Jess Locke is an extraordinary talent who first taught herself to play the guitar as a teenager growing up on the Central Coast of New South Wales. It fair to say her experimental approach to music for well over a decade now since writing her first songs has endured her to everyone who has met her. Rolling Stone Magazine for instance called Locke “…a songwriter capable of balancing introspective reflection with pop-skewed accessibility”. It is this ‘pop-skewed’ accessibility together with her emotive indie rock swagger that has recently (again) brought her to my attention with the release of her third album Don’t Ask Yourself Why. (For the record I first stumbled across Locke’s chaotic brilliance with the release of sophomore release Universe back in 2017, which was incidentally long listed for the Australian Music Prize.)
Locke’s new album Don’t Ask Yourself Why is a curious deep dive into the psyche of our hardwired existence. Locke herself recently explained, “The whole album is about human behaviour, our egos, and our ability or lack-there-of to reflect on why we act and think the way we do.” Moreover, what is most impressive about this album is how much Locke makes use of her Fender Mustang. It shimmers with gritty grungy ambience together with Locke’s clever use of reverb effects. With that said I recently caught up with Locke to chat about her new album. Here is some of what we talked about.
Jess, I read recently your new album Don’t Ask Yourself Why described as “anthems for the disenchanted”. In some respects this seems like a well-suited compliment. Why does the idea of ‘sad pop’ intrigue you?
Honestly I started using that term as a little bit of a joke… it feels like a little bit of an oxymoron which I like… but at the same time I think it rings true. A lot of my music is emotionally brutal while also somehow having the ability to make people want to dance.
What were some of the biggest challenges you came across when writing the new album?
I don’t think there were any major hurdles, just the everyday challenge of facing myself and my thoughts and trusting in the process. It’s harder than it sounds and one of the biggest difficulties I, like many other songwriters i speak to, is just starting and not putting too much pressure on the outcome, which often, ironically will lead to a better outcome.
The title track seems to hold the album together like glue in this world (so to speak) you’re describing for the listener. Why is it such an important track?
Thank you! I decided on the album title after the album was finished, so it’s not like I went into writing that song planning for it to have such an important role. But I thought the title captured the overall sentiment of the record nicely. Musically it’s kind of whimsical but you can tell that something isn’t quite as it seems, it’s sort of superficial and there is darkness and complexity beneath it… The song and the title are like a gateway, or a rabbithole to pull people into where they will discover all the other faces of the album.
Apart from the title track, I feel that Destroy Everything is an important puzzle piece to this album. Can you tell me a little bit how it came about?
This was one of the very first songs I wrote for the album, back in 2018 I think. I guess it set the tone for the rest of the songs in that it’s about human behaviour and, in particular how irrational we can be, how good we are and telling ourselves stories that don’t make any sense and how often we spend so much energy reacting to things that either don’t achieve what we are aiming for or actually make it worse. So I guess that explains the title and chorus… ‘Destroy Everything’ – I kind of imagine an angry mob with pitchforks singing it, which is terrifying…. but also it’s okay because things also heal and regrow over time. I can’t decide whether it’s pessimistic or optimistic. I like to not decide. I think as an artist, it’s my right to not decide.
Melancholy runs deep through the album, but there is also an air of optimism to the album’s closing track All Things Will Change. Was that something you were deliberately aiming for?
I don’t think anything I write is deliberate. I just write what comes out and then I look at it and think about what it means later. Maybe it’s something about making art and being human… there is a lot of darkness, but I think we have an inbuilt mechanism to find the light side of things, a consolation. Maybe it’s a survival mechanism. A lot of the album is about looking and different sides of things and seeing how complex and chaotic everything really is and not turning away from it. So I guess there has to be a bit of light because it would be too one sided to be all melancholy.
It’s interesting that you didn’t conclude the album with Late Bloomer instead? It’s raw and beautiful.
Thank you? I thought ‘All Things Will Change’ was a nice sentiment to leave people with, because they will! Again, that could be taken as a good or a bad thing but that’s just the way I roll.
You employ some great guitar effects across the album. Fool is a wonderful example of that. What can you tell me about how it turned out?
Thanks! That was a fun one. I wanted it to be a pretty classic gritty, grungy guitar sound for the most part which was pretty straightforward but then we also got some cool wacky delay sounds using a space echo tape delay (actually we had two of them running) in the bridge where it sounds like everything is kind of falling apart which I think is a really cool contrast to the rest of the song and just provides a good amount of uneasiness.
In finding your path as a guitarist who are the artists that inspired you to play? And why?
When I first learnt to play my brother and my dad and my brother taught me a lot, so some of the first songs I ever played were Rage Against The Machine and Creedence. I got very into Jewel and Ani DiFranco as a teenager so they taught me a lot about fingerpicking folk songs (along with Leonard Cohen and Cat Power). Later on artists like St Vincent and The Flaming Lips got me a bit more excited about fuzzy weird guitar sounds.
There are new fans out there tuning in to our interview. Can you tell us what excites you most about music?
It’s just… it’s music! There’s nothing else like it. It can take you to another place. Nothing can replace it.
Finally, before I let you go, I just want to say my favourite track on the album is Little Bit Evil and my favourite lyric from it is “Don’t you ever tire of being an upstanding citizen?” Whose buttons did you hope to push here?
Haha. Everyone’s! I guess it’s just a plea to humble ourselves, admit our faults and don’t like a saint, because no one is and that’s ok. I think we are in a weird space of heightened moral anxiety and, don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to be worried about. My concern is that we worry more about being perceived to be good than actually doing good and that’s not good for anyone. Be a good person, but don’t identify too strongly with being a ‘good person’ if that makes sense. We’re all human.