Julia Jacklin is examining the desire to be understood
If you can find the right words, have the best of intentions, and learn and unlearn all the right lessons, will it all work out in the end? Julia Jacklin’s third album, Pre Pleasure, compresses a sleepless night’s worth of universal questions into ten, pin-prick painful songs, each of them asking: am I living life correctly?
“It’s pretty intense, isn’t it, this record,” Jacklin says with a slight smile, as if only now resigning herself to the fact. Just moments into our conversation, the Melbourne-based singer-songwriter cheerfully tells me that talking about her work is “the worst part” of her job, and that talking about this album in particular feels even tougher than usual. “I thought I’d have thicker skin,” she grimaces, “but I think I’ve become a lot more fragile after the last two years. I’m curious to see how all this is going to go.”
Pre Pleasure feels particularly acute, Jacklin explains, because the gap between writing and releasing it has been so short. For her previous albums – the critically acclaimed breakout Don’t Let the Kids Win (2016) and the introspective and deeply physical Crushing (2019) – over a year passed between finishing those songs and giving them up to the public. “It can be a tough thing for confessional singer-songwriter music, because by the time you release it, you’ve kind of changed, and it can feel like you’re performing a past version of yourself,” she reflects. “But, at the moment, I feel very connected to these songs: they’re quite raw, but very special.”
This proximity leaves little room for comfort. Over the course of our interview, Jacklin jokes several times about how she feels safer when she’s at a distance – either emotionally, from the people that she loves (“really caring about people just makes me think about death”), or from her day-to-day life in Melbourne. Last year, she told Pitchfork how she first discovered herself as a songwriter while briefly living in England, at a remove from her friendship group back home. As we speak, she’s “escaped” to Tasmania, determined to experiment with writing something a little more longform. “It’s not a sustainable way to do it!” she laughs. “I don’t think I’ll have a very good writing career if I need to escape every time, but I’m just seeing how it feels.”
Alongside the anxiety of releasing an album of still-open wounds, there is another pressing theme running through Pre Pleasure: what happens when words aren’t enough? The record details stories from her childhood, her perspective on faith, her relationship to her mother, and how she feels during the first flushes of love. Her lyrics are so intense and explicitly personal that almost any question you could ask about these songs feels intrusive. But tied up in the directness of Jacklin’s songwriting is a fear that she won’t be heard. “What I realise as I’ve grown up is that even if you have the words, you can’t guarantee that someone’s going to listen, or that it will be received in the way that you imagine it will,” she says, with a shrug.
For Jacklin, ‘pre pleasure’ is the false promise of a reward that is just within reach, if only you could articulate yourself clearly enough. “This idea that if you communicate with everyone in your life, you’ll just… emerge.” Jacklin spreads her hands as if drawing back imaginary curtains. “Then all your relationships will be so beautiful and seamless and there will be this channel of communication. But I know that’s absolute garbage. I know I’ll be trying to improve the relationships in my life until I die.”
An example of this is Less of a Stranger. Nestled in the heart of the album, the deceptively delicate acoustic guitar can’t hide the sting when the chorus reveals the anonymous “you” from the opening lines (“never gonna know you, the way that I want to”) to be Jacklin’s own mother. In that moment of revelation, the guitar peels back to leave the words floating in thin air: “Oh, I just wish my own mother was less of a stranger.” The song negotiates the raw vulnerability of a child-parent relationship with grace, Jacklin’s vocals double-tracked as if to act out a conversation that’s not yet happened in real life. “Sometimes I wonder, do I intimidate her?/ Do my questions and my pain take like skin to the razor?” she sings in a register so casual it belies the weight that the words carry.
Will she play the song to her mother before the record’s release? “Oh, I’ll definitely do that…” she nods, despite the hesitancy in her voice. “I need to figure out how to talk about it, but I’m still like, ‘Why did I put it on the record?’” There’s a beat before she corrects herself: “No, it’s OK. I’m just not sure how I’m going to deal with it.” She laughs freely this time. “We’ll see.”
For many, the thought of speaking so frankly, especially with those we love, can be terrifying. “It makes me sweat, too! But I try not to let anything get in the way of putting the music down. Then I just have to deal with the consequences. Trying to fight against that, I’d probably just write songs that sucked. I just have to cop what happens.”
Jacklin calls herself a “confessional” writer, without denying the burden of that label for women artists in particular. “I know how much people roll their eyes at confessional female singer-songwriter music, but I know the problem with it: some people feel the need to traumatise themselves to be taken seriously in this industry. I’m wary of playing into that trope, and also of being dismissed because of the way that I write.”
There’s a cultural tendency to interrogate art by women for its autobiographical qualities, while lauding universal themes in similarly personal art by men. Taylor Swift’s fictional characters on Folklore were scrutinised for any hint of ‘real life’ detail, while fellow singer-songwriters like Father John Misty have their deeply intimate ballads dissected as social commentary. As Jacklin describes it, this trend can pressure women into digging painfully deep in order to be “marketable”, all the while undermining the gruelling craft of making such personal work.
“People feel the need to traumatise themselves to be taken seriously in this industry. I’m wary of playing into that trope, and also of being dismissed because of the way that I write”
“In the past I felt like I had to give everything,” she reflects. “Especially with the first two albums. Trying to keep the balance is really difficult, especially once you start touring and you’re doing a lot of press and you’re just giving, giving, giving. It can start to feel like, ‘Oh shit, maybe this isn’t as empowering as I hoped.’ But the more I do this, the more that I know where my boundaries are.”
She leans back in her chair. “Whatever! I don’t think you need to mine the depths of your life to be a good songwriter. Some of my favourite songwriters, I have no idea what they’re talking about. The lyrics are closer to the chest, more poetic, just a different way to use language. But for me, this is just the way that I write at this point in my life.”
Jacklin’s jokey resignation towards her creative approach is balanced by how earnestly she describes the compulsion to examine herself through her music. “Every single person I know is basically healing from their childhoods in one way or another. And I guess the way I do that is through music, even though sometimes I’m just like, ‘Ah, move on!’”
Lydia Wears a Cross, the record’s luminous first single, takes on this challenge headfirst. A spiky yet minimal song, driven by a sparse drum machine, it considers organised religion through the eyes of a child. “Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me,” Jacklin chants, “go on, now you try it”. Throughout her youth, Jacklin attended Catholic school, but was the only member of her class who wasn’t baptised. She remembers waiting alone in the pew while the other children received the sacrament. “You try your best, but you’re also a child being asked to perform these strange rituals that don’t make sense,” she says carefully. “I don’t think I ever really believed. But I definitely had moments where I thought it would be so nice if I did.”
Some of Pre Pleasure’s most intense passages are found in these moments of negotiation, between how a person feels and how they want to feel. “Cut wide open, did I let in too much?” she asks on I Was Neon, a rock song carried by warm electric guitars and the stab of a snare, which sharply contrasts searching lyrics: “Am I gonna lose myself again?” Pinned down by a kick drum, Moviegoer is theatrical and sparse, and addresses the futility of using art to connect: “Movie director’s going down too/ Twenty million dollars still nobody understands you.” But perhaps most painful of all is Ignore Tenderness, which uses a sweet sprinkling of chimes to steer the song between a desire for physical intimacy and brutal dehumanisation: “Beneath the sheets you’re just a cave/ A plastic bucket or a grave.”
The subtle use of chimes in Pre Pleasure, Jacklin tells me, is a nod to three artists she loves, but with whom her own artistry has little in common: Robyn, Luther Vandross and Celine Dion. She credits the lull of the pandemic with restoring her own love of music, and wanted to twist this admiration into the record somehow. “[Chimes] aren’t something I’d usually do,” she admits, “but I wanted big feelings! I wanted pop music, I wanted human emotion!”
“What I realise as I’ve grown up is that even if you have the words, you can’t guarantee that someone’s going to listen”
Of all of Jacklin’s albums, Pre Pleasure feels the most extreme: it holds some of her dreamiest, most elegant compositions to date, but also maximalist, near-industrial sounds that feel like physical release. On the album’s glittering finale, End of a Friendship, the ‘friend’ does all the talking. We watch through Jacklin’s eyes as she “sits there in silence”, trying to justify losing someone she cares about. Then, as if to comfort, a lush string arrangement from Owen Pallett picks up the vocal melody, spinning it from something small and lonely into a grand, transformative gesture. And with that, Jacklin lands on a wish of sorts: “All my words are caught up in a cloud/ You know someday you’ll have to say them out loud.” A shard of feedback pierces the illusion, and we’re back to where we started: the need to speak, with the knowledge that speaking won’t fix everything.
“It’s one of the saddest parts about being a human being,” Jacklin says, matter-of-factly, but with a tinge of hope in her voice. “This deep need to be seen and loved and heard – so many things get in the way of that.” Pre Pleasure makes the case that we have to keep trying.
Pre Pleasure is out on 26 August via Transgressive Records