There are a few reasons why the first single from Julia Stone’s upcoming solo album felt like such a radiant revelation. From its opening sounds – curiously glowing bells emerging from a halting, Latin-licked breakbeat, along with a speak-singing narrative about dancing under a streetlight – we realised the cosy folk blanket under which Stone and her brother Angus had previously cooked up their bucolic hits had been flung to the floor (with all due affection).
Break is an unabashedly sensual, neon-lit celebration of new romance, and the track’s video makes it immediately clear that movement and physicality are vital feathers in Julia’s cap. Dancing was, she says, an enormous part of her childhood. “I was never particularly good at it, but I really enjoyed it,” she smiles, detailing the various classes she and her siblings were encouraged to explore. “Mum always said that [creative classes were] her way of making sure we had as many opportunities as possible to figure out what we liked, so that by the end of school we had a really clear understanding of which things would make up a satisfying life. I found through my teenage years that the real memories of joy were going out and dancing – and often to dance music. I really loved the Boiler Room at the Big Day Out; it was like, the best place on the planet.”
The singer-songwriter turned up at the LA studio of revered choreographer Andrew Winghart (who’s variously worked with Solange, Lorde and Billie Eilish) to discuss the Break clip; very quickly, one particular mannerism of Julia’s physical expression became the cornerstone of the routine: “I felt with music with Angus there wasn’t always a huge opportunity to dance, but I did find there was something happening on stage that just happens naturally now: when I wasn’t playing guitar, my hands would tell the story of the song,” Julia smiles. “I remember actually watching back a show we had to approve, and I was really surprised at how my hands were moving, ‘cos I didn’t know that I was doing it.”
The result is the incredible synchronised arm-and-hand movements of professional dancers, wearing bright elbow-length gloves, who flow around Julia’s own movements on the sticky-sweet streets of Mexico City.
It’s something Julia couldn’t have envisioned happening back in early 2020, when she was lodged in a musical pickle; she and co-writer Thomas Bartlett had 13 songs they were “really proud of” – but found they couldn’t quite bring into their final phase. “I’m trying to think of a good analogy,” Julia says. “You know when you’re cleaning your house, and – I love cleaning my house, so this might not relate! – it’s like you’re having a good time doing it, and you get to a certain point where there is a little bowl of stuff that is left, with the keys and the bobby pins and things in it, and you just won’t do that little bowl. It’s a weird analogy but it’s what comes to mind; that ‘bowl’ at the end, we just couldn’t get to the point where we made choices to actually finish it, to go, ‘This is the deal, this is done, and let’s mix it.'”
What Bartlett suggested next would shape Sixty Summers into the brew of vivid pop, languid sensuality, and astute lyricism it became. “I came in one day and Thomas said, ‘Let’s talk to Annie, because I think she’s going to know how to finish this record,'” Julia says.
‘Annie’ is Annie Clark, AKA St. Vincent – the celebrated multi-Grammy-winning artist whose Midas touch in the production arena was only just being uncovered. “I love Annie as a person; I really respect her as an artist, and I admire what she does,” Julia says, “and she had just started getting into production with the Sleater-Kinney record [2019’s The Center Won’t Hold]. I thought, ‘This would be amazing.’ She’s so on-point with hearing things, knowings things that are poignant.” Clark listened to the material, and immediately said she’d take the job. Her playing can be identified across the album, such as the crazy-angular guitar jabs in Free, and the vocal yelps in stand-out Substance.
One of the other luminaries involved with the album is The National’s Matt Berninger, who features on We All Have. It must have been an incredible experience, we suggest, to hear a voice like Matt’s – which we are all so used to hearing as the captain of his own ship – singing Julia’s own material. “Matt is one of those people with a formidable voice, and it’s really interesting because he’s probably the most gentle, giving person in terms of who works in the music world,” says Stone. “He’s just so generous… what I’m trying to say is: knowing that about him makes it really natural to hear [his voice in tandem with Stone’s] because of course he’s just so happy to be there, to support this song. And he says things where you go, ‘How is Matt saying this about the music and about me?’ It’s so moving, and so supportive. I feel like this record has been really uplifting in that way… every artist has a level of thinking, at times, ‘I don’t know if what I do is essential or valuable; I do it because I love it and because it feels good to do.’ And then you have these people that you really admire coming and saying, ‘What you do is great, and I want to be involved.’”
Perhaps the person whose opinion on Stone’s new direction is most interesting is one we haven’t even touched on yet: her beloved brother, Angus. “I was actually a little bit nervous to share [the tracks] with him just because it was so different,” Stone smiles. “I played him Break, Unreal, and Who, and he was like, ‘What the hell? These are so different, it doesn’t sound like anything else you’ve done.’ I think that was a big part of my decision [to release Break first] as well. I loved Break and I loved the feeling of colour in the song, but it was also Angus’ reaction to my song which was super positive.
“We’re big fans of each others’ brains and writing, and I don’t think there’s ever been a song he’s played to me that he’s written that I haven’t thought is remarkable. He’s an extraordinary songwriter.”
Sixty Summers by Julia Stone is out April 30 via EMI.
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