If you scroll down far enough on Julia Stone’s Instagram page, you’ll find a quote from Franz Kafka: “I never wish to be easily defined. I’d rather float over other people’s minds as something strictly fluid and non-perceivable; more like a transparent, paradoxically iridescent creature rather than an actual person.”
The philosophical musing seems out of place, to say the least — the post preceding it is a still from her music video “Break”; the one after, a bath time photo of Stone with her dog Red. But listening to Sixty Summers, her latest album and first solo work in nearly a decade, it’s not difficult to see what she means. This is Stone set free from folk to explore the realm of pop. And she’s shining brighter than ever before.
“I think we’re such [a] multifaceted, strange and unique species, humans,” Stone tells PopMatters, “And to not explore those strange and unique parts of ourselves in whatever creative form makes sense to you — It feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.”
True to her words, there’s an eclecticism in Sixty Summers that finds Stone stretching herself in all different directions. Within the span of three songs, she’ll question non-committal love on a house dancefloor (“Who”), chase desert thrills to all-terrain-ready rock (“Fire In Me”), and ponder the vocoded neediness of romance in a jazz cafe (“Easy”). The variety between each song made it difficult at first, Stone explains, to even believe there would be a record.
After touring the last Angus & Julia Stone record, Snow (2017) she and Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman) had written about 30 demos before realizing they didn’t know which songs could be culled for a cohesive album. Enter Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent), who not only helped put together a tracklist but also lent a hand in producing a few songs. “At that moment,” Stone recalls when Clark finished listening to the demos, “I knew the record would get finished.”
While Bartlett has been a long-time collaborator of Stone’s since her last solo album, 2012’s By the Horns, Clark wasn’t the only new face in the studio. Stone had traditionally written her songs alone with an acoustic guitar and piano, but after co-writing Snow with Angus, she started to let other people into her song lyrics.
“I felt something really magical happened when you had two different people bringing together their ideas,” Stone said. As a result, other Australian singer-songwriters — Vera Blue and Meg Mac, to name a few — are listed in the credits, and singer-songwriter Matt Berninger even appears as a featured vocalist. Each person brought their personality, Stone continues, and each energized the room with a spirit for exploration and adventure. “I feel like that’s why I got into music — to make connections with people and enjoy those connections,” Stone smiles.
That same appreciation of connection is why Stone had no problem taking a leap of faith towards a new sound. “I think, in the past, I really liked the idea of being liked, and people liking what I did. And I’m not going to say that it doesn’t make me feel good when people respond to the music in a positive way. But instead of that being important, it’s more like, I think if I love it, somebody else will love it,” she explains.
“Change means that you’ll lose some people that don’t like the change, but you’ll gain people that understand where you’re at because that’s where they’re at….And if it’s one person that (the music) resonates with, but it’s honest, that’s way more important than heaps of people liking it because it sounds like your last record.”
It would be remiss to say that the music itself was the only thing that changed. The creation of Sixty Summers was a process that started with self-acceptance, embracing the freeing beauty that comes with movement. “Before I loved listening to music for the lyrics and the melodies, I loved listening to music because I could dance,” she said. “I feel, in that freedom, a sense of sensuality and sexuality and expression that is incredibly natural to me. And all of the characters [I embody on the album] — these nymph-like beings from this luscious, juicy world of the divine feminine — [are] what I feel innately in myself when I dance, and when I am by myself really singing. I started to embody that more as I’ve gotten older and started to accept myself a bit better.”
Of all the tracks on Sixty Summers, “Queen” takes that message of inner strength (as does “Fire in Me” to some extent, Stone adds) and crowns it as gospel. Written in the midst of a relationship that felt built from a meager love, the chorus begins with the pity and neglect of “Just like a queen, begging in the street.” But over light-footed drums and horns, ready to walk on bustling city pavement, Stone slowly nurtures herself with the same words over and over again, until it becomes a mantra for self-sufficiency: “I’ve got what I need, I’ve got what I need, I’ve got what I need.”
The title track, by comparison, is when everything comes apart in the desire for money and fame. Originally titled “Better Like This”, the song initially seemed underdeveloped to Clark, who nudged Stone into focusing more on the story of the song, the intention behind the lyrics. For Stone, that meant remembering the time during her early 20s she spent partying in Australia during the summer when, all of a sudden, her friend (and music video director) Jessie Hill grabbed her at a party and asked her, “Can you believe we only have 60 summers left?”
It’s the type of question that made Stone think about the brevity of life and the right/wrong ideas of how to live it. She compressed these thoughts into lyrics like “Looking for the brightest car in the back of your / We didn’t even know that we were happy” and the miniature drama of highway-glimmer synths flashing past Stone’s wailed vocal cracks. “[That’s] also why I wanted to call the record Sixty Summers,” she explains. “Because I felt like making this record was, in a way, me living my best 60 summers, doing it in a way that felt really conducive to my heart.”
Still, despite the pleasure and glamour of the record, mortality remains a consuming idea to Stone. “I feel like I’ve got so caught up in thinking about death again that I forgot what your question was,” she laughs. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing in her eyes. By the same coin, an awareness of one’s eventual death can be an impetus to live and contemplate the present. “Now, [death’s] going to always be a part of how I live my life. It’s just thinking about how you feel at the end of your life, looking back and thinking, ‘Is this a decision I’ll be proud of? Is this something that I will feel has been as authentic and honest as I can be right now?’”
Which brings up another question: If Sixty Summers is, in fact, an album where Stone can be free and restless, does that mean her career as a folk artist before, both with her brother and in her solo work, was stifling at times? The answer is complicated for Stone. “Behind the music, there is a business, and there are choices that you make to be able to continue making music,” she says. “It’s such a privilege and a lucky life to be able to choose how you make music or how you write or how you paint….and that at times comes with, ‘Well, I’m also part of a business,’ and this business has, within it, frameworks that I don’t necessarily wholeheartedly agree with.”
“Our world is very topsy turvy in terms of a value system that makes sense,” Stone continued. To put a long story short, she says, “Yes, at times in my career, I have felt stifled for sure, but only by my own choosing. And only by that choosing I have weighed up….this is worth. It’s worth it for me because I get this at the end of it.”
Here, “this” means the freedom for Stone to take her music where she wants to and when she pleases. The past year has been a toll. The original release plans for Sixty Summers were meant to be released in the beginning of 2020 — that is, until the Australian bushfire crisis occurred, prompting her to create Songs for Australia. Then, just as the charity album was being released, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. “I can’t imagine having felt inspired at the time to [release music].” But flash forward to today, after a few more weeks of release date delays (vinyl production backlogs and a few other factors, she explains), she’s finally performing some of the songs live and might have found some new fuel for her next album.
“I haven’t felt like writing at all for the last year. And now I have this feeling of like, ‘Oh, there might be space after this record comes out that I can start creating something.’ And that’s exciting. And I think I have a bit of an idea where I want to go”