Some 13 years ago, Julia Jacklin was standing in the corner of LKM Dance Studios in Springwood, watching a star in the making.
A girl named Liz Hughes, a fellow 12-year-old sporting a pair of sparkly rainbow hoop earrings, was choreographing a dance all of her own, fashioning a jig set to ‘Young Hearts Run Free’. Jacklin was transfixed, too nervous to approach her. “We didn’t really talk,” Jacklin says now.
Hughes was everything the Britney Spears-obsessed young Jacklin wanted to be. After all, music had been Jacklin’s dream for years, less a hobby and more a pressing, un-ignorable need; the force guiding her every action. Given that drive, surely it would only be a matter of time before she was releasing albums and topping charts, fulfilling the dream that she and Hughes seemed so on track for – a question of six years, max? Surely it wouldn’t take much more than that?
But flash-forward a little over a decade, and Jacklin was lost – literally. The then still relatively unknown singer-songwriter had taken a day off from recording what would become her debut album in a small studio in Lyttelton, New Zealand, when she and her drummer and friend Tom Stephens had decided to take a hike through the mountains. But it wasn’t long before the plans were abandoned and they went off-road. “We ended up setting up in one spot and eating carrot cake,” laughs Stephens. “It wasn’t what we had imagined setting off on the trail.”
It was one such diversion among a sea of them. Though Jacklin had been making music ever since those years at LKM – even joining a band called Salta with Hughes following their eventual reconnection during an overseas holiday in Peru – before decamping to NZ she had been growing increasingly worried that her dreams were being waylaid. She and Hughes were growing together, learning their craft and developing an important friendship, but Jacklin was still worried she was falling behind. Life had somehow distracted her, and she was spending her days working in an essential oils factory in St Peters while considering a future as a social worker.
Worse still, she was fighting off a self-imposed time limit, one weighing down on her like a curse. “I was very much like, ‘I have to make an album before I turn 25,’” she said in an interview with the BRAG earlier this year. “That was very much my life goal.” She sings about the feeling on ‘Motherland’, the beating heart of the album that would eventually be released under the name Don’t Let The Kids Win. “These new lines on my face spell out ‘girl pick up your pace’,” goes the lyric, belted out in Jacklin’s distinctive croon. “If you want to stay true to what your younger self would do.”
Even as Jacklin played sparsely attended gigs in dark, tiny rooms, it was obvious she lusted after bigger things.
“Julia and I met at an open mic night at the Little Guy in Glebe,” says Stephens. “The room was pretty disinterested in the performers and rowdy but I remember Julia having a distinct stoic quality about her up onstage. She wasn’t fussed that people weren’t paying much attention. There was a noticeable focus and determination about her. She’s always known what she’s wanted and chased it.”
That determination drew her to other musicians, and them to her. Among the many local talents she met was Ryan Brennan, a young artist and producer who would go on to engineer Don’t Let The Kids Win’s ‘Hay Plain’. They gigged together whenever possible, honing their talents in the relative security of small stages.
“We both played guitar together and she sang,” Brennan explains. “It was a great place to start playing shows – we always had a few friends come along.”
But of them all, Hughes inspired Jacklin perhaps the most. The pair drove each other in a range of subtle and important ways, with Hughes finding her musical friend deeply inspiring on a practical level. “Julia is a great lyricist,” Hughes says. “She always has been. She has a strong understanding of harmony, melody and how to use all the facets of her voice. Her vocal lines sound effortless, even when they are challenging to sing.”
Even when the two friends weren’t directly working together, they fed off each other’s energy, using each other as springboards and motivators. “With Julia, she’d [always] done really well with her music,” Hughes told the BRAG earlier this year.“Even just with my group of friends you can see how that pushes other people. Everyone’s feeding off the same energy. Like, you go, ‘OK, Julia wrote those songs and recorded them with not much money and she made these video clips and she had the confidence to do that. Maybe I can do that too.’”
And make no mistake: Jacklin was writing songs, constantly, obsessively, crafting the tunes that would eventually make up Don’t Let The Kids Win. As Hughes notes, Jacklin didn’t always have the money to hire rehearsal spaces, so songs were practised wherever she and her band could take up a little room and make a little noise. “We had our first rehearsal at my parents’ place in Cronulla where I was living at the time,” says Stephens. “We ran through a few of the songs that we still play today.”
But the need to record an album was still haunting Jacklin, and it was evident to all those around her. “She had wanted to make an album for a while,” Brennan says. It wasn’t enough to be playing shows or releasing the odd few singles: Jacklin needed to release a record. And time was running out.
Before too long, Jacklin was ready to take to the studio, armed with a bounty of material. But rather than put togetherthe album she had long lusted after at any of the Sydney-based locations available to her, she looked farther afield, finding herself drawn to NZ. She knew she wanted to make an album there, and more than that, she knew exactly who was going to help her make it.
“I chose to record over there because I heard a record by Aldous Harding, a New Zealand singer-songwriter, and just really wanted to work with who she had worked with,” Jacklin explains.
The man in question was Ben Edwards, a veteran of the industry and, as Stephens tells it, an immensely likeable battler who “care[s] about every take”. But it wasn’t just the lure of Edwards that sent Jacklin over the seas, away from the factory line job taking up her days – the promise of serenity and escape was convincing as well.
“I wanted to get out of Sydney,” she admits. “Really just lock myself away to make it. I lived in a cabin in [Ben’s] yard and the studio was attached to his house. We were there for three weeks.”
Not that the process was always as idyllic as such a description makes it sound. Though Jacklin and her band had planned out the songs in advance, Edwards often pushed them to rearrange the tunes, encouraging new takes on old material. “The songs were pretty mapped out going in there,” says Stephens. “[But] Ben had a lot of cool ideas in regards to percussion overdubs and changes to try on specific songs. We even spent quite a bit of time changing up a song that didn’t end up on the record. It’s all about the process though; it’s all about what you learn coming out of the experience.”
Just as pressingly, Jacklin was having to face her own not inconsiderable waves of self-doubt. “There were some things that were hard at first,” she says now. “Recording had always made me nervous, because your perceived weaknesses are highlighted in full. So I was worried I wasn’t a slick enough musician to make a record.”
But that’s where Edwards came in, assisting Jacklin in finding the heart of each song. “A lot of the change in my attitude came from working with Ben,” she says. “He didn’t fuss too much on gear and technicalities: he was just all about getting a great take of the song.”
Eventually, the album began to take shape. Songs inspired by Jacklin’s fears for the future bumped up against tunes about Zach Braff, long-distance romance and even Hughes, who inspired the surprisingly hard-edged number ‘Elizabeth’. But even as the record began to flit closer into focus, new issues presented themselves, with Jacklin finding her job of organising of the record into a semblance of order hard. “It turned out to be really difficult,” she says.
“I thought that would be the easy part, but you have all these anxieties that you need to make sure people keep listening to the end. But then you realise that you can’t really control that and people can skip if they don’t like something. I just knew I wanted to put ‘Don’t Let The Kids Win’ at the end because that was the last thing I’d written.”
Finally then – finally – the thing was finished. Jacklin hadn’t just completed her debut record, she’d fulfilled a dream, one that had sustained her for years. With all the gentle grace of someone letting out a slow exhale, she dropped Don’t Let The Kids Win on October 7, 2016. It was done.
Since then, life has changed dramatically for Jacklin. The record’s release and subsequent critical acclaim hasn’t just affected her in nebulous, cerebral ways – the day-to-day business of her very existence has altered. She doesn’t do the same things any more; doesn’t work in the factory, or play tiny rooms to disinterested audiences. Instead, she tours nearly constantly, playing international festivals and sharing stages with artists like Whitney and Big Thief.
That comes with its own issues too. “Our lives have taken on a very different shape,” Jacklin says. “I always imagined [touring] would be similar to traveling like I’ve done in the past, but it’s very different. You spend most of your time in very small spaces with the same four people. It’s quite a weird way of going about your life. Every day starts to feel the same.”
It’s been tricky for Stephens and Brennan as well, the two musicians accompanying Jacklin on her global tours. “It’s been intense,” Stephens admits. “Spending so much time together can be tough – alone time is minimal. It’s a big privilege playing music for a living though. You’ve got to focus on the positives. Spending all day in transit can make you question what it’s all for, but when you get up onstage and dive into the songs, you remember why you do it. It’s therapy.”
That’s the key for Jacklin too. It’s a scary thing, getting what you’ve always wanted: there’s no easier way to stifle someone’s ambition than to fulfil their dreams. But Jacklin is not done, nor has she forgotten her past. Even as she moves forward, she is forever thankful to all those who helped her – to Stephens, and Brennan and Hughes.
But yes, particularly Hughes, that rainbow-earring-clad dancer who inspired her all that time ago.
“We both learned [so many] things together and taught each other things and shared new songs each week and pushed and encouraged each other,” Jacklin says of the working relationship with her collaborator and friend. “[She] had everything to do with eventually making Don’t Let The Kids Win. It’s through her I learnt everything.”