Jess Holland is one of the leading lights of the younger generation of Australian country music performers. She has a voice that has power and subtlety in equal measure, and which cuts through the noise of a typical Tamworth Country Music Festival and draws listeners to it. Jess will appear at the 2017 Tamworth Country Music Festival and in the run-up she released ‘Ain’t Quittin’ This Run’ as the new single from her latest album, Whole Lot to Say.
What did you get up to in 2016?
I’ve been so busy. I’ve been focused on writing the new album. I’ll hopefully be starting to record it at the beginning of February, so I’ve been trying to do as much writing as I can and get it all out of my system, so between that and doing a lot of gigs and festivals, it’s kept me off the streets.
Are you doing a crowdfunding campaign for the new album?
I haven’t decided yet. It worked really well for the last one so potentially – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But I haven’t thought that far ahead at the moment. I’m going to try to do as much as I can just because it’s not going to be as quick a process as it was last time. I’ve had a bit of time to write and think about things. I’ll be going in a very similar direction in that I can’t not write sassy music but on this one there’s going to be a bit more homey-rootsy songs as well.
Do you mean you might record some songs and leave it for a little bit?
Yes. I’ll probably decide on one single to release from the album and really focus on that for a bit and as I’m doing that record in the background and finish the details, so there’s not as much pressure to get an album out. Last time I really wanted to get a full-blown album out because I had so much, I guess, to prove in comparison to my first one. I really wanted to prove that my new sound and my new direction were exactly who I was and where I was up to, whereas this time I haven’t got quite to prove so there’s not as much pressure.
You mentioned that you’ve played festivals and quite a few gigs – have you found that your fans are changing or growing?
It’s definitely growing, which has been such a thrill. I’m just a bit of a bogan country kid and to think now, especially, that I can go to festivals and people are starting to really sing my lyrics, it’s a really weird feeling. I’m still getting used to it, because I go to gigs and to festivals and people know who I am and it’s kind of, like, ‘Whoa!’ I live quite a country bumpkin sort of a life. All week I’m either playing music or I’m writing or I’m out on the farm, so for me to go out to a festival or gig I’m in my own little world, and for people to say, ‘Hey, Jess, I can’t wait to hear you play’, or they’re requesting my songs, it’s a really cool feeling. So I reckon my fan base has definitely grown in the last twelve months.
The album certainly made a statement – it was like a declaration of arrival, in a way.
Well, it was so different to everything else that was brought out at that time and that’s what I loved. And, again, with this new album, I’m not trying to sound like anyone, I’m not trying to mimic. I’m writing songs that I want to write and I’m not trying to fit into a certain box or a genre. I’m writing what I’m writing and whatever comes out, comes out, and sometimes that can be a lot different to people being pressured to sound or look a certain way – and I’m so far from that it’s not even funny. I pride myself on not trying to be a certain way, it just sort of happens.
And that means your music comes from a really authentic place, and no doubt that’s what people respond to – ‘I believe her when she’s up there’.
I hope so. At my gigs I’ve been test driving a lot of my new tracks. As I write them I like to test drive them and see how people react. Especially a lot more of the getting-back-to-my-roots kind of music, people have been really responding to the storyline or the message behind it, which has been really cool. On the new album there will be something for everyone and all ages. I think for me it reflects what I’ve been through in the last twelve to eighteen months. I’ve had a complete … not lifestyle change but it’s been about getting back to my roots. I moved back out of town, whereas I’d spent a little bit of time in town but working out of town. But now I love out of town, I work out of town, I don’t go to town much unless I really need to, so the writing has been a lot more influenced by the country and the people that I meet at my little local pub.
Are you still in the Mungindi area?
No, I moved back to my home town, Mudgee, but I’m living about 20 ks out of town. I’ve been working on my dad’s farm and living in this little farmhouse. It’s been a hard time but it’s been good because it’s been helpful in the writing process.
I’m picturing you out in the stillness of the countryside – is it a good place to let inspiration come to you because you don’t have a lot of noise and distraction? Does it allow space for you to be more creative?
I think so. When I first moved back and into this little farmhouse I did not put the TV on until I felt like I’d finished writing. I could still watch TV if I wanted to – I could go into town to my parents’ place – but I actively made sure I didn’t have any distractions in regards to technology, and where I live you’re lucky if there’s one bar of phone service. It’s actually been a really cool experience. I haven’t had all those distractions like ‘I’ll just quickly look at Facebook’ or ‘I’ll just quickly check an email’ – instead it’s forced me to think. A lot of the songs I’m writing are the history that is wrapped up in this house, and all this cool stuff that I’d never thought I’d write about but because I’ve changed my situation completely it’s all come to the surface.
I can’t wait to hear these songs now.
I can’t wait to put them out. It’s a really weird process because people forget that when you release the album it’s been in the works for a long time, so the artist is really familiar with the songs so it’s a relief when they’re finally out and people can hear them.
You’re in an unusual situation in that you’re able to compare different ways of living creatively – you’re here now on a farm where you have a bit of space and time but you’ve lived in other places where there are more distractions and more competition for your brain space. It’s great to be able to make that comparison.
Definitely, and I think it comes out in my music. A lot of the stuff I’ve been writing about – some of it is still definitely sassy and Jess Holland at the crux of it, but some of the new stuff I’ve been writing is old school. It’s more of a story. I wouldn’t go so far as to say ‘bush ballady’ because that’s never been my direction, as much as I love listening to it and appreciate it, that was never my direction. It’s quite … vintage, I suppose.
I guess your voice demands something a little more high-stakes in the storytelling, if that makes sense.
Definitely. One of the songs I’ve had written for probably twelve months now – it’s called ‘Linburn Lane’ and it’s a cool full-circle moment because [the lane] is only about a k from where I’m living and the song is about my grandmother. She grew up on Linburn Lane. When she married she went from Linburn Lane, where all her family were, to the back of the Never Never, a long way away. So she never saw her family; she had nine or ten kids. All these hardships. But I don’t describe it as a bush balladeer thing. It’s her life story in a roundabout way and she’s telling it – the song is like she’s telling it. I’ve just moved back to that area so there’s so much history and I think that’s the reason why I wrote the song.
This is an evolution for you as a songwriter, stepping into this more personal storytelling mode, and this historical storytelling. But I just got a chill down my spine when you said you were singing the song from your grandmother’s perspective. Does it feel strange to almost inhabit an ancestor?
It took me a very long time to sing it. She was my mum’s mother and [the song] came about because when my grandmother passed away I guess I didn’t know a lot about her. I said to my mum, ‘I really want to write something about my grandma and about her life, how she got to where she was.’ I saw her from a certain age, when she got Alzheimer’s, but I didn’t want to write about that side of things. I wanted to write about the hard life she went through. I did a bit of investigation through my aunties and uncles and came up with this. [But] I haven’t been able to sing it until the last six or eight months because it’s quite emotional. You don’t think it will be – ‘It’s just another story.’ But the first time I sang it my mum was in the audience and she started bawling her eyes out and I was, like, ‘Great – thanks, Mum.’ [Laughs] I was trying to choke back the tears and I thought, What are you doing, Jess? I never thought I’d be like that. But I think I’ve tapped into something that a lot of people can relate to and, no word of a lie, every time I’ve sung that I’ve had people coming up and saying, ‘That reminds me of my grandma or my great-grandma.’ People in the area, when I sing it, they say, ‘I remember certain aspects of that song.’ It’s tapping into something that I didn’t think would be so popular and it hasn’t even been released yet.
That’s amazing. I can’t wait to hear it. But you haven’t recorded it yet. Although you have recorded the song ‘Ain’t Quittin’ This Run’ which has been released as a single, so what inspired this one?
This was one of the first songs I wrote for the current album, Whole Lot to Say, and I think a lot of the inspiration behind the album was that I’m sick of people trying to tell me that I should look like this or I should say this or sing like this. And I was getting a bit annoyed, I suppose, because I’m very sassy and people were trying to change me in order to make an album, and I said, ‘That’s not right. I am who I am.’ And part of me was thinking, Imagine who else they’re trying to pressure this onto. So for me it was, ‘No matter what you’re trying to do, I’m not going to quit. I’m going to keep being me and true to myself. I’m not going to wear blonde tight curls and high heels and fake this and fake that.’ And I think people respect that I’ve kept to my roots in regards to [the fact that] I’m not going to change for anyone. So that’s really what the song’s about, embodying that attitude of, ‘You can do and say what you want but I’m never going to quit what I’m doing.’
And nor should you. But Australian country music has so many female artists. I would have thought it was the one genre of music where there wouldn’t have been a lot of pressure to be a certain way. I’m curious to hear that it still comes up.
It kind of does, and I didn’t believe it until I delved head first into the industry and I thought, Of course pop is going to be like that because they want to see a certain image, but it’s actually quite puzzling that country music is still trying to produce these doll-like people. It still really gets to me. A lot of these people they’re portraying are gorgeous girls and they’re really nice but if you ask me if they can sing or not, it’s a whole other ball game. That is where I stuck to my guns and say I’m not going to be the next blonde bimbo or the one they’re coming to see because she’s wearing a short, tight skirt. I like to wear sparkles and skirts like everyone else but I’m not portraying myself as one of those doll-type people because I’m far from it.
I think that comes back to the authenticity of what you do, and that’s what your audience wants and what they love about your music. You wouldn’t have been authentic if you’d changed.
And I think I would have kicked myself. I’m from a very down-home family too so if I decided that I couldn’t do something because I’m wearing fake nails or I can’t do that because my hair will get dirty, my dad would say, ‘Get down here and swing off that crowbar right now!’ It just wouldn’t play. So I can’t expect other people to take to me if I was fake – I’d be pulled down to size pretty quickly if I tried all that sort of stuff.
Now to Tamworth – will you be back at the Tudor Hotel?
I will be. I’m excited because I’m doing a variety show this time. Each gig’s going to be different. I’m doing solo, I’m doing duo, I’m doing full band. And then I’ve got a bit of a special trio outfit that’s going to be happening. I’m not going to say too much but it’s just really exciting because we have only really performed together a couple of times at Mildura Country Music Festival and so we’re just having a bit of fun and for us that’s what Tamworth is all about. We get plenty of gigs and a lot of work through the year and we get to catch up with each other at Tamworth.
Whole Lot to Say is available on iTunes.