The Sound of Contentment
The music of Angus and Julia Stone is saddled with a certain reputation, and their immensely listenable, accessible and pleasant new album Snow comes backed with exactly the kind of story one might expect.
The siblings, the story goes, holed themselves away on Angus’ eight-acre farm in the beautiful coastal climes of Byron Bay in south-east Australia, converted a homey old cottage on the land into a recording studio and whiled away their days with blissfully harmonious recording sessions, walks on the beach, clean living and exercise.
Such a simple narrative is two things – untrue, and uninteresting. There are worse reputations to be saddled by, of course, but its notable that Julia, a quiet, kind, composed interviewee throughout conversation, bristles just a little when the word ‘wholesome’ is mentioned. “I think we often get mistaken to be a certain way. We do have other things we enjoy!”
"I live the way I live and I’m comfortable with my choices, but fuck telling people that’s cool."
Quickly, she regains her composure. “I think we have pure intentions and we share a mindset to be kind and decent people, but we’ve grown up in a culture that celebrates and connects through drinking.” “Oakwood” for example, on the pair’s new album is about "getting high and falling in love," she says.
“There’s a lot of this connecting over experiences, and it doesn’t have to be about alcohol or drugs, but certainly our experiences growing up in Australia, the ‘wow’ moments always came when you were out celebrating. It’s our culture.”
She recomposes herself. Does the ‘wholesome’ reputation bother her? “I don’t mind it at all. I think it’s very good to be presenting that in the world. We live in a world where its already hard enough to fight your own addictions and to then be promoting it or saying it’s cool, it is really fine to celebrate but if that was your image and all you were putting out there I would feel uncomfortable with that. I live the way I live and I’m comfortable with my choices, but fuck telling people that’s cool.”
It would of course, be equally unfair to paint the Stone siblings as secret hedonists whose country cottage was in fact akin to a secretive version of The Rolling Stones’ legendary hub of debauchery Villa Nellcôte – the sessions for Snow, while not as devoid of drive as the official narrative might have it, was certainly a leisurely eight weeks, the majority of which was spent just as a pair, the central creative partnership free from the frills of engineers and extraneous musicians.
“When we decided that we wanted to make another record together we knew that it had to be in a space where we had no restrictions on time,” says Julia. “We already had a lot of cool gear so we thought we’d just buy a bit of extra stuff and turn it into a studio. we recorded the initial couple of weeks with the band, then after that it was mostly Angus, myself and another engineer Paul, and before long Paul got a job elsewhere. After that was the period of just him and I, we didn’t necessarily want to find another engineer. We just hung out day after day, wake up in the morning, have some breakfast, go to the beach, do a few hours work, take a walk, go back to the beach.”
The "best way to record," she says, "is to spend all day on the beach".
"Our very first EP, Chocolates and Cigarettes, was recorded a very similar way, at our dad’s cottage, we set up the living room with microphones, and you wake up when you wake up, start work when you start work, there’s a bunch of friends around. We went full circle in a way, start in a living room, end up in a living room.”
The siblings are at a point where they now have the luxury of time to allow the creative impulses to take them as and when they see fit; after their career was vaulted into the stratosphere overnight with the release of their 2010 single “Big Jet Plane”, helped along the way to hit status by its inclusion in the soundtrack of one of the Twilight films, there was a lengthy period in which the opportunities offered by the living room were harder to attain.
Much has been made of the fact that by the time the promotional and touring schedule for the duo's second album Down the Way - made extra-gruelling by the success of the track - was over, the mood in camp Stone was that things had run their course.
“It was definitely not healthy, and we decided it was done. It wasn’t so much [a] bad [relationship], we just felt like it had run its course, that we’d gone as far as we could with ‘Angus and Julia Stone’. It was very much like whatever song Angus had written was his, while I was just the person who sang harmonies on his chorus, and he was that for me, maybe a guitar solo. He was like a player in my band and I was a player in his and we respected that space, which is cool, but there was a certain feeling of not quite being complete.”
After a self-imposed and amicable hiatus, it was mega-producer Rick Rubin who coaxed the Stone siblings back together for a self-titled album in 2014. Where before the two had written isolated from each other, coming together with a set of more-or-less complete songs each, before hammering out the details methodically. Both are gifted songwriters in their own right, so the results were never going to be a mish-mash, but it’s easy to see where a feeling of a lack of ‘completion’ might stem. Rubin’s idea, though an uncomfortable shift at first, was to force the two to write together.
"Angus has this ability to really take a big idea or feeling or emotion and turn it into an efficient way of saying it, using a few words...Then I feel like my style is that I love lyrics, and I love lots of explanation."
There is a divide, Julia says, in the writing styles of the two. The more unimaginative of commentators peg Angus as the ‘down to earth’ one, while Julia is often billed as the ‘quirkier’ edge. It’s another word at which she bristles, before once again regaining composure and setting things out in more depth. “It’s never fair to be called quirky, I’ve been described as ‘quirky’ for a long time so I’ve learnt how to handle it. I guess he has this ability to really take a big idea or feeling or emotion and turn it into an efficient way of saying it, using a few words. Direct in a way. Then I feel like my style is that I love lyrics, and I love lots of explanation, I guess I like to embellish. A good example is on the last record, there’s two very distinctive songs that separated us. I always think that’s ‘us’.
“His song is ‘Crash and Burn’ and my song is ‘Death Defying Acts’,” she continues. “With my song everything’s a really word of saying something about being everything and nothing. 'Crash and Burn' is really spacious, it has a few words here and a few words there with this really cool driving rock thing happening. He’s cruisy, I’m intense, and that’s how we are as people.”
She puts her verbose approach down to an adoration of Leonard Cohen: “all these lyric based songs that take you on this intense journey about the meaning of life. He’s the best ever. I saw him play two or three years ago and I couldn’t believe how gracious and humble he was, how solid a performer he was as an artist. Elegant is a great word to describe him, he would bow down to every musician when they started their guitar solo, the way he’d describe each person. I spoke to someone who’d done a different concert of his and every time he does it differently.”
The result of Rubin’s reignition of the pairing was to begin a long process of ‘completion’ for the Stones’ sound. At first the act of combination was tentative, and the Angus and Julia Stone record was largely a feeling-out process in preparation for Snow’s more relaxed, natural approach. “We set up with mics and a lot of instruments and just left the phone recording,” Julia remembers of their first sessions writing in tandem. “Each of us had ideas, guitar parts or whatever. Once we accepted that we were going to do this jam writing together it became like a conversation with a friend. Sometimes it’s absolute rubbish, but amongst an hour’s recording there would be pockets where it worked, we’d sit in the car and listen back to it on a drive from West Hollywood where we were jamming on our way up to Venice beach, and we would talk about it, find the pockets.”
This time round, she says, it all came naturally – “We knew a bit quicker what worked, what was the chorus.” The record certainly feels like their most ‘complete’, bearing each of the siblings’ distinct influences but presenting them intertwined as a rounded whole. Angus’ direct drive is there, as is Julia’s elegant, lyrical sprawls, except this time they’re unified, wrapped around each other for a more robust end product and a more cohesive flow as an album, rather than a sparring switch from song to song. The opener and title track, for example, has the two sharing centre stage with complete equality, each repeating the other’s lines, both voices coming together in egalitarian harmony at the end of each phrase.
“Make It Out Alive” is one of the LP’s most interesting exhibits when it comes to dissecting the pair’s newly re-energised creative partnership, flowing from an esoteric spoken word section from Angus straight into a sumptuous pop chorus from his sister, rising through a hazy electronic fug. “I think that song is a good example of how different we are creatively. The spoken word section over the top of music has a lot to do with Angus’ way of exploring music without me with his [lo-fi, blissed out] Dope Lemon project, but then you make it to a chorus that’s very straightforward that I really like, which is the way I really enjoy writing at the moment, a sing-songy thing that’s symbolic. When we wrote the chorus we wondered if it was going to work, but it ended up really interesting. We’re both doing really different things, but we’ve merged it together.”
Their music, where once it was essentially two distinct styles placed alongside one another, have become two sides of the same coin - a coin that, in the spirit of both receiving their fair share, is quite literally flipped whenever there’s a disagreement. “Sometimes there’s moments where you have to prove the point, like ‘none of this’ll work, trust me’. We’re good at giving each other the space to let each other go ‘ok, finish your idea and we’ll see if it works’. Most of the time if you really believe in something strongly it will work out. If it ever gets to a point where we really are at an impasse – for example we really disagreed about tracklisting and we both had good arguments about what that should be – we flip a coin. I’m right and he’s right but no one’s going to bend. You respect the coin toss.”
In many ways, the overriding sense of the album is comfort, an atmosphere it’s easy to trace back to that farm in Byron Bay. “A woman said to me the other day she felt like she could hear the space, that there was oxygen in the music,” Julia agrees. “At Angus’ farm there’s just expansive space and wildlife, kangaroos everywhere and cows on the property. You feel a sense of freedom. We’ve always been big fans of space in our music, and even though this is probably a more dense album [instrumentally] with more electric sounds and synth sounds, I can hear the farm in there. But then again I can’t think of anything else when I think about this record.”
Snow, then, is the sound of the Stone siblings at their most comfortable, and by extension at their most free-flowing. Having passed through turbulence and begun to rebuild their partnership from a different approach, it’s the sound of them solidifying themselves once more, maintaining both a creative mass appeal and an easiness in their role.
“It’s a funny thing, I guess it’s been a long time playing music, everything happened really gradually, it was five years before ‘Big Jet Plane’, awards and all that stuff. By the time people started noticing, you’ve had enough time to adjust to playing shows. Even when you’re playing smaller shows, if people are enjoying the music you have to accept their praise, that they want to say something to you. I think by the time things were on a bigger scale it seemed like things were pretty normalised. I don’t think anything changed aside from the occasional selfie at the airport. We’re still the same people with the same desires and motivations.”
That sense of contentment also applies to Julia’s ever-rising status. In Australia, with her brother, they are two of the nation’s most-adored musicians, but fortunately, she says, her countrymen and women have a more ‘relaxed’ attitude to expressing their fandom.
"I have lessons that I’ve been through that would be helpful to a young woman...take everything you see with a grain of salt, enjoy beautiful images and follow women who you think are beautiful, but remember that it’s only a small fraction of their life.”
“The only pressure I feel in my life is the pressure to be a certain way. I think because of the standards I have for my own desire to be a certain way. Obviously there’s a bit of diffusion when you’re somebody that’s photographed or written about because people’s perspective becomes what people hear. But if a young girl is inspired by me I’d be so comfortable to give my experience to somebody and be honest and true about it. I have lessons that I’ve been through that would be helpful to a young woman.
"As a person who’s been in the industry for over ten years I’d just say take everything you see with a grain of salt, enjoy beautiful images and follow women who you think are beautiful, but remember that it’s only a small fraction of their life. We’re all human beings, we all have struggles, suffering, pain and beauty, nobody is any different, no matter how different they look on Instagram.”
The only question that remains of Julia Stone, is how long she and her brother can keep this purple patch alive. Before the Rubin-influenced regeneration they’d spoken of things having ‘run their course’, might they ever do so again? “I don’t think we’ll ever run the full course,” she says. “We’ll always play music together, but now I don’t feel like there’s any need to force something to happen. If it happens it’ll be if we’re hanging out and jamming and thinking ‘oh there’s some cool songs here’. It’ll be a circumstantial thing.
"One thing we’ve always had in common is that we’re not great at planning.”