Julia Stone Reinvented Herself With The Bluesy, Nostalgic Synth-Pop Of ‘Sixty Summers’

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For the last several years, Julia Stone has been working on new music. That in of itself isn’t unusual: Stone has released several albums with her brother as the duo, Angus and Julia Stone, along with a couple albums of her own. But last week’s Sixty Summers marks her first solo record in over eight years, and some of the songs on the record are almost that old. After writing thirty demos over the last five years — the bulk of them collaborations with Thomas Bartlett, aka Doveman — Stone said that, in some ways, her third album is functioning like a debut would. “For me it does feel like a first record,” she mused when we spoke over the phone about the album, and how her sound has pivoted in the process of refining these songs. “It’s a body of work I’ve been creating over five years, and it was a really slow understanding of where I was heading. I was so used to working with my brother, and we had found a nice rhythm with the way that we worked that was very comfortable. I didn’t realize this was what I wanted to do until I was doing it.”

This new direction moves away from the slow and steady folk-pop songs Stone has been making with Angus for the last decade and a half, and toward a bluesy, frenetic pop sound that was guided and shaped by album producers, Bartlett, and Annie Clark of St. Vincent. “Being championed by people like Annie and Thomas gave me a lot of confidence to do something in a different style and a different way of writing,” Julia said. “Some of the music I wanted to make was less of a first-person, direct way of communicating a specific experience and more about exploring abstract ideas. It’s a bit more abstract lyrically and sonically.” Across thirteen tracks, Stone explores ideas as disparate as booming ’80s nostalgia on the title track, dramatic, slinky glam-rock on “Queen,” and the disco-inflected electro-pop on “Who” — even bringing the familiar folksy duet set-up on “We All Have,” although Matt Berninger of The National subs in for Angus in this case.

As a whole, Sixty Summers is a gigantic step forward for the Australian singer-songwriter, who faced the twin crises of the devastating bushfires in her native country, quickly followed by the onset of COVID-19, when it came to timetable for the release of her most ambitious album yet. “It was so wild in 2020, I just couldn’t see or feel a space where I wanted to release the record or any of the songs,” she explained. “It just took time for it to feel like a natural inspiration. I wanted to bring it out at a time when I felt a little bit more colorful in my life, and I wasn’t feeling that for most of last year.” With the widespread distribution of vaccines, and a hopeful opening to travel, touring, and public gatherings, Sixty Summers is now coming at a time when dreaming of summer is more relevant than ever. Read a condensed, edited conversation with Julia below for more details about her songwriting for the album, how working with Annie and Thomas to help shape it, and the emotional resonance of the record’s themes.

How was the songwriting process different for the songs on Sixty Summers than it was on your first two solo albums?

There’s been sounds I’ve had in my head for a long time but never felt like I knew how to get them out, within the context of how I was used to writing songs, which was traditionally for me on an acoustic guitar or on a piano, and writing on my own a lot. When I started co-writing with Thomas, the way that we were working was different. I was working to the foundations of songs that he’d already structured in terms of chords. Writing to music that comes from somebody else’s brain and heart opened up this world of possibilities. In those songwriting sessions it felt natural to freestyle write. There was a real freedom to it and a lot of just turning on the microphone and recording whatever came into my head. A lot of the songs like “Break” and “We All Have” and “Heron” — they were songs that were just happening in the moment.

Because of Thomas’ sound palette, and when Annie (of St. Vincent) came on board, her influence, I found a space where those sonic and lyrical ideas really worked. I felt like it was bringing me back to life in music, and I was having a lot of fun making it. It sounds really obvious, but songwriting has been a cathartic way to explore quite challenging experiences. And this was still exploring challenging experiences, and there’s a lot of darkness on the record, but I was doing it in a fun way.

Working with Thomas and Annie seems to have influenced the record quite a lot, can you talk about your relationship with both of them?

The first time I meant Annie was in an airport in Helsinki. It was a really nice meeting, we both shared a drummer, Matt Johnson, and I saw Matt walking through the airport with this beautiful woman. I ran over to him and gave him a hug and he said ‘Annie this is Julia, Julia, Annie. You guys should be friends.’ She got out her phone and said ‘What’s your number?’ and sent me a text message on the spot saying “friends.” That was the beginning of us occasionally texting each other and bumping into each other at the hotel and a festival, here and there around the world.

Thomas I met years before that backstage at a festival in the UK. I’d been a fan of his solo music, Doveman, for a while, and he was backstage with his friends from The National. I went over to him and I said ‘I love your music, I think you’re extraordinary,’ and that was a very fast friendship. He took me by the hand and said ‘let’s go watch my friends play,’ so we went to watch The National. And Thomas and I just kept trying to find excuses to hang out. Music was a side product of our friendship. We just, we enjoy each other a lot. I think we understand each other really well. I have always felt quite at home with Thomas, and that was very immediate.

So you’d been collaborating with Thomas on a set of songs for years, when was it that St. Vincent got involved with the process as a producer?

During the writing of the record, Thomas and I would just be in the studio where so many people come and go, it’s a very welcoming place. He likes to bring people together for a real collective feeling. And after we’d gotten to about year three of sessions writing together, we had all these demos and just didn’t really know what it was going to be. I finished a tour with my brother and Thomas brought up the idea that maybe there was a record in these songs. We both felt a bit confused about what genre it was, or what the record was going to be, they all felt so different. He said ‘You know who will know what this is? Annie. Let me ask her if she’d be keen to jump on board as a producer and help us turn this into a record.’ She was just in the final stages of producing the Sleater-Kinney record, and she listened to a few of our songs and said yes. I’ll never forget her turning up to the studio and after the first listen through she narrowed it down to sixteen songs she wanted to work on.

Introducing this new shift in your sound with the song “Break” felt like a major moment — with all the multi-tracked harmonies, the uptempo feel and the horns — why did you choose that one as the first single?

I chose “Break” as the first single because I felt like it was the most indicative of what the record was about, for me. It was still a song about love, which is the only thing I guess I write about. And it’s a song about accepting the challenges of love, and being at the mercy of a feeling you have no control over. It also had a sonic quality to it that was so weird and strange to me, and I love it. It also came together easily, it was one of the most natural songs to write. I’d just got off tour and came to Thomas’ studio, and he’d usually make tracks for me to listen to when I got there. That song started, and I just felt like I instantly wanted to turn on the microphone and sing. I found myself very comfortably singing and speaking these words. I was speaking memories and feelings that were coming out from listening to the music, it felt so fun and cathartic in a really fun way. We did this for about twenty minutes, I just didn’t stop until I said something really stupid that made us both laugh. I remember us looking at each other and Thomas said ‘I think there’s a song in that.’ We found these parts and turned it into three verses, and took the “darling darling” part and made it the chorus. It felt like as a first song, it embodied what the record was about: Making music for the love of making music.

Another distinctive moment early on in the album is when Matt Berninger’s vocals suddenly appear on “We All Have.” What was that collaboration like?

That was definitely a real highlight in my life of collaborating with artists. I’ve been a fan of the whole band and Matt for so long. I’ve had the good fortune of collaborating with almost everyone from The National except for Matt. I remember Thomas coming to me with the idea for “We All Have,” and that one is the very first song we wrote in 2015. It was very close to how it sounds now, it had almost all of the same parts. Originally I had sung the ‘love is all we need to be here for part. Then Thomas said he thought “We All Have” is missing something, and said ‘I’d like to ask Matt if he wanted to sing on the track with you, I think it’d be really great.’ Matt said he liked the song and he’d like to sing on it, and he sent back these beautiful vocals. Straightaway it felt like the dichotomy between his voice and my voice was really special. We’re at the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of tone and sound, and it added this beautiful gravity to the message of the song too to have this deep voice come in sand say ‘love is all we need to be here for.’ Then to have the two voices together — I like the directness of that song and Matt’s voice to me is very direct and easy to connect with.

Brooke Ashley Barone

Let’s also talk about the title track. There seems to be such a nostalgia there but also a look toward the future, what’s the story behind this song?

There was this period of time in my life where I was living in London, and I’d fly home for summer in Australia. Summer for us is Christmas and the New Year, and I’d go back to the beach town I grew up in. It would be really nostalgic, a summer of seeing friends and family and going to house parties, going to the beach. I had this one particular friend who I would always spend the summer with when I came back from London, and we had a beautiful few years doing that. It was on the third or fourth year of these summers back in Australia. It felt like summer was just there all of a sudden, it felt really quick. So when I was back and we were having a house party. It was a really beautiful night, one of those magic nights where everything just goes beautifully. She turns to me and grabs me by the shoulders and very urgently looks at me and says ‘can you believe we only have sixty summers left?’

I remember feeling what that meant, in that moment, it was the first time I had some clarity around how short life was going to be in. In the context of summer it just felt so brief to only have sixty of them, I’d already just had three and they’d gone by rather quickly. I started to think about how do you create a sense of urgency around that moment, about not wasting time. That was how the song became what it became, and I felt it was very representative of why I made this record. When I started really understanding I had this freedom to write music in any way I wanted, that was starting to feel like I was using my sixty summers in a way that felt conducive to my happiness and authenticity.

It seems like this an album that resonates with you emotionally, even if it isn’t super first-person-y. So what are some of the emotional themes that stand out to you about Sixty Summers?

A lot of it has to do with acceptance. Accepting the fact that you don’t have control over the circumstances that you find yourself in very often. The only way through those circumstances or that grief or the pain is to accept it. That’s something that definitely in the past I’ve resisted. I have felt that I could control the outcomes of certain things, but part of growing and learning in my life has been about learning that it’s not in my control. There’s a certain amount of accepting of the path you’re on. Through that acceptance come an opening and a lightness. Maybe a clearer view about what you can actually do and contribute.

Sixty Summers is out now. Get it here.