymously through handwritten post-it notes on Instagram, creating a cascading wave of disclosures too big to be ignored.

The photographer later outed himself with a lengthy apology, although Lynch ultimately found it to be self-serving, and far too little too late. Months later, she says, “People have been filing their police investigations, but nothing much has been done about it, which is so heartbreaking and sad to me. But I’ve also been working behind the scenes to make sure that things are moving, regardless of whether the justice system is going to do anything about it.”

What would true restorative justice look like to her, in this particular scenario? “I would say that he needs to pay for his crimes. And it’s not that it matters on the quantity of those crimes, but we’re talking about over in the hundreds. How does someone like that get away with it? Is the justice system not meant to serve us? To protect us? And if it is, then what are they doing about it?”

NME Australia Cover 2021 Jaguar Jonze
Credit: Dom Gould for NME, illustration by Spectator Jonze

Australia’s strict defamation laws have notoriously been weaponised to silence victims and accusers. So it was significant that Lynch put not only her name and reputation, but her artistic project on the line, to call out patterns of abuse victimising women in the Australian music industry. She was not a figurehead for the #MeToo movement – that’s too big a burden to put on any one person – but she acted as a public vessel within that moment, sparking a broader conversation that many had already been thinking about, or having behind closed doors.

We ask if she has a final message she’d like to share with the public on this subject. Carefully choosing her words, Lynch says, “We need to understand why people don’t always want to speak out, and how our defamation laws in Australia affect our ability to speak up safely.

“But I just want people to know that they’re not alone. And whenever they’re ready, there are others that will be there for them, and who will believe them.”

Looking for a musical outlet in the wake of the allegations, Jaguar Jonze chose to cover a song so ubiquitous that it seemed impossible to reinvent: Britney Spears’ ‘Toxic’. Where Britney’s original is about giving in to temptation, Jonze turns it into a metaphor for the toxicity that surrounds us, dragging the vocal melody down into a swampy blues-rock arrangement. In the music video, she’s draped in blood-red curtains, a literally veiled threat that time’s up.

“‘Toxic’ was a favourite pop song of mine as a child – and it still is, but it carries such a different meaning for me now. So I wanted to flesh that out, to really hone in on the adult side of ‘Toxic’.”

“Can anyone say that they released their debut EP on the back of an ambulance while they’re getting shipped to the hospital with COVID-19?”

‘Toxic’ led directly into the spirit of the ‘Antihero’ era, which kicked off in September 2020 with the ‘Deadalive’ single. Throughout the EP, to be released April 16, Jaguar Jonze invites danger, confronting her demons head-on. On the single’s artwork, she brandishes a samurai sword in combat boots; on the EP cover, she dual-wields pistols, a real-life Lara Croft. And in the ‘Murder’ music video, she sings of a doomed, fatalistic relationship while enacting a violent dance ritual with a partner.

“I’m neither a protagonist or an antagonist in my own life,” Lynch says of the EP’s title. “I’m not perfect – I make mistakes, but I also do good. It’s me exploring those two sides of everything. I’m realising that I’m the antihero of my own life.”

NME Australia Cover 2021 Jaguar Jonze
Credit: Dom Gould for NME, illustration by Spectator Jonze

‘Antihero’ opens with ‘Tessellations’, where Jonze exorcises the “cyclical, abusive, and toxic patterns” that once defined her life: “I can’t erase the time lost in vain… / We keep repeating the shapes / Cut copy paste”. She says, “That was the beginning of the journey of my awareness – in realising that I needed to make a change”.

Co-produced by Jonze and bassist Aidan Hogg, with additional production by the prolific John Congleton (St. Vincent, Angel Olsen), the five tracks on ‘Antihero’ are a sharper, more baroque expansion of her already distinctive sound. But during the recording process, she was more vulnerable than ever before. “I recorded the entire EP while I was under hospital care. That was very weird in the sense that I was completely separated from my band, yet we made it happen. I didn’t really have my voice in full health, but now I realise that it captures my emotions. It’s a time capsule of the truth of everything I was going through.”

On the EP’s most thrilling moments, Jonze expands her musical vocabulary. There’s ‘Curled In’, a “twisted love song” with a bouncy backbeat – it’s the record’s next single, out this Friday, which may also get a Japanese-language version in the future.

And then there’s the EP’s closing track, ‘Astronaut’ – Jonze’s own favourite song, and the most exposed she’s ever sounded on record. “Eyes wide open / I know my suit gives me air / But why am I choking, why am I holding on?” she sings over Jonny Greenwood-like strings that she describes as “a bed of nothingness”. Her voice soars into a high falsetto we’ve never heard from her before, before coming back down to earth for the spoken-word outro: “And do we need to remember / To take a deep breath / To know that we’re not at war / It’s just with ourselves”. The song ends abruptly, without a definitive answer. The story’s far from over.

Jaguar Jonze’s 2021 has already been unpredictable – she planned shows in January, eight of which got cancelled. And yet, it’s a blessing that she’s gotten to play any at all. “If I ever did have expectations on Jaguar Jonze, they got completely demolished by life and its obstacles. So now I’ve got the mentality of, ‘Don’t have expectations on other people, and don’t have expectations on myself’.”

What does the future hold? For one, she’s working on a short film featuring all five tracks from ‘Antihero’. But the question on everyone’s lips is: has she begun working on a debut album?

“Maybe,” she teases, saying the word five times in five different intonations. Although tight-lipped with the details, she does declare, “I’m not here for the short-term game. When you’re creating your own world, it takes time for people to understand that. Because you’re building a city, you’re building the architecture. And people are starting to want to move into it and live with me in it.”

NME Australia Cover 2021 Jaguar Jonze
Credit: Dom Gould for NME, illustration by Spectator Jonze

Deena’s vision, and her second life as Jaguar Jonze, is starting to become clearer to herself, too. “Someone once told me, ‘I feel like Jaguar Jonze is the big sister that I always needed when I was a child’,” she recalls. “I was just overwhelmed by that, because I realised Jaguar Jonze is totally who I needed as a child, too. That kind of ferociousness and invulnerability, yet also the ability to be vulnerable as well. To stand up, and have a voice”.

It feels like those are the two sides to every piece of Jonze art: bravery, and fear. NME puts her on the spot: what do those words mean to hear? “Bravery for me is carving your own path. Not depending on other people’s validation of what you want to do. Stepping away from social constructs that can be so overwhelming to us.

“But I think fear is necessary because it reminds you to protect yourself. For so long, I was letting fear take the driver’s seat; it stopped me from doing everything. It muddled my reality. So what does fear mean to me? I think I have spent a long time with fear. And fear and I are redefining our relationship with each other.”

Jaguar Jonze’s ‘Antihero’ EP is out April 16

CREDITS:

Illustrations by Spectator Jonze
Additional edits by Seakyu & Deena Lynch
Makeup by Sarah Smith
Hair by Louise Graham
Styling by Tamzen Holland