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Interview with Julia Stone

– by Tom Munday

Playing together since the mid-2000s, sibling-duo Angus & Julia Stone’s first album, A Book Like This, garnered significant acclaim and put their names on the wide, uncompromising map of Australian folk-blues music. Between then and now, their chock-a-block touring, song-writing, and recording schedules saw them working their fingers to the bone to perfect their captivating artistic vision. In 2010, if you were to turn on the radio, every station would be blaring the duo’s smash hit Big Jet Plane. The song’s overwhelming critical and commercial success earned them significant notice from Hobart to Hollywood, a bevvy of new fans, and listings on varying film and TV soundtracks. However, this sultry sound is marks just the tip of the Stones’ eclectic musical iceberg. The fusion of their soulful sound and pleasant vibes highlights the best Australian music has to offer. The blues stars’ ARIA award-winning, triple-platinum EP, Down the Way, launched an undying light.

Since then, the siblings have gone in different directions. Their solos careers have also proven immensely successful, with both releasing chart-topping EPs. Julia, living in Los Angeles, enjoys the quaint, sun-drenched existence that comes with the territory. Having crafted five solo EPs/albums, sold-out solo tours, and a multi-tier boutique, the 30-year-old musician is at the top of her game. Conducting phone interviews all morning, Stone was hard at work promoting her and Angus’ third, self-titled album. The recently-released compilation achieved unquestionable critical and commercial praise. Their latest tour, kicking off in Kings Park on February 4th, will travel their home country promoting their latest and biggest collection of wondrous harmonies and poetic stories about life and love. Stone carries her magnetic stage presence across to her day-in, day-out interview schedule. Her faultless charm and angelic grace became unmistakably transfixing. As we chatted about the new album and tour, her life’s work, and the industry, I became awe-struck by her pure energy, wisdom, and determination.

You and Angus Stone have had immense critical and commercial acclaim, what was the moment you realised you had achieved success?

I don’t know, I guess it’s like the music business, or music industry, is such a changeable thing. I think that every time you make a record you’re kind of making it because it’s what you feel like you need to do. I guess the sense of accomplishment or feeling like you’ve ‘made it’, as such, is like when you’re playing shows and people are responding to the songs and you hear stories of songs being important to people in their lives in some way.

The actual music business side of things is a funny one because it’s like…if you get 5 million hits on YouTube does that make you feel successful? Not really, but it just doesn’t feel like anything it just feels a bit like numbers on a page. I think the real sense of accomplishment comes from playing shows for sure.

Big Jet Plane was a major commercial hit (winning five ARIA awards, receiving significant radio time, featuring on varying soundtracks for films, TV shows, commercials etc.), how did that particular song’s success feel?

I guess we were on tour so much during that time that you’re not really listening to the radio very much. You kind of hear about that stuff happening, obviously we know that the song had been placed in a movie and the ARIAs are really an obvious expression of that song and that record doing well, and I think at the time it was funny because we were kind of in our heads, you know?

We were so happy to be making music, but also Angus and I were coming to that point as artists that we knew we were going to have a break, and we could feel that coming. So there was a sweet sadness to the whole thing where you feel it’s really amazing but it’s definitely like the fork in the road.

You’re going through all these exciting experiences and you feel valued as an artist because people like your music but you feel you’re going through your own personal stuff and making choices behind the scenes that outweigh any feeling of: “Oh cool, our song’s in a movie?”, you know? It’s funny, I think at that time in lots of different ways.

You have had extensive periods playing solo and with Angus, what are the positives and negatives of switching between the two?

I think to work solo I guess I have a creative control over the record that is different to when we work together, you know? We collaborate and everything is being decided together and that’s really nice but I think there is this freedom that comes with working on your own so having a mix of both has been important for us. We love each other and we trust each other but we’re still brother and sister and sometimes you just say: “I really want to make this call on my own” and I know we both felt like that after touring for a couple of years on Down the Way.

It took us a while to make the decision to get back together to make this record because we were having such a good time on our solo adventures. It’s good, this time around I’ve loved working with Angus because he really is a good soundboard for everything I write and I know that he never, ever would lie to me or bullsh*t me.

I get this feeling like when I get an answer from Angus it’s a straight-up answer and musically that can be really refreshing and really important because you’re not um-ing and ahh-ing about whether that take was good or this take was better. He can hear it, he knows, and I can trust him so there’s definitely that benefit to working together

You guys have just released your new self-titled album, what was the process behind this album’s conception?

For us to get back together we felt that, to make that decision, there had to be some changes in the way we had previously worked and one of those changes was that we felt, to make this record, we wanted to write music together because in the past we had always written music separately.

I guess the biggest difference in this process was writing and hanging out in the studio before we actually got into Shangri-La. We spent time in a place called Beachwood Canyons, in Los Angeles, just hanging out, jamming, singing line for line, and figuring out songs in a way we hadn’t before. It definitely changed the vibe for this record, I think. It went more from ‘singer/song-writer’ to more band-y songs.

You worked with legendary record producer Rick Rubin on the album, what was the dynamic like between everyone involved?

Yeah, rick is an absolute legend and not just in his career but as a person. He’s such a joy to be around and, particularly, at that time he was a good voice of grounded-ness. I think what makes Rick amazing is that Angus and I didn’t have any intention of getting back together and he could see something in us that, without even having really known our history, just felt like: “These guys have got music to make together and their voices, when they come together, it’s a good thing and I want to be a part of that”.

His enthusiasm and support, for that to happen, really made us believe in the record and really want to make it. I think that’s such a gift he gave to Angus and I because we’ve had such a good time making the record and touring it and hanging out again. You don’t know when you’re going to get those chances in life, sometime you think: “We’re on our solo paths now and who knows what will happen?”.

Yeah, it was really good and he’s a super-chill dude it’s just barefoot in the studio, just hanging out and he’s got a great knowledge of all the music throughout time so it’s incredible to hear him reference beats from old Talking Heads records, or whatever.  He just pulls stuff up and he’s like: “Have a listen to this!” before you in and play the song and you’re like: “Ok” and then you get inspired.

Your style tells haunting, personal stories with a charming, summery sound, how do you capture the tonal balance between them?

I don’t think it’s something you can put into words, it’s not like: “We’re trying to capture this, we’re doing that”. We write the way we write and I guess a lot of the direction as a record sound comes from the instruments that you’re using and the players that you play with so if you play with a certain drummer you’re going to get a certain feel.

I think because Rick put us with Chris Dave, who’s a phenomenal drummer, and, [because] Chris’ background is making hip-hop music, he brought a different groove to the record that we hadn’t explored before. Then you’ve got the songs that you’ve written and the lyrics that you’ve written, which are [from] the same way we’d always write, and combine that with other elements and I guess it finds its way from there.

You have played at some of world’s biggest music events, what are some of your tour highlights?

Sometimes it can be like the shows you don’t expect to be good but often we have shows where you rock up and everybody’s hungover, or tired, or just in a weird mood and it’s like: “Oh, let’s just skip the soundcheck” [laughs]. It’s just the laziest day and you’re in some sh*tty town, you’re in the sticks, and there doesn’t seem like there’s anywhere to kind of walk around and see nature and it’s raining. Then you get out on stage and you just have this amazing show like that’s unexpected.

I feel that sometimes, like all the big shows where you’re so excited because it’s this big thing and there’s this big line-up, it’s all this anticipation and expectation. The shows are always fun, I never really feel like we don’t have fun shows, but the really fun shows are when you don’t expect it to be good. Your like: “This could be batsh*it, it’s a bit of a weird venue” and then, as it turns out, it’s the coolest crowd and something funny happens and some person jumps up on stage and does something crazy. You just feel like: “Yeah, this has been good”.

Your latest tour kicks off in Perth next month, what do you hope to get out of this experience?

I don’t know, I guess for us it’s just so fun to tour Australia in summer, you know? Your get to go outdoors and it feels like a festival vibe and that’s joy and I think for us, as well, we kind of wanted to go on tour with a few bands and make it feel like a bit of a festival thing.

We’re huge fans of Cloud Control, so, when we put the line up together, when they joined us we were so pumped about the whole thing. We knew we wanted to be back in Australia for summer and check Christmas off and have a bit of a break. So this is the perfect way to have a break and then get amongst it 

Given the immense success of Australian musicians over the past few years, what makes our music so appealing to a wide audience?

I don’t know if it’s specific to a country like there’s so much success happening in all different countries with their artists. I think it’s just a particular moment in time where somebody’s music translates and it makes it in the world. It’s like asking: “What makes magic happen? When you meet somebody and you fall in love, why is it that particular person at that particular time?

It’s a combination of so many factors and I think that’s one of those really interesting things about music is sometimes you write a song and you think: “Oh that all means so much to me” but it’s not necessary the favourite song on the record for people to hear at gigs.

Sometimes the songs that you think is not as powerful or as important to you people really connect with. It’s such an unusual beast it’s like you can’t really ever answer that question and I think Australian artists are amazing but in the same way American artists are amazing and English artists. I don’t know to be honest.

It is certainly a tough industry to break into, and you have done a fantastic job, do you have any advice for anyone trying to get in today?

I get asked this question quite a lot, and sometimes it’s by people after shows and they’re starting-out musicians and they say: “Can you give me advice about what to do?”. I guess there are practical things you can do but, to be honest, I think for us it was such a…like we weren’t super ambitious when we started we just were playing open-mic. nights.

We happened to have an auntie who was a manager and she happened to be free at the time to take us in to meet people. It was a combination of luck, like the right time at the right place, and I guess my advice to people, because I don’t think there are any rules to how life works out, is to just really work at your craft and really love writing music. Love it for yourself because then, whether it works out or doesn’t work out, you have success in you life and you’re somebody that’s accomplishing pieces of art.

If it means that the people at open-mic. nights get to hear it, and that’s the only people that hear it, you’ve still contributed your art to the world and there is a lot of joy in that. I love playing to twenty people and I still do. Success I don’t think is particularly something to ‘create’ as if like: “When I’m rich and famous…” instead of just saying: “When I really write a great song, that’s when I feel really good”.

Angus & Julia Stone’s latest tour plays at:

Wednesday, 4th February 2015
Kings Park & Botanic Garden, Perth

Friday, 6th February 2015
Entertainment Centre, Darwin

Saturday, 7th February 2015
Entertainment Centre, Darwin

Tuesday, 10th February 2015
Convention Centre, Cairns

Wednesday, 11th February 2015
Entertainment Centre, Townsville

Friday, 13th February 2015
Riverstage, Brisbane

Friday, 20th February 2015
Sydney Opera House Forecourt, Sydney

Tuesday, 24th February 2015
Aec Theatre, Adelaide

Thursday, 26th February 2015
Costa Hall, Geelong

Friday, 27th February 2015
Margaret Court Arena, Melbourne

Saturday, 28th February 2015
Odeon Theatre, Hobart

Photo Credit: Julia Stone Facebook Page

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