A few years ago, June Jones had a minor epiphany in the Marrickville Metro Shopping Centre. While visiting Sydney to play a show, she was struck by the chaotic vibe of the mall’s food court and how much it mirrored her own private interior.
“I’ve never seen my internal world so well described by external reality: very bright, very loud, lots going on, hard to focus on anything,” Jones tells NME. That realisation spawned a memorable lyric in her song ‘Remember’ – “I’ve got a mind like a shopping centre food court” – but it wasn’t a tossed-off observation. Diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, the Melbourne solo artist (and before that, leader of Two Steps on the Water) unpacks that challenging aspect of her life across her second album, ‘Leafcutter’.
“The external world comes into you in a different way,” she says of ADHD. “Things don’t stick in the exact same way as they would for other people.”
‘Remember’ is partly about her “really wishy-washy memory”, a subject that comes up again on ‘Echo’: “I wish that I had a baby, I wish I had a better memory.” Other lyrics pointedly address her efforts to be more engaged and in the moment: “I wanna love you but I’m only semi-present,” she sings on ‘Remember’, before returning to the theme on ‘Holy Water’: “I try my best to be present / I try my best to be here.”
Jones still has plenty of work to do on that front, but for now, she’s thankful for the clarity of having the diagnosis. “[Part of it] was just psychic relief. Like, ‘I’m not just a huge fuckup’,” she says. “Which is not to say I don’t have to be responsible for how I act in the world, but [now I] have some reassurance that it’s really hard for a reason.”
Such soul-searching lyrics, combined with the skeletal electronic arrangements and Jones’ immersive style of production, makes ‘Leafcutter’ feel like its own private universe. Or more accurately, a confession booth where she can voice a statement as open and literal as “I’m going to therapy” or “Home is all I ever wanted”. As with her 2019 debut ‘Diana’, the new album deals with her experiences as a trans woman, but it distinguishes itself from the first record’s balance of piano ballads and electronic productions by settling squarely in the latter camp.
Gleaning valuable production advice from musician/filmmaker Geoffrey O’Connor, who produced ‘Diana’, Jones recorded the follow-up at home on a secondhand ThinkPad laptop. She leaned into software and presets to summon scene-stealing flourishes like the slick 1980s-sounding solo on ‘Remember’ and the synth horn part on ‘Therapy’, which was inspired by her recent tourmate Cate Le Bon’s live use of dual saxophones.
And atop of what she calls “the sonic world-building” offered by those R&B-flavoured electronics, Jones’ striking singing brings to mind English band Wild Beasts and the influential singer-songwriter Anohni. She also found continued inspiration in Björk’s 2004 album ‘Medúlla’, which was comprised entirely of vocal parts.
“The idea that I could use my voice as an instrument felt freeing”
On ‘Remember’, Jones also experimented with two-note chords called dyads, panning them back and forth between the left and right side of the mix while trying to sing as low as she could. “As a trans woman singer, there’s this constant tension about the natural sounds your voice can make,” she says. “You have a lower register. I feel constantly conflicted about what people are reading into the sound of my voice. But also, I really like the sounds that I can make at a low register, even if I wouldn’t necessarily want to sing a lot that deep. The idea that I could use my voice as an instrument felt freeing.”
Similarly liberating was the decision to self-produce, though Jones didn’t realise at the start what a long and involved task it would become. “Something is daunting when you know it’s going to be hard before you do it,” she explains. “If I’d understood well enough what the process would entail, it should have been daunting. I went into it a little ignorant about how much of my life it would consume for a good six to 12 months.”
Part of the reason that journey (which coincided with last year’s lockdowns) was prolonged was that Jones took out five songs, replacing them with tracks that made more sense alongside the others. “I was trying to make these little worlds that would [make] sense and together create some universe,” she says. Whereas the scrapped songs took a broader emotional approach, the newer ones returned to the intensely personal subject matter of opener ‘Jenny (Breathe)’, also the first song she wrote for the record.
Did it scare Jones to share herself in such a direct way in her lyrics? “Weirdly, no,” she says. “It’s less scary than other ways of writing songs. Because I have a lot of experience doing it – I had a band before this. If anything, that was a time of equally raw songwriting where I felt more vulnerable, so that was scarier. I feel more stable as a person [now], which is a better foundation for that kind of expression.”
Influenced by the high-concept science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia Butler, Jones envisioned ‘Jenny’ as “a song about surviving inner trauma and outer dystopia, though I don’t think it’s easy to separate the two”, according to the press release for the single. Foregrounding the entwined themes of humanity and technology that recur throughout ‘Leafcutter’, that first song is a call to step back and recalibrate on a personal level: “Anaesthetise, cut back the skin / Reset the software with a safety pin.”
Beyond its title, which refers to an industrious species of ant, ‘Leafcutter’ repeatedly compares the natural world with Jones’ interior world, right down to the specific flowers citing on the delicate closing track ‘Dried Petals’. “Maybe it’s just my penchant for melodrama that leads me to make those analogues,” she quips. That inclination certainly comes across on the album cover, which captures Jones in an iconic pose, practically standing sentry in a brightly coloured jumper with her hands clasped in a symbolic show of inner strength. Borrowed from her housemate at the time, the jumper has a “busy softness to it” that appealed to Jones, featuring both flowers and sharp diagonal lines.
“I wanted to combine that with something that felt strong or powerful,” she says of the image, which dramatically contrasts bright lighting around Jones with a dark background to evoke “human warmth in the middle of a cold, dark exterior.” Of course, that’s the same layering she achieves so well on the album itself: exploring human vulnerability against a stark landscape of synthesised instrumentation.
“I wanted to remind people that there’s a light within yourself, and within others,” Jones says. “Even when the world feels extremely difficult, there is always humanity and care and solidarity within that.”
After a pause, she adds, with a characteristic flash of self-doubt: “I don’t know if that comes across. At this point, I’m maybe overthinking it.”