Julia Stone’s solo act
- Jun 14, 2012
Early on a sultry evening, one conversation repeats outside of a Rockwood Music Hall gig. There are no promotional bills posted on the venue’s façade, so curious commuters stop to question attendees smoking cigarettes on the street.
“Who’s playing tonight?” “Julia Stone.” “You mean the girl from Angus and Julia Stone?”
For the first time since she co-founded that eponymously named folk-rock band in 2006, the Australian singer-songwriter is on tour promoting her solo material. One of her first performances in support of her new album 'By The Horns' is here, at this small club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
It’s been billed as an intimate album launch event and, as such, is not open to the public. About 100 of her friends and fans that received invitations are waiting for the show to start - plus a small cohort of music journalists, eager to judge whether she can hold her own sans Angus.
“Some people have never seen me play and others have only seen me play with Angus, so it’s nice to finally share this new sound,” says Stone. Inside, guests like Valentin Martins, a 21-year-old student who was invited because he responded to a post on Stone’s Facebook fan page, sip on gratis drinks provided by Rockwood’s owners and Smirnoff Vodka. “Do you think Angus is here?” Martins asks his plus-one.
Nearby is Jessie Hill, who directed the music video for “By The Horns,” and Patrick Dillett, a sound engineer known for his work with Mary J. Blige and David Byrne, who co-produced the album. “The idea was to have a party and to invite everyone that worked on the record and all my friends in the city,” says Stone in a sprightly accent that contrasts her music’s solemn tone.
She begins her set with 'The Shit That They’re Feeding You', a melancholy tune about a couple in the throes of a break-up. As co-producer Thomas Bartlett plays an adagio melody on the piano, Stone sings, “I tell you I don't mind where you're going/But I want to know where you have been/I tell you I don't mind being alone/But I want to know who you've seen.” Her voice, reminiscent of Joanna Newsom, is childlike and densely textured.
“Her vocals are emotionally in tune with what her songs are about,” says Dillett. “And they’re just as evocative live as they are in the studio.” Down tempo in rhythm and sullen in tone, By The Horns, like the majority of Stone’s solo material, is a collection of songs that normally appear at the tail end of albums. But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth listening to. Stone’s songs, like Sylvia Plath’s poems, are poignant reminders that beauty can be a by-product of anguish.
In 2005, Stone and her brother Angus started casually performing folk music at open mic nights in Sydney. Back then they were two separate artists who only performed together because they were each in need of talented musicians to play backup piano or trumpet or guitar. They even recorded their own EPs. However, when their manager suggested they team up in 2006, the brother-sister duo was born. “We decided to take three songs from his EP and three songs from my EP and put them together to become 'Chocolates and Cigarettes',” says Stone. “Essentially, we started making compilation CDs.”
They released their debut album 'A Book Like This' a year later and were nominated for six ARIA Awards (essentially the Australian Grammys) and their second full-length album 'Down the Way' in 2010, which debuted at number one on the Australian album charts. While on tour promoting the latter, Stone released her first solo album, 'The Memory Machine'. But because she was already on the road with Angus, she didn’t have time to promote it.
“I felt if I put that record on hold [until the end of the Down the Way tour] then by the time I wanted to release it I’d have another record I’d want to make instead,” says Stone. “So I just figured I’d put it out and then make another album later, which is exactly what happened.”
Now she’s taking both on tour for the first time. Meanwhile, Angus’s latest solo album 'Broken Brights', the first LP he’s recorded under his own name, will be released next month. “In our hearts I think we always wanted to explore the freedom to work on our own - so we can both have more space creatively,” says Stone.
Back at the show, Stone introduces her title track as a “true story” and a "bloody tragic song" about "when you go out with musicians”. It’s about infidelity and deceit and, ultimately, moving on. “You had me by the throat/You had me by the horns/You had me in the same bed/While it was still warm,” she sings. Her voice frequently soars into a falsetto, as if each refrain caused a painful reverberation.
“Those high notes always raise the hair on the back of neck,” says Martins. “There’s such brutal honesty and vulnerability in that song.” Though that honest-to-goodness songwriting is a departure from what she’s released in collaboration with her brother, it’ll take time before she becomes known as an independent artist, where fans are unfazed by Angus’s absence.
Stone says she’s not planning on making another album with her brother, but she’s not ruling it out entirely either. “I think it’s inevitable that we’ll make another record. But I don’t know when that will be,” she says. “For now, we’re both just enjoying the newness of this experience.”