20 Questions: Angus and Julia Stone

Angus and Julia Stone remain just as humble today as they did when they first started recording in 2006, which, given the trajectory of their career so far, is somewhat remarkable.

The Australian brother-sister duo — swapping vocal duties pretty much whenever they feel like — initially started as two separate solo acts wherein one would support the other on instruments, but before long it was realized that their powers are much better when combined. Specializing in remarkably understated acoustic numbers revolving around love and heartbreak, it wasn’t long before the duo began garnering the attention of everyone from Travis (Julia sang backup on that band’s 2007 disc The Boy With No Name) to Natalie Portman (who hand-picked their track “The Beast” for the charity album Big Change: Songs for FINCA), all while gathering attention by doing the tired-and-true method of touring like hell, opening for the likes of Brett Dennen and Martha Wainwright. The buzz on the duo slowly grew, and by the time their current disc Down the Way came out in their homeland, it shot straight to the top of the charts.

Now garnering some much-deserved attention in America (with their music videos collectively garnering more than two million hits on YouTube alone), Julia Stone took some time to answer PopMatters’ 20 Questions, and wound up giving one of the most open, honest, and downright touching set of answers we’ve yet seen for this feature. Discussing everything from handling her wounded pet dingo to stealing some lights from K-Mart so that their garage-based Hawaiian-themed hangout space would be a rousing success (much to dad’s disapproval), Julia Stone approaches these 20 Questions with the same thought and care that so dominates her music, which is a rare feat in itself. Never once showing an ounce of ego or hubris, it’s refreshing to see that all these years later, the Stone siblings are just as humble as they were when they started out making their brilliant music …

1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

I cry all the time so it makes for a difficult journey through the mind. I am now walking through the library of tearful memories, and someone really messy has been in here, smoking and drinking and fucking up the order of things. Definitely not a librarian. No order for any of these moments, so how about I just grab the first thing I find on the shelf? I just picked up the flight from LA to New York watching Marley & Me — sobbing when the dog can’t walk up the front stairs to the family home … and still sobbing as we fly into JFK.

2. The fictional character most like you?

I could be a combination of a female version of quagmire from Family Guy and Dot from Dot and the Kangaroo.

3. The greatest album, ever?

I always come back to Janis Ian’s Between the Lines. She is filled with this incredible sadness at the way the world is and yet her music makes me feel overjoyed. Maybe it’s like this for me because I heard the music when I was too young to know what the words meant, so now when I hear the music I remember my mum on the brown mustard carpet lying in the sun looking like an angel .

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

I’d rather have a light saver. I’ve actually never seen Star Trek so I cannot know for certain. I can’t imagine it could be as ripping as the good vs. evil from Star Wars. Good will always overcome.

5. Your ideal brain food?

Our drummer Matty — he is a wealth of endless information about all kinds of matters in relation to the nature of the universe. He allows me to explore and question the way I think, the ideas and beliefs that I live with through his own incredible curiosity for everything. We will go from a discussion on a about social conditioning to quantum physics. We were just having a chat a few minutes ago about Sex and the City: he had never seen the show but was asking me to relay what it was all about. I think we had passed an advert about this show somewhere that struck up the topic. I relayed my own personal take on the show, and when I finished talking about it he asked me “Now tell me how this show might fit into the assumed propaganda engine that runs our commercial global empire? What purpose does it serve within this context?” I had to think about what the show might be selling to us — in relation of ideas and concepts that are part of the wagon of consuming, which is fun for the mind — and then he stops and goes “Golden goats — High Nine!” and raises his hands with the most beautiful smile on his face to do the High Nine!

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

When I started high school I had come from another school so it took me a while to find my group of friends. I joined the school big band and there was a moment when we went on tour that year down to Mount Gambier for a jazz competition. We were all lying on the bed in some dodgy hotel room listening to music. I looked over at my new-found friends who I felt at home with. I felt really proud of myself for having found my family in that crazy school.

7. You want to be remembered for…?

I would like our dingo to remember me as loving him. He hasn’t had the life that I would have hoped for a wild animal. He was to be shot when he was a baby. Our grandparents took him from the pound up near their farm and brought him to our town in Sydney to stay with our mum. It has been hard to live in the suburbs and sometimes when he is howling I feel his longing for the desert. I would like to think that our connection to him is to be remembered for all time — that when we meet again we will run free in the desert.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

Just because I am now thinking about Malakai, the dingo. It has made me think about all dogs the world over: wolves, huskies, and dogs of all kinds. I was just reading a book called Under the Quandong Tree written by an aboriginal woman named Minmia on teachings for women. She talks about the lessons that we can learn from all creatures and she mentions that dogs are the teachers of unconditional love; that we can beat, hurt, and harm a dog and still they will continue to love us. They are such an inspiration, dogs. When we come home after being away for a year our dog still cries with love and joy when we walk out the backyard to see him.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

It would great to have created the tattoo gun. Such a good idea. I remember being at school and trying to draw tattoos onto my friend’s arm with a compass and ink. Dad walked into my room as I held my girlfriend’s bloody arm and he lost it at me, told me I was crazy and that I could cause a serious infection in her arm let alone that the ink might actually stay there. It did for a few years. It slowly faded out. It was a little symbol I had designed with the letters of her name. She is now practicing with a tattoo gun to do her own thing. It turns out she has quite a gift for body art, so I am glad someone invented the tattoo gun because she is going to draw some beautiful pictures on people’s bodies.

10. Your hidden talents…?

I can fall off a horse without breaking any bones. I can walk barefoot in snow without losing grip on reality. I can hold my breath for over two minutes. I can drive a motor mower down a steep hill in neutral and get it up to over forty kilometers an hour without tipping over. I can hold hands with a stranger and be comfortable knowing I may never see them again. I can win almost always in backgammon and 500 — and I have the strange sensation that when I am playing rocks, paper, scissors that I know exactly what the other person is going to choose. I can hang inside a deja vu for quite some time. On rare occasions I can control the flying in my dreams — where I choose where I fly to. I can bake all kinds of delicious sweets. I can occasionally convince my father not to eat chocolate for breakfast. That’s about it.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

We grew up being told to eat every last thing on our plate. It was passed onto our parents from their parents. My grandmother still takes in her hand-bag everywhere she goes: a tin of tuna and an apple and a bottle of water, just in case. They’ll eat food when it is months out of date — there is no wasting anything in our house. So even if our plates were piled to the brim with pasta and cheese we had to finish it … a few years ago when a friend of mine suggested I stop eating before I feel full and to just eat when I am hungry — and stop when the feeling of hunger has gone. It sounds obvious to me now that I am writing this: I do follow this now and I have a lot more energy…

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

Angus and I once stole some lights from K-mart. It was kind of lame: we didn’t have any money and we really wanted these colored lights for the garage, which we were turning into a Hawaiian-style bar with a stage so we could have a little party house to play music in. Dad wasn’t keen on the idea to start off with though — he had all his tools in there — which we slowly moved into the depths of dirt and dust under the house. Angus had already built the bar: it was epic. Shingles over the top of the bar and a surf board for the actual top part of the bar. We had built a stage out of old wood from under the house and carpeted it using off-cuts from the carpet warehouse. We had collected old couches from the hard rubbish. All we needed was ambient lighting which we couldn’t find people throwing away, so we bought a box of lights and hid another set inside the box we bought — two for the price of one. I’m sure that they would have been happy knowing they contributed mood lighting to joyful celebrations of love and music.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?

I feel best in vintage dresses or dresses of any kind if they are long and have colorful and soft fabric. There are some beautiful designers in Australia who are making really pretty dresses — Marnie Skillings, Fleurwood, Jessie Hill. I like really soft and thin fabrics so it could be like I am not really wearing anything.

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

Paulo Nutini: he is really quite special. I like the way he writes music. Maybe a couple of cocktails and a dance. Or perhaps Rodriguez would be a bit lovely to hang out with. We watched him the other night at the Blues Festival in Byron Bay — and he looks so gorgeous! — with the beautiful arms and smile. The reason I thought of Rodriguez just now was because he did a cover of one of Paulo’s songs which was pretty extraordinary. They are both such great songwriters. Perhaps all three of us could hang out … though Rodriguez would probably be coming home with me.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I would like to go back to when my mum was in high school, watching her doing all her nerdy things. She was well into marine science and she speaks about it now in the sweetest way though I would have loved to see her as a kid sharing her joy of the ocean with everyone and the excitement in her eyes as she discovered for the first time things about the world that shaped her life. I can also imagine her being super cute with boys: really shy and funny and I would love to see her when she had her first crush on someone, hiding her smiles behind woolen cardigans and long straight hair …

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

There is a little town in the south of India called Viacom. It doesn’t look like much when you get there: it is busy and there are way too many electronic stores for a town that doesn’t often have electricity, though I always return there because there is are two Ayurvedic doctors, a husband and wife named Vijith and Vidja who are so beautiful and when I stay with them I feel like the world slows right down, almost to the point where I could be moving backwards. I always feel like I have aged minus two years after six weeks there.

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?

I love how you listed everything important in life leaving nothing for me to say. No, there are another couple of really important things … like sex … and valium. Not together of course. I am not really so crazy at all. I can only pretend to be hardcore. Really the only things that I cannot live without is some kind of warm drink like tea. I could live happily in a box with a never ending thermos of green tea and dad’s new nylon string guitar.

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

Different for different times. I love being in the thick of city, riding the subway with people chatting on the trains, people getting up in people’s space. I love late nights out watching bands and dancing in strange clubs to music from the Eighties dressed up like colorful candy. You know, cities are filled with the strange and hilarious and there is always something to see. I like sitting in cafes for hours watching people. Watching people watching people. I like the action. And then on the flip-side, going out into the bush is very calming. We went out into the desert the other week, out to a salt lake in the middle of the sandy desert about six hours drive from Adelaide. Now that was something else: 180 degrees of sky. I could see the moon rising as the sun fell behind the horizon. It is such a special sight to behold, the world turning without any interruptions.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

I would think the most important thing I might talk about would be the importance of investing in the creative arts, through proper funding of the ABC — and easier licensing laws for live music venues. I would maybe chat about that with Mr. Rudd and then probably ask him about what he does to keep fit.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

Working on getting ready to go and see Noah and the Whale at a festival in Rotterdam. I am sitting on my bed in the hotel room across the road from the stage thinking about what I have to do in order to leave this room. It is warm in here and cold out there and I think that I haven’t really brought enough clothes to suit this climate … and then I’ll start working on warming up the trumpet so it isn’t too out of tune for the show tonight.