Australia’s Holly Rankin (better known under the nom de plume Jack River) is a warrior, her music is testament to a determination to triumph over the impossible. The songs which make up debut album Sugar Mountain are in no way frivolous pop offshoots of a young artist hungry to find relevance, but beacons of bravery: bold and immersively bright. Finding comfort and release through writing and producing, Rankin has self-created an alternate world of incredible authenticity and glitter-ball escapism. It’s a sparkly visualization of a youth Rankin pulled from her biggest dreams and wildest fantasies, now made reachable through sonic form—alongside more than a few hairbrush-worthy sing-along moments.
Meeting the artist during her first trip to the UK in a busy weekend of festival shows, we settle outside a Northern Quarter boozer to talk closely about her soon-to-be-released debut album, playing shows to new audiences and where Jack River goes from here.
First things first, how are you? How are you enjoying your time in the UK?
Jack River: “Yeah, good. It’s been so cool to play shows—they’re literally my first shows outside of Australia, so it’s fun and weird. And I’ve got a new band—they’re based out of London—so that’s been awesome, yeah.”
How did you meet the new band members?
JR: “Just through a friend who’s in management, I just sent messages to all my friends in London and asked ‘Do you know a guitarist, a drummer and a bass player?’ They’ve really fit so incredibly with the music, so I’m very appreciative.”
These performances at Dot to Dot stand as some of the first Jack River shows in the UK. Knowing that you were taking your live show overseas and into new territories, what preparations were involved in the weeks leading up to getting on the plane?
JR: “So, I decided to create a band out of London because for Australians, it’s so hard to fly six people overseas. I connected them with my Australian band and spent lots of time preparing the files and preparing the songs, trying to get to know them across the internet, which is cool and fun. And for me, well, I guess I’ve played so much in Australia, I didn’t do much personal preparation other than sort the band out. But I guess, mental prep is trying not to be scared of playing to completely new audiences and tiny audiences and trying to just embrace that, rather than freak out.”
I noticed a lot of the songs you played in the set earlier were from ‘Highway Songs #2’, why was that?
JR: “I’m about to release the album in June and we’re still keeping a lot of it under wraps as much as we can, so that there’s a whole new batch of songs to play toward the end of year. Yeah, and I guess, I love playing them, it’s fun.”
So, are you planning on coming back soon to the UK?
JR: “Hopefully at the end of the year. I really hope we can come out in October/November to tour the album.”
Can we talk a bit about the songs from ‘Sugar Mountain’ that are already out in the world…? I guess first off, ‘Fool’s Good’—a song that has gained a lot of attention from both fans and critics, how did the song first come about?
JR: “So, I was in America—I think it was a personal trip—in LA and New York, and that song was just…like, I don’t know how [other] people write songs but I know how I write songs is weird, but I was thinking about—it’s very dumb—how this person that I liked didn’t like rollercoasters, and that just felt really metaphorical for me. And he didn’t like me either. I started to see this carnival dream in my head of rollercoasters and candy, and this Nineties sound, and then the chorus: I was walking around for a whole day because this song kept dripping into my head, so I just kept walking and thinking, and the chorus came into my head. I guess at the time, I was pushing and pushing in my life for things that weren’t giving me anything, like my music career and love life and stuff, it seemed like I was just focussing so much on other peoples’ success, shiny things that didn’t give me anything—so ‘Fool’s Gold,’ to me, is a rebellion against caring about stuff that doesn’t care about you.”
‘Fault Line’: styling and aesthetics seem to be a huge part of the production of this track and its accompanying video, what were the motivations behind the signature look and the treatment for the video?
JR: “So, for ‘Sugar Mountain’ and all the singles, we wanted to create teenage dreams. ‘Sugar Mountain’ is like this teenage dream place…well, I wrote down all my teenage dreams and one of them was to be a racing car driver. So, I thought, yeah, how fun would it be to live out all these dreams in the video clips, and yeah, I guess we tried to nail everyone’s dream to be a cool, fun, hot racing car driver. And that was it really. It was one of the first clips where I really drove the styling of it, and the filming of it, and where we shot it, so that was really fun to get really deep into the film production process.”
It definitely felt like a big moment…
JR: “Yay! It was fun to just say, ‘Yeah we’re gonna make a shiny, amazing clip’ and not hold back in trying to make it look like that.”
I think Australia’s quite a filmic sort of place.
JR: “Do you reckon?”
It comes across like that to me.
JR: “That’s cool.”
I watched Australia’s Next Top Model and they did something like that themselves for a photoshoot, using a race track as a location.
JR: “Well, it’s so vast and there’s so many weird places. That racetrack [in ‘Fault Line’] was in the middle of nowhere, two hours outside of Perth and nobody had ever filmed anything there, so it is cool, I guess.”
And finally, ‘Ballroom’—probably my personal favourite of this trio, the track is placed early on in the album, why so?
JR: “So, its track two; ‘Ballroom’ just really encapsulates what the album is about for me and it has a lot of grit and determination in it, a lot of heart. I wanted to start the album on a big note, and I guess, give people a first big shot of the feeling I want to create. ‘Ballroom,’ again, is about pushing through darkness and wanting something so bad and gathering strength along the way. I wanted to start the album on that really strong, clear intention.”
How much do the elements of imagination and escapism feed into your music—I guess, quite heavily?
JR: “Yes. Woops. [She chuckles]
“To this point, in my life, I think that they’ve driven why I create music and when I step back to look at the album and try and explain it to myself, I realise that not much [of the album’s lyrical content] happened in real life. So, [the songs] are written in this place of imagination and driving out of the place that I was actually in, which was quite dark and really hard for so many years. I think I’ve learnt a lot about art and writing, as it’s such a powerful tool to imagine the world that is coming for you, and create it, and make it your reality ‘cause it really has worked for me—my life is beautiful and light and enriched now, and music has brought that. So, yeah, it’s cool.”
And the soundscapes seem to be an extension of that imagination, just taking it a bit further as well…
JR: “Yeah, that’s really cool that you picked that up. I guess, I’ve realised that along the creation process [when I] started to bring in references of early 2000s pop and Nineties pop. These times when I was a kid and I was dreaming the biggest and the weirdest, so creating that kind of production around the songwriting makes me feel like I’m the kid in that dreamscape.”
Reading through the tracklisting, the titles reference familiar imagery—many of the titles seem to allude to high school and youth, like ‘Limo Song’ and ‘Fields,’ or the solar system and maybe escapism, like ‘Stardust & Rust’ and ‘Saturn’. Your imagery at first glance seems to be fairly far-ranging on this record, I understand it’s a very personal album as well, so do these themes and ideas come together on the record?
JR: “Yeah I hope so. What I’m trying to explain through this album is that the furthest imagination or imaginary places were so instrumental in the quietest, smallest, most personal places for me and that’s how I crawled out of grief and darkness—like, in the most personal, sacred place drawing in the dreamscapes of what you might hear in the music. Also, using things like space and rollercoasters, and all these things that ignite light and wonder in us, to move on and move forward and inspire myself out of it.”
Understandably the debut record has taken some years to get down on tape. Looking back through those six, or so, years spent labouring on the songs, is there a point that you can recall that really amazed you, or maybe revealed a different side to your artistry?
JR: “Songwriting comes really naturally to me and I’ve written songs since I was fourteen but the production side of things…
[Here we break off into talking about Lion—an artist who played the slot before Jack River—as they walk past us on the street at this moment.]
“Songwriting has always come really naturally to me but throughout this process and this album—yeah, I started six years ago—and other people began producing the songs but I realised no one was getting it right and I had to jump in and get so involved myself. And I think that hearing something like ‘Fool’s Gold’ and making that over a few days and producing that myself with my best friend Xavier [Dunn] who co-produced the record, like, that’s just out of this world for me and very shocking to hear how fun it is to produce the music and the feeling around a song you write. I think that discovering the art of production—I’m still a rookie at it [she laughs]—but hearing the world you create after you write a song, that’s been very impactful to me. I think it’ll shape what I do next and it definitely shaped what I’m interested in in music and how important production is. It’s so important to produce yourself, if you hear that stuff in your head.”
I think it’s really inspirational the music you make and the positive message it bears—and further to that, the initiatives you devote yourself to, like Electric Lady and environmental causes. Knowing that you have a platform and you use it to promote strength and other important aspects of life and the wider world, in many ways as a public figure you are a role model, whether intentional or not. How do you feel about that?
JR: “I guess it’s weird to be thought of as a role model, that’s really lovely to hear. I try to do things that I believe in and since I was a kid, I’ve always looked up to people who—that at any point in their career—have said what they believe in and not shied away from it. I get really pissed off at big celebrities and people who have huge platforms and don’t use them, because it’s such a brilliant time in the world to have a voice and use it. I don’t really care if it challenges my music or changes the way someone listens to my music. Even though I may have this small platform right now, I’m just gonna try and talk about what I want to, and stuff…I don’t know, hopefully it can inspire people.”
People like Alicia Keys and Demi Lovato are really great too; inspiring people with what they say and what they stand for…
JR: “Absolutely. And Rihanna. So many, so many women especially are standing up and using their voices for whatever it is they believe in.”
How do you, personally, deal with those difficult days when you’re feeling down or a little lost?
JR: “The thing I know will always help me is writing—not songwriting really, well, maybe songwritng…”
“Yeah, journaling. I’ve done it since I was so young and I know that it’s always there for me, it’s like a place to go. But I think, also listening to music, like, remembering the Beach Boys and Neil Young or artists that bring my brain light…Tame Impala. So, if I can just remember to go use those tools, it’s okay, but definitely I still struggle to find the light some days, like everybody. But music’s great.”
Before we let you go and embrace the night’s festivities. Can we talk a little about the future—what is the ambition? What are your hopes for the record and your career?
JR: “Well well well.”
It’s a big question.
“Yeah. [She laughs]. Things are starting to connect in Australia, I really hope this record can reach the world, like, reach the US and the UK. I’ve spent so long making it and I’ve loved everything I’ve made so much, I hope that people connect to it and that it finds [them] the place that it gave to me. I guess, I want to play a lot of shows and keep learning how to be a better artist and a better musician because I’m very new to that as well. I’m so excited [about] having the time to write again, and [to] figure out what I wanna say next and what I’m gonna explore next musically. But, I think it’ll be really nice to see ‘Sugar Mountain’ come to life, there’s so many songs that I’ve waited eight years to have out there—and it’s such a long time. And with Electric Lady, I’m tryna grow that globally, so my dream is to have Electric Lady—female-fronted super line ups—in the US and the UK and continue it in Australia, so that’ll be great, if that happens. And yeah, just keep getting challenged, I guess, and trying to find new things to think and write about.”
Jack River’s debut album ‘Sugar Mountain’ is released on 22nd June 2018. The record is available for pre-order on various formats and bundles here.