Julia Stone on working with St Vincent and changing her sound: ‘This feels like a first record’
Fifteen years into her career, a new chapter is beginning for Julia Stone.
You may know the singer-songwriter as half of Angus & Julia Stone, the Australian duo behind dreamy folk-pop songs like Big Jet Plane and Chateau. Together, the brother-sister act found incredible success, with four albums and multi-platinum sales. But after their last LP, 2017’s Snow, their time making music together had “come to an end”. Angus pursued his new indie rock project Dope Lemon and over the four years that followed, Julia assembled a solo album she eventually titled Sixty Summers.
Sixty Summers is not actually Stone’s first solo release; there was The Memory Machine in 2010 and By The Horns in 2012. But, she says, “[those albums] felt like songs that I could have put on an Angus & Julia record. And this feels like a first record.”
Stone’s reinvention has been a long time coming. She and her brother never intended to be a double act – they only paired up because their aunt, music industry veteran Cathy Oates, suggested they put out an EP together. That release, Chocolate & Cigarettes, was an immediate hit that sealed their future. But collaboration didn’t come naturally.
“We both felt like solo artists that were playing music together. We really had to mould ourselves to work together,” she tells Guardian Australia down the phone from her car, on a drive back to her home in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda. “That was one of the initial things that Angus and I both struggled with – and openly struggled with, with each other: we felt we had started out as independent songwriters.”
Initially the siblings wrote separately, each contributing six or seven songs to an album. It wasn’t until super producer Rick Rubin put them in the same studio for their self-titled 2014 LP that they began writing together.
“But I think because we felt like we accomplished so much out of those last two records we also felt we were ready to explore our own unique sounds,” Stone says. “This record, for me, is the sounds I’ve been wanting to make for a long time.”
Sixty Summers is bigger, brighter, more shimmering than Angus & Julia songs, swapping timid folk for fluorescent, late-night pop. That change was steered, in part, by one of Stone’s key collaborators: Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent.
Stone and Clark met by chance.
“I met her at Helsinki airport through a mutual friend of ours, Matt [Johnson], who was drumming with her at the time,” Stone recalls. “He was walking along with this incredibly beautiful woman and I ran up to him and gave him a big squeeze. And he said, ‘Annie meet Julia, Julia meet Annie. You guys should be friends.’”
“I gave her my number and she sent me a message that said ‘Friend’. And so we became friends.”
The friendship became a professional relationship when Stone and another collaborator, Thomas Bartlett, asked Clark to help them finish the album. Clark whittled their pile of 30 demos down to the 13 tracks that made it onto Sixty Summers and spent the year that followed polishing the songs; she proved an invaluable presence.
“She’s very smart, very hardworking and incredibly warm and kind. But she also demands a lot in a way that I found really helpful,” Stone says of Clark. “I can sometimes be a little bit like, ‘Well, I think that lyric is probably good enough, it says what I’m trying to say’, and she would always pull me up on that and say, ‘You can do better. You can go deeper. Find a better way to say that because there is a better way to say that.’ And I loved that about Annie, because I feel like she saw the potential in me.”
Stone also changed her approach to writing.
“In the past, most of my song writing was dominated by expressing the pain of human interaction, the grief that follows loss, and understanding that loss,” she says. “I have used music as a bit of a coping mechanism.”
On this album, she wrote more about “conceptual stuff” around what it means to be human, with songs that are “a lot about celebration and fun” and love letters to the immensity of life. The video for the early single Dance, where actors Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover play a couple going on a first date in their 70s, is a case in point.
“Experience is not reserved for the young,” Stone says. “It’s something that you have access to at any moment in your life.”
Making Sixty Summers also brought back the joy of songwriting for Stone, which had been lost towards the tail end of the years with her brother.
“We were touring so much that the fun of making music had become less easy to connect with,” Stone recalls. “And I got into making music because it is fun.”
Stone doesn’t rule out making music with Angus again, but the foreseeable future is solo. “We really have both found our own voices,” she says. “And they’re very different to what we do together.”
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