From the bedroom to the bandroom, Jess Locke has stepped things up with her second album, Universe. It’s a melancholic and introspective album that covers not only personal vulnerabilities and disclosures, but thoughts on social issues and the frustrations that go with them. The music, as we’ve come to expect from this Melbourne singer-songwriter, is played at an Andante speed (walking pace) and gives us time to breathe and appreciate the effort that has gone into the music and lyrics.
My chat with Jess finds her in her bedroom in Melbourne, a similar location that saw her launch her career, unsurprisingly with an online album titled In The Bedroom in 2009, with beautifully crafted solo, folky tracks. Since her first full release of last year, Words That Seem To Slip Away, Jess has connected with a band, being Jim Morris, formerly of Anchors, on bass, and Chris Rawsthorne, former Ribbons Patterns drummer. The addition of these members has filled out the once sparse sound.
“I started playing with a new band just after I released my last record, so I feel like this record is really tied together by that – working with these two people for three years or so. Some of the songs are quite old and I’ve written some songs along the way as well, but, compared to me, recording mostly alone in my bedroom with a very basic band, this has been more about experimenting with them and getting much more input.”
Working with a band after being solo can be a tricky but constructive process. Jess collaborated with Jim and Chris in the writing process of the album, which resulted in new ideas, persuasive conversations and a new approach to her music that created something “greater than anything I could have come up with by myself!” The ‘band’ part of Jess Locke was included in line-ups when Jess toured with The Smith Street Band, Luca Brasi and Joelistics last year, but she has now reverted back to just her name and the band is implied.
Jess decided to go with Universe as the title of the new album. She explains why, “I was struggling to find a name for the album, like going through all the songs and thinking what is the umbrella for this collection of songs from such different parts of my life and so I thought, Universe, obviously being the title of a song, is also a pretty good umbrella for most things! In a way, as you mature over the years, things maybe become a little bit less about your personal circumstances and a bit more connected, even though a lot of my songs are quite personal and I guess some people might say confessional. I’m always thinking about the way in which that’s connecting to other peoples’ experience. Yes, it’s my story, but it’s just one of many stories that are probably exactly the same and it’s much more of a broader human thing.”
The cover of the album is also something that connects, albeit in a different way. Painted by Jess herself, it’s a colourful, abstract painting that seems to have spurned a number of descriptions, as abstract art is want to do. “It’s always interesting the way people look at it. Everyone always sees something in it. People say, ‘What does it mean?’ It’s abstract! It’s literally just colours and shapes. That’s what I love about it. Everyone brings to it something. Some people will see people, but it’s not intended to be anything in particular.”
I saw a person lying down with their arm up, but Jess continues, “That’s kind of the beauty of it, I guess. You can see whatever you want to see in it.” Just like her music, her art creates a sense of exploration and perception.
Growing up on the Central Coast of NSW, Jess Locke’s first memories of music and performing go back to hearing her parents’ music in the house, including Van Morrison, Creedence and Leonard Cohen. Having not enjoyed the structure of music lessons on clarinet and piano, it wasn’t until she picked up the guitar around the age of 12 that the creative side really started to shine. “I just couldn’t stop doing it [playing guitar]. It felt very natural to me. As a teenager, going through what most people go through, it felt really good and I started writing and playing. Learning covers, instead of practising scales, felt a lot more natural! I was doing that through high school and then started playing open-mic nights locally before moving to Sydney.”
What sorts of covers was a young Jess Locke tinkering with? “I was very into Jewel. I remember playing two Jewel songs at a school assembly or some sort of talent quest. I really loved Silverchair and then I went through different phases. I was really into Ani De Franco, in terms of learning how to play and fingerpick and writing as a solo songwriter. Leonard Cohen has always been a big influence and then later on it was Cat Power.”
The urge to play music and create has always been there and Jess recalls some of her earliest childhood music memories. “Ever since I was a kid, I think it was always in my head. I even remember being very, very young and I remember writing a song. I think it was called Fairy Steps or something. I was probably like seven and it was probably like three notes, but I didn’t even think about it. It was like; you just make your own music – that’s what you do.”
With over ten years of performing under her belt, Jess is pretty comfortable on the stage now, but it wasn’t always like that. She explains, “I used to be absolutely terrified of performing and that was a huge thing growing up. I really, really wanted to, because I was like ‘I’m going to be a rock star’, you know? But I had to overcome that fear of actually getting up in front of people. Now, I guess I’m pretty used to it. For the most part, I’m very comfortable now – I’ve just been doing it for so long, but it just depends. Sometimes the smallest, most intimate gigs are the ones that make me most nervous. It’s not so much about the mass of people, but it’s about the proximity or intimacy that makes me nervous. It’s a different thing, getting up and having a platform to speak to someone, rather than being in a social conversation, which actually makes me more nervous, cause there’s a back and forth there. It’s in some ways easier to just perform to people.”
With this latest album and signing on to The Smith Street Band’s Pool House Records label earlier this year, Jess Locke is finally starting to get noticed, including by a wide range of music fans. Her love of the DIY aesthetic has seen her mixing with punk scenes over the years and even though her music may not sound the same, the manner and creation of her art has attracted her to music lovers far and wide. Jess talks about her interest in diversifying her sound, so should we look out for a Jess Locke punk band?
“Maybe. You never know, I have talked about it! Sometimes one project might not satisfy all of your creative urges and states of emotional experience. I don’t know if I have the drive to do any punk bands right now, but it might come back. We’ll see if I get angry or energetic enough!”
There’s a personable nature and relatability to Jess and the music she creates that endears her to a diverse crowd and it’s one that is best experienced live. Get up close and personal to Jess Locke as she tours the country on her album tour and look out for festival appearances at The Plot in Sydney and Fairgrounds in Berry.
9 November, The Lass, Newcastle
10 November, Marrickville Bowls, Sydney
11 November, Beatdisc, Sydney
12 November, North Gong Hotel, Wollongong
17 November, Old Bar, Melbourne
18 November, The Plot, Sydney
23 November, 459 Bar, Perth
24 November, Prince Of Wales, Bunbury
25 November, The Fire Station, Busselton
26 November, Odd Fellow, Fremantle
8-9 December, Fairgrounds Festival, Berry Showground