After two years living in London and another on tour with no fixed address, Angus and Julia Stone are finally home. It’s a beautiful summer morning in January and the siblings are sitting in the kitchen of their dad’s place in Newport on Sydney’s northern beaches, drinking tea and discussing their return. And best of all, on their insistence, they’re cooking me lunch.
“Getting home was the most amazing feeling,” recalls Julia as she whips up a vege curry on the stove. “At first I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to come home but when I was flying in, the sun had just started rising and I just had this feeling of this is where I’m meant to be.”
It’s here in this house hidden amid the trees that Angus and Julia Stone the musical act was born. What began as a casual duo playing homespun folk at open mic nights and busking comps in 2005 quickly became a potent partnership that saw them relocate to London a year later. In 2007, they released their debut album A Book Like This, which sold over 80,000 copies worldwide and earned them six ARIA Award nominations (sadly they lost out to the Gabriella Cilmi goldrush of 2008).
Their new album Down The Way hits shelves on March 12, but until then these frequent flyers have been happily grounded, just chilling, surfing, sailing and writing new songs at home. Well, Julia’s home at least – Angus has been officially banned from staying here since he was 19. His crime? “Having chickens in the house,” he says with a cheeky grin. Sorry? “I’m joking, I got caught smoking inside.”
Probe a little deeper and there’s also the small matter of the greenhouse he built on the roof to “grow tomatoes.” “Six months later, Dad had a look and pulled down all my mull plants,” he smiles. “He left them there on the deck just so I knew he’d seen them, but then I just hid them down the back and replanted them.”
It’s not like he’s really needed a roof over his head lately anyway. Having arrived back in Australia last May (just a month after the release of his solo album Smoking Gun), he spent most of the year on the road, slowly making his way up to Byron Bay and the hippie haven of Nimbin in his old 1966 Valiant.
“I’ve just been nowhere really,” he says as he rolls a cigarette out on the back deck. “Just living on my lonesome and regathering my thoughts, experiencing things for the first time again. I’d just drive to a beach, surf and camp in the car.”
For someone with a reputation for being criminally quiet, today Angus, 23, is surprisingly chatty, even more so when he’s not dissecting his music. He’s been back in Sydney since Christmas but his ragged Man vs Wild look remains (“I’ve been growing this beard for almost a year now,” he says proudly). Dressed in a grey shirt, shorts that look suspiciously like boxers and Ray-Bans, he’s a dead ringer for Joaquin Phoenix’s hip hop character. In contrast, with her doe eyes and disarming smile, Julia, 25, is a cherub in a country dress, charming, thoughtful and ever-chatty.
When she finally flew back in November after six months in New York, she brought with her some special souvenirs – the final tracks needed to complete Down The Way. It’s a lovingly crafted, slow-burning follow-up to A Book Like This, rich with sun-swept alt-folk and effortless instrumentation. It’s also a far more sombre record – less dancing at a picnic and more wistfully staring out of the window of a cross-country train.
Written and recorded entirely on the road, the album reads like a collection of postcards that resonate deeply with the mixed emotions travel often invokes – wanderlust and melancholy, exhilaration and introspection. “I love the word ‘wanderlust’. Literally the lust to wander and that’s how I feel a lot,” beams Julia. “I get really excited by that feeling of not knowing and inside that is such a range of feelings from beauty to fear and nostalgia and loneliness.”
The shadow of heartbreak also looms large over Down The Way as Angus and Julia both wrestled with the break up of long term relationships. In 2008 Julia split from their drummer Mitch Connolly, her boyfriend since the age of 16. You can feel it on songs like ‘Hold On’ and ‘I’m Not Yours’, but it’s on the aching open letter of ‘For You’ that she lays it most bare (“If you love me / I’ll make you a star in my universe” she implores).
“We were playing the West Coast Blues Festival and there was so much action and fun around but I couldn’t leave my hotel room,” she recalls softly. “So I wrote the song to ask ‘what are you doing?’ and sent it to him and waited to see what he thought. He sent one back but it didn’t have much to do with love.”
In the same year, Angus broke up with his Sydney-based girlfriend. He wrote ‘Big Jet Plane’, a beautiful, spirited ballad about reuniting, before the split and the defiant ‘Draw Your Swords’ (“C’mon love, draw your swords / shoot me to the ground”) after. “It’s telling her she’s the only one even when I’m away but eventually the road will be the demise of that love.”
But he’s also quick to point out it’s not all doom and gloom. For their first recording sessions back in October 2008, they escaped London and spent three weeks at the Sawmills, a studio on the river down in Cornwall which could only be accessed by boat on high tide.
“They mine china clay there and all the trees on the river are covered with this fine white dust that settles on the trees. It was very ghostly and very Lord of the Rings,” says Julia.
“You could either get there by boat or walk along these train tracks,” adds Angus. “When we first arrived, we were walking along the tracks in the moonlight and it felt something like out of Stand By Me. The whole thing was really magical.”
Other highlights included supporting Martha Wainwright throughout Europe and their time in California surrounded by fond friends and new flames, captured in Julia’s ‘Santa Monica Dream’ and Angus’ ‘Yellow Brick Road’. “That song’s about falling in love in San Francisco,” explains Angus, “though at the same time losing my mind because I know I can’t stay. It was just a thing, a small… what’s the word?… potent bottle. A dose and then it was over.”
Do they ever worry about expressing their emotions so openly? “For me, it’s just so real that you don’t censor anything,” he says. “Then all of a sudden it’s stamped on a piece of plastic and people are listening to it. That side of it is quite scary, that they have that much of an insight into you.”
“I’m always writing about my heart breaking,” Julia laughs. “I’m happy to talk about the things that I’ve gone through because I know everybody else on the planet is going through the same shit. I know I’m not the only one to fall in love or break up or feel alone. We’re all twiddling our thumbs going ‘what the fuck are we doing here?’
That’s exactly what Angus and Julia were thinking at the start of 2009. Having waved goodbye to London for good, they hit the US west coast for a string of shows supporting Californian folkie Brett Dennen but it didn’t take long for the wheels to start coming off.
“By then, it’d seriously been a show a night for a good couple of years,” recalls Julia. “We were going through the motions and saying the same shit as the night before. It was like ‘What the fuck? What are we? Travelling jukeboxes? It got to the point where we’d just walk off stage and not even talk to each other, even though we’d had an amazing show.”
It all came to a head in April – in an airport fittingly, although the pair have trouble remembering which one. “I think it was at Los Angeles,” muses Angus before being corrected by his sister. “No, it was a nicer airport, like Vancouver.”
“Angus was actually the one who said ‘no, this has to stop’. We just had this kinda meltdown this in the airport lounge and our band were just sitting there with their eyes down and headphones on.”
“I got really emotional about it because I’d always felt like I had this responsibility to keep this thing going. I took it as a personal attack on me, that he didn’t want to play music with me anymore. I started crying but as soon as I got my head around it, the whole year just opened up… like I could do anything.”
They dutifully finished the tour and told their record company they were done for the year. Instead they flew to New York and spent three weeks recording new songs with Brad Albetta, Martha Wainwright’s husband, in his Brooklyn studio.
After that, Angus got a big jet plane home while Julia opted to stay and work on songs for a solo album with another producer Kieren Kelly (curiously Down The Way’s opener ‘Hold On’ was originally slated for that record). There’s no release date yet, but fans will be able to hear her song ‘This Love’ in the upcoming Australian film The Waiting City starring Joel Edgerton and Rhada Mitchell.
“The stuff she’s recorded is absolutely amazing,” her brother gushes proudly.
So when will get to hear the rest of it? “It’s just sitting there and I’ll put them out when the time’s right. It really depends on what happens with Down The Way. I have no idea what’s going to happen this year or where we’ll be.”
They do have some clues. With the release of Down The Way, Angus, Julia and their new band featuring bassist Rod Calder and drummer Matt Johnson will embark on a national Australian tour that culminates with a slot at the Byron Bay Blues and Roots festival in April. Then it’s off to the UK, Scandinavia and Europe five days later with a month of US shows to follow.
Relaxed, rejuvenated and in stark contrast to their bruised and broken band last year, this time around they can’t wait to hit the road again. “I feel really refreshed and ready to go out and play, more than I ever have before,” says Julia. “I had this realisation while being away from it that you can get up on stage and play the same songs if you want to, but you can embrace being on stage with the other musicians and really enjoy the moment too.”
What they do after that is anyone’s guess, although their lust for new adventures is already getting the better of them.
“I think I might move to Berlin at some point this year,” Julia reveals.
“Berlin? Really?” replies Angus, obviously surprised.
“Yeah, my friend just spent New Year’s there and she’s like ‘Julia, we have to go there! It’s cheap and amazing and beautiful too. Just this morning, she just sent me all these listings for apartments.”
As for Angus? “I’ve been wanting to go to Cactus Beach down south. I’ve just heard stories and seen pictures of it – it’s this beach out near the desert, but I don’t even know what state it’s in,” he wonders aloud, before pausing. “Then again, Berlin sounds pretty good too.”