For many on Australia’s east coast, where vaccination rates are rising and restrictions easing, it feels like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. There are journeys to be had, paths to be trodden. And it’s almost as if Pluto Jonze’s new album, ‘Awe’, was meant to be the soundtrack.
Jonze – real name Lachlan Nicolson – speaks to NME from the backyard of his Wollongong home, which he moved to a few years back. More recently, he’s become a first-time parent, comparing the milestone to touring: “You’re low on sleep, you’re not taking care of yourself and you feel like a fish out of water at times… but you get to go on this mad adventure.”
While most of ‘Awe’ was completed well before his kid entered the world, the psych-pop singer’s been chasing “mad adventures” for a while now. Jonze’s last album was 2013’s indie rock-leaning ‘Eject’, the creative process for which he describes as “throwing shit at the wall and seeing what happened”. The record’s production made it sound like he was performing from afar, as if at the Corner Hotel or Oxford Art Factory. If not for Jonze’s reedy vocals, you wouldn’t be able to tell ‘Eject’ and ‘Awe’ were by the same artist.
‘Eject’ took a toll on Jonze. The entire project, from writing to recording to mixing, was his responsibility, meaning he was often left drained at the end of the day. So instead of charging back into another solo record after ‘Eject’, Jonze joined rock band Hey Geronimo – who have released two albums since 2016 – and produced other musicians, slowly recharging his batteries. Now, with producer Brendan Cox helping shoulder the burden, he is ready to get back in the driver’s seat.
“I actually think I couldn’t have executed this side of my songwriting without the production stuff that I have learned in that time,” he tells NME. “I don’t know what you would call it – a little interim production degree, I suppose.”
“It’s both really confronting and very liberating to realise this doesn’t matter”
When describing ‘Awe’, Jonze contradicts himself on more than one occasion. It’s intimate but vast; personal but detached. Songs about relationships and everyday life came to bore him, so instead he played around with point-of-view, becoming both an autobiographical subject and omniscient narrator.
Jonze wanted to “explore a different perspective” from ‘Eject’ and his 2014 EP ‘Sucker’, he says. “Zoomed out, but also really, really zoomed in as well, I guess. Maybe removed from the world of human affairs or something.”
Then, he concedes: “I say that, but then there are songs on the record, like ‘I’ll Try Anything’, that are sort of grounded in human affairs.”
In terms of instrumentation, Jonze made a hard pivot from his earlier work, swapping out the guitars for uplifting piano and cosmic synths. For inspiration, he turned to the recent vaporwave sounds of Beck and Jean Michel-Jarre’s cinematic electronic stylings. As a result, many songs on ‘Awe’ invoke a celestial feel that is apt for how Jonze weaves through ideas of personal insignificance and being a part of something larger than yourself.
Album opener ‘Been Dreaming’ and the high-spirited ‘Rumschpringe’ conjure up a sense of endless possibility in a sprawling world, while ‘Dot’ brings you back to earth and teaches you humility. The dramatic closer, ‘Blue China’, leaves the audience with the question: “Can you take all the weight of the world?”
The sound and messages of ‘Awe’ have been percolating in the back of Jonze’s mind for years, he says. Over time he came to appreciate the “things that religion is getting at” and sought to tap into those teachings from his own secular viewpoint.
“When you grow up in the West, you have this sense of individualism and belief that you’re so special, but there’s an underlying sense that this all really matters. You know, ‘everything that’s within my sphere right now is the most important thing in the world’,” Jonze explains.
“And I have found it’s both really confronting and very liberating to realise this doesn’t matter. It actually doesn’t matter.
“It’s pretty all too real when you do have those moments or have that time in your life where you fully come to appreciate that nothing matters, but it’s also beautiful.”
Jonze has made an album primed for attentive listening, practically singing in your ear about the joys of feeling insignificant. But with the imminent return of live shows, he now has to consider how these intimate, philosophical songs will play out on stage. There has always been a visual aspect to his performances, Jonze says, remembering how he used to lug around bulky cathode ray TVs to display synchronised visuals.
One curious piece of hardware that’s become part of his arsenal more recently is an upright piano completely decked out with responsive lights. With help from his dad, ARIA Award-winning songwriter Roy Nicolson, the ‘lightscape piano’ has been programmed to light up in response to the keys being played. Jonze credits visual artist James Turrell, whose work uses light to toy with human perception, as inspiration.
“Turrell is a real pioneer, he’s sort of going out and doing this stuff that’s very unique and I would say fairly original… maybe he’s the Kanye of his world,” he says.
“I’ve always felt that retro-style gadgetry is pretty Pluto. So I’ve continued to tie all these things together so I can make what is quite a departure in sound still seem like a ‘Pluto’ record.”
Arguably nothing represents the Second Jonze Era, its philosophy and sound more than ‘New Morning High’, one of the more joyous songs on the album. He’d spent ages trying to incorporate an old lick he’d been carrying around with him before he finally cracked it – and once he did, it felt like poetic justice had been delivered. He’d completed a song about starting anew just as lockdowns began to lift and we began to look out our windows with a much-needed feeling of hope. It’s a new dawn, a new day, a new life – and none of it matters – so Jonze is feeling good.
Pluto Jonze’s ‘Awe’ is out November 5