INTERVIEW – June Jones: "There can never just be one reflection of yourself"

In an interview with MTV Australia, June Jones opens up about her creative process, how the pandemic impacted it, her latest album 'Leafcutter' and the special moments that brought it to life.

June Jones is an artist that commands every ounce of your attention. Not because the Melbourne singer-songwriter is a boisterous or overbearing performer, but in fact quite the opposite. Every word she sings is imbued with such intense emotion that you can feel it vibrate through your limbs.

Branding herself as an "emotion punk" artist, June Jones builds entire worlds with her lyrics and her production, never better showcased than on her second and latest album Leafcutter. Following on from her work with former band Two Steps On The Water, as well as her solo debut, 2019's Diana, Leafcutter serves as an incredibly vulnerable, introspective and poetic pop-laced look as Jones' experiences as a trans woman, as a lesbian in love, as a recent recipient of an ADHD diagnosis, and as a human existing in 2021.

Leafcutter is tender and pretty some moments, while poignant and piering in others. June Jones opens up her head and lets listeners see, hear and feel what's living inside there - her triumphs, her regrets, her insecurities and, perhaps most importantly, the special, fleeting moments in her day to day that she clings to.

June Jones sat down with MTV Australia, where she discussed the crafting of Leafcutter, her love of fiction, the third album that's already underway and how Kmart played a central role in of her best songs to date.

Every artist has dealt with the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns in different ways creatively. How has it impacted your creativity?

The first big lockdown in Melbourne was when I did a lot of the work on Leafcutter, and I kind of appreciated having an excuse to hunker down and work without having to be too social for a few months. I honestly was OK being at home for the majority of last year.

Are you a naturally introverted person?

Mm, I feel like I'm always asking myself this question. I really do love being around people. I think for me, what is hard is not the social aspects of it. It's all of the kinds of demands on my body and brain around making those social things happen

Now, Leafcutter is self-produced. Do you think those aspects of your personality played into that decision?

No, I chose to produce it myself at the end of my first record (2019's Diana), which was produced by Geoff (Geoffrey O'Connor). I wrote and laid down a demo of 'Jenny' at the end of 2018, and it stayed basically the same besides some fine-tuning and tweaking. That was me testing out what it would be like for me to do my own production. I took that song, and the musical ideas behind that song, as inspiration for what the rest of the album would be like.

What do you think was the most difficult song for you to create on Leafcutter, then?

Good question. I feel like I can think of songs that were really hard to get to a point where they sounded good.

Is perfectionism something you struggle with?

I don't know if I'm a perfectionist because I don't really believe that the record is perfect, but I think it's a combination of having quite high standards for myself while making my first self produced release, I was really learning on the job the whole time. There are a few songs that have multiple iterations that are quite different from one another.

And I think the one that was hardest to get right was "Inside", which has three iterations that , aesthetically, are all quite different from one another. I had an idea in my mind of wanting to make this song that had a kind of arc to it. But the ways that I went about doing that on the first two attempts just didn't really hit the mark. And I got so close to scrapping it multiple times.

The whole song?

Yeah, there were about five songs that were originally going to be on the record that didn't make it.

It's quite short for an album though, at least by today's standards. Would you agree?

Yeah, it's nine songs but it's still 40 minutes. And I do think about having it fit onto a vinyl. You want 20 minutes each side. I've released stuff with my past band, Two Steps on the Water, where we had to cut a song off the vinyl because it just wasn't gonna fit, and it felt really weird to be like, "here's the record and it doesn't have that one song on it".

Does it annoy you that those sorts of technicalities can impact on your creative vision for a record?

I think I just really love putting out vinyl. Yeah, that's fine. It feels like honouring the work that I've done or we've done on a record. I honestly don't even listen to vinyl that much these days but when I was a teenager I really loved discovering and buying secondhand records. I also think I really love having the album artwork. It has this physical presence to it.

And I've never really loved CDs as a format. I have a lot of memories of cracked dual cases and scratched discs.

Is there a favourite vinyl that you can think of that impacted you in a more notable way than perhaps others did?

The other thing is that, basically since I've been living out of home as an adult, it's been pretty rare that I've felt like I could justify spending money on vinyl. But I do have one - robably one of the last three books I bought around that time. It's an album called Operation Doomsday by MF Doom.

May he rest in peace.

Absolutely. I just moved into a new room in my house and I've put it up with a couple of other records on top of my bookshelf, because I just really love that album a lot. And I love the album artwork as well. One of my favourite artists, for sure.

Let's talk about 'Home'. It's a really powerful, and positive, moment on Leafcutter. Was it cathartic to write and then release that one?

I feel like every song that I write and release is cathartic because if it doesn't feel cathartic to write about then I generally don't see a point in writing it. I really love that song, and I really loved that video clip, as well as the team who worked on it.

Is that a team you see yourself collaborating with exclusively in future? Especially given how Leafcutter is very much a product of your doing.

Well, the director (O'Connor) was also the producer and two albums that I've made. We've made a video clip before and he's kind of my number one collaborator. I really love Geoff, but I can also totally see myself working with everyone who worked on that clip. They were just so amazing.

What was the inspiration for creating that triptych of powerful women in various fantastical situations?

So originally, I was like, "how can I write one character that can represent the way that I feel about myself?" as someone who has had to create her own womanhood, and fight for that right to exist in that. Originally I was like "OK, I'm just going to find this one character that's going to achieve that". And the more I tried to do that, the more I realised that there could never just be one reflection of yourself.

I'd also spent a lot of last year reading science fiction, and also returning to some stuff around Greek mythology, both through reading the play Medea to my girlfriend over the phone during lockdown. And also I grew up playing this video game called Hades, which is also based on Greek mythology.

it didn't feel right to just have myself as a science fiction character, or just have myself as a traditional character of strong and contentious femininity. What I was trying to do was like have one character who's this lesbian housewife. She's kind of alone and reading these books and then the other characters came out of those books. Part of it is using fiction and using the imagination to be able to see different futures for yourself and different ways of existing. The different characters are meant to represent different inspirations.

Do you think fiction permeates all your writing?

I'm definitely inspired by fiction, even though I'm not primarily a fiction writer.

Or perhaps, do you think you could see yourself writing songs about situations that you didn't actually experience?

I'm always open to trying new approaches to songwriting, and to making art in general, so I don't lock off these possibilities. It often just depends on the project I'm working on and what I feel like it demands. In terms of different approaches, I think 'Jenny' is probably the most formally fictional song. To me, it feels kind of like a short story, rather than a reflection on my own inner experience which may be more of the other songs. I really enjoyed doing it. And I'd like to do more stuff like that in the future but you know I think I just generally feel more confident speaking to my own direct experience. I also think that, you know, there's so much responsibility that comes with writing characters who are not yourself. But I think that you know when people do it well, it's beautiful and amazing and I'd love to be able to do something like that.

The song 'Remember' is about your experience living with ADHD after you were officially diagnosed a few years ago. You sing of your mind being "like a shopping centre food court". Does that busyness stifle your creative flow?

I think, if anything, if ADHD benefits any part of my life, it's the creative process. I think it hinders almost every other part of my existence. I don't know if I would have a music career if I didn't have ADHD – I genuinely think that.

Because I feel like it allows me to be impulsively creative on a daily basis. And I think with ADHD, there's this idea that people often have something that they can hyper focus on. It's common to ignore the things you're supposed to do, because you just have to do the thing that you really need to do. And for me that is often music. And so, you know, while it's meant that it's been hard to do more bureaucratic and domestic tasks, I haven't found myself at a loss for creative impulse.

If we move on to "Therapy:, I understand that it was written outside a Kmart. Tell me about what happened there?

I mean, the song is kind of about going to Kmart. I really love to just walk through the aisles of something like a Kmart or through a shopping centre.

What's the benefit there? Does it relax you?

Yeah it does. It's funny because I feel like the way my brain works is that I'm quite easily overwhelmed by sights and sounds. But when I put my headphones on and I go to a place like in a Kmart or a shopping centre, it feels like this sort of controlled sensory overload in a way that is actually kind of calming.

As far as writing it, I think all I bought was a notepad and a pen that I used to write that song.

Very meta!

Yeah. There's this calming effect of just being like, "I can go and spend $4 and now I have this thing and this thing is going to mean that I can do something that I couldn't do before" which is all kind of a trick of the mind, like a consumerist illusion. But I wanted to write about that experience in a way that was not judgmental of the broader structures behind it, but to speak to that potentially common experience of retail therapy and just spending some time in a bright capitalist dystopia.

Throughout the last year, everyone was online shopping and, famously, everyone was buying things from Kmart.

I did a lot of online shopping last year. I don't have anything coming in the mail but it's still an impulse to like go out the front and check if there's any packages.

Extremely relatable. But, to me, that registers as people indulging themselves in things that bring them instant gratification. Is that something you find yourself looking for in your writing and also in life? Given the fact that 'Jenny' was essentially how we hear it on the first try.

I think I have a pretty good sense. I can't know within the first week after writing something if it's actually good. It needs to stand the test of multiple listens over a period of time. And so a lot of my process of making this record was just going for walks and listening to it, and listening both actively and unconsciously. Just listening for what stood out things that I like and things that weren't working.

I think sometimes I am suspicious when something comes together really quickly. But also, if it does stand the test of those multiple lessons over time, then I'm just grateful and grateful to whatever powers meant that could happen so easily. 'Therapy' and other songs did come together quite quickly and didn't take many revisions. I feel like I got that done in a few days, whereas some other tracks I was working on for months and months.

That's interesting because "Therapy" is so meticulous and layered.

I think the more I work and the longer I work, the more I realise that there's not always a correlation between what's good and the amount of time it took to make it. Some of my favourite work that I've made came together quite quickly, and maybe because there's something very intuitive in it. It meant that it had a natural logic that allowed it to come about. Whereas, sometimes you spend all this time trying to make something intricate but you're always like forcing these little pieces into place. They're not telling you where they go. You have to find it and sometimes that can be extremely beautiful but at other times it can feel forced and not as actually enjoyable or rewarding to listen to. Sometimes the long route gets the best thing and sometimes the short route takes you there as well.

How are you feeling now it's finally album release time?

I'm really excited for it to come out, but I'm pretty nervous. I just feel like this has been the most extreme case of spending heaps and heaps of time with something. It's very strange to think that people are going to hear this record for the first time because I just simply cannot imagine what that would be like, having spent thousands of hours on it. I'm really heartened to hear that you're enjoying it and people I've spoken to about it seem to enjoy it so I just really hope that people like it and get something from it.

Considering the time in which it was made, was there any exhaustion when it was finally complete?

There was a sense of exhaustion. I have been working all through the pandemic as well. I do some English language teaching, and the last three months of the record, I was teaching from 5 to 10pm. But I would also work on the record from 10am. And I think I was just burning the candle at both ends, as they say. I was pretty burnt out by the end of it. And I kind of hated it and I was dreading the idea that anyone would have to listen to it. But I think with some time and distance, I'm able to be at a point now where I can feel good about it and feel proud of it and excited that people are able to listen to it.

That's a huge undertaking. Is that your work ethic across any facet of your life?

Definitely when I have a deadline, or specific things I'm trying to do in a certain amount of time, I do tend to have a good work ethic. I'm pretty bad at resting and relaxing. Even now I've been writing some new stuff.

Is this for a third album?

It is! That's always been the case for me – by the time one record comes out, I'm working on something else that I'm more excited about. I'm like, "oh no you're hearing the old stuff", but I have to remember that it's not actually old for people.

Is it strange for you to then talk about the songs on Leafcutter then, while you're mind is in this other space?

It's still quite recent. I'm not producing much at the moment, but I'm doing some writing. I'm in the headspace of talking about Leafcutter, obviously, and I'm happy to do it. I think having 'Home' just come out has me feeling a bit renewed in my sense of thinking about this album and about the songs and it's really nice to be able to talk about it. Talking about the whole experience of making it because, at one point, I felt like I was really bugging my friends by not having anything else to talk about. I was like, "I can tell you about the automation that I just realised I can do on this synthesizer that means that it sounds less like an accordion and more like sci fi electric guitar, but I don't have any gossip".

I definitely made my girlfriend listen to it a lot, but she's got amazing taste and she's so smart and her reflections were really helpful for me to see some things that I wasn't able to see from inside.

What references are you pulling from this upcoming third album?

Hmmm, what can I say without saying too much?

I'll reframe the question. What have you been listening to lately?

I spent almost all of 2020 listening to UK rap, a lot of grime and drill. I just really rinsed the latest Stormzy record. I adore him. But also some rappers like Ivorian Doll and Ms. Banks. I'm excited to work on a record that'll have some different sounds, and that'll also be more collaborative than Leafcutter.

You don't have the urge to self-produce again?

Not for this one. I'm open to doing it again down the track, but I just don't think I could put myself through the process that was required to make Leafcutter again straight away. I feel like my body would rebel against my mind and run off into the sunset if that happened.

Words and interview by Jackson Langford, music contributor at MTV Australia. Hot takes at @jacksonlangford and hotter pics at @jacksonlangford.

Words and interview by Jackson Langford, music contributor at MTV Australia. Hot takes at @jacksonlangford and hotter pics at @jacksonlangford.

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