Our interview is running late, but there is hardly anyone to blame; not when the building is literally crumbling around us. At the soon-to-be-vacated record label offices where Angus and Julia Stone are meeting the media, walls have been demolished, elevators are swathed in bandages of black plastic, and everywhere there’s the heavy rending of jackhammer and drill. The grind of renovation is a constant backdrop to our conversation, though both Angus and Julia are unperturbed by the noise. In fact, they seem remarkably relaxed for people who have spent half the day fielding questions that must start to repeat after a while.
Julia’s words come rapidly, with sentences structured like stories; full of visual details, gestures and analogies. Angus, on the other hand, takes time to consider his responses, and though his answers are no less thoughtful, he seems surprised by his observations, as though these ideas are only occurring to him for the first time. In a sense, this is entirely the case.
“People are already asking us what comes next,” says Angus. “They’re all valid questions, I guess. With interviews and things, you’re constantly figuring out what you mean in songs. You’ve never really thought about these things, and it makes you question what you’re doing. Sometimes I hate interviews, but I think there’s something you can learn from them yourself.”
“And when you talk about them,” Julia adds, “you are sort of bullshitting. I really don’t ever think what a song is about while I’m writing it. I just write it, and later I’ll start thinking, ‘Maybe it’s about this, or maybe…’ And I’ll start forming these opinions about something that was never there to begin with. It’s a funny situation to be in, where I guess you become a critic of your own art. Like looking through the gallery going, ‘Hmmm.’”
Angus begins stroking his chin and adopts a posh, appraising tone. “‘How would you describe the style of that guitar stroke mid-song?’” He smiles. “It’s pretty wanky.”
“Yes, that chorus has a rather cloudy flavour,” Julia adds, and they both laugh.
It’s great banter, and the siblings have a hilarious rapport when they try and compare writing processes. But they do make a strong point. “We all get into this way of talking about certain things, and that’s just us, that’s just people,” Julia says. “We want to talk, we want to understand. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – I just think that sometimes when you’re in it, it’s hard. You don’t know how to get out and describe what you’re doing.”
Angus and Julia’s new self-titled album, recorded with renowned US producer Rick Rubin, marks the first time the pair has sat down together and worked side by side. When it came to recording, they even shared the same vocal booth, and hearing each other’s voice directly in their ears became an important part of the process. If it is impossible to judge your own work, then collaborating so closely with another must give a unique perspective on how these songs evolve.
“Tom Waits once said, ‘Recording a song is like photographing a ghost,’” Angus says. “My struggle with being in the studio is forgetting that there’s all this equipment around, it’s all being documented, and just finding the place you were in when you first put down the idea, finding that space it was created from again. Getting that – I don’t know – that beginning.”
Julia thinks for a time about her reply. I notice whenever she tries to recall a detail she will look up and to the right, as though the answer is written in the corner of the room.
“For me, it’s very much a chance encounter between a combination of events, things that are in the environment,” she says. “Often an instrument itself will direct the song. If I’m writing something on the electric guitar, the sound will shape a different melody than if I had played that same melody on the acoustic. The electric travels longer, so longer vocals will fit better. Whereas acoustic fingerpicking, you can be a bit sharper with your shape. I mean, these are things that you’re just feeling out; it feels like a nicer correlation between ‘this’ and ‘this’. On piano, for instance, I find I write quite dark and sad, because I love the sound of minor chords on the piano. I really do think the environment and the instrument determine the form of the song.”
Having your surroundings influence the shape of a song is an intriguing idea, and finding the right circumstance – the “proverbial spark”, as Angus puts it – is no simple concern.
“With [‘Get Home’], I only had the line, ‘Just as long as you go get home, you get home,’” he says. “I didn’t know if it could be tangible, be good enough to be real. I booked in a month in the studio in New York and recorded it there, but when we tried to re-record it at [Rubin’s studio] Shangri La, it just didn’t have that same feeling as when you first walk into the studio and there’s that uncertainty, where you’re taking these risks that you can’t reinvent, or try to recreate.”
“You don’t know what’s going to happen,” Julia adds. “You don’t know how you’re going to feel or what sort of mood to expect; it’s this really unknown, mystical thing. I’ve always found it hard to find that same joy in the studio that I find I have live, but this time around it was different. You’re with these other, separate souls all coming together to make one unified sound. I really like that.”
Angus & Julia Stone out Friday August 1 through EMI. Catch them with Vancouver Sleep Clinic at the Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House on Sunday September 14 and Monday September 15, tickets online. Also appearing at the Civic Theatre, Newcastle on Wednesday September 17, tickets here.