ABOVE: ANGUS AND JULIA STONE. PHOTO COURTESY OF JENNIFER STEINGLEN
“It was a big decision for us to come back together,” admits Julia Stone, one-half of the Sydney-born brother-sister duo, Angus and Julia Stone. Four years ago, they released their last album, Down the Way, which, thanks to the melodic single “Big Jet Plane,” won them five ARIA awards and was featured on soundtracks for 90210, One Tree Hill, and the Twilight films, as well as ads for Maybelline cosmetics. “To the public and our fans, we were so good,” explains Julia. “But we always felt unsettled, like we needed to be apart. There was something unspoken between us—I knew in myself I didn’t really want to be working with Angus, and I think he felt the same.”
So the siblings went their separate ways in 2011, having no contact for nearly two years while they each worked on solo albums. But despite their best efforts, the universe—or rather, Rick Rubin—conspired to bring Angus and Julia together again.
After hearing “Big Jet Plane” at a party, the renowned music producer and Def Jam Records co-founder (responsible for resuscitating Johnny Cash’s career and turning the Beastie Boys and the Red Hot Chili Peppers into icons) set out to make the pair his newest protégés. “It wasn’t until Rick said that the first record he makes with us had to be with us together, that we were like, ‘Okay, this is a decision we really have to talk about.’ That was the first time Angus and I started talking,” says Julia. “We talked on the phone about how it would work—and if it would work. How things would have to change. That phone call was the beginning of a long healing process.”
Cut to August 1, 2014, the release date of a third, self-titled album—the first to feature songs that Angus and Julia actually co-wrote together. “The fact that Angus and I had another chance—to work on our relationship and become friends—it was a real blessing. I would have really missed him, I think, if this hadn’t happened.”
OLIVIA FLEMING: You recorded the new album at Rick Rubin’s Shangri La Studios in Malibu. What was that experience like?
JULIA STONE: We were in Shangri La for about five weeks before overdubbing extra parts closer to Santa Monica, and it was so good for us to have a focused period of time to make a record. In the past we always recorded between tours—whenever we had a break we’d go into a studio, so it was always this higgledy-piggledy thing of carrying around hard drives of different songs and at the end of a year or so we’d have to piece it all together. There is something cool about that, but for us it was exciting to be in the one place—just to have so much focus. Rick makes that possible because his space is so well equipped and isolated, and everything’s taken care of. Angus and I had never worked like that, where you have people ordering your food and bringing you coffees and whatever—it’s like whatever you could think of, it would just appear like magic!
FLEMING: So that you didn’t have to think about anything else other than the music?
STONE: Exactly. It does make you a bit crazy sometimes, though, because you almost need those mental breaks. But we worked really hard, and I guess for Angus and myself we’d spent more than a year and a half totally apart. We hadn’t spent that much time together in a long time, and all of a sudden we’re in this studio every day for hours and hours—which we’d never done before. We were in this tiny little box together singing and playing. And I think that was good for our relationship as well; we just realized how relaxed we were with each other.
FLEMING: Rick told The New York Times that the entire process had a “family healing” aspect to it, and that you are now better friends today than you have ever been. Is that true?
STONE: That’s absolutely, 100 percent true. We were really happy with having our space and being apart, and it was a big move for us as brother and sister to come back together. By the end of making this record, Angus was a really close friend of mine. And in the past, we hadn’t been so much friends as we’d been collaborators, or just brother and sister… whatever that means. We were harder with each other than we are now. And I feel so grateful to Rick, that he even heard our music and wanted to work with us, but that he also gave us an opportunity to become friends again.
FLEMING: So it was all very serendipitous?
STONE: Fucking hell, I don’t know what is going on in the universe, it is so bizarre! I just didn’t think this was going to be my life, at all. I had so many different ideas about what life was going to be. Sometimes, even on this last tour—we just did European summer festivals—there were moments when Angus and I would just be like, “What is going on?! How did I end up onstage with my brother in fucking Belgium?”
FLEMING: Why did you guys split up in the first place? And how did Rick convince you to come together again?
STONE: I think for both of us, we always felt that we weren’t close in a way you want to be close with the people you collaborate with. We just realized early on that we could sing together and it worked—it made a nice sound. We were enjoying the traveling and the making-music, but something never felt like we’d actually chosen to work together, we were just sort of doing it. We weren’t friends growing up. Our teenage years weren’t an easy time, and I think that carried on into our working relationship, we hadn’t found a mutual respect for each other. I didn’t really feel super pumped about spending time with him, and I know he didn’t either. Finally we got to a place where we felt confident to make the decision to go our separate ways. We didn’t have any contact, we didn’t talk, we were doing our own adventures. It’s still hard for me to talk about, and explain, and answer without really digging up our past. But when Rick contacted us, it was a really big surprise, and obviously we knew about the work he had done and the records he had made and we knew he was someone we had to meet, so we started talking again. We asked each other things like: “What do you want out of life? Who are you? What do you care about?” And we realized that we care about the same things. So we went ahead with Rick, but we both agreed that if something doesn’t feel right, or the music doesn’t feel right, or a show doesn’t feel right, then we’d have the freedom to say yes or no and we’d both be okay with it. We set up all these parameters for how we would work together. It took months and months to make the decision. Even when we got into pre-production, we were like, “Okay, if writing together doesn’t feel right, if jamming together on these songs doesn’t feel right, we can still walk away.” That was two weeks before we walked into Shangri La. But the real reason it started working is because we both wanted to attempt to make it right.
FLEMING: This is the first record on which you actually wrote songs together. Which do you prefer better, writing by yourself or with Angus?
STONE: I don’t think there is a better in this case. We were both really surprised how easily we could write together, and I think that was because of all the time we’d spent apart. I don’t think it was possible before. Writing a song is a personal thing, and you have to have a lot of trust to try things and not be embarrassed. Previously, we both didn’t feel like we could expose ourselves in that way to each other. The time apart gave us a real sense of independence and confidence, that we could both be our own people. So when we came back together and started writing together, it just felt easy—we both just went for it. This record isn’t all written together, though, it’s a combination of what we are. We each wrote four songs separately and then we wrote four songs together, so you have this mix of me, and then Angus, and then Angus and me together. That I think is how it will always be, we’re very independent people, and we need to feel that. But we’re also really close, and have so much history. He’s now the most important person to me, for sure, in my life. And that is becoming easier to accept.
FLEMING: Who is the youngest sibling?
STONE: Angus  is my younger brother, he’s two years younger than me. It’s funny because I tried bribing him with money to say that he was my older brother. I said: “It’d be cooler if you were my older brother because I definitely feel like the kid a lot of the time, and it would make more sense.” But he didn’t agree to the bribe. [laughs]
FLEMING: So you’re not the sensible older sister?
STONE: In some ways I am, but Angus is a lot wiser than I am. He has this way about him: he is much quieter, and he’s very observant. He never says a lot, but when he does, you know he’s been watching everything and he’s heard everything. They seem to be qualities of someone who has been through a lot, and he has been through a lot, and so have I—but he’s taken it on in a very adult way. He and Rick actually remind me of each other, they are very gentle people, they don’t speak so much, they just really listen. And very good listeners are very rare. I’m definitely the talker!
FLEMING: Speaking of your childhood, you mentioned during a recent show in London that the song “Main Street” is about stealing light bulbs—is that true?
STONE: Ha! It’s not “about” stealing light bulbs, but there is a lyric that came from one particular experience. When Angus and I moved into The Cottage, dad’s old house in a valley of Northern Sydney, it was straight after high school, which is when we first started sharing our songs with each other. But we didn’t have a lot of money. We decided we wanted to convert the garage into a stage and put shows on there, so we built it using stuff thrown away at old construction sites. Angus built an amazing Tropicana bar in the corner, so it was all set up! But we knew we needed lights. The colorful garden lights we wanted were out of our budget, and Angus joked that we should just go down to Kmart and steal the lights. I was hesitant, I had stolen something when I was really young and I never forgot the feeling! But I really wanted the lights, and I thought if we did it together then it would be ok. His plan was pretty simple; we’d pay for one set and put other lights in the same box. I felt really sick the whole time, I was so nervous! But it all turned out fine. [laughs] The memory of that came to me when I was writing “Main Street,” and that’s a lyric in the chorus. But the song is really about a memory of an old boyfriend. After we split up, I saw him for the first time a year later, and he took me for a bike ride down a street called Main Street. I’ll never forget how generous and warm he was towards me as a friend. I remember feeling really moved by that, because he’s always stayed in my heart—I just really appreciate how cool he is—he’s proof that you don’t have to hate people if it doesn’t work out.
FLEMING: Are all of your songs based on real experiences?
STONE: It’s like “Main Street,” it’s usually a combination. When I’m writing a song, things are always popping into my head, it’s not so direct. It feels more like I’m in a room and there’s this whole big jumble of clothes on the floor and it’s like choosing what to wear. There are a lot of different things in there and you kind of pull something out and think, “No, that’s not right,” or you’re like, “Yes I’ll put this on with this.” It’s all from different people and places and experiences—the song becomes a combination of all those choices. And sometimes the choices are more specific, like one thing you just can’t stop looking at or leave it alone—like, “Oh my gosh, this painting is so incredible, I don’t want to look away.” I source images and ideas from different parts of my experiences, and sometimes they are things that are made-up, or just appear out of nowhere, like out of a dream or an image that I’ve seen in a book, or even the title of a book that I’m staring at on a shelf. It’s a good way to write songs, just stare at a bookshelf! [laughs]
FLEMING: On that note, can you tell us what your newest single, “Death Defying Acts,” is about?
STONE: That’s a good segue from the book thing! I was sitting in a house with a book on a shelf that said something like Defying Death. I looked at it, and just started singing. There’s nothing in that song that is tied to any personal experience.
FLEMING: “Main Street” was originally written on an acoustic guitar, but the end result features a lot of electric guitar—which is very new for you. Whose decision was that?
STONE: Angus and I jammed together before we got into the studio, and we were were still figuring out which tracks we felt strongly about. I originally wrote “Main Street” as more of a Simon and Garfunkel song, it was very folky. But a lot of the musical direction of this record came from Angus and his encouragement of me to experiment with the electric guitar, which I was totally open to do. I had written a lot more folky songs for this record. In my head, I wanted to make a record that was really stripped back, just me and Angus and two guitars kind of style. And I thought, because of how Rick had done Johnny Cash, that that’s what we would do. But that’s not we ended up doing at all. Rick always wanted to make a record with us that was groovy and more beat-inspired, and Angus wanted to explore more electric sounds. So the songs really shifted a lot, and that’s how it works now— we’re in the studio and I start playing something or Angus starts playing something and then we start building lyrics off the sound. Sometimes it’s an old song, sometimes it’s new lyrics that are popping up in the moment.
FLEMING: Your parents were a folk duo themselves; how have they influenced you and Angus?
STONE: They were a folk duo for about year before they had kids—they traveled and they sang together. It wasn’t a career for them, it was just something they did. When they played music together, they were really happy, and I think for us growing up, when you’re a little kid, everything that you’re seeing is becoming your idea of truth. I guess Angus and I both come from that place where, when you watch your mum and dad sing and they’re happy and it brings them joy, it is then a natural choice to go where the joy is. Music was always that place in our family. So yeah, because they loved music so much, it sort of filtered through to us as kids. Now it’s such a big part of who we are and how we live. And it still is for Mum and Dad—I mean, Dad’s just been on tour with us through Europe! The guy is more obsessed with music than we are, for sure. [laughs] He’s been on the tour bus with us for the past couple of weeks, he’s a pretty legendary dude. He does it quite often, actually; he just takes time off work, he flies to wherever we are, and he jumps on the bus. All the boys in the band love him and he hangs out and becomes part of the gang, and then drifts off and goes back to his world. He’s very cool.