Interview: Julia Stone on Sixty Summers inspiration, Susan Sarandon, bushfires & mental health passion

Julia Stone

Julia Stone‘s keenly anticipated latest studio album Sixty Summers is out on Friday, teaming up with producer Thomas Bartlett and St Vincent aka Annie Clark, along with cameos from The National‘s Matt Berninger plus Hollywood stars Susan Sarandon and Danny Glover.

Stone’s latest LP, which comes nine years after her previous solo album – 2012’s By The Horns – was largely recorded and produced in 2019 in the United States, coming between stints in New York and Los Angeles.

The third single from the album, “Dance” was released in October last year with a captivating video clip featuring two people in their 70s, Sarandon and Glover going out on a date, presumably arranged via an online app. Stone says: “I couldn’t have thought of two better people to tell that story.”

Of course, she had been touring alongside brother Angus Stone off the back of their 2017 effort Snow until she casually started working on the new album alongside Bartlett.

The bulk of that work was done before the COVID-19 pandemic, although Stone’s passion project Songs For Australia, where she organised a collaboration album for the bushfire crisis, including covers from The National, Dope Lemon, Damien Rice, Kurt Vile, Martha Wainwright and many more, kept her busy.

Deeply affected by the bushfires and grounded by the inability to tour during the pandemic Stone (who is trained as a mental health counsellor) volunteered as a hotline support worker, leading to her recently partnering with NRMA Insurance and Lifeline.

The partnership saw her last month release a poem discussing the ongoing mental health impact caused by the Black Summer bushfires, which feel forgotten under the shadow of the pandemic.

With the new album coming plus all those topics, The AU Review caught up with Julia to discuss.

Firstly, let’s talk about the new album. It’s been a few years in the making so can you talk to me about that whole extended process and what the inspiration is behind it?

Yeah, initially there was no plan for it to be a record. It had to do with me making an excuse to come to New York and spend time with Thomas, who is a really good friend, somebody who I love being around, and he loves being around me.

I finished a tour and booked a ticket to New York. Thomas has his new studio in midtown Manhattan. We’d just hang out and write songs. Initially, it was just about that. The first song we did together was ‘We All Have’. The process was mostly about having fun. Some days, we’d just watch movies and not write anything.

It was around that time that we’d wrapped up touring Snow, the conversation came up with Thomas and I. “what are we going to do with these songs? We’ve got so many? What kind of record is this?’ We both weren’t sure. That was when Thomas suggested, why don’t I chat to Annie (Clark, aka St Vincent) and see if she’d be interested in jumping on board and producing it with us. That was then the process of when it really started to become a record. With Annie and her attitude and how she works, both Thomas and I showed up to finish it.

You would have got close to finishing it up just before the world stopped. And that obviously delayed a lot of stuff?

A lot of 2019 was between New York and LA. Then of course, all sorts of stuff happened. The bushfires happened in Australia and I got pre-occupied with creating the Songs for Australia record for those months at the start of 2020, and then once that was out in the world I had thought we’ll put out Sixty Summers but things then took another turn, which none of us expected.

I want to talk about Songs for Australia in a little bit, but I’ll stick with the album for now. You’d initially written 30 songs, how’d you go about that whittling it down to 15 tracks and and finding that cohesion of an album?

One of the benefits is that we did a lot of recording in different studios to different projects. That was the first time we had actually worked like that. In the past a record like Down The Way, that was recorded in probably seven or eight different studios. Eight songs at different places at different times.

I had already understood that what makes something cohesive isn’t the studio, the microphones, it’s about a feeling and an intention. I think with this record, having Annie’s involvement, obviously, Thomas and Annie both as musicians brought to the table a particular sound. That sound is through every song. Having Annie play guitar on a bunch of the tracks really created a unifying feeling. I was using a vocal effect that also tied the record together that I hadn’t done before and that that also made it feel cohesive.

Also, the song-writing was a particular style that they all work together. I guess you hope at the end of the day that there are enough elements that tie it together that it feels like a body of work and then let the mix engineer match it all up.

The sound of some of the singles which have come out does feel a bit different to your previous stuff. It’s been labelled ‘synth pop’. How would you describe the sound?

That’s probably a good way to describe it (haha). It’s very synth-heavy. I’m always terrible at describing what I think the music sounds like. Not because I’m not into describing it. I just feel like I don’t have the right vocabulary to do any justice to the music. I think what you said is probably in the ballpark of what I would say.

The thing that I liked about finishing this record, when I got to the end of it, I was thinking ‘what is this?’ I don’t know if it’s pop. There’s a bit of folk style writing in there. There are some pretty avant-garde sounds. I liked that it was really unusual mix of stuff. I think because I didn’t know where it fits in the world in my head that made me feel excited.

See that’s us journalists’ obsession, defining music and genres, so that’s probably a question you don’t need to worry about, as opposed to us!?

Haha, it’s challenging me. It’s good!

What’s the album title Sixty Summers about?

It’s the second track on the album. It’s about a period of my life, back in my 20s, when I was going back to Australia between tours to spend summers on the Northern Beaches of Sydney. In that period of time, I felt like it was coming and going pretty quickly, like it’s summer again. I was out one night with a friend of mine, we were having one of those magical nights, she turns to me and says ‘can you believe we only have 60 summers left?’ I think hadn’t really comprehended how brief my experience was going to be until that moment, because I just felt those three years of coming and going had gone really quickly. I better start doing it exactly how I want to do it and doing it in the best possible way.

I re-wrote some of the lyrics to talk about people who haven’t figured out in their youth that it’s about being with people you love and it’s not about money and fame and all of those things that we are told we need to strive for in life. The second chorus is about people who have chosen the wrong way, the way that maybe doesn’t lead to ultimate happiness. It’s not going to be forever so make sure you’re showing up for your life in a way that feels right for you.

Is that an underlying theme on the album?

There are definitely a few songs that touch on that idea, we all have a similar realm of having the capacity to be OK in what is potentially really troubling times in life. Being able to sit in the discomfort of being human and having compassion for yourself and for other people.

A song like ‘Easy’ is a bit of a song to myself wishing that I could be an easier person for other people. Maybe all of the songs have elements of that. That’s what I’m thinking about at the moment, about somebody who’s showing up for a relationship for the completely wrong reasons and saying to somebody I am not looking for that, I’m looking for somebody who wants something deeper. I haven’t thought about the connection of that through the record but now you’ve asked me, I’m going to go through every track and find how that fits into Sixty Summers.

Moving elsewhere, I’ve seen the ‘Dance’ video, which features Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon. How did that come about?

I mean that is full credit to Jessie (Hill) who is my friend from the Northern Beaches of Sydney, who is an amazing director in LA now. When I played her ‘Dance’, she was like ‘it’s just so romantic’ and ‘we have to tell a beautiful love story’.

We were talking about the extraordinary lives that our grandparents were living, how sexy, eccentric and wonderful they are and how you never really see that portrayed in music videos, this period of your life where we always see falling in love is reserved for the youth. That feeling is something that is absolutely accessible at any point in your life.

We thought how great to tell a story of two people in their 70s, going on Bumble or Tinder or whatever, and getting excited about meeting up with somebody and imagine all of the sexiness in life experience, knowing what you want, and knowing who you are.

We started talking about who would be extraordinary iconic people to portray that. Danny was the first person we both were talking about. We’re both huge fans of Danny Glover and grew up watching all these films. Jessie went to a casting agent. A couple of days later, Jessie got a call saying Danny Glover wants to jump on a phone call with you to talk about the project. We were unbelievably excited.

Then Susan, of course, is somebody that we also grew up loving her films. Being inspired by her as a woman in her craft. All of it, like Rocky Horror Picture Show, it’s insane her body of work. Danny knew Susan from political rallies. They were friends. Jessie and Danny were chatting about who the woman was going to be that he was going on a date with? Jessie said, ‘well I have a bunch of ideas, but who would you love to go on a date with in your dream life, which sexy, beautiful, wonderful woman?’ He hands down said Susan Sarandon.

Susan loved the idea and loved the song. Two months later, in the middle of the pandemic we were shooting in New York City. It was pretty wild and wonderful. It’s amazing to see it come together. I couldn’t have thought of two better people to tell that story.

Matt Berninger from The National also features with vocals on the third track ‘We All Have’. You’ve had a bit to do with them now?

I’ve known the guys from The National for years now. There’s always been a connection between me and the band. On my second solo record, I covered their song ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’. I was mostly close with (The National guitarist) Bryce (Dessner).

He came into the studio during the making of ‘Break’ and he played some guitar on it. The record was pretty much finished when Thomas sent me a message saying ‘I really think Matt should sing ‘We All Have’.’ Any idea from Thomas is a good idea and also anything with Matt on it is amazing. It was wonderful.

That happened while The National were on tour. I think Matt recorded that in a hotel room somewhere with their sound engineer and sent it back. The vocals were perfect and wonderful.

Matt was one of the first people who responded to my email about Songs For Australia. He’s just a very generous, always so generous, very sweet. Very lucky to know such talented and lovely humans. He and all of them, everybody loves collaborating, it’s a nice part of being in the business.

That ties in well to the bushfires stuff, which I know is close to your heart. The poem came out last month. Can you talk to me about that, as I know you’ve done a bit of work in the mental health space with NRMA Insurance and Lifeline?

The poem was more connected to my awareness around mental health because of my work over the last few years with the Anxiety Recovery Centre Victoria. When Lifeline reached out and asked if I’d write a poem about mental health in relation to the bushfire crisis, I felt that I was well equipped to do that, because I had a little bit more experience and understanding around mental health issues. That was a lot to do with finding during the pandemic that I wanted to do something else other than music, because I knew that the dominant part of my life had been live touring and that wasn’t going to happen for a long time. What else could I contribute? I thought I’m good at talking to people so maybe I could offer something in that way. My sister is studying psychology, she suggested I train to be a volunteer for the Helpline she works at. That was it, I applied and did the training. I learned a lot. I’ve been taking calls. I do a shift every week with the helpline.

I think combining the fact that I was very affected, as many of us were, by the bushfire crisis, that was my first attempt at being involved and understanding more about that with Songs For Australia, covering ‘Beds Are Burning’, talking to the Firesticks Alliance about cultural burning, and being a little bit more aware around Indigenous wisdom, around bushfire management and land management.

Then, of course, all the other organizations that are doing extraordinary things that were involved with ‘Songs For Australia’. It seemed like a perfect collaboration to then have the mental health element. I was unaware that Lifeline was receiving over 400 calls a day to their dedicated helpline for people who were still struggling with post-traumatic shock from the bushfires. That affected me and made me want to get involved in that project as well.

Great stuff! We’ll wrap it up there but good luck with the album release and thanks for your time!

Amazing. It’s really lovely talking with you. I really appreciate the support!

Sixty Summers by Julia Stone is out on Friday 30 April.

Find out more about Julia Stone on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Ben Somerford

Aussie freelance journalist, sports, music, entertainment, top 10 lists. Take beach pics too.

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