“Nobody cares about you as much as you do. After years of being in the music industry, it’s like everything has to come from you. You have to create it, you have to love it, you have to care about it. Because if you don’t, nobody else will.”
Julia Stone isn’t worried about being solo again. Or that worried what any of us have to say.
She will be back with her younger brother, Angus, in their on again/off again duo of 15 years, at some point (actually, pretty soon if rumours are true). She knows the albums she makes on her own, like this year’s eclectic and slinky Sixty Summers are more niche products than the mainstream love affairs of Angus & Julia Stone. She’s fine with that too.
She’s even fine hearing that editors have been known to knock back stories on her on the basis that she is nice, makes good music, but is a little bit straight and dull. Someone who has never really said something provocative or startling.
Even with this provocation Stone responds politely that “in the context of where people misunderstand me and they think I’m just laid-back - and there are parts of me that are laid-back but I’m also someone who has a very complex inner world that isn’t something that you can explain in a conversation - I try to gently just say, it’s not as simple as that.”
Is this image Julia Stone though, or is it that everybody treats her with the assumption that she’s some arty bohemian type we assume is another holistic, off with the pixies vegetarian (she’s definitely no vegetarian, she says) with nothing really to say?
Listen to her songs, at the very least her solo songs, and you get anger and desire, adventurous and sensual music, strong emotions and nuanced considerations. Forget big jet planes, those are the parts of Stone that are the most interesting.
“To be honest, those are the parts of my stuff that I find really interesting,” says Stone, up from Melbourne and sitting in a Surry Hills office during one of those breaks in lockdowns that seem ever more distant and hard to remember. “Life is a little bit, or at least it has been for me, [that] you get pulled along and sometimes you just let whatever is pulling along, pull you along because you don’t know how to make choices or take turns.”
To a certain extent, that’s how she disappeared into the multiple ARIA Award-winning thing that is Angus & Julia Stone. As she tells it, never having been particularly close growing up, the sibling pairing was more a matter of coincidence than planning when people started noticing that not only did they each write songs but they sang well together. Two different people, two years apart, became one entity, and the only safe place was in the middle.
“For us we were following that path, but it felt like we had different things to say and how do we say something together when we are such different people?” says Stone, relaxed today in a loose white T, chunky pale blue sneakers matching vividly thick eyeshadow. “Imagine, sitting with your family member in an interview, being asked questions and trying to find a way to express yourself that also works for that person and not throw them under the bus.”
Did that mean closing off avenues of expression, artistically and personally?
“For both of those we were constantly navigating a way to be that made sense in a brother/sister dynamic, which didn’t really make sense to us,” she says. “I think what’s nice that happened to Angus over the years was that finally, we were like, how about we make the Angus & Julia project something that really is us together? So we’ll write songs together but they are always the world of what is the best of Angus and Julia Stone meeting.
“What ended up being our most honest record was [2017’s] Snow, because we wrote it all together, but I think we both felt we had other things we wanted to say.”
On her own, Stone is more comfortable talking about anxiety and insecurity, of her volunteering at the phone counselling service, Anxiety Recovery Centre of Victoria (“for people like me”), of sex and letting loose, of dodgy ashrams & even dodgier gurus (where she learnt she had a “spidey sense” for the slimier men who abound). Of pretty much anything that has mostly seemed hidden in her public life.
“That’s what anxiety really is, a disconnect between what you feel and what you think and trying to manage that,” she says. But how does an album of sensuality and rhythm like Sixty Summers, recorded in New York, reflect her finding that balance?
“I’m a very emotional person, in the sense that I am really comfortable talking about those elements of my life and my way in the world and I just feel like with [Sixty Summers], particularly working with Annie [Clark, aka St Vincent] and Thomas [Bartlett, the two co-producers], they’re both those people too, they don’t want to hide away from that stuff,” Stone says. “Life is brutal, and savage, and it’s like you are going for something and to get to that place you have to bend yourself into all these weird positions and contort yourself to get there. That’s the choice. That’s what it feels like.”
The contortions are quite physical on this album where Stone sings lines calling on a potential lover to “light the fire in me”, describing an aroused woman as “the girl with the gold under skin”, and pressing for the feel of skin against skin on a dance floor. This is a woman of 37, not some sweet girl-next-door, and rather than hiding away, writing a song about desire is a pretty vulnerable place to be.
“Making this, in the room co-writing with Thomas, Dan Hume, with Annie, with these people, it was a celebration of sensuality and sexuality. There was a fun-ness to it,” Stone says. “I’m someone who wants to go to a club and rub my body up against other humans and dance, have been like that since I was a teenager. I wanted to be in the world, feeling humans and being connected. That’s why I think relationships are where I grow because intimate relationships are the place where I have learnt the most about myself.”
When things go well or when things go wrong? Either way, Stone wasn’t going to be allowed to let those lessons slip by even if she wanted to.
“I think that stuff, that really meaty stuff that happens in life - and no one in their 30s has not had trauma of some kind and hasn’t got some element of their brain working in a way that’s challenging - when you turn up to a studio with someone like Thomas or Annie, they are like, tell me more about that.”
Far from intimidating with demands to tell more, that open environment for the four years she dipped into and out of writing the album, was actually the safest place for Stone. So much so that when her last tour with Angus ended, there was no thought of going anywhere else but back to Bartlett’s bolthole.
“My life had been touring living in a bus with 15 blokes and I felt like when that finished everyone went back to their families and I didn’t know where to belong. I felt like Thomas was the person on the planet that really celebrated the parts of me that nobody else knew about,” she says. “So I booked a ticket to New York and I took my suitcases straight to the studio, where he always is - he never leaves - and I showed up and he poured me a glass of wine, wrapped his arms around me. I spent the days there and if he was working on another project I’d just hang out with whoever it was.”
There is one limit to all this Stone openness, this place where she declares that “my favourite saying at the moment is ‘truth be told’” because “it’s truth, and truth is always going to come out”. And that place is the music industry where her “spidey sense” has kept her out of trouble, though sometimes only just.
Raise #MeToo, or any of the recent ructions in the Australian industry that has seen several high profile men publicly embroiled in controversy, and Stone pulls back.
“Unfortunately, publicly, I don’t say a lot about stuff because I worked so hard to make music and to have a career and to be able to sustain myself making music, I don’t want the only thing I talk about to be men’s bad behaviour,” she says. “And that’s what happens as a woman: eventually you start saying these things, maybe pointing out names, and every interview you’re asked about this person, and that’s another win for a man.”
Refusing to be pushed on it, or the advice and support she’s given to female artists and colleagues she knows have suffered at the hands of sometimes rampant misogyny, Stone will only say that she’s a believer that “life sucks and life is beautiful, both things are true”.
Which is kinda the holistic, off with the pixies, vegetarian hippie business Julia Stone of our assumptions. But hey, she says, if that’s what you want to believe, she can live with that.
A version of this story ran originally in The Sun-Herald.