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ACL Fest 2010 preview: Angus and Julia Stone

Patrick Caldwell

Earlier this summer, 23-year-old Angus Stone flew to California from his home in Sydney, Australia for a road trip out to Big Sur. One pleasant evening, he stopped at the Henry Miller Library, the rustic, charm-infused performance space named for the famed novelist.

‘I had come to look at the sequoias and sort of be around the water and just live amongst nature for a while,' says Stone. ‘And they happened to be doing an open mike night, so I moseyed in with my guitar from my car and put my name on the list in this rush of inspiration. And I got up and my pounding heart was overtaking my breath. I hadn't experienced something like that in a long time.'

That the small crowd of 10 people gave Stone his most nervous performance in years surprised him; Stone was a deceptively old pro at this sort of thing. In his native Australia, as one-half of the brother-sister folk duo Angus and Julia Stone, he had released two albums — 2007's ‘A Book Like This' and this year's ‘Down the Way' — that had both gone platinum, together selling more than 140,000 copies. The Stone siblings are stars back home — ‘Down the Way' debuted at the top of the Australian sales chart, and the duo routinely sells out venues with capacities in the thousands.

‘I think being in front of fewer people, you're sometimes more vulnerable in a way,' says Stone. ‘Because when you're playing in front of a couple of thousand people, it's so surreal that you don't process it. And there's a lot of lights. But you're so exposed in an open mike.'

Stone grew up the youngest of three siblings — Julia, 25, and Catherine, all urged into music by their father, a singer and guitar and piano player in a folk band called Barnaby Ranch. After that band's label imploded, he joined a cover band and taught music.

‘We grew up with him playing in a cover band that did Beatles and Bob Marley and Eagles songs. And as kids we always thought that he wrote all those songs. I grew up assuming my dad penned "Hotel California,' '' says Stone. ‘He also conducted the school choir, and he was my music teacher in high school. He kind of made sure all of us joined the school band when we were old enough. We just grew up around this infinite amount of music, and I'm very glad for that.'

Both Angus and Julia began performing solo at open mike nights in 2005, playing lilting folk rock songs they'd written themselves — personal, vulnerable acoustic tunes that spotlighted their voices, his fractured and paper-thin, hers with the kind of willowy femininity that recalls Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins.

Later they began to perform together, trading off vocal duties and joining each other in affecting boy-girl harmonies when the material called for it. Their chemistry, Angus says, wasn't immediate.

‘When we first started out it took me and Julia a long time to sort of see each other not so much as a brother or sister and to just see one another as we do now: as pals that share a love for writing music and sharing those moments with new and amazing people,' says Angus. ‘I think we've found a place now where we can play one another's new songs and share feelings just like we would with a friend. Now it's a healthy relationship. I don't know what it will be like tomorrow. But now it feels really good.'

They released the ‘Chocolates and Cigarettes' EP in 2006, a six-song slice of heart-wrenching acoustic folk with a centerpiece single, ‘Paper Aeroplane,' that garnered the duo fans worldwide, including Francis Healy of Glasgow alternative rock favorites Travis. Healy recorded the duo's second EP and helped them craft the songs for ‘A Book Like This.'

And from then Angus and Julia Stone became difficult to track. Nominally, they lived in London, but they toured worldwide, and each sibling worked on their own solo albums and traveled extensively — Julia to New York, Angus all over Australia. That spirit of wanderlust seeped into this year's ‘Down the Way' — which was recorded in locations ranging from a studio in Brooklyn to an old saw mill on the banks of the Fowey River in the United Kingdom. There's also several songs that unfold in the shadow of relationships doomed by the pressures of the road — from ‘For You' and ‘Hold On,' on the dissolution of Julia's long-term relationship with former drummer Mitch Connoly, to the spirited ‘Draw Your Swords,' Angus' bold declaration of defiant heartbreak.

It sounds like a series of snapshots of life on the road — and Angus says his and Julia's shared quixotic nature has become an essential cornerstone of their songwriting.

‘We grew up quite still, you know? Everything that we could want was there to do, so we spent our time being happy with where we were and not needing to go anywhere,' says Angus. ‘When we finally got to the age when we could jump aboard and fly away I guess we just did that. I've kept a suitcase constantly ready for five or six years now. But traveling, there's just so much imagination brought on by it. To find another person on the other side of the world that has exactly the same loves and gets just as blue as you ... that's really, really frighteningly amazing.'

Angus and Julia Stone play at 3:45 p.m. Friday on the Austin Ventures stage.