Julia Stone: “I’ve been amazed over the years how some people really don’t like finding out who I am”

Julia Stone is ready to be free. On her new solo record ‘Sixty Summers’, the singer-songwriter dials back the folk-pop to reveal the many different versions of herself

“Summer in the Northern Beaches – it’s got a very strong smell and feeling to it. It’s like ripe mangoes and sunscreen and dying Christmas trees.” Julia Stone is sitting with NME at a tiny table in a Brunswick café on an overcast morning, but we might as well be sprawled out and sweating on the sand, for the scene she’s painting. She’s remembering the place she grew up, and the story of how she named her new solo record, ‘Sixty Summers’.

In the decade that she and her brother, Angus, spent their years touring relentlessly, the 37-year-old artist always found her way back to Australia for Christmas, back to those familiar smells and people. “I remember three summers in a row, coming home and spending it with Jessie.” That’s Jessie Hill, Stone’s current creative director, whom she met when they were in their early 20s. After months apart every calendar year, the friends would reunite for the summer holidays, attending “very strange” parties and measuring their lives by the passage of seasons.

NME Cover AU 2021 Julia Stone
Julia Stone on the cover of NME Australia #17

They’d been dancing at one party as a harpist played at the corner of the room, Stone recalls, when “Jessie turns to me – you know, we’re both high and excited – and she grabs me by the shoulders and she just says, ‘Can you believe we’ve only got 60 summers left?’”

Stone always knew she was going to die someday, but in that moment, she says, the realisation of “how finite and quick life is” hit her like a wave.

Maybe it was the fact that we’d postponed this interview after Melbourne was put into a snap, five-day lockdown after losing so much of 2020 living under an even stricter one – but time had never been more fluid or precious. In hearing Stone re-tell it, the story of that night transported us to the state of mind she was in, one she describes as: “Oh God, I’ve got to live because it’s going to be over really quickly.”

The newfound awareness of her mortality ignited a fire for Stone: “It’s a motivating force to be present and slow things down. Sometimes you just miss months of your life, because you’re always waiting for the next thing to happen.”

NME Cover AU 2021 Julia Stone
Credit: Zac Bayly for NME. Gown: Mariam Seddiq, Jewellery: Pierre Winter Fine Jewels

And after spending the better part of the past seven years assembling the pieces for ‘Sixty Summers’, the waiting is over.

Stone’s third solo album, it marks her first significant move away from the folk music she and Angus started making together as teenagers, and which she continued pursuing on 2010’s ‘The Memory Machine’ and ‘By The Horns’ in 2012. A fascinating work of art-pop that dances in and out of electronic textures, chanson vocals, and bold pop moments, ‘Sixty Summers’ has a surface sheen of romantic entanglement and disappointments. Under that lies “these big ideas of love and pain and grief; all of the things we go through in life”, Stone says. They are familiar things rendered anew in glittering, broody scenes.

She is finally ready for people to meet the version of Julia Stone who reveals herself across its 13 tracks. Or maybe that’s versions, in plural. Because in stepping away from the indie-folk sound that’s typified her work since she was 20, she’s peeled back layers of who she is and emerged as a complex, dynamic, even strange and surreal figure.

On ‘Break’ she is a woman overwhelmed with lust, but dangling on a precipice. She sounds ready to explode, or ready to stop “existing just to be unclear” and finally be honest – which might actually all be the same thing. On ‘Queen’ she is a royal who’s lost confidence, a woman who’s removed the rose-tinted filter and realised she’d been made to believe she only deserved mere scraps of affection from a partner. Reappearing across ‘Sixty Summers’ are ideas of being “too much”, or hiding her truth in the hopes of pleasing someone or placating the masses – and letting herself down in the process.

NME Cover AU 2021 Julia Stone
Credit: Zac Bayly for NME. Dress: Couture Love Madness, Boots: Tony Bianco, Jewellery: Pierre Winter Fine Jewels

“I think particularly because of being a folk singer… there are certain expectations [of me] and it’s like sweetness and quiet,” Stone explains, batting her eyelids and softening her hands for effect. “And a lot of people are very shocked when they meet me because I’m not often like that. Like I said, I’m a nice person, but…”

You’re a person.

“– I’m a person! And I’m very strange a lot of the time. My sense of humour is extremely off and dark. And I’ve been amazed over the years how some people really don’t like finding out who I am.”

The producers Stone collaborated with most intimately were also vital catalysts in the change in her attitude, both towards herself and the direction of this album. Doveman (real name Thomas Bartlett), who co-produced ‘By The Horns’, returns on ‘Sixty Summers’. He brought into the fold Annie Clark, who’d at the time paused making music as St. Vincent to produce Sleater-Kinney’s comeback record, ‘The Center Won’t Hold’, and co-write on Taylor Swift’s ‘Lover’.

Clark, Stone says, initially came in as a fresh set of ears, helping her and Bartlett cull their original list of 30 demos down to a more manageable 15. Then, when she stayed on to produce with them, Clark frequently dug into the core of Stone’s writing, encouraging her to confront the truth of what she was trying to say.

Originally, a line in ‘Queen’ described its title character as the ruler of “the free”. But when Clark misheard it as “freaks”, she enjoyed the darkness it hinted at and nudged Stone to crystallise her intentions. “I guess that’s what I feel like in myself,” Stone admits now, “I really like the people that live eccentric lives and don’t follow a normal path through life.”

“Sometimes you just miss months of your life because you’re always waiting for the next thing to happen”

After Stone ended the relationship that inspired ‘Queen’, a realisation of her future began settling around her. Her awareness of the “boxes that you tick along the way” – getting married, having kids, settling down – became as heightened as ever. “I felt like I wasn’t ticking those and I wasn’t going to,” she says. “I was at a place, when I wrote most of these songs, where I was coming to terms with [the fact that] I’m probably not going to give my parents grandchildren, and I’m probably going to be travelling the world by myself and I’ll probably just take lovers here and there. And that’ll be my life. And that’s exciting. And wonderful. And cool.”

Yet, as Stone speaks, a ‘but’ can be sensed hanging unsaid in the air between us. Learning to be enough for yourself, to fill those spaces we’re made to believe other people will fill, is a valuable but lonely pursuit. “Making this record, I was in a place of real sobriety with it all.”

In confronting those realities, Stone needed a steady base of support, which she found in Clark and Bartlett. “They really saw me and they really celebrated me.” Being seen is not the same as having the eyes of an audience on you, Stone explains, and it’s not the same as receiving a compliment. Realising people genuinely saw and understood her and thought she had something to offer summoned “transformative” waves of “emotional breakdowns”.

“I dunno why it’s so heartbreaking, but… you walk through life often very invisible… but when somebody genuinely looks at you and goes, ‘God, you’re so special’ – you just start crying because, like, you can’t believe that somebody’s saying that.”

NME Cover AU 2021 Julia Stone
Credit: Zac Bayly for NME. Jacket: Dolce & Gabbana via Yoox, Jewellery: Pierre Winter Fine Jewels

It’s significant too that Stone was seen, in the making of ‘Sixty Summers’, as a musician independent of her brother – not just by fans and critics, but also an industry with a predetermined idea of who she is and what she’s capable of. “I’d done solo records in the past, but it always felt like no one took it seriously,” she says. “It was just like a side project; the labels were like, ‘Yeah, you do your fun little side thing – and then come back to the thing that you really do’. And this was the first time I felt like everyone was saying, ‘No, this is the thing’.”

Stone loves working with her brother, she’s quick to add. “But I really wanted to feel like I could stand on my own two feet.” Existing as “and Julia” for so many years also meant interviews like this one were near-impossible. Rather than honing in on the specifics of her fears and experiences, she had to speak as one-half of a whole. She found herself holding back to ensure Angus’ comfort – and assumed he did the same. “We’d just find a place where we talk about very easy things that suit both of us. We’re representing each other. And so we have to be respectful of that.”

“We’ve grown up in a culture in Australia of always being humble and minimising what you’re doing, and I’ve had a habit of doing that”

People still ask, of course, when she’ll go back to making music with Angus – who’s recording his own solo project under the moniker Dope Lemon these days. The questions about the band come even when she’s promoting a solo record, as she recently told The National’s Matt Berninger, a guest on the single ‘We All Have’, over Instagram Live.

“I think [Angus and I] both struggle with that at times because… we both really craved having our own identity and the longer that we were working together, the harder that was going to be to do,” she tells NME. “And I didn’t want to just keep doing work with my brother because it was the easy option – and it is the easy option. We like writing music together and we’re good at writing music together, but life is boring if you just keep walking down the easy road. And I was getting bored with myself.”

NME Cover AU 2021 Julia Stone
Credit: Zac Bayly for NME. Skirt: Macgraw, Top: Macgraw, Shoes: Tony Bianco, Jewellery: Pierre Winter Fine Jewels

Working with Bartlett, though, roused something that was lying dormant in her boredom. She describes him invariably as “like home” and “a soulmate”; between stops on the last Angus & Julia Stone tours, she’d post up in his studio for as long as she could. David Byrne might drop by one day, and Yoko Ono the next. In between, Stone could be found there with him, “hanging out, having a really great time, watching Veep, ordering food and then occasionally writing a song”.

“When I was with Thomas, I felt this kind of freedom to just be whatever I am in that moment,” she says. “I feel like my personality has a lot of different sides to it, and that was celebrated in Thomas’ presence.”

After hearing ‘Sixty Summers’, the Spanish-Croatian artist Filip Ćustić felt the same way. In creating the metaphysical depictions of Stone that became the album’s cover artwork, he pictured fractions of her existing separately, and brought them together in a surrealist image. The mirror splitting her face in two on the cover distinguishes Stone’s ambition from another side of her that’s “asleep to experiencing life”. “[It’s saying] you’re not present for your life because your eye’s on the prize, which is just around the corner,” Stone adds.

“It’s just a full renaissance goddess kind of creature that’s fragmented,” she says. “And honestly, I have never seen myself like that.”

NME Cover AU 2021 Julia Stone
Credit: Zac Bayly for NME

More than just “Stone Goes Electric”, ‘Sixty Summers’ gave her both new ways to see and interpret herself and more space to fill – sonically and literally, on stage.

“Folk music is easier in a way; it’s intrinsically humble as a music sound,” Stone explains. “It’s really easy to be vulnerable on your own with an acoustic guitar in the room.” Conversely, electronic music and pop reject passivity; if you’re not fully immersed, you’re not getting the most of what they have to offer. And when stepping into those worlds, Stone allowed herself to get completely absorbed, take up more space – and believe she was allowed to. “I think we’ve grown up in a culture in Australia of always being humble and minimising what you’re doing, and I’ve had a habit of doing that,” she admits.

But when she saw the reactions Bartlett and Clark had to her music, and saw Ćustić’s visual interpretation of it, Stone stopped diminishing it too, and began to take herself more seriously.

“I feel like women are constantly being reminded to not be too loud. Like, don’t stand out too much and don’t be hysterical.” Her singing voice, the one so delicate that a strong wind might snatch it away, is louder now on ‘Sixty Summers’. Stone is as attuned to it as a tool to express grief and hurt and everything else as she’s ever been. “Our culture has suppressed that natural instinct to relieve anger, to relieve pain. And I have toed the line of being quiet and sweet. I don’t care to do that anymore.”

Julia Stone’s ‘Sixty Summers’ is out April 30 via BMG

CREDITS

Styling by Kara Wilson
Hair and makeup by Shella Martin
Production by Ella Petite at Positive Feedback
Location at Palais Theatre