Julia Jacklin: “If I’m going to be singing about someone, it’s got to come from a place of wanting to be closer”

One of Australia’s most understated yet vital songwriters explores sexuality and shame through “big feelings and big sounds” on her third album ‘Pre Pleasure’

In the depths of Melbourne’s endless pandemic lockdowns, Julia Jacklin lived above a bottle shop in Northcote. Apartment life on the usually bustling inner-northern strip was quiet, save for top 40 radio blaring from the shop below – proof of life, of other people. Sitting at a keyboard at her bedroom window, staring out at the Vietnamese restaurant that she visited frequently for takeaway, the musician wrote the initial sketches of a new album.

It’s at that restaurant that NME meets Jacklin for lunch on a drizzly, mid-week winter afternoon a year later. The 32-year-old is back in the city, to which she first moved in 2018, after a stint in Montreal, where she finished writing then recorded her third album, ‘Pre Pleasure’.

For someone with a seriously impressive CV – multiple award nominations, admiration from her peers, a perennially packed touring schedule – Jacklin is almost anonymous here. Passersby could easily mistake her for a regular Melburnian in her button-down flannel shirt, her bike chained outside after a cycle down to High Street for the interview. If you’ve ever been at a local gig in Melbourne, you’ve probably spotted her long red hair in the crowd.

Julia Jacklin
Credit: Nick Mckk for NME

Even talking about the new album, which dropped last Friday, Jacklin jokes about her lack of professionalism, having shown up in Canada with only half the songs written. “I’ve never been someone who really writes a record… I booked the recording session about six months before and then just hoped I would be ready, and I wasn’t really, but I just had to do it,” she says, picking at a stir-fry. “My co-producer Marcus [Paquin] was a bit perplexed by that approach, because he’s used to working with bands like Arcade Fire who are so meticulous and everything is thought out, whereas I’m a bit more of a tornado of chaos.”

That tornado has been gaining force for some time now. Jacklin, who grew up taking classical voice lessons and cut her teeth playing in Sydney indie bands including Salta and Phantastic Ferniture, began making a name as a solo songwriter in her mid-twenties. She wrote her 2016 debut album, ‘Don’t Let the Kids Win’, in snatches of time between working at an essential oils factory and playing shows. The next album, 2019’s breakout ‘Crushing’, was written on the road, after she’d quit her job to keep up with the demands of touring.

Thanks to the pandemic, though, the creation of ‘Pre Pleasure’ was a completely different beast. For a year, Jacklin barely wrote at all, instead constantly moving – first to Fremantle, then to her mother’s house in country NSW to help with her sister’s newborn. “I wasn’t feeling very inspired by being a musician… I’ve never really been a writer who can do it if nothing else is going on. I need to be living,” she says. “The touring for ‘Crushing’ finished right before the restrictions came in, so I spent about eight months just being very burnt out from that.”

Julia Jacklin on the cover of NME Australia #33
Julia Jacklin on the cover of NME Australia #33

Jacklin began writing again back in Melbourne at the start of 2021. But she’s adamant that ‘Pre Pleasure’, despite the times in which it was created, is not a ‘lockdown record’. Rather, it picks up in some ways from where Jacklin’s last release left off. Described by many as a breakup album, ‘Crushing’ defied the norms of that mode to exude a quiet defiance: an assertion of boundaries, a dignified preservation of self. ‘Pre Pleasure’ reaches even further back into a life to pinpoint the moments when habits and anxieties were unknowingly birthed – then pushes back against them. On this record, Jacklin meditates on where society ends and the individual begins, and what happens in that nebulous in-between space.

The album’s opener and first single, the woozy drum machine-and-piano joint ‘Lydia Wears A Cross’, transports the listener to the primary school classroom in Jacklin’s hometown of the Blue Mountains, 50 kilometres west of Sydney. Picture Jacklin as a child through the details anchoring the ’90s setting: the death of Princess Diana, an obsession with the Jesus Christ Superstar soundtrack. Picture her classmate Lydia, who wore a golden cross heavy with the body of Jesus, the most beautiful thing the young Jacklin had ever seen. And imagine the confusion, the fear of the divine – the sense of being watched, always.

“That was the first song I’ve ever written about being in primary school – that’s such an unexplored time of life,” Jacklin says. “That age of being a real kid is kind of clunky to try and sing about because it’s hard to put adult language onto childlike feelings, but as I’ve gotten older, the more I realise how having very formative experiences in religious settings can set you up for a lifetime of guilt and shame around your sexuality.”

“I’ve never really been a writer who can do it if nothing else is going on. I need to be living”

For Jacklin, this was compounded by the fact that her parents – also teachers – weren’t religious, though she did attend a religious school. The song, she says, is “not necessarily about growing up religious, but living in a very religious world and what that does to your development.” Hearing one thing at home and another five days a week – how might those conflicts echo throughout the rest of a life?

The friction between the holy and the damned drives much of ‘Pre Pleasure’. “Right when the pleasure begins, my education creeps in,” Jacklin sings on ‘Ignore Tenderness’, then a moment later, “ever since I was 13, I’ve been pulled in every direction.” Or on ‘Be Careful With Yourself’, a plea to a lover, when she sings, “when things get too hard, make sure that you’re talking / I know you were raised by the church, encouraged to keep it all in.” On the gentle ‘Magic’, she reclaims her body to enjoy intimacy and pleasure against what she’s been taught: “I will feel adored tonight / ignore intrusive thoughts tonight.” It’s a constant tug-of-war, an ongoing unlearning.

Jacklin has touched on sex in her music before – on ‘Body’, the cerebral opening track from ‘Crushing’, she sang with soft but steady anger about revenge porn – but here, the exploration is much more obvious, centering her evolving understanding of her own sexuality. It’s evident in the record’s title and cover: the singer stands facing a billboard-sized photograph of her own face, hands up, reaching. A mirror of the self, searching one’s reflection. Before, after.

Julia Jacklin
Credit: Nick Mckk for NME

“In my experience, sex wasn’t even a word in the dictionary – it wasn’t talked about in any other context other than something that was bad,” Jacklin says. “I had sex quite young and you’re in this strange world of not knowing what’s right, what’s wrong, how to be safe, what consent is… The older I get, the more I think about it and the less shame I feel around it.”

There’s a grounding – even a kind of self-soothing – that’s characteristic of Jacklin’s songwriting. ‘Crushing’ closer ‘Comfort’ was initially a voice memo in her phone called ‘A song to comfort myself’. In the case of ‘Pre Pleasure’, it’s the chorus of the propulsive single ‘I Was Neon’, repeated like a mantra: “Am I gonna lose myself again? I quite like the person that I am – am I gonna lose myself again?” A reminder: stay here. A healing hand, from present to past.

The lyrics on ‘Pre Pleasure’, whether about the internal or external, abstract or literal, are always deeply personal. Even though her emotions are laid bare in her songs, Jacklin imposes some limits on discussing these topics in person: her sole interview stipulation was that she didn’t want to talk about ‘Less of a Stranger’, a fragile acoustic exploration of the fractures between a daughter and a mother.

But when traversing difficult feelings and complex relationships, Jacklin prioritises empathy and connection. She recently reached out to the old classmate from ‘Lydia Wears A Cross’, finding her on Instagram and messaging her to give her a heads up about the song. “I always just try not to be cruel,” she says. “If I’m going to be singing about someone, it’s got to come from a place of wanting to be closer – a place of wanting to be more understood, or wanting to understand someone more.”

Julia Jacklin
Credit: Nick Mckk for NME

If all of this sounds heavy, that’s because it is, but it doesn’t mean that ‘Pre Pleasure’ is a difficult listening experience: the sonic vibrancy of these songs contrasts their often sombre content. Some of these influences stretch back to ‘Don’t Let the Kids Win’ – opener ‘Pool Party’ had a distinctly ’60s country lilt – but a more pointed pivot came in 2020, when Jacklin released a 7-inch for Sub Pop’s Singles Club. On B-side ‘Cry’, she sang about the utterly millennial experience of hiding in her sharehouse bedroom during a depressive episode over a harmonic doo-wop backing – a clash that somehow felt just right.

These richer sounds weave their way onto ‘Pre Pleasure’. That same doo-wop influence can be heard on the sumptuous ‘Ignore Tenderness’, and the cinematic album closer ‘End of a Friendship’ is layered with luscious strings, arranged by frequent Arcade Fire collaborator Owen Pallett and recorded by a full orchestra in Prague. ‘Love, Try Not to Let Go’ begins as a downbeat piano number – this album marks the first time Jacklin has played piano on a record – before exploding into a distorted, fuzzy wall of sound. While there are still “some real bummer-sounding songs”, as she puts it, on a whole ‘Pre Pleasure’ shines with a bolder, brighter palette.

“I really didn’t want to listen to anything in my genre, because it was just bumming me out too much… I wanted big feelings and big sounds”

“I wanted the songs to be really big and beautiful with uplifting orchestral backing, which I’ve never done before. There’s a lot of chimes, which is a real pop thing,” Jacklin says. “I really wanted to make the album a little more joyful to listen to than ‘Crushing’ for the audience’s sake, but also just for my own sake, especially now that I have a bigger understanding of what touring is like, and what playing songs every night can do to you.”

Jacklin remembers listening to Britney Spears and Céline Dion as a child, mesmerised by these older women’s visions of life: “Hearing Céline Dion singing ‘Because You Loved Me’ when I was seven, I was like, ‘wow, is that what an adult sounds and feels like, being in love?’” Having recently covered another iconic song of the era – Shania Twain’s ‘You’re Still The One’, with American singer-songwriter Christian Lee Hutson – she tapped further into that unfettered, heart-on-sleeve pop feeling for ‘Pre Pleasure’. “I really didn’t want to listen to anything in my genre, because it was just bumming me out too much,” she says. “I wanted pop hits and bro rock, like Silverchair and Pearl Jam, Luther Vandross and Robyn. I wanted big feelings and big sounds.”

Working in Montreal, a city known for its music, allowed Jacklin to bask in the joy of fandom, especially with the encouragement of her guitarist Will Kidman (“he loves music history and inspires me to get real pumped on it”). On breaks between writing and recording, Jacklin walked around the city, taking in its musical memories and making some of her own. She had beers in the park next to Leonard Cohen’s house and a celebratory, full-circle meal to mark the completion of the record: “Céline Dion owns a deli called Schwartz, so we went there at the end of tracking.”

Julia Jacklin
Credit: Nick Mckk for NME

Jacklin’s star has risen both in Australia and overseas – she’s done the bulk of her touring in the busy North American circuit. During our interview, she casually mentions her friends Phoebe and Julien – Bridgers and Baker, two of the most critically acclaimed young American songwriters working today. But, Jacklin readily admits, fame comes with a price.

“I think what surprised me a lot about this job is that as you get more successful, you start to feel a lot more isolated from the community – that’s been one of the saddest parts,” she says. “You have your band and you spend a lot of time with people, but the actual experience of being a solo singer-songwriter, that isn’t shared much on the road with the people around you.”

Her solution has been to tap into community on stage, both at home and abroad. “Connecting with other singer-songwriters over the last couple of years has just helped me feel less alone,” she says. In 2019, Jacklin sang ‘Crushing’ track ‘Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You’ on stage with Lana Del Rey in Denver. It’s not rare for gig-goers in Melbourne to enjoy the odd Jacklin cameo: Stella Donnelly, Camp Cope and, most recently, Lucy Dacus have all invited the songwriter to perform at their gigs (“I was on the tram heading to Lucy’s show and she DMed me to ask me. I was kind of stoned,” she confesses on that last one).

“Connecting with other singer-songwriters over the last couple of years has just helped me feel less alone”

Jacklin fits into what the critic Lindsay Zoladz has described as “a new wave of young women making feelings-forward, guitar-driven indie rock”, alongside artists such as Mitski, Snail Mail and, closer to home, the likes of Maple Glider and Angie McMahon. The term often bandied about in this discussion is “sad girl music”, which is colloquial but simplistic: gender isn’t a genre, and each of these artists’ work is complex and individual.

This term feels even more trivialising when one considers the music industry’s ageism towards women. Half of women creators who participated in a music industry research survey earlier this year strongly agreed that they will be less valued in the music business as they grow older. It’s one of the things on Jacklin’s mind as she ponders what her future might look like: “Thinking about my life in the long term, knowing how ageist this industry is, and also not really always wanting to just talking about myself – it’s interesting to think, moving forward, what am I going to write about?”

These anxieties conjure difficult questions: how much does the fetishisation of youth fuel the current and possibly fleeting fascination with women’s interior lives? To circle back to ‘Pre Pleasure’ and feeling the eyes of the patriarchy on you: How does one wrangle autonomy in the face of what seems like total control?

It’s possible to mull these huge questions and, in a music industry still dominated by men, savour the sight of so many women communicating their realities of life, crafting compelling art and building ineffable bonds with their listeners. Jacklin is one such vital voice, tapping universal wells with songs rooted in the personal.

In both her music and in person, the musician’s slow, dreamy cadence belies the way she so often observes something startling or profound. On the precipice of releasing possibly her most revealing record yet, and moments before we bid goodbye, she offers another contradiction: “I feel like I swing wildly between wanting to be completely closed off and private, but then also, who cares? I’m going to die one day, so I let it all out.”

Julia Jacklin’s ‘Pre Pleasure’ is out now via Liberation Records. She tours Australia in 2023