Success isn’t new for George Maple, the nom-de-music of writer/producer/singer Jess Higgs, but exposing the “dirty stuff” of fear and desire and ambition inside us all, is. With a debut album in her hands, she talks letting go and taking charge.
TURNING OVER A SENSUAL NEW LEAF
As cosmopolitan, or even worldly, as she sounds on Lover, her debut album of hard beats, shiny R&B surfaces and roiling emotions, Jess Higgs grew up on Sydney’s northern beaches in what even the locals think of as a sleepy village.
And while technically she has a room in Los Angeles and London and her parents’ house in Sydney, Higgs likes to say that “I am currently homeless”.
She laughs and acknowledges it may not be an ideal arrangement, but it would allow her, if she were of a mind, to say something like ‘oh I must have left in my Los Angeles pad or my London home’, which isn’t the worst humble brag.
Though that may end soon for the artist usually known as George Maple, a name that was both androgynous and deliberately anonymous for someone who was a still not common amalgam of female singer, songwriter and producer. A name that could mean anything anywhere in the world.
“I’m finally reaching that point where I’m at a bit of a crossroads with it all,” Higgs says. “I was 15 when I said to mum I want to go on exchange to Paris, so we found the cheapest possible exchange I could do and I did lots of errands and saved up money to go. [Since then] I’ve never had a problem with just picking up and going somewhere which probably says that this job suits me.
“[However] I am finding now that there is a sense of disconnection: I feel, like, lonely a lot of the time because I don’t feel like I have a sense of community in any one spot. The next few years will be interesting to see what I decide to do.”
What it certainly will involve is work. And discipline. If she a peripatetic artist, Higgs also knows the value of some things being fixed, such as daily rituals - “every morning I get up, go to a coffee shop and write something on my laptop” – and a work relationship.
“I realised early on that the most important person in my life, creatively, is an engineer,” and she bases herself for the final stages of her work with her favourite collaborators in Los Angeles.
“I didn’t mean to be a producer; it just happened. It wasn’t something I ever thought about, it was something I was advised to learn about,” says Higgs. “I still don’t consider myself a producer; I write and compose and then I work with people to get the sonics right. I hear it all in my head but I don’t necessarily have all the engineering skills to be able to do those things. “
Though Higgs may have in a sense become an accidental producer, the wisdom of the move has been evident for some time. Unlike any number of singers and songwriters before her, Higgs/Maple has the final say, is the loudest voice. Ask Beyonce what difference that makes.
“Actually, two of my engineers in LA also work with Beyoncé and I’m always asking about her process because obviously she is incredible with what she’s done for culture and women. They say that she has a very similar process in a way: she sits there and directs.
“That’s given me the confidence to think that I’m not crazy because when you start out in this industry, people are like ‘we’re going to put together with this person, we’re going to put you with this producer all this writer’ and you get shopped around. I remember thinking, this is not what I want to do and I don’t think this is going to work for me.”
With some successes behind her, Higgs is able to take the command position these days and bring in who she needs, when she needs them. “I love working like that, that’s what I wanted to do the whole time. But it took a while to get there.”
As with any young artist, but especially a woman in an industry still set up like the boys’ club it was for decades, Higgs has had to walk that line between demanding respect, because it won’t come naturally for many, and having it come eventually from her achievements.
“I’ve always been skills orientated. When I was 15 and had the first person try to sign me, I saw this music lawyer and he sat me down and said, your skills are everything. You have to keep honing your skills, so learn to produce, keep writing, keep performing, get better at everything,” she remembers.
“It was some of the best advice I’ve ever received because I know if I’m able to have a whole lot of skills, I can walk into a situation and it’s easy to communicate with everyone in the room because I have a wider understanding.”
Beyonce and Kanye are for Higgs the gold standard in creating an atmosphere, directing and using resources available to realise a vision. That is, being in charge.
“Every time I talk to someone who has worked with them, or being an actual situation, the way that they describe the process is very similar to the way I work, which gives me more confidence,” she says. “When people say you should get an executive producer or you should get this, I say, I’ll get that if I want, if I think that’s the right decision for the song, but this is trusting your skills and knowing that at the end of the day you are an artist.”
There’s something else Higgs has in common with (modern) Beyonce – beyond a strong visual sense that doesn’t just align with the music but expands on it – and that’s a frank exploration of desire and its physical expression. You know, sex.
This album title, Lover, is not a throwaway. These songs are, she says, “a series of intimate letters”, with intent. But what was that intent? Something more than sex actually.
“With this record I put it together intuitively and then I spent a lot of time thinking about ‘where was I, what was I doing, what was I thinking about?’ and I think I realised it was me going back and being objective about something that was subconscious,” she says.
“During that process it was this realisation ‘oh wow, you’re really fascinated with intimacy, you really like that don’t you? There’s something about the energy that you access in that moment that is very connected to George Maple and what you believe George Maple represents for this record.’ That’s where it was.”
She describes the time leading to the recording of Lover as a period of “having all these wild experiences”, including strip club visits in Miami, but also pushing herself to understand more. Not just about herself but how others work, something which appears in several interludes on Lover where others’ voices explore intimacy.
“Intimacy to me was a really interesting concept because intimacy is not just sexuality. The reason I chose the name Lover was because I googled ‘what does it mean to be a lover?’ and it’s meant to be a mistress. And I was like, that’s not what I think when I think of lover. I like the idea that I could fill in some blanks there.
“For me, intimacy is this crazy thing that happens when people come into your intimate space: people go crazy. It’s not necessarily someone you encountering sexually, it can be someone who is coming into your creative space.”
As she’d already explained, that latter definition is something that had come to matter a lot and Higgs admits that “I find it hard to let people into my creative space just like a lot of people find it difficult to let people into their emotional space”. The experiences are analogous.
“It’s like this little pocket that exists in every human and when you walk into it it’s almost like Pandora’s Box: it’s all the dirty stuff, the pain, the rejection, the lust and desire, everything,” says Higgs.
“I was fascinated with the amount of times in life we experience this kind of collision of intimate spaces.”
The result was Lover. The evidence of that “dirty stuff” in all of us is right there before us.
Lover is out now through EMI. George Maple will tour in 2018.
The Triffid, Brisbane, February 16
170 Russell, Melbourne, February 21
Metro, Sydney, February 22
The Gov, Adelaide, February 23
Villa, Perth, February 24