“It’s about the journey, not the destination” is one of those treacly quotes that we’ve heard so many times it can make your skin bristle. So leave it to Julia Jacklin, one of our shrewdest, smartest songwriters, to breathe new life into the tired mantra. Written in fits and starts during the last few years and largely recorded over a few months in Montreal, the Melbourne-based musician’s third album, PRE PLEASURE, focuses on dismantling the notion that work and enjoyment are separate, both personally and professionally.
“I have realized over the years that if you don’t make the album recording process enjoyable, there’s no point in making albums,” she says.
Despite the climate it is being released into, and Jacklin’s own ordeal with burnout and anxiety around its creation, the singer-songwriter says she heeded the message of her third LP’s title. “At least I really enjoyed being able to be in a room every day with good friends. And I thought about the process a lot more than I thought about the results,” Jacklin explains.
When I connect with Jacklin over Zoom, it’s still early in the morning in Melbourne, but her measured pensiveness feels less like the result of someone still working through the day’s first coffee and more endemic to the thoughtful 31 year old’s character.
“Every time I make a record, I’m assuming I’m gonna get to the first day and walk in with this huge grand plan that is really thoughtful and considered and there’s a big concept and we’re gonna tie in lots of different things down here. But it just never happens like that, because my brain doesn’t function in those ways. [It’s about] accepting that each record is an experience,” she says. “If I recorded PRE PLEASURE today, it would sound like a completely different record.”
PRE PLEASURE was preceded by several excellent singles, most notably “I Was Neon,” which feels like a rollicking rock song compared to the more tempered “Lydia Wears A Cross” and “Be Careful With Yourself.” Jacklin wrote the original version of “Neon” back in 2019, but repurposed it for this album. There’s a poetry there, given that the track explores the very common fear we all face about losing the parts of ourselves we’ve grown most fond of as we age and mature. Like much of Jacklin’s best work, it tackles a complex emotion that cannot be easily parsed, and she admits that working with producer Marcus Paquin to make the instrumentation right for the subject posed a significant challenge.
“He was always just like, ‘I’m still trying to get my head around this one,’ and it was really annoying to me because I was just like, ‘Understand me!’” Jacklin says, laughing. “I like the song because I feel like it was fought for… It was just about capturing a feeling that is impossible to actually put to words, but I’m glad we got there in the end.”
One of the album’s non-single highlights is “Moviegoer,” a record Jacklin says came about during “a perfect storm of feelings that happened in the midst of” a not terribly successful songwriting retreat. Atop dreamy guitar and chords and the steady tick of drums, Jacklin reflects on a topic artists typically shy away from: How much does art really matter after all? While music can be a healing salve during difficult times — the last two years, for example — its actual monetary value has rarely felt lower than it does in the streaming era. During the early months of the COVID-19 quarantine, artists like Jacklin were inundated with requests to perform remotely without compensation, and, while she didn’t get into music for its return on investment, we all deserve economic security.
“I was really at my wit’s end of being told that music is really important. It was kind of that time in the pandemic where we were being endlessly told, ‘Music is so important right now!’” she says. “It felt a bit disingenuous to me because it was also coupled with being asked to do lots of stuff for free. I was just thinking about how much we don’t actually value music.”
Jacklin built a committed fan base thanks to incisive lyrics on songs like “Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You,” an exploration of what it feels like to realize your romantic passion has ebbed away, or the wry, but heartfelt family ode “Don’t Let the Kids Win.” Her records eschew obvious sonic choices and all of the sad girl songwriter stereotypes, instead positioning her as someone capable of both drilling down on uber specific details and highlighting the bigger picture all at once. As she broaches on “Moviegoer,” sometimes zooming that far out leads her to wonder about exactly how music fits into our society, for both the listener and the creator.
“It’s a reaction against being told — and also believing for a while — that music is cathartic to write and that can be this really healing thing. I don’t think that’s true,” Jacklin says. “It’s good to express yourself, of course, but, community and support and good mental health services and social infrastructure that helps people is actually a bit more important than writing a song and expressing your feelings.”
After the success of 2019’s stunningly unguarded Crushing and its corresponding continent-crossing tour, Jacklin hit a wall. Though she demurs and calls it “a very common feeling [that’s] very boring to talk about,” Jacklin’s creative and emotional fatigue was so great that she basically didn’t write for a year-and-a-half, wanting to reconnect with friends and finally feel moored.
“It was a very grueling couple of years and I just felt pretty burnt out by it all. I think sometimes when songwriting gets associated with that world of being physically, mentally exhausted, it’s not really something I want to do,” she says. “I’m thinking, ‘I don’t want to write another song, because that means I have to tour it.’”
One of the ways Jacklin was able to overcome that multipronged malaise was by shifting much of her writing from the guitar to the piano. Though the former remains a massive part of her music, from the acoustic balladry of “Less Of A Stranger” to the wall of electric chords on “I Was Neon,” some of PRE PLEASURE’s best records, including singles “Lydia Wears a Cross” and “Love, Try Not To Let Go,” feature keyboard chords at their core. Characteristically, Jacklin doesn’t romanticize the change. But she admits that it was a move made out of necessity — she needed a break from the six-stringed monkey on her back.
“I think sitting and playing the guitar truly just made me psychologically sick,” she says. “I was just associating it with pressure and touring.”
Jacklin has been candid throughout her career about the negative impact of life on the road, which begs the question of how she’s preparing for her first lengthy run since the brutal Crushing tour. In this case, a stretch of U.S. concerts in the early fall morphs into E.U. and U.K. dates throughout November. When asked what she wants to be different this time around to prevent the same strain, Jacklin answers with the same frankness that animates her music: She finally has a tour bus this time around, and she’s excited to sleep and recharge after each performance. The post-show rigamarole of packing everything up and driving to a hotel only to have to wake up and begin the journey a few hours later is what “robs you of your sleep and your sanity,” according to Jacklin, and she sees a need not only for artists to prioritize their own health, but for frameworks to be put in place to keep them in the best shape possible.
“I’ve had lots of chats with people about that. We wish we had the infrastructure of a sports team, because it kind of feels similar. They even have psychologists, because everyone is relying on them being physically and mentally fit in order for them to play well,” Jacklin says. “It has to be the same for musicians, because everyone is relying on you to be physically and mentally fit so you can play well and everyone can keep making money.”
Everyone can fall victim to “grindset,” from 9-to-5ers to critically adored indie musicians. With PRE PLEASURE entering the world and all the travails that come with putting a new album out, Jacklin is committed to not approaching this as another Sisyphean exercise and putting herself first.
“I think when I was younger I just was like, ‘I will say yes to everything and do everything because I’ll just recover when I’m old,’” she says. “I think it really hit home on that Crushing tour that you can really do long-term damage if you’re not looking after yourself while you go, which is such a classic adult realization.”
Grant Rindner is a freelance music and culture journalist in New York. He has written for Dazed, Rolling Stone and COMPLEX.