On Jess Locke’s sophomore album, Universe, the Melbourne-based singer-songwriter blends honest introspection with ‘sad pop’ sensibilities to create her most expansive and confident sound yet.
Earlier this year Locke became the first artist signed with The Smith Street Band’s new label Pool House Records. However, Locke still manages to retain the intimacy of her earlier DIY bedroom to Bandcamp projects on the new record.
Fuller and more layered than Locke’s earlier work – 2016’s Words That Seem To Slip Away and 2011’s Skins – Universe places Locke firmly in the centre, whether she’s tracing her sadistic tendencies in ‘Better/Bitter’ or singing about probiotics in ‘Gut Feeling’.
We chatted with Locke about her new record, creative pressures, and how pondering the universe reminds you that you are just one tiny, little speck.
You’ve got some older songs and some newer ones on the record. How did everything come together?
It’s always been a collection of stuff that I’ve been trying to put down and then move on from. The songs that have ended up on the record are just those songs that stuck with me that I felt like I hadn’t done justice to yet. The oldest song ‘Drive to Drink’ we actually released on a little home demo in 2012 but it was much more stripped back and more folk driven at that time. My drummer Chris just said ‘Hey we should try that song’ and we did and it just sounded like a new song. Playing it with the band brought something new to it and we just thought we should put that on the record too.
How did you decide on the title of the album? It would be daunting picking something that encapsulates everything, which I guess Universe does.
Yeah you kind of answered the question for me! I didn’t sit down with a particular concept for the record in mind. I’ve never really done that. I’ve always just kind of been writing songs and eventually putting them on a record. But I was going through all the songs and all the lyrics just to find something that felt like it spoke for everything and obviously [there’s] the song ‘Universe’ and I thought Universe is pretty broad. Also it just seemed like a nice idea.
Are you into astrology?
Not really astrology. I like astronomy. I guess I’m just fascinated by space and science and nature in general. So cosmic kind of things I find pretty fascinating. Without having to have any extra meaning coming out of them for humans or whatever. I watched that remake of the Carl Sagan [series] Cosmos. Me and my housemate would just sit and watch that on repeat. There’s just something about the scale and the way thinking about things like that make you feel as a human – tiny and insignificant but kind of in a nice way.
The new album is a lot bigger than your previous records both in terms of release and the sound is a lot fuller as well. Did you approach this album differently?
Yeah definitely there was a conscious element to that. But also it had been three years or so since I’d recorded by last record so there’s this whole chunk of time in which I’d met my current band and we’d been playing together and [I’d been] developing as a writer. There was that organic, gradual evolution. When you have a permanent band [you’re] more consciously thinking of writing for a band whereas when you’re playing solo and sometimes with a band you can get by with the bare bones. So it was definitely leading up to a more layered [record] and experimental in terms of dipping into styles and vibes.
I really liked the song ‘Universe’. There’s a line ‘I’ll break your skin and put my heart into your chest’. That idea of trying to be close to someone but it being destructive in a way.
Yeah that’s exactly it. I guess the whole song is about trying to connect with the world and with people almost desperately. When you’re in love or infatuated you’re always wanting to get closer and be with them but there’s a point at which you can’t become any closer to them otherwise you’ll turn into them and literally destroy each other but also symbolically you would not have your own identity. There’s the conflict between wanting to connect but also to really experience true reality you have to maintain your own being.
There’s a line in ‘Paper Planes’ ‘You can’t write every song’. Are there any songs that you wish you had written?
That line was more about writing songs that never existed. Often the creative process itself can be really stressful and anxiety provoking. I spent a long time in this weird love-hate relationship with music because you put all this pressure on yourself. I’m sure a lot of creative people know this feeling you kind of have to learn to grow out of it but you sort of resent sitting down and writing because you’ve got this pressure on yourself that you’ve got to write and have an outcome and get a great song. So that line was about letting go – you’ll never do everything you want, you’ll never take advantage of every little spark of creative inspiration.
But there’s also a number of amazing songs out there that I guess I don’t really mind that I didn’t write them, I’m just glad that they exist. In fact I’d rather not write great songs because I can never listen to my songs objectively – I can never really listen to them with the ears of someone who didn’t write them. I can only go by what people say and what I feel.
You’ve just signed with The Smith Street Band’s new label and you recorded the new album with Fitzy from the band. How do you know each other?
They just kick around Footscray where I live now and my band, Chris and Jim, have known them for awhile. It’s just kind of a music scene that people have been hanging around in and been friends. We went on tour with them last year and we just kind of ended up hanging around. I actually live with Fitzy now! So we recorded the album with Fitzy, he mixed it. We recorded some of it at our local pub, The Reverence Hotel, in the band room and then we did the rest at Fitzy’s parents house so it was all really in the family.
Was music always something you wanted to do?
Definitely from a young age there was always music around and I remember my dad playing the piano and we always had those classic records that parents have like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Creedence Clearwater Revival and that was sort of my intro. It was never really something I really thought about. I started playing guitar when I first started high school and it just felt really natural and I always was like ‘this is what I do’. Obviously along the way there’s been a million different versions of what place music has in my life. Whether it’s a career or a hobby it’s always changing but it’s always been there in some form or another.
What are you listening to at the moment?
There’s a Sydney-based artist called Ainsley Farrell that I think is really great. And St Vincent. I love St Vincent.
I actually haven’t listened to her new album yet.
I have! I’m not that into the new album. I’ve only listened to it once. I loved her last few albums and I think the new album just feels like the producer [Jack Antonoff] who did Taylor Swift and Lorde, it sounds like that. But her older stuff I think is just awesome and I’ve been spinning that a lot.
You also painted the album art and are releasing a zine along with the album at a couple of independent record stores.
I do a bit of painting sometimes and I guess over the last couple of years I’d done a bunch of stuff and I think maybe Chris my drummer liked that one and I just picked it.
I’ve always been doing little art things and [the zine] is a nice little addition to make things a little bit more special. Especially because independent record stores are great so it’s nice to encourage people to buy a record there. The zine is a few words about the songs and what they’re about and a few doodles and some of the drafts for the insert which is some of my drawings as well.
Universe is out now via Pool House Records/Remote Control. For more information on the Universe tour visit jesslock.com