"Action Is All We Have": Julia Stone on Sixty Summers

Music Features Julia Stone
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"Action Is All We Have": Julia Stone on <i>Sixty Summers</i>

Red will not be ignored.

30 minutes into a thoughtful hourlong interview, phoning from her home in Melbourne, Australian chanteuse Julia Stone is right in the middle of making an important point about her sonically adventurous new effort, Sixty Summers, her third, when her dog Red muzzles in, making her presence known quite close to the receiver with an insistent don’t-you-forget-about-me growl. Everything stops. The faithful pet’s needs must be addressed, with an assuaging head scratch, a tasty treat, and even a colorful Red-origin backstory that boomerangs right back to the latest album, which marks the official launch of her full-time solo career after a decade with her brother in the ARIA-winning folksinging duo Angus & Julia Stone.

Red is a combination Kelpie and blue heeler, the definitive stocky but sleek Australian cattle dog. Like Mel Gibson’s Dinky-Di-Dogfood-fed, trigger-guarding traveling companion in The Road Warrior. “She’s incredibly smart and extremely attractive,” says Stone, after purring, “Awww, Red! She’s a blue heeler, but she’s red in color, and she has a blue tail, so of course, we call her Red. And actually—and this is a cute story—there’s a famous film in Australia called Red Dog, and it’s a very sweet family movie about a famous dog up in the northern part of Australia which does all these incredible things, like save people’s lives, and we’d just watched that when we got her.” Eerily enough, she adds, she had concurrently begun working with producer Annie Clark, aka the brainy, endlessly inventive artist St. Vincent, on Sixty Summers, first in New York with co-producer Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett, then as a tag team in Clark’s rustic Laurel Canyon facility.

“And when we were in the studio, Annie always used to call me Red,” adds the vocalist, whose long tresses do have a dramatic scarlet tint to them. “But she called me Red because she would say things like, ‘You’re all fire!’ And I am a very affable person, but I have a fire in my belly, and I have an inner anger that’s just there, right below the surface, you know? And if it lights, it really lights, so I really loved that as a name, so we also called the dog Red in respect to that time with Annie and what that meant to me.” If you haven’t guessed by now, artful aesthetics are of crucial importance in Stone’s kaleidoscopic universe. And paying meticulous attention to them for the first time in her recording career is what catapulted her into the quantum leap forward that is Sixty Summers. It’s so beautifully complex and dazzling, all of her acoustic fans will most likely be stunned.

The album opens with the rattly, tin-pan percussion and undulating synth/vocal waves of “Break,” punctuated—as several proceeding cuts are—with punchy horns. Then it veers into a swaying, angelic-voiced marshmallow of a title track, then the delicate, barebones ballad “We All Have,” countering Stone’s airy trill with the sepulchral murmur of The National’s Matt Berninger in an unexpected duet. From that point on, the material continues to surprise, from the synth-rocking “Substance” through a twinkling, yelp-pierced “Dance” (the Jessie-Hill-directed video for which boasts cameos from Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon—Stone is playing for all the marbles here), the jazzy “Free,” the sinister disco of “Fire in Me,” the classical piano of “Heron,” and a tropical, vocoder hip-hop gamble dubbed, quite astutely, “Unreal.” “You make me feel so unreal,” she intones, robotically, complemented by the fragmented Picasso-meets-Escher album cover artwork by Spanish Surrealist Filip Custic. Held together by Stone’s newly uncaged, panoramic singing voice, every single experiment works. And at 37, she chuckles, she figures she’s too old to call it a coming-of-age record. “But I feel like, working with Annie and Thomas, I gained a certain confidence with how I sang and how I wrote music, which I hadn’t experienced before, but I always knew that I had it in me,” she says. So you’d best believe it—Red will not be ignored.

Paste: How is Angus? And how have you both been faring this strange past year?

Julia Stone: Well, Angus is good, because he lives on a [Byron Bay] farm, so he has a lot of space around, and he’s always got projects that he’s doing from the farm. He has a studio up there, so he can still record. But Australia’s been pretty lucky in terms of how [the coronavirus] has been dealt with, and I guess because we’re an island, it’s been easier to contain.

Paste: Then there’s the shrewd way Jacinda Ardern addressed it in New Zealand. More women in global power, please!

Stone: I know! I know! She’s a superstar, just an absolute badass, and they should be using her as a model to replicate around the world, because it really does make sense. And if I had more of a political brain, I would be encouraging myself and all young women to go into politics and move up through the ranks, because it really seems to be working. So Australia has done okay, as well, but we don’t have a particularly great government at the moment (current Conservative Pentecostal prime minister Scott Morrison believes God called him to lead.) But I have my dog Red and my husband James—who is also the bass player in my band—and we are sheltered in Melbourne. And out of all of Australia, I guess Melbourne was the most impacted in terms of lockdowns and restrictions, and our state premier was very good about making sure we contained it. So when we had a bit of outbreak last year—and I think four months was the final time of what they were calling Stage Four lockdown—it meant pretty much not leaving our homes for a very long time. You could go out for an hour to exercise, but you couldn’t go five kilometers from your house. So James set up a studio in the kitchen, and I had my studio in the second bedroom—we live in a two-bedroom apartment, and our dog was keeping us very happy. So I guess we, again, felt very lucky. It was hard and they were challenging times, not being able to leave the house. But also, now we’re beginning to see the benefits of those restrictions, where we can actually play some shows this year, and that’s been amazing, to actually be back onstage and have crowds in rooms and people dancing. It’s unbelievable!

Paste: Your voice and your artistic vision feel totally unleashed on Sixty Summers. The growth is pretty dramatic.

Stone: Well, the music that I write with Angus is much more … well, the way that it’s written is to suit both of our voices, to suit both of us singing together. So there’s a certain beautiful limitation around that, and it ends up being a really neat sound because it suits both of our voices. But in terms of what I could do independently, I was only having a couple of moments in the set with Angus where I was exploring more theatrical and dramatic sides of my voice. And that was in songs like “Death Defying Acts,” and I was doing a cover for a long time of “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease, and it felt like there were moments in that song where I was pushing different parts of my voice in a new way. But then over years of making the new record with Annie and Thomas [2015-2019] in the studio, they were being really great with me, just celebrating those moments and going, “More of that! More of that!” And I think in a song like “Sixty Summers,” at the end of it, where I was really wailing in the studio, those two are just such wonderful people in the way that they were telling me that that was important, and that’s the side of me that they wanted to hear. So then when it came to singing those songs live and being in a band context, I felt really confident to do that. But then that’s also a part of growing up—you care less about making it sound pretty because you’re feeling the music more.

Paste: And it was Bartlett (who is currently co-writing a forthcoming Great Gatsby musical with Florence Welch) who urged you to take the 30 songs you and he had finished to St. Vincent, right?

Stone: Thomas and Annie are really close friends. And aside from Matt singing on “We All Have” and a few subtle mixings, we had finished the record before the pandemic, and for the sessions working with Annie, some of it was in New York, with Thomas and Annie and I in a room together, and then she went back to L.A., so I went back there to work from her studio in Laurel Canyon. And those weeks, then months with her—the time was so magical, and she took the songs in some really interesting directions. And she was an incredible producer, as well. She was coming up with ideas like, “Wouldn’t it be cool to hear a great little harmony here that sounds like this? Oh, let me sing it!” And she’d show me and she’d sing it, and then that would end up being the harmony on that song. Or, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was this lap-steel-guitar-sounding part that’s really distorted?” And then she’d just play it. So it was really cool to witness her genius in action, because she’s got so many great ideas that it was just an amazing thing to watch. She’s a brilliant producer, and it was so fun to work with her.

Paste: Where did the “Sixty Summers” concept originate?

Stone: Originally that song was called “Better Like This.” And one of the things that Annie was good at doing was, when a lyric wasn’t particularly strong or it didn’t feel like it—and I guess with all the songs—she wanted to know what they were about. She’s very much about, “What’s the story? What are you saying?” And for that song, I had a bit of an explanation, but it was pretty vague, and I tapped into this, “Well, actually it is about this friend of mine.” And she said, “Tell me more of that story.” So I started telling her the story of this time in Australia when I would be on tour, and I would come back to Australia and spend the summer where I grew up. And where I grew up, you know, is a beach town, so we’d spend a lot of time by the water. And in Australia, it’s Christmas and New Year’s in summer, so there’s always a lot of parties and celebrations and things going on. And it was in my early twenties that I spent three summers in a row coming back to Australia from living in Europe, to spend a couple of months on the northern beaches with my family and this one particular friend. And this friend and I were very close, and we were having a lot of fun nights just celebrating being alive and dancing and listening to music. And one night, we were at this really exciting, eccentric party—there was a harp player in the corner, there was a naked woman on a table with cupcakes all over her for someone’s birthday, and it was all very esoteric—and my friend turned to me and she said—in a moment of almost desperation—“Can you believe we only have sixty summers left?” And I was just struck at that moment by the very finite nature of life. And I hadn’t been someone who avoided the idea of death, but I felt it for the first time, and I guess with the seasonal nature of it, I suddenly understood how quickly summers were coming and going. I mean, I’d blink, and it was summer again in Australia. And I felt like sixty wasn’t a lot. Sixty was a very small amount of time. And I was telling Annie this story, and she said, “That’s it! That’s what the song is about!” So then the song was developed to become “Sixty Summers.” And the song is about how to live your sixty summers, whether you’ve got sixty or only five—it’s this idea of focusing on what’s important and not losing the importance of the small things. And the second chorus goes down like, “We went for the fame and we went for the money and we went for the power, and we forgot. We forgot that it was just about being with people you love and treating other people” —all those questions that you have as a human being on the planet started to resonate with me. So that’s what “Sixty Summers” is about, and honestly, when I first told this story to my label, a couple of older people had to leave the room—it looked like they were having panic attacks. And I felt terrible, because I don’t want people to be thinking like that. But in a way, there is something helpful about that feeling of urgency. Urgency and the awareness of death do create action, and action is all we have, you know? Acting in this present moment for the benefit of others and for the future. But I liked that feeling of urgency when it struck me—that it was going to be a quick little stint as Julia on the planet.

Paste: I always say that people should re-read The Little Prince and The Alchemist every couple of years, just to stay grounded.

Stone: Yes. And The Little Prince is a great book. And I think—or I hope, at least—that in loving music and loving the arts, it’s a similar desire, wherein it’s not about the outcome, it’s not where it lands. It’s about the journey. And what’s that famous saying? “Youth is wasted on the young”? As you grow and as you develop some sense of what being a human is about, you start to understand why music is so powerful, and you understand why people are so drawn to it. And it’s the same with sitting in an art gallery or dancing all night—it’s these very innate human desires being fulfilled, which, at the heart of it, is just presence, whether it’s presence with other people, presence with yourself, or presence with nature. And music is my form of connecting, of bringing you into the moment until you lose yourself. You’re not thinking about what comes tomorrow—you’re creating something in the moment with other people.

Paste: That idea is intrinsic to the livestreamed concert you and your band played this February at the old Castlemaine Gaol, a former prison that auteur David Bromley has converted to something that resembles Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, a fun setting filled with all sorts of kooky statuary. That Bromley guy gets it.

Stone: Yeah. And when I get a text from him, it’s like reading something out of The Little Prince or The Power of Now—he’s got this spirit to him, and for him it’s about creating beauty out of darkness. And darkness exists—there’s no way that we can get around the fact that that’s part of the human experience. Just like that space—the history of Castlemaine Gaol is shocking, just the kind of torture and trauma and pain that humans went through inside. But he’s gone in and decided, “I’m going to create a space that’s about beauty, about art, about creation, and then that can, in turn, change the whole nature of an environment.” I mean, every corner there—even the isolation chambers downstairs, where people would suffocate back in the day—he’s turned this heritage jail site into very playful art, with giant elephants and chandeliers. And it was such a pleasure to be in that space.

Paste: And you performed there barefoot. Do you play every show unshod?

Stone: Oh, I’ve always been a barefoot person for as long as I can remember. Wearing shoes onstage? I really battle with it. And I have a lot of lovely stylists that dress me for shows, and they’ll always bring these beautiful high-heeled shoes, and they’ll say, “This is the thing that will really complete the outfit!” And I just think, “I’ll wear them for the first song, but then I’ll take them off as soon as I can afterwards.” I like feeling the ground, and I think because we grew up doing a lot of bushwalking and rock climbing, I always felt like my bare feet were the best for doing that without falling. So I still do wear shoes at some shows, particularly if it’s cold. Then again, the other day we did a show at this beautiful venue by the water, and it was freezing. But I still didn’t wear shoes—I just wore my socks onstage. And anyway, if you’ve got a fancy dress on, nobody’s really looking at your feet anyway! I’m happiest barefoot, though, and somebody once said this to me—and I thought it was great—“You’re only going to be as happy as you are right now.” And I loved that, because you keep thinking, “Oh, when I get this,” or “When I have that,” or “When I feel this.” But no, it’s about right now. Because if you can’t experience any form of happiness right now, it’s not going to change that much when you have all these things that you think you need. Like the saying “If you’re in it to win it, you never will.” That’s a really sad truth in a world that’s all about winning. But I really like it.