Making a connection with Australian singer and songwriter Julia Jacklin

Andy Downing
Julia Jacklin

Penning the songs that make up sophomore album Crushing, released earlier this year, Australian singer and songwriter Julia Jacklin wasn’t feeling particularly confident. But rather than turning out tracks that reflected her more fractured state, Jacklin adopted a more hopeful approach.

“Sometimes it feels like you’re writing from a perspective of who you wish you were in that moment. If you’re going through something, it's like you’re writing about the way you hope you’re going to feel soon, which is a lot more strong and powerful and understanding of what has happened, even if you don’t feel like that at the time,” said Jacklin, who headlines a concert at Ace of Cups on Thursday, Nov. 14.

That’s not to say the resulting songs are particularly buoyant; Jacklin favors emotional complexity, and Crushing lives up to its title, addressing weighty issues such as body autonomy, the difficulty of extracting someone from your life and the sense of personal rediscovery that can accompany the end of a relationship. At the same time, Jacklin’s narrators, after taking time to assess and ruminate, tend to move decisively. “Maybe I’ll see you in a supermarket sometime,” the singer offers on “Turn Me Down” in the midst of extricating herself from a romance that has run its course.

Elsewhere, witness the strident manner in which the central character breaks up with her boyfriend on the brooding “Body,” tossing her luggage on the airport tarmac and offering up a brusque, two-sentence brush off: “I’m gonna leave you. I’m not a good woman when you’re around.” Or the independent streak recovered by the woman at the center of the effortlessly propulsive “You Were Right.” “Started listening to your favorite band/The night I stopped listening to you,” Jacklin sings. “You were always trying to force my hand/But now I’m listening because I want to.”

Expect to find Crushing among Andy’s top 10 albums of 2019, coming to this December: Sign up for our daily newsletter

In concert, Jacklin said the intensity of her performance is aided by the relative newness of the material. Since Crushing was written and recorded over the course of 2018, the musician said she can still easily access the emotions in the songs, making sure she’s coming to them with genuine feeling and respect, as she explained. It’s a welcome change from Jacklin’s experience touring on 2016 debut Don’t Let the Kids Win for more than two years, a portion of which she spent feeling completely detached from the material.

“By the end you feel like a cabaret performer who is performing a version of yourself from the past,” Jacklin said. “It felt so weird to have people connecting with these songs that I did not connect with at all anymore.”

Coming off that tour and preparing to begin work on her second album, Jacklin’s initial instinct was to make everything bigger. “It was like, ‘OK, I’ve got to get a string section and I have to work with some hotshot L.A. [producer],” she said. “I signed [with a label] thinking that’s what it is to make a second record: to be bigger and shoot higher. But I think that if you’re following that idea, that’s when you can get into trouble. … Doing press for the first album, basically every interview was like, ‘Oh, what are you going to do for the second one? Do you think you can up the ante?’"

Instead, Jacklin stripped things back with Crushing, leaving ample space in the songs and self-editing to a degree that every musical note, every word she sings, feels essential to the recording, pointing to the influence of artists like Bill Callahan and Neil Young on her approach. “With the kind of music I write, you don’t want to smother it with perfection or production,” she said. “You might think you’re doing service to the songs by making them grander, but, actually, the more you add, the more you take away from how people are gonna be able to connect with it.”

Growing up in Blue Mountains, Australia, Jacklin viewed music and writing as separate pursuits, penning short stories and poetry while also studying classical singing. “If I was going to pursue singing, I was going to be an opera singer, and if I was going to pursue writing I was going to be a journalist or a novelist,” she said. “But as soon as someone taught me a couple chords on guitar it was like, ‘Oh, yeah. Obviously the smartest move here would be to combine these.’”

Jacklin said her earliest musical forays felt vaguely out of character, though, informed by U.S. and British imports such as Fleet Foxes, Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons. “I liked a lot of those artists at the time, though I never connected with them lyrically, I think because when you’re Australian and listening to music where people are really romanticizing the American railroads or the London parks you don’t have much context for how to make songwriting close to home or close to you,” she said. “So initially I was just writing these really vague songs about things I didn’t really know about, where you’re just kind of borrowing the tropes of folk music and singing about the rivers and the wind and the mountains. I would play these songs at open mic nights and no one would care, because I didn’t feel anything from them, so how could I expect anyone else to?”

Eventually, though, Jacklin discovered songwriters such as Leonard Cohen, who opened her eyes to the idea that songs could be complex, incorporating elements of humor and sadness and beauty with a personal narrative. “Discovering him, along with a few other artists, it was like, ‘OK, I think I know what I’m aspiring to now, anyway. I know what the goal posts are instead of just feeling lost,’” she said. “That’s when I started to write songs that actually meant something to me, and therefore meant things to other people.”

Ace of Cups

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14

2619 N. High St., Old North

ALSO PLAYING: Christian Lee Hutson

Julia Jacklin