Julia Jacklin on Don't Let The Kids Win

Feature by Gary Kaill | 16 Jan 2017

We caught up with Julia Jacklin in Melbourne at a ridiculously early time of day to discuss her overnight success with debut album, Don't Let the Kids Win, which came in at number 34 in our Albums of 2016 list – not bad for a debut

“I’m in Melbourne and I’m in a record store. I’m going to be playing a show here in a couple of hours. It’s early for you, right?” Oh yes. It’s early afternoon in Australia but, for The Skinny, sat bleary-eyed in front of a Skype connection, well – let’s just say it’s as late as it is early. But for Julia Jacklin – whose Don’t Let the Kids Win is one of the finest debut albums of 2016 – we’ll forgo a few hours kip.

Jacklin appears to have emerged almost overnight, certainly to UK audiences, but there’s history behind her already accomplished songbook. “I’ve had the songs for a long time,” she explains. “Well, I had most of them. And then I heard Aldous Harding’s album and I just loved the production. I thought it was just exactly what I was looking for. It was this warm, lo-fi production that took care to support the songwriting. And I just wanted my songs to breathe and not be too smothered.

"So I emailed the producer, Ben Edwards, and told him I was this songwriter from Sydney, Australia and I’d like to work with him. And he was like ‘Yeah, come over! Live at my house!’ Unbelievable, really. So I went over to New Zealand a few months later and I stayed there for three weeks and, yeah, we made the record.”

Sounds simple, and Jacklin’s understatement skates past both the quality of her writing and the record’s irresistible legacy stylings: a reverb-heavy mix that deftly frames the natural vibrato of her voice. “Yeah, well that whole schtick,” she begins, and pauses. “I know that my music can definitely sound old and I know that the styling in my videos and press shots could look quite 70s or something but I’m trying to always keep it modern as well. I don’t want to be like a retro act – I like it when you have these elements that are jarring.” That much is evident on the album’s startling cover where Jacklin lounges in a room that is clearly from another time – it’s just not exactly clear when. The presence of a large blue gym ball only blurs things further.

Jacklin expands on the recording process: “So, yeah, Ben and I hadn’t met before. He just picked me up when I arrived in Christchurch and we started the next day. I mean, it was a pretty big gamble but thankfully we got on really well.” Aside its melodic and sonic pull, Don’t Let the Kids Win’s lyric sheet reveals a deep gift for story telling. ”I‘ve always kept a diary for as long as I can remember. I guess I always wanted to be a writer when I was a kid but the songwriting didn‘t really happen until I was about twenty.”

It looks like the lyrics take precedence. “Yes, they do. Lyrics are the most important thing for me. I usually finish the songs on the guitar but they can come to me when I‘m walking down the street or driving my car or having a shower or something: moments when I‘m alone. A phrase or a scene will come into my head and I‘ll just play them over and over again until I get something interesting and then I‘ll put it to guitar.”

That notion of someone diarising the events in their life is an appropriate way into the album’s mix of observation and confession. You can hear Jacklin musing aloud in her songs: “I think it’s interesting with songwriting how it can highlight the issues you’re having in the moment in your life,” she says. “It’s very cool for me to be able to look back over this record – because I made it over a year ago and I wrote the songs two or more years before that – so I do feel quite removed from it already. But I’m really glad that I have it now because it’s a really nice snapshot of my early twenties: a little time capsule that documents my feelings and my experiences.”

As the record finds a following, as reaction develops and grows, might the songs come alive in new ways? “Yeah, they might. I find that idea quite interesting. You know, because I’ve lived the album for a while and spent a long time talking about it, I’m actually really relieved that it’s out there now and it gets to, I don’t know, live on. It’s quite weird that people might now start to connect with me in a new and fresh way. And, you know, I’m very proud of my slightly younger self for writing those songs and recording them and being brave enough to do it off her own back.”

Songs like the beautiful, sorrowful Leadlight work almost as parables, such is their narrative scope. Jacklin revisits her experiences, details those events and those feelings in a vivid past tense and then almost offers a closing summary: a commentary from a different position. “Well, look – I never really connected with that whole notion of getting up and singing depressing songs about my life for people. I do want a hopeful ending in the songs. I guess a big part of it as an adult is realising that your experiences are not unique. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s something that binds us all together. You come to realise that the first time you broke up with someone isn’t actually the most tragic event ever. So, I take that mentality into my songwriting: don’t feel sorry for yourself. It’s just human experience and I guess I want to, as you were saying, resolve those experiences in some way. Even if you don’t have an answer, at least you’re able to pause and think about it.”

Perhaps the smartest sad songs look for a way out of the sadness? Even if, sometimes, they never quite make it? “I guess that’s what I explore in the title track,” agrees Jacklin. “It’s this idea that as you get older and the things around you are changing, it’s okay that it feels weird. It does feel weird. And, you know, you have to acknowledge that and just keep going.” Don’t Let the Kids Win. It’s a great title. Jacklin laughs. “Yeah… I like it. People seem to have very different ideas of what it means and I like that, too.”

Julia Jacklin plays Manchester Soup Kitchen, 23 Feb, Glasgow King Tut's 27 Feb and Leeds Headrow House, 28 Feb http://www.juliajacklin.com/