Track by Track: Jess Chalker takes us through her debut album, Hemispheres

Jess Chalker

Australia’s Jess Chalker has dropped her debut album, Hemispheres, an album that traverses the full gamut of human emotions. It explores the dichotomy between depression, hopefulness, self-doubt, self-love and more. We premiered an earlier single from the album, “Don’t Fight It” and have been keenly awaiting the release of Hemispheres.

Whilst it’s her debut album, the London-based singer has an enviable list of achievements to her name prior to this release. She fronted the new-wave duo, We Are The Brave, and was part of the Grammy-winning team that co-penned Lisa Loeb’s lead single on her kids record Feel What U Feel. Jess has also collaborated with the likes of Sam Fischer, Vintage Culture, Isamachine, Gold Kimono, Passenger, and Dust of Us.

The album was co-produced by Jess, and she played a number of the instruments herself. She called in some of her favourite musicians, writers and producers to help out on the album including Dan Long (Local Natives), Josh Humphreys (M83) and Ox Why (her former We Are The Brave bandmate).

Hemispheres was completed during the UK lockdown across Sydney, LA and London. Jess states: ‘Working on this album was my safe place to go in a dark time. I was far from home when the pandemic hit and needed a distraction from that, as well as what has felt like an endless, at times soul crushing road of fertility treatments. 2020 was a pretty forgettable year for everyone, but it definitely made me change my outlook a lot, and focus on what was most important.’

Hemispheres has tracks imbued with emotions such as anxiety, depression and self-doubt but it’s an absolute joyous listen. Fans of Fleetwood Mac, Florence and The Machine, Kate Bush and Christine and the Queens should find plenty to love here. With oodles of guitar hooks, swirling synthesisers, and captivating warm vocals, the album is an emotional salve.  The record has an optimistic vibe to it, showing that whilst there can be darkness, there is much to look forward to in the light. There are tunes to dance to, songs to sing along with, and tracks to listen intently to. Get on board the Chalker express now.

To celebrate the release of Hemispheres, Jess has penned for the AU, a track-by-track breakdown of the album. So do press <Play> and have a read to the background of this intimate and beautiful album.

 

Hemispheres from Jess Chalker – Track by Track

Stupid Trick

The music demo for this tune was written pretty quickly. Ox Why and I jammed it out one summer afternoon at my old place in Sydney – me on synths, him on beats, both of us on guitars. We used Fender telecasters, a Jag bass, a Korg Wavestation and (from memory) my Korg M1.

This track feels super ‘80s to me, like what you might hear during a car chase scene in a John Hughes movie. The lyric took longer to come together, maybe 6 months or more. I remember finishing it after reading Love in the Time of Cholera, and being moved by the sad fate of its Lolita-type character, America Vinuca. The overall melodrama of the lyric seems to work against the lightness of the track.

This tune actually sat on my hard drive for a few years, as I was never really happy with the demo, particularly the rhythm section. In the end, I took the track to Dan Long, a good friend of mine in LA, who is a songwriter/producer/mixer. We built up the track, and brought in Luke Adams to play drums which made a huge difference. Dan also added those great jangly guitars riffs before the choruses, which weren’t there originally. I kept joking around and calling them the ‘Friends’ guitars, because there was something about them that reminded me of ‘90s sitcoms. Dan actually wanted to take them out because of that, but we both decided they brought tension, as well as something fun and nostalgic. Dan also mixed the hell out of this track.

Dance in the Rain

For the longest time, the session file for “Dance in the Rain” was actually called “Leg Problems 9”, which is how we always referred to this song (I’m pretty sure if you asked Ox that’s still what he’d call it.)

As for the inspiration, I’d been watching that ‘80s Shakespeares Sister video, “Stay”, which has this amazing mood to it; dark and slightly terrifying, but simultaneously joyful. I love that contrast. There’s probably some chordal, melodic and production influences drawn from that song, and I was listening to a lot of Kate Bush at the time too. Ox [Why] brought some fun hip hop elements to the beats that gave the track a much more modern feel, bringing the whole thing out of Flashdance territory. He also wrote/played that key guitar riff at the top.

Most of the synths/string pads you hear are Juno and CS80, with some Prophet sounds as well. I also had my friend Josiah Massachi drum over the track later on, which brought some much needed air to it, given most sounds had been in the box up until that point.

The OG track also had an unexpected, hip-hop style outro, which was cool but made the track really long. My friend Ed (who also happens to be a drummer) suggested I ditch it and end the song with the drums a bit sooner. I’m glad I took his advice as I love the way the song ends now.

Rob Wilkes was responsible for the mix and knocked it out of the park. I don’t think DITR would have quite the same sound without him.

Secrets

Again, this one started as a jam between Ox and I one afternoon in Sydney before I moved to London. I wanted to create a modern, yet retro version of “Oh Mickey” by Toni Basil, which was our reference. The music came easily – Ox played a cool bassline, and I wrote the synth riff. Lyrics took a little longer (I usually went away and worked on the toplines afterwards). Basically what you hear is our original demo, mixed amazingly by Billy Centenaro, who also subbed out the original drums with some cooler sounding samples.

Lights

Man, this one felt like a dog’s breakfast coming together. I pulled the track apart so many times, it either felt too busy, or too spare. Also, the lyric was like pulling teeth – originally I didn’t really know who I was writing about, which made it hard to nail the concept. (Once I worked it out, the words came easily enough.) I ended up recreating the track from Arturia synths, Arcade, and some of Ox’s drum programming and Simmons drum rolls. I also brought on my friend Josh Humphreys to add some cool synth bass sounds and sound FX.

Don’t fight it

This one came from a jam one sun-filled afternoon in Hollywood, with two good friends of mine, Rich Jacques and Tienus (Gold Kimono). Tienus had an acoustic guitar and was playing surfy chords on the sofa, and I started singing a Tom Petty-esque melody over the top. Rich was on the controls that day, and added some of those beautiful electric guitar lines you hear, with bittersweet, Cure-esque textures. The song wrote itself pretty quickly, maybe 20 minutes or so.

Production-wise, the groove never felt quite right to me for the longest time. At my friend, John Alagia’s suggestion we ended up getting a new bass line played, which made a huge difference. I also played in some additional acoustic and electric guitars, and wrote a Fleetwood Mac style piano riff that you can hear throughout. Rich wasn’t really down with any of this at first, but ended up really digging those parts in the end.

West Hollywood

This song was originally called “Same Old Feeling”, but I changed the title to “West Hollywood”. It’s probably my favourite track on the whole record, maybe the most earnest too. For a while, I was spending a lot of time in LA working as a songwriter, so listening to this sounds like a sonic snapshot of that time.

I scratched the OG demo for WH as I wasn’t nailing it, but had recorded a vocal I loved and wanted to keep that. Rich Jacques helped me build the track up around it – the reference was “Sara”, by Stevie Nicks/Fleetwood Mac, with a vision for creating something classic yet still modern. Rich and I worked on the track production for a couple of days, building up simple drums, choosing synth pads and playing guitars that fit the vocal mood/tempo. Billy (mixer) also brought a lot to the track in its final stages, subbing out original drum sounds, adding a magical electric guitar part, and generally bringing a wonderful sparkle to the song overall.

Cynical

Writing music and lyrics together is usually interdependent for my own stuff, otherwise I’m not usually invested. On this occasion though, Dan Long came to me with more or less a finished track. With its dark and broody sound, it instantly inspired a melody/lyric that Dan ultimately pushed me on to make better. We worked on the song over a couple of days, adding further production with Dan taking the lead on music. On “Cynical”, practically all you hear is Dan, aside from a bit of Juno from me and those killer drums by Luke Adams.

Hoops

Dan and I whittled this song back from about a 5-minute length, working on it almost entirely remotely. Pretty sure I was recovering from the flu when I did the vocals, but decided not to redo them as I thought there was something real/charming about them. Lyrically this one is quite a personal track for me, so I feel a bit exposed in sharing it. “Hoops” was originally a working title, inspired by the vocals I sing at the outro, which sound a bit like me singing the word ‘Hoops’. Given the themes in the track, it seemed right to keep it. This song was also produced by Dan.

Cover Fire

It feels hard to discuss what this song is about for me… Ultimately, I think it will resonate with anyone who has ever felt hugely grateful to someone who was there for them in a dark moment.

Josh Humphreys (M83) and I worked on this song together, and it’s a really special one for both of us. It’s also a rough-and-tumble, first take demo vocal – the imperfections felt emotionally right so I didn’t want to re-do them. “Cover Fire” is possibly the least immediate song on the record, but it’s also one of my favourite things I’ve ever worked on. I suspect it will end up being lots of people’s favourite song on Hemispheres eventually.

Cathedrals

Originally I recorded a cover of this beautiful song with Rich Jacques, who introduced me to the work of ‘90s band, Jump Little Children. I was blown away by this lyric, and wished the song was something I’d written.

I’d planned to put the demo straight onto my record, but Rich accidentally lost the session file. So, I ended up re-recording / re-producing the whole thing from scratch earlier this year. Kaz Shirane (a proper pianist!) re-recorded my original piano parts, Dave Egbert played cello and I re-recorded all vocals, adding harmony sections we didn’t have there originally.

Rich did end up finding the original session file shortly after I’d done all this, and he felt bad telling me. I didn’t mind though; things always turn out the way they’re meant to, and I love where the track landed.

Justin Stewart Cotta

You can give Jess Chalker a follow on her Website,  FacebookInstagram , Spotify and Soundcloud

Hemispheres is available, via her own label, 528 Records and Planet/MGM.  You can buy the CD, limited edition vinyl and a digital copy of the album HERE

Bruce Baker

Probably riding my bike, taking photos and/or at a gig. Insta: @bruce_a_baker

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