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Saturday, June 22, 2024

A Crappy Old Casio Keyboard Changed Everything for Julia Jacklin

On Julia Jacklin’s excellently strange new album Pre Pleasure there’s a song called “Too In Love to Die.” It’s very much literal. The besotted narrator ticks off a couple of fatal calamities—a plane crash, a walk onto the highway—then swears they could never kill her, because, you know, she’s in love.

In interviews, Jacklin has said she didn’t intend the track to be so morbid, that this tragedy tune was, in fact, the result of an attempt to write a happy, cheerful love song. “I felt that was the only way I could write about love in a positive way,” Jacklin told Stereogum, laughing. Which is a pretty good sampling of what makes Jacklin—singer-songwriter, 31, Australian—so specific and special. In understated ways, she whirls together intoxicating, overwhelming moods.

Before Pre Pleasure, her third album, Jacklin had always written her songs on guitar. But Pre Pleasure may not have existed if she hadn’t put down the axe and picked up a keyboard. After touring behind 2019’s Crushing for two pandemic-interrupted years, Jacklin says, “I was so sick of guitar. I’m not a super technical guitarist. You get stuck in the same chord patterns and strumming rhythms. It felt like the only way that I could write new songs was by changing it up.”

She got her first keyboard from the musician Steve Moore, who’s played with drone-metal legends Sunn O))) and composed horror movie scores. “I never owned something like that,” Jacklin says. “Maybe because when I was young and a bit insecure I thought, ‘Oh, a guitar is a serious instrument, and a Casio keyboard with a really shitty drum machine sound is not what a professional musician should be writing on.’ But that gift from someone who’s been a musician forever—who’s literally played it on stage with Sufjan Stevens—it was like, ‘OK, well, if it’s good enough for you, obviously it’s good enough for me.”

The opening track and lead single from Pre Pleasure, “Lydia Wears a Cross,” kicks off with one of those “shitty” drum machine sounds. As Jacklin chants the catchy title phrase—“Lydia wears a cross / says she’s never gonna take it off”—robotic thuds march on. Tinny and beguiling, it wrong-foots any longtime Jacklin listeners expecting pleasing, sad, familiar guitars.

Jacklin, who eventually moved from a Casio to a Roland, says that the beauty of keyboards is that it’s easy to get sounds out of them. “The guitar, it’s super painful at the start, it doesn’t feel intuitive. The keyboard—a cat can play a keyboard!” she adds. “I definitely didn’t dive into that instrument in a technical way. It was more just, you put down two keys and you’re like ‘That’s cool. That sounds nice.’”

Changing her songwriting process is part of Jacklin’s overall love of personal experimentation, which has seen her take tap dancing and screenwriting classes. It’s also a part of a move toward more personal creative freedom. “When you’re a woman singer-songwriter who sings about feelings, people make a lot of assumptions,” she says. “I was just saying to someone, sometimes I wonder whether the only reason I’m a folk singer-songwriter is because I’m 31 and I came up in the time of Laura Marling and Fleet Foxes and Mumford and Sons. These are the things that end up completely describing who you are. How did I end up here?”

During the making of Pre Pleasure, Jacklin listened to a lot of Leonard Cohen’s stuff from the 1980s, “when he was a bit silly.” “I was thinking, how cool is it that someone could write ‘Suzanne’ and then also write ‘Jazz Police’?” she says. “To me that record totally sounds like an artist that is just trying something on.” Looking ahead, Jacklin would like to do a bit more of that herself. The keyboard was a step in that direction. She’s not entirely sure, or at least not currently saying, what the next steps will be. “Three albums in, I feel like I’ve proved myself to myself,” she says, “I genuinely feel like I’m gonna approach things a bit differently moving forward. Because it’s like, at the end of the day”—she smiles—“who cares.”

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