Growing up is full of anxieties, heartbreak and hard-won lessons. But in the end, the biggest lesson can be how to accept that the world isn’t what you used to think it was.
For Australian singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin, finding a way to put that message into song was the perfect way to sum up a debut album about maturity, adulthood and self-realization.
Released Oct. 7 on Polyvinyl, Don’t Let The Kids Win is a sharp, witty, funny, sad and exuberant coming-of-age album, a debut album that captures the struggles of early-20s adulthood, rendering some universal feelings with Jacklin’s vivid, detail-oriented songwriting. And though the record is filled with songs that capture different moments and different feelings, it all came together for Jacklin when she penned the title song.
“I wrote ‘Don’t Let The Kids Win’ about a week before I flew to New Zealand to record the album. I had all the other songs and I wrote that one really last-minute,” she says. “I really like the fact that it’s the last song on the album and it’s the last song I wrote for the album and it felt to me like a summation of how I was feeling. All of those anxieties that I was singing about in the rest of the record, that song for me was just going ‘Yeah, what are you going to do about it?’ There’s no point in worrying about it, you just have to accept it and be kind to the people around you.”
Growing up in the rural Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Jacklin started singing as a little girl obsessed with Doris Day. Then at 10 she watched a documentary about Britney Spears and begged for singing lessons.
“I started doing classical singing lessons and that’s how I started performing. It’s quite different from my music now, but was the foundation,” she says. “It’s hard to grasp as a kid what it actually means to become a singer. You just have this very idealized image. I definitely wanted to be a singer, but it seemed more like a fantasy when I was a kid. I thought I’d go to university and do all the things I should do and then maybe figure it out after.”
In high school, she joined a band that played Evanescence and Avril Lavigne covers and started learning guitar.
“I was just playing it by ear with music,” she admits. “If someone asked me to sing with them I would. I just wanted to do whatever at the time. I wasn’t writing music at that stage, so I didn’t really know at all what I wanted to sound like. I just knew I wanted to get better at the craft, the performance aspect of it.”
Jacklin joined a folk band at 19 after reconnecting with a friend while traveling in South America. At first, she stuck to singing harmonies, but then started focusing on the guitar to contribute more to the band. That made her want to start writing her own songs.
“Initially I was writing sort of standard folky songs, but I got really into Fiona Apple around that time and I listened to her lyrics and that made me really want to write songs. So that’s where I started working harder at it,” she says. “At first you’re just playing what you think people want to hear and you’re singing the way you think people want you to sing. Especially coming from a classical background, I thought I had to sing in this really high, pretty, polite way. There was a moment I asked myself ‘What do I want to write about? What do I want to sound like?’”
Jacklin credits songwriters like Apple, Leonard Cohen and Father John Misty as those who taught her important lessons about how to capture her personal voice and write songs that go in unexpected directions. “A lot of time the most meaningful music is written when the writer breaks a big feeling, like love, into one moment in time. It hits a lot harder for me,” she says.
Living in a garage in a Sydney suburb, Jacklin began writing more and more, intent on performing a new song each week at a regular open mic night she performed at.
“I’ve always written. I was really obsessive writing as a kid. That was always my style, to be slightly humorous but quite dark. But when I started writing songs, I didn’t realize I could put those things in songs,” she says. “I listened to a lot of folk music and I thought I had to write about mountains and rivers and metaphors. I thought that’s what songwriting was. When I realized that it doesn’t have to be, that’s when I started trying to make sure that I inject a genuine experience and a genuine part of me into it song and not just brush over it and throwaway lines that don’t mean anything.”
It didn’t dawn on Jacklin at the time that she was building songs that would become her debut album. She was merely writing her own take on the common experiences of young adulthood, all the while putting in countless hours honing her craft.
“I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t singing about heartbreak the whole time. I was kind of worried that was going to happen because the first songs I wrote were about that,” she says. “I wanted to give some time to other experiences like friendships and my relationship with my parents, those other types of love that people don’t write about so much. Those relationships aren’t as easy to express in language, so I wanted to give that a go.”
When she had built up enough songs for an album, Jacklin started looking at the batch in a different way, as a whole rather than individually. That’s when she reached out to New Zealand producer Ben Edwards to record.
“It ended up being a good representation of my early 20s and that transition between being a kid and feeling like the world owed you something to realizing that’s not true at all and you owe something and you have to work hard,” she says. “Now looking back on it, I realize the songs do have a theme to them. But I think it’s just because I was writing them at the same time and going through the same things and just growing up.”