Playing it cool
On the eve of their fourth record, siblings Angus and Julia Stone talk about what it took to bring them back together for another round of music-making
Ahead of the release of Angus & Julia Stone’s fourth album and a national tour, the music duo from Sydney reflect on how a couple of mishaps on the ski slopes proved serendipitous to their careers.
If it weren’t for snow, there may not be Angus & Julia Stone. Of course, this sounds peculiar given the talented brother-and-sister musical duo hail from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, a postcode that’s synonymous with long, lazy days spent on golden sands and in azure swell.
Music was already stamped on the family DNA, courtesy of the folk-music past of their parents, Kim and John. Yet it was an accident on the slopes that served as the real catalyst for Angus to start writing songs. As a teenager, he broke bones and buckled muscles during his snowboarding adventures; bedridden and bored, he began to unleash the talent that would eventually turn him and his sister into the internationally recognised folk/ pop phenomenon they have become over the past decade.
“Yeah, I’ve had a few falls… well, accidents,” Angus tells Stellar. “And in the very beginning, it was serious. That first time, I banged myself up pretty bad and was on the couch for a long time. [But] it was kind of a blessing, lying around, internalising and getting to write poetry and starting to write songs.” It was ultimately, he says, “a good time”.
Angus, now 31, may have honed his skills off the back of this icy accident. But the first time Julia – older by two years – truly heard her brother’s prodigious talent was in the steamy humid isolation of the Amazonian jungle. “My boyfriend at the time and I were doing a trek and Angus was there because Mum thought it would be a new adventure for him. He was still in high school,” she recalls.
“He was sitting by himself playing guitar, thinking no one was watching him, and I will never forget hearing him and thinking, ‘What the hell? He is just so amazing.’ I was genuinely surprised… I knew he sang, but I didn’t really care! I was busy with my life. This was the first time I recognised this true gift – and he was standing right next to me.”
That lightning-bolt moment was the start of something special. The pair began performing together in 2006 and have since created three EPS, three studio albums and a handful of live releases. In 2010, they topped Triple J’s Hottest 100 countdown with their hit ‘Big Jet Plane’. In their 10 years as a performing duo, there have also been separations for solo explorations and orchestrated reunions. Now comes their fourth album, the aptly titled Snow.
As with his first musical musings, the genesis of the new record came when Angus stacked it on the slopes. The siblings had agreed to entertain a few unexpected experiential gigs last year, as Angus had booked out the second half of 2016 in devotion to his hippie folk-rock project Dope Lemon. Then he and Julia were invited to perform at a boutique festival in Zermatt, Switzerland, in the shadow of the mighty Matterhorn. The offer came with the promise of a week’s worth of skiing after their show. They said yes.
The pair marvelled at the wonder of the snow-capped mountains as they were airlifted by helicopter to the peak of legendary summits to ride the deep, virgin powder back down. Then Angus ended up injuring himself on one of the runs, busting his leg to the extent he wound up in hospital – where he started writing songs again.
While incapacitation proved to be the mother of musical invention, the continuum of Angus & Julia Stone as a musical entity is due to legendary American producer and hit-maker Rick Rubin. It was Rubin, conductor of creative renaissances for everyone from Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond to Metallica and Adele, who brought the brother and sister back together about four years ago. At the time, it appeared they were all but done as a performing duo.
After their second solo albums came out in 2012 – her By The Horns and his Broken Brights – Rubin insisted that they attempt to write together for their eponymous third record, released in 2014. The pair had spent their early years writing separately before generally recording and performing their individual compositions in studio and onstage.
While those initial sessions at Rubin’s green juice and yoga studio retreat in Malibu, California, bore enough fruit for the last record, the Stones’s collaborations on their new album boast supercharged moments of more forceful musical magic.
“We knew something had changed because of Rick, and that was actually writing together for the first time,” Angus explains. “On that [last] record with Rick, we did it with maybe three or four songs. This time around, we did it for the whole record.”
Snow was made in Belafonte, the name of the cottage studio on Angus’s farm in the Byron Bay hinterland in northern New South Wales. With trusted musician and technical allies hanging out on the property, songs began as evening jams after everyone enjoyed a delicious organic spread of local produce and the requisite tumblers of wine.
Soon the siblings were alone in their creative cave, Julia taking over some of the usually male-dominated engineering duties because she had become proficient at the technology, but more importantly because she understood her brother’s psychic shorthand and how to translate it.
“I guess it’s like any partnership, business or relationship,” shrugs Angus. “You are constantly learning the dance of knowing when to step back or take the lead in the case of a song you are strong-headed about and can see where it’s supposed to go.
“I think making those choices in that moment is really critical to the success of the song. Sometimes you want to both be there and fully be focused together and sometimes, yeah, you sit back. It’s a dance.”
If creative claustrophobia reared its head, or the siblings needed space from each other, they would take time out for a beach break or simply relax on one of the old sofas conveniently placed around the property.
Living in each other’s pockets during their twenties was like being in a pressure cooker. Back then, they needed to go their own ways to recharge.
“It’s like any partnership, you are constantly learning when to step back or take the lead”
Now age, experience and intuition have reduced the need to walk on eggshells around each other.
“Creating from a safe space of relative peace is always easier, and a more enjoyable experience than from hostility and tension,” Julia says. “We are still people who have moments, and I think we have got very good at knowing when those moments are starting to feel like ‘I need space’ or ‘time for a swim at the beach.’”
By virtue of their musically enhanced beachside upbringing, the Stones are inevitable heirs to hippiedom. And they make no apologies for their post-millennial mellow. Watching Julia languidly float her limbs and twirl during the various set-ups of Stellar’s photo shoot calls to mind a young Stevie Nicks. Her brother is usually a more reluctant subject of the camera’s lens. Yet on this day he assumes his innate amiability, and even shyly asks the stylist if he can buy one of the shirts from the rack.
Considering their admirable accomplishments, measured by the multi-platinum plaques scattered in respective family homes and the five million fans who log on and stream their music each month, Angus and Julia are devoid of the diva demands of their pop-star peers.
But they do still love mischief, as evidenced by the evolution of their backstage requests for gigs. “We have had some pretty incredible incarnations of the rider. I remember one tour all we drank was sake. After six weeks of sake, you really don’t like sake anymore,” Julia says.
Angus then lists a nauseating collection of pre-concert concoction themes including a Frangelico tour, a Jägermeister tour and a Guinness tour. “Our band now is pretty chilled and whiskey is pretty consistently on there. It’s medicinal. We all have a little whiskey, cheers.”
On the music front, the stories behind the tales on Snow are equal parts compelling and hypnotic. The track ‘Sylvester Stallone’ borrows its title from a lyric about a lover slurring their speech after too many drinks. ‘Chateau’ will be familiar to those educated in the folklore of Hollywood’s star-studded hotel haunt Chateau Marmont. And ‘Sleep Alone’ began as a “speed-date” songwriting session with a DJ who they refuse to name.
“This DJ was hilarious; he skolled a huge can of energy drink and then fell asleep on the couch. We kept working,” Angus says. “It was a stupid song, some dumb programmed beat. It was just sloppy so we decided, ‘let’s f*ck that off.’” Still, he notes, “The lyrics of the song were really good, so we moved that part of it over to our record.”
Julia may have been the first to recognise the potential power of their duo, but it is Angus who now appreciates the artistic freedom of their unique collaboration. “It’s the same thing in the studio as it is onstage,” he says. “Standing back and watching Julia write and create is a beautiful thing. It’s watching someone be free, letting that magic flow from them.”
Yet, as with any brother and sister, the eldest of the pair will have the final say: “There’s this sense of wonderment you have grown in life with someone who continues to surprise you.” Snow is released on September 15 ahead of a national tour starting September 21; angusandjuliastone.com.
JULIA WEARS By Malene Birger top and skirt, (02) 9328 9755; Prada shoes, vestiarecollective.com ANGUS WEARS his own clothing Sofa from Freedom, freedom.com.au. Rugs from Cadrys, cadrys.com.au
PLAYING IT COOL (from top) As photographed for Stellar; Angus & Julia Stone performing at Bass In The Grass in Darwin in 2016; hitting the slopes in the mountain resort town of Zermatt in southern Switzerland in April last year. JULIA WEARS Zimmermann dress, zimmermannwear.com; her own rings
ANGUS WEARS Levi’s jacket, levis.com. au; his own clothing HAIR AND MAKE-UP Charlie Kielty using NARS @ Mecca Cosmetica