It’s nearly nine years since Julia Stone’s second and most recent solo album, By the Horns, and three and a half years since Angus & Julia Stone’s latest release, Snow. It’s been a time of extensive creative exploration for the elder Stone sibling, ultimately leading to a mid-career artistic rebirth.
Working alongside producer and co-writer Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman) and co-producer Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent), Stone carries out some relatively sweeping stylistic deviations on her new album, Sixty Summers. Gone is the gently plucked, harmony-laden complexion of her earliest releases. In its place is a highly danceable glam and electropop sound, which bears a closer resemblance to artists like Goldfrapp and Muse than First Aid Kit.
The shift wasn’t deliberate, says Stone. In fact, having established a working relationship with Bartlett on By the Horns, the songs on Sixty Summers came together during many unbounded New York recording sessions over the course of several years. It wasn’t until Bartlett suggested that Clark come over and listen to what he and Stone had been working on that their cache of 30-plus songs was culled into the cohesive, spirited statement that is Sixty Summers.
The record’s stylistic freedom is complemented by Stone’s probing lyricism. Opening track, ‘Break’, is about feeling exhilarated and “out of control” after someone new enters your life. The National’s Matt Berninger joins for ‘We All Have’, the chorus of which could be a mindfulness mantra: “We all have the lightness to be okay, okay, okay for now,” they sing.
Elsewhere, the sensual, electro-glam rocker ‘Fire In Me’ is more suggestive than expository, with Stone singing of “loving the flames”, while ‘Dance’ finds Stone asking “Why don’t we dance?”, a metaphor for seizing the moment.
The musical and lyrical unshackling of Sixty Summers ties in with the philosophy contained in the album title – our time here is limited and it’s essential to come to terms with its finitude before we can live life to the fullest.
Music Feeds spoke to Stone about the origins of the album’s title, working with Bartlett and Clark and the development of the record’s gleaming stylistic disposition.
Music Feeds: I’ve been looking into the phrase “sixty summers” as it’s not something I’d encountered before. All I found was Sixty Summers, a novel written by Amanda Hampson published in 2019. Do you know the book?
Julia Stone: No! I’m so excited to look up Sixty Summers by this author. That is really, really wild. I can’t wait to send it to Annie and Thomas.
MF: ‘Sixty Summers’ is also the name of a song on the album. What does it mean to you and how does it distil what you wanted to say on this album?
JS: The title came after the song. The song when I first wrote it was called ‘Better Like This’ and when we were working on it Annie was a bit like, “Yeah, I like it, but I just don’t really know what it’s about.” Annie did this quite often during the recording process. She really wanted to know about every song: What was the story? What was the intention? Why was I singing it?
And whenever I stumbled, she’d be like, “Figure it out and say it better.” She really challenged me, but she also did it in a way that felt completely supportive and she’s so warm and kind but was also like, “I know you Julia and you’re better than this.”
MF: What was the story behind that song?
JS: I found myself telling [Clark] about this period of my life back in my early 20s. I was living in London and I would come home for Christmas and New Year’s and spend a couple of months seeing family and whatever and then back to touring and doing life in the UK and Europe.
Those summers, I was really connected to this one particular friend and we would go to parties and go to the beach and it was a really beautiful time. And it was on the third summer that I had come back to Australia and we went to a party. It was in this house that I’d always heard about that had these really wild parties. There’s a man playing harp in the corner of the room and there’s a woman lying with cake all over her, naked, and it was just very exciting and different.
We were in this state of euphoria and we were dancing and [my friend] turned around to me and took me by the shoulders in this really urgent way and looked me in the eyes and said, “Can you believe we only have 60 summers left?”
MF: How did you react to that?
JS: I was really struck with a feeling of deep urgency. I felt really overwhelmed. When I was 19, I went backpacking, looking for answers. I’ve always thought there’s something more to what I’m doing here on some level and I definitely was aware of death as an idea, but it was an abstract concept to me until that moment.
When she said that I just felt, summers come and go so quickly and those three summers were just like a click of the fingers and you’re saying to someone, “Oh it’s summer again.” 60 of them? That was going to just come and go in the blink of an eye. When I told Annie the story she just said, “That’s the song. Write that song.”
MF: Several songs on the album talk about giving into your feelings and making the most of each moment. Is that a fair appraisal?
JS: I definitely felt like when I chose that for the title of the record, it did tie into what each song was about. All the songs are about some element of that urgency and that feeling and that consciousness around why we’re here and how to live your time on the planet.
MF: When you started working on the album five-plus years ago, was the idea to do something quite distinct from your earlier solo records and the Angus & Julia records?
JS: I think five years ago when I started spending time with Thomas in New York and writing these tunes, I wasn’t thinking about making a record. I was just thinking about, “Where do I have the most fun on the planet?” And it was with him, in his studio, being creative. I love songwriting, I do it every day, and Thomas is someone who I’ve really enjoyed collaborating with.
We would just spend whatever free time we could in that tiny little room he has making tracks. Between that and watching Veep and The Thick Of It and talking, it was such a fun time.
MF: When did Annie get involved?
JS: We had 30 tracks by the time Annie came on board and some of them were really in a different style to what’s on this record. We didn’t have a cohesive feeling about what the record was going to be, which is why Thomas suggested Annie come on to produce it. It was very insightful of Thomas, because I think I could’ve just kept writing songs with him forever and never turned it into anything.
Having Annie come on board, she really contained and brought it into a body of work and out of the 30 songs picked the ones she felt were the strongest. I think once Annie came on board, that’s when we started to hear it as this particular sound. I didn’t know exactly what the sound was, but I was excited by that; I was excited that I didn’t know what genre to put it in. It’s not folk, you know? It’s something else.
Julia Stone’s first solo album in eight years, ‘Sixty Summers’, is out Friday 30 April. Pre-order or save, here.