How Julia Jacklin writes her 'Crushing' alt-country ballads
Australian singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin is sincerely eager to return to Austin, the site of her very first show in the U.S. Or rather, a series of shows: In 2016, she played nine gigs during South by Southwest over a full-throttle weekend. Whether due to the vigor of youth (she’s now 29) or low expectations, she loved every moment of it.
The alt-country chanteuse was in Austin early this summer for a sold-out show at Barracuda to support her sophomore album, the emotionally devastating “Crushing.” She just played Austin City Limits Music Festival on Sunday and will return for Weekend Two.
Jacklin was game for a quick chat ahead of ACL Fest. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Your new album, “Crushing,” is quite personal. Are the songs about one person in particular or about break-ups in general?
It’s not all about one person, not every single song. It was written in a pretty short period, actually, unlike my first record.
The song “Don’t Know How To Keep Loving You” is so beautiful. It’s one of my favorite songs of yours. What was the writing process like for that song?
I wrote that on the road, actually, mostly in the car. I found a demo on my phone that I recorded in a green room in L.A. It took me a really long time to put it on guitar. I didn’t want to play it live. I thought it was bad. It took distance from the situation, more confidence, finishing touring, having more perspective. … It can be tumultuous on the road.
What are your self-care strategies for dealing with life on the road?
I fail pretty miserably a lot of the time on that. I think a huge part of that is being OK with having bad days. When I first started touring, I was very worried about ever having a bad day. I felt like I had to be the captain of the ship and if I stopped concentrating or anything for a second, it would all kind of crumble. Now, I’m surrounded by good people, and I know that I can have a bad day and the whole thing’s not gonna grind to a halt. Other people can pick up the slack.
I do a lot of skipping rope. It’s hard to figure out what a good exercise is for touring, because you can’t really go jogging. You know, you’re staying at Super 8 motels on the side of the highway and you get in really late at night. I don’t really want to go alone as a female in the area, so every time we stop for gas, I’ll skip rope. It’s transferred to other people we tour with, too.
How do you manage bad days when you have to perform that same night?
Performing is the cure to that feeling. I think what can get me down, or what gets most people down about touring, is the disproportionate time spent sitting in the car as opposed to doing the work, which is performing. Even when I can’t imagine getting onstage and talking and putting myself out there in such an intense way, as soon as I get onstage, I’m like, "Oh, no, this is exactly what I need to be doing."
I love playing live, especially this album, and even though you want to have days off, sometimes having days off if you’re feeling bad is the worst. You’re away from home with no purpose.
Your cover of the Strokes’ “Someday” was recently released on Spotify. Why did you choose to cover that song and what does it mean to you?
It’s so weird to be talking about that now, because I did it three years ago for a session we do in Australia (the “Like A Version” cover series for Triple J radio station). For some reason, they were super behind the times, so they just decided to put it out.
It’s super scary to do that session, because there’s a pretty negative feedback loop online about it, like, "Oh, you ruined (the song)." It feels more like a competition of who ruins it and who nails it or whatever, which is a bit scary as a performer to put yourself in that position. Especially with the Strokes, because a lot of people love them. I loved them as a kid and I think when I was picking a cover, I thought these lyrics are really beautiful and melancholy and it was nice to stretch them out, let them breathe a little bit in my style.
What song would you cover now?
It’s a funny one, because you want to pick a song you really like, but you also want to pick a song that people will click on. Now, I’d probably do something that’s not as well-known. My favorite song is “Memory” by Leonard Cohen.
You said that you tried to choose a cover song that people would click on. Do you think of your own music like that, when you’re in the writing process?
No, thank god. I mean, not yet, and I hope (I never do). The only reason I say that about that cover is just the little things that lead people to my music. I don’t like being filmed, but if I get asked to do (NPR video series) Tiny Desk, I’ve got to do that.
If that creeps into my head, I’ve got to grab onto it and throw it out the window, because that’s when I start writing bad songs. "What would people like about this," or "How do I make it more universal?" This last record I wrote completely on my own, I didn’t show my label or my manager any demos, and they weren’t too happy about that. But I knew if I showed people, they would have opinions that affected me. I was already vulnerable, because I felt that people expected me to make a good record. I really kept it very close to me, and I think that’s why it’s good.
It depends what genre you’re in. I totally have respect for pop machines that have 10 co-writers working their magic to formulate a solid pop song. But for my genre, the singer-songwriter country world, it’s gotta come from within you.
Did you write poetry as a kid? How did you become a songwriter?
I’ve kept a journal ever since I can remember, and I think that’s a huge, huge part of why I’m a songwriter. I never wrote poetry, but I wrote a lot of short stories when I was a kid before I started writing songs. I’ve documented my thoughts every day for the past 20 years. It’s not that my songs are journal entries, but when you’re used to getting (thoughts) out of your head and onto the page, it’s a routine as much as when you wake up and have a shower.
I’ll write in my journal and have an idea, and block off the page and formulate that feeling into something more poetic. It’s really cool because I can look back at my journals over the past few years and see how (songs) came to be, from one little observation in a cafe. It just builds and builds. I would recommend journaling to everyone in the world.
AT ACL FEST
Catch Julia Jacklin at 12:30 p.m. Sunday on the Honda stage. Read our review of her Weekend One set at austin360.com/acl.