On the side of Julia Stone’s acoustic guitar, written in black texta, you’ll find the words ‘If you’re not here, where are you?’, a lyric from one of her favourite bands, San Francisco’s Okay.
There’s other quotes too – “you don’t have to be a brilliant beacon of bullshit” also from Okay and “one often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it” from the film Kung Fu Panda of all things – but it’s the first that’s been her compass lately.
“It’s like if you’re not here, where the fuck are you?” she ponders, blue-green eyes lighting up. “Living in the future with some fantasy of how it’s going to be or how it’s been in the past? I wrote it to remind me to be right here in the moment because the mind’s always trying to take you somewhere else.”
To be fair, since the runaway success of Julia and brother Angus’ 2010 album Down The Way (number one debut, five ARIAs, triple platinum sales), she’s been somewhere else a lot. Mostly, travelling the world in a blur of endless shows and wanderlust.
A month ago she was holidaying in India, a week from now she’ll be in the UK, but right here, right now, the 28-year-old is sitting in a swanky café in Sydney’s Potts Points talking about many things: playing shows in ancient amphitheatres in France, how raw tomato makes her tongue tingle and nuzzling her handsome love interest in the video for “Let’s Forget All The Things That We Say”, the first single from her second solo album, By The Horns.
“It was scary at first, because it requires a bit of acting,” she says as she picks at her Fish Of The Day. “It’s one thing to walk along singing a song, but nuzzling is a whole other thing.”
The clip’s bound to turn heads for other reasons too, with Julia trading her vintage frocks and bare feet for a sexy new look that’s all bangs, designer dresses and high heels. Has Australia’s favourite hippie chick gone chic? Well, yes and no.
“Sitting around talking about our image feels lame, but basically, it never felt comfortable to be sexy or show that side of me posing next to my brother in photos or videos,” she says over the whir of the espresso machine. Can we expect Angus to follow suit? “Yes, he looks great in heels,” she replies with a cheeky smile.
Today, Julia’s dressed more casual than couture, wearing a black cardigan, tan floral dress and black boots she’s swiped from her step-sister’s wardrobe. In conversation, she’s warm, deeply thoughtful and candid, even more so when she’s not discussing her music. Not that she avoids it – you just get the sense that, for her, songs are better played than dissected.
By The Horns may be her second solo record, but it’s the first she’ll devote herself to full-time. She snuck out her debut The Memory Machine in late 2010 while touring Down The Way, even taking her label EMI by surprise. By contrast, its sequel is a more formal release with a solo tour to support it.
It wasn’t always the plan. In January last year, Angus and Julia started recording songs for their third album, only to shelve it because they had too many. “It was too much to think we could only pick six songs each,” recalls Julia, as she wraps her hands in her cardigan sleeves. “We were both in a place where we really wanted creative space to go in whatever direction we wanted so we were like ‘let’s just take a year out.’”
As for the recordings, “they’re on a hard drive somewhere” and unlikely to be heard. “I think to go back to them would be weird,” she explains, before assuring me Angus and her are “still definitely together in spirit.”
Recorded in New York with producers Thomas Bartlett and Patrick Dillett (who worked on one of her favourite albums, The National’s High Violet), By The Horns, like its predecessor, finds Julia wrestling with matters of the heart. “Is there anything else?” she asks with mock-seriousness.
First single “Let’s Forget…” explores being in love rather than discussing it, while the title track deals with the fall-out from a “one-off affair on tour gone wrong”. Other songs like “I Wanna Live Here”, “It’s All Okay” and “I’m Here, Not Here” keep returning to that line scrawled on her guitar.
That’s really the feeling behind this record,” she muses. “They’re all dealing with my desperate attempt as a person to be here with you right now rather than think of what’s happening next, or what happened in the past.”
It’s at that point we realise rather hilariously she’s been leaning against the menu whiteboard and accidentally erased several items from the list with her head. Right now, she’s rubbing texta off her face, laughing her head off.
So on the cusp of her solo career with a little smudged texta on her face, how’s ‘here’ feeling right now?
“I’m… give me a minute…” she says, still laughing. “I’m excited. I feel like there’s a lot of potential for me to grow up a lot. It feels like an alternate reality to get on a plane and Angus won’t be there with me. I don’t know where I’m going to end up, and I like that.”
This is my fifth interview with Julia dating back to 2006 – check out the others here