Julia Stone talks her new solo album Sixty Summers, working with St Vincent and The National, and getting back on the road...
For the vast majority of Julia Stone's career, she's been best known for her work alongside her brother Angus. The pair have made four, hugely acclaimed albums of wistful, sparky folk, which has seen them become household names in their native Australia and keenly appreciated across the rest of the world.
But, for at least part of that time, Julia has also pursued a solo career, with her first album arriving all the way back in 2010 and a second coming in 2012.
For her latest collection, Sixty Summers, her first in nine years, Stone wasn't writing songs with the intention of making a record. She collected songs while she toured with her brother, but not in earnest.
In the end, to get the record really set in motion, it took a chance meeting. Passing through Helsinki airport with her brother, Stone saw the pair's old drummer, Matt Johnson, who was with his new gig as sticksman to Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent.
Stone and Clark were introduced and hit it off and Clark, alongside Thomas Bartlett, a frequent collaborator with The National, has produced the new album.
Sixty Summers is still rooted in shimmering folk, but there are more experimental psychedelic edges as well as St. Vincent's trademark quirky production.
With Sixty Summers now on shelves, we spoke to Stone about the journey to get the record made, how working with St Vincent changed the album's path and her hopes to bring it over to Europe as soon as it's safe to do so...
It’s been nine years since your last solo album, when did you decide to do another record?
"I suppose deciding to do this record happened after about three years of writing for fun. I think really those three years of writing had nothing to do with making a record. I just wanted to write because I was enjoying it. I was writing a lot with Thomas Bartlett, and I was also doing writing sessions with Dan Hume and other friends of mine. I was enjoying the feeling of not writing for an outcome."
"It was around that three-year point when we had about 30 songs and I had stopped touring with my brother that Thomas said to me, “What do you think about turning this into a record?” I liked the idea and I guess I had the psychological space from working on the ‘Angus and Julia’ project to think about it, but I wasn’t sure what kind of record it would be because the songs were so different. Tom suggested bringing on Annie Clark to help us refine and decide what the record was going to be. He played her the songs and she agreed to help produce them. That was when I knew the record would get finished and that this was going to be a different kind of record."
You recorded this album in different sessions over a four-year period, did that mean you had lots of songs in lots of different styles?
"It was more about experimenting and having fun than anything else. It felt like an incredible joy to be collaborating with all these amazing artists that I deeply love and respect, and it was just such a magical time, those first three years. Once Annie came on board and we were working towards finishing the album it was also really fun to clarify what that experimenting and what those creative songwriting sessions were becoming and what they were gonna be."
"That had a really exciting energy to it. How we were going to make a cohesive piece of music. I remember the first day Annie came on board we started working on songs like ‘Who’ which was originally acoustic guitar and piano and quite a sad song that then turned into this dance track and I remember feeling like, “Wow, this is going to be such a fun record, and so different”."
When were the songs written? You ended up with over 50 demos, how did you have so many?
"The songs were all written from 2015 to 2018. I feel like it sounds impressive to say “50 demos”, but the reason it’s a record with only 13 songs is because not all of the songs that I wrote at the time were particularly strong."
"I also don’t feel like there was any limit to what style we were writing in and where we were going with the music. Because of that sometimes we’d just write three songs in one sitting because I was writing as I was singing so a lot of the demos were really quick to make. Not all the time, but in a lot of cases, particularly Thomas and I would just write so quickly. Often he would have already built the foundation for the song and I would sing over the top of them."
You made the album with Thomas Bartlett, better known as Doveman and St Vincent, what did they bring to the process?
"Aside from both of them being astonishing artists in their own right and bringing that incredible artistry and musicianship to the process, as producers, they both brought out in me the feeling that I was supported to be completely myself. They really celebrated parts of me that I hadn’t explored before and in the studio when I was trying things, they would really get excited when I did something new and that for me was a huge part of finding the confidence and the freedom to make this record in whatever way that felt natural."
You’ve got Matt Berninger from The National on the album, how did that collaboration come about?
"I’ve always been a big fan of The National, and actually the first night I met Thomas it was at one of their shows. Thomas collaborates on almost all of The National’s records, and so through my friendship with him, I had the good fortune of getting to know the boys from the band. I always really loved their music, but as I got to know them as people I really began to love who they are."
"I wasn’t as close with Matt, but at the end of making this record, our song 'We All Have' hadn’t changed that much from the moment we wrote it and Thomas contacted me and said, “I think it would sound really great if Matt sings on this”. I thought it was such a good idea to have that beautiful deep sounding voice bring gravity to the lyrics “Love is all we needed to be here for, love is all we need to be here for” and also having our voices together which are polar opposites in terms of tone and texture."
"It felt like a really nice sonic choice for the song. We sent Matt the song and he wanted to sing on it which was exciting, and he sent back these beautiful vocals. That was really an amazing moment because then I got to talk more with Matt, and that collaboration led to Matt being one of the first people to get back to me about ‘Songs for Australia’, the charity record. He was so supportive of that and pulled together an amazing cover of ‘Never Tear Us Apart’ by INXS with The National. He has been so supportive of me and I feel that getting to know him as the genuine and loving human being that he is, is the biggest privilege of working with him."
What kind of album is this lyrically? Is there a theme to it?
"Yes and no. Because it was written over such an extended period of time, life was changing and I think the songs and the lyrics reflect a lot of those changes. Underlying all of that there’s a theme, not necessarily in the lyrics but in the feel of the record and that theme is about having the freedom to express yourself however you want, which is really something I felt I got to do whilst making this record."
Which song on the album took the longest to get right?
"The longest song to get right was definitely ‘Dance’. It just took so many different forms and it really never felt good. We loved the chorus, we loved the melody, we loved the pre, “It’s so hard to love you, it’s so hard to love you”. It felt like there were all these great pieces, but as a whole it really wasn’t sitting right for Thomas, Annie or myself. Annie decided to just do a complete 180 with the production of the song."
"When the production changed to what it sounds like now, everything worked except for the verses, and so we had these melodic verses with completely different lyrics and it just didn’t feel right. That was the first time I thought I’d like to experiment with just saying words, almost like spoken word poetry. So I went away with a new production and a new track and wrote this kind of poem to the music and it just felt really like it belonged."
And which song came together most quickly?
"I think it’s safe to say that ‘We All Have’, ‘Unreal’ and ‘Break’ hardly changed from writing to finishing the record. They were almost written as they are. Of course, we added things in and took things out, but really they were fundamentally the sound they are. All of the tracking we did on the day of writing remained in those songs."
When did you decide that Sixty Summers was the right title for the album?
"I feel like from the moment that song was titled ‘Sixty Summers’, it felt like that was going to be the title for the album. The song ‘Sixty Summers’ actually used to be called ‘Better Like This’. I remember Annie asked me “What is this song about?” and I told her the story about how in my early 20’s summer in Australia would come and go so quickly and the moment that my friend turned to me at a house party and said, “Can you believe that we’ve only got sixty summers left?”.
"When I told Annie that story and about the urgency, I felt to live my life in the way that was right for me she said “Write about that. That’s the song.” I felt that in a way, making this record was me living one of my sixty or five of my sixty summers in a way that felt really connected to what I wanted to do and how I wanted to be in the world."
You’ve got some dates in Australia and New Zealand in the winter, are you planning to bring the record to Europe and beyond when you can?
"Absolutely. The moment that it’s possible for us to tour in Europe, I’m going to be on that plane with my pedalboard and electric guitar and the acoustic guitar I use for some tracks to play this record. I just can’t wait to get back to Europe and the UK to play shows."
How have you spent the time since the completion of this record? Are you already working on the next thing?
"Yes, I am working on the next thing. I feel like my life is writing songs and I get so much joy from it that it feels so long since I finished Sixty Summers. I’m ready to go into the next section of writing. Right now there’s the space to do it because of the inability to tour freely, so that is my plan."