In the wake of her second album, Crushing, Julia Jacklin found herself in an enviable position.
Her 2016 debut Don’t Let The Kids Win had been warmly received, but Crushing seemed to hit a nerve and a cultural moment. Songs such as Body, Head Alone and Pressure to Party charted a messy, cathartic arc that was part breakup album, part reclamation of personal and bodily autonomy – and they arrived amid a wave of singer-songwriters, including Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, who were recasting folk and Americana to tap a millennial-friendly vein of love, anxiety and defiance.
Soon Jacklin was playing to bigger, younger and more enthusiastic crowds around the world and fielding Instagram messages from the likes of Lana Del Rey, who invited her on stage to duet on Crushing highlight Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You.
“I saw my crowd change before me, which was really exciting,” Jacklin says over coffee in Melbourne, where the Blue Mountains-raised singer-songwriter has lived since Crushing came out. “They got quite a lot younger and just a bit more engaged – actually engaging with it on an organic level.”
But as she began to contemplate its follow-up, she found herself drawn to the music that elicited the same organic, unguarded reaction she saw in her young fans – even if it meant sacrificing a bit of cool to do it.
“I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of energy in my life trying to be cool,” she says.
“Over the last couple of years [I’ve been] reconnecting with music that I enjoyed before I was heavily influenced by what I felt I was supposed to like. I think that’s a journey everyone goes through; you like all these things when you’re younger, and it’s so uncomplicated, and then it becomes really complicated for like 15 years,” Jacklin says. She is now 31. “You define yourself, at least I did, by your music taste: ‘I am my music taste, I don’t exist except for the things that are on my iPod.’”
Recorded in Montreal in September 2021, Pre Pleasure teases out the edges of the warm, guitar-driven template of her first two albums with hints of drum machine, piano and glossy orchestral flourishes arranged by the Canadian composer Owen Pallett. Across its 10 tracks Jacklin sings about the past and the future, family and friendships, love and loss, but even its most subdued moments have a lightness to them.
“The strings feel a lot more connected to those early days of singing as a kid, when I was obsessed with listening to a lot of Doris Day and those types of singers,” she says. “Those melodies, and the way I sing them, just feels very connected to old, old, old me in a way that I can’t really articulate yet.”
The album closes with End of a Friendship, full of cinematic strings and a big, classic rock guitar solo. “Usually with folk records, and the records I’ve made in the past, the last track is some acoustic, sad number; you kind of go out with a whimper,” she says. “But I wanted this record to go out with a kind of ‘movie magic’ moment.”
Pre Pleasure sees Jacklin look back to her youth in other ways, too. On Ignore Tenderness she sings about “stripping down / looking at my own reflection / ever since I was 13 I’ve been pulled in every direction”. Meanwhile, lead single Lydia Wears a Cross revisits her years at a Blue Mountains Catholic primary school, when singing in choirs, listening to Jesus Christ Superstar and acting in no less than two amateur productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat made her fall in love with performing.
“I love singing, it’s the most spiritual thing for me, because I’m not a spiritual person,” she says. “The closest I’ve felt to God was watching Jesus Christ Superstar, performing in Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat. That’s where religion started to make sense to me; where it was infused with joy and love and all of the things that people say it’s about.
“But when you’re a kid at Catholic school it doesn’t feel joyful; it feels incredibly macabre and full of shame. It’s only recently that I’ve thought about how much that early messaging has informed so much of my life, especially when it comes to my relationships with people and my sexuality.”
The balance between joy and fear reappears on single Be Careful With Yourself, which is released on Wednesday: a love song that wryly inverts the end-of-relationship resentments of Crushing’s best moments. Its lyrics dream of a happily-ever-after, while listing the ways it could be derailed by illness (“Please stop smoking / I want your life to last a long time”) or the baggage of childhood (“I know you were raised by the church / encouraged to keep it all in”).
But for all the self-reflection, Pre Pleasure is also about release. “There’s only so much you can really think about yourself – it’s kind of exhausting,” she says, laughing. “Maybe even three years ago I assumed I could think my way through every single thing, have an all-encompassing understanding of myself. But there’s a lot of stuff I’m never going to know about myself. I am perceived by other people in ways that I’m never going to understand or even know about.
“Yes, this album is looking into myself, but I didn’t want to get bogged down by it. I wanted the record to sound inviting to listen to, and to play. As much as I love Crushing – and I’m so glad I made that record, and it’s the record I needed to make at the time – I just needed there to be a bit of joy.”
Pre Pleasure is out 26 August. Julia Jacklin is touring Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne in February 2023; tickets go on sale Monday 29 August