Album Walkthrough: Jess Locke details her new album, Don’t Ask Yourself Why
The Melbourne-based musician breaks down the themes of her latest album, in an extensive track by track walkthrough.
Header image by Ian Laidlaw.
Jess Locke is a special craft of musician, one whose music is always able to mould itself to the context it's in. It's something you can see in her work with bands throughout the country over the last decade, but most potently with her solo project that launched a near-decade ago; one that placed the Melbourne-based musician on the songwriting map and made her one worth keeping an eye on.
In the last decade, Jess Locke has well and truly proved her place time and time again. Her 2016 debut Words That Seem To Slip Away was a touching eight tracks full of reflection and introspection, while 2017's Universe was critically acclaimed, nabbing award nominations and a spot in the shortlist for that year's Australian Music Prize. Since then, Jess Locke's work has come and gone - take 2018's My Body Is An Ecosystem / Nothing At All, for example - but all eyes have been kept on how she plans on following up Universe, an album that seemed to open all the gates for Jess Locke and her imprint on Australian indie.
Now, with the release of her fresh-minted third album Don't Ask Yourself Why, Jess Locke showcases how she's continued to evolve and push herself, both as a musician and as a lyricist creating impactful, tall-standing music. It's a weaving 12 tracks that capture the intensity of Jess Locke's work at its best, building on the emotional themes of Universe - and the songwriting that brought it to life - in order to create some incredibly powerful stuff, not too far from the adored potency of recent records by Phoebe Bridgers and Fiona Apple, for example.
Don't Ask Yourself Why sits aside from those records, however, providing a Jess Locke experience only the way she could. It tackles moments of behaviour, ego and self-reflection with the bite of punchy alt-rock-meets-indie, in a way where songs like the lead single Fool capture the grungier side of her sound while other tracks - like Destroy Everything and Dead and Gone - reek with more subtle, drawn-out songwriting; the type that emphasises every lyric and every word to come from Jess Locke's mouth.
"For this record I was a lot more open in my writing process than in the past in terms of genre," she says on the record, which also arrives with a cover painted by Locke herself. "I tried not to write any particular kind of song and instead just see what kind of style the song wanted to be. I found it to be an extremely productive way to write. I definitely came up with some pretty weird, and just bad, stuff that didn’t make it onto the record, but it’s the reason all of the songs that did make it are so stylistically diverse."
The end result is a stunning album full of personality, and one you can take a listen to below alongside a track-by-track walkthrough, where Jess Locke herself breaks down the album's themes and creation one song at a time.
Tell Me I’m Okay
I hadn’t intended on this song being on the album or even recording it initially, but it turned out to be one of my favourites on the whole record. It was one of the newest and least worked songs out of the fourteen or so we took into the studio. I think we ran it through once as a band before we started recording, but it seems that that under-preparedness worked in our favour. When I wrote the song it was very much an outpouring of anxiety and self-reflection and it feels right that the recording of it was fairly spontaneous.
The song is about how we are all so vulnerable at the heart of it. We all crave love and validation. We want to be told we are doing an okay job of things. So the vulnerability of the lyrics ended up being reflected in the recording process. We had this song, but we didn’t have a plan for it. But sometimes having a plan gets in the way of things and I think that was the lesson we learned recording this song.
One of my favourite things about this track is Rob’s wobbly guitar solo at the very end. When he recorded it I wanted to delete it because there is a bung note in there and it just sounded so different to anything I would play personally, but he convinced me it was actually awesome and now I love it and that’s the kind of thing that happens when you don’t plan things out too much. So the lyrics of the song are asking, ‘am I doing okay? I think I fucked this all up’ and the music is there to answer, ‘you’re doing fine. Trust yourself. The mistakes are beautiful.’
Don’t Ask Yourself Why
Thematically, I feel like this is the most important song on the record, which is why I chose it for the album title. It sums up pretty well a lot of what I’ve been thinking and writing about over the past few years and that is the problem of the human ego and how it causes us to so stubbornly resist self-reflection. The title points to the hypocrisy of holding others to a higher standard than we do ourselves. We so often make excuses for ourselves and those close to us while condemning others for doing exactly the same thing. We find it difficult to admit being wrong or to entertain perspectives that contradict our own, because it feels good to be right, it feels bad to be wrong. But feeling right and being right are very different things, and getting to the actual truth (if such a thing exists) means asking difficult questions of ourselves. It’s asking ‘why?’ and sitting in that grey, murky, uncomfortable uncertainty where we don’t know all the answers.
The music for this song came first and I originally hummed the lead melody thinking it would become the chorus, but then Chris and I made a demo with mellotron flutes playing it and I just thought that sounded awesome so we recreated that in the studio but with extra pizazz. I like that the instrumental sections flourish in between the bareness of the verses. To me, it creates this loop that feels like infinitely riding a slightly terrifying roundabout. It’s innocent, but it goes nowhere.
The song Destroy Everything is about destruction as both a positive and negative force. Destruction of the old can be necessary in order to make way for new and better things. It can be strategic, revolutionary, inspired by a vision of what is to come next. But destruction can also be reactionary and misdirected, born out of chaos and fear and not really conducive to real change. The song is a kind of meditation on whether destruction is useful or futile or part of a natural and unavoidable cycle. It was the first song I wrote for Don’t Ask Yourself Why and I suppose it set the tone for the rest of the songs I would write. It touches on this general theme of the social and political dividedness and confusion that seems to only have grown in the world since I wrote the song in 2018.
This is about as acid as my tongue gets. This song is fairly tongue in cheek but it gives voice to real feelings of disappointment in people and in the way they treat each other, the way we divide and exploit when threatened. I originally imagined the chorus being sung by the Earth or some other omniscient entity to humans, like a loving parent to a wayward teenager - not angry, just disappointed. Although I wrote the song more than a year ago, I feel like it could have been written as a soundtrack to 2020. I recorded the song with my band (James Morris and Chris Rawsthorne) with Rob Muinos in a tiny studio in the back of a guitar shop.
My vision for it was always to keep it simple and raw - dirty grunge guitars, a fuzzy lead, gritty vocals and punchy rhythm section. I think Rob helped us achieve that whilst adding a slight element of vertigo to the whole track with the use of the space echo swimming underneath everything else in the bridge.
I’ve always thought of this song as more of a poem. I was mucking around with my housemate’s JX-3P and just being kind of hypnotised by the warbliness of the tones moving back and forth from one chord to another and I came up with the first verse of the song. I wrote the rest of the lyrics in bed one night when I couldn’t sleep and then played it against the music the next day. It’s a really simple song and because of that it was difficult to know how to record it without overdoing it. I had a serious case of demo-itis with this one because I was so attached to the original synth tone that I was playing when the song came out. But I love the way it turned out, super lush and moody. The ambient layers are like a soft bed that supports the lyrics, letting them tell the story.
Dead And Gone
This song is a catharsis, a shedding of the old and an embrace of what’s to come. Singing it feels like vomiting up my sadness and regret and finding a moment of peace. People probably think that all singers always love singing, but that’s not true for me. Sometimes it feels like work and it takes a lot of energy. But I enjoy singing this song. I like the way it feels in my throat and my body. To me, this song isn’t just about moving on and healing, it is that in itself. I wish I could say that about more songs, but I can say it about this one. One of my favourite moments on the record is at the end of this song, when the humble little folk tune flies off into the sky in a looping, weaving, transcendent celebration of sounds. It’s a metamorphosis in real time.
I had the first part of this song going around my head for a while but I couldn’t think of how to finish it. Then I remembered that there are no rules about how long a song has to be, how many verses it needs or how many choruses, if any at all. This is another one that feels more like a poem in essence and the music is just there to carry the ideas along. I recorded an acoustic demo and added in some mellotron choir and cello sounds because I love the sound of something very organic against something synthesized. The finished song was a fairly straightforward recreation of the demo, but even so, we managed to end up with some funny little bumps and chair creaks that just add to the intimacy of character of the recording.
To me, those things are perfect for a song about failure and imperfection. We are not defined by either our successes or our mistakes. Those things aren’t us. They are just events, like bumps and chair creaks.
Little Bit Evil
This was a fun song to record. When I wrote it I was mucking around with this really simple upscale chord progression and I thought, this would make a sick 90’s lo-fi kind of grunge song with dirty acoustic guitar instead of electric guitars. For this record, I was a lot more open in my writing process than in the past in terms of genre. I tried not to write any particular kind of song and instead just see what kind of style the song wanted to be. I found it to be an extremely productive way to write. I definitely came up with some pretty weird, and just bad, stuff that didn’t make it onto the record, but it’s the reason all of the songs that did make it are so diverse in terms of style.
Anyway, this song wanted to be a dirty acoustic guitar-based 90’s rock song and so it was. Lyrically, it’s about how no one is all good or all bad. We all do good things and bad things and our flaws are what make us human. I think the dirtiness of the song reflects that and is supposed to be a celebration of that idea. Let’s all stop trying to prove how good we are and get on with it. I also couldn’t get past this idea that I wanted a children’s choir to sing the outro, but finding a children’s choir comes with its own issues and costs, so Rob suggested we just put on child-like voices and sing it ourselves and layer the takes to make it sound like a choir. We did and I think we did a brilliant job of it. I think that was possibly the most fun we had during the whole two weeks too.
Living For The Living
I don’t know what to say about this song except I really hope someone puts it in their zombie movie. If we released it as a single, the video would definitely have been zombies. When I wrote it I knew it would be pretty moody and heavy. We made a demo and Chris added in these synth and mellotron flute parts that gave the song a whole new dimension and then I decided a fuzzy guitar lead wouldn’t go astray and we ended up with this unexpected epic symphony, with a slightly country swagger which didn’t really make any rational sense but somehow worked perfectly.
It was a bit of a nightmare trying to recreate that in the studio, as it always is when you have a really strong idea about how you want a song to sound. We spent about three hours just trying to track one of the synth parts because we used a pitch bend and it was extremely difficult to hit exactly the right note. And then poor Rob had to mix all of the different parts
As soon as I wrote this song, I knew exactly how I wanted it to feel. Even before I wrote the words, I knew how I wanted them to feel in my throat. I knew I wanted this deep, guttural, almost monstrous sound. There is a Cat Power song called Evolution that has a male vocal doubling the whole song and I couldn’t shake that idea for Halo. I am notoriously addicted to doubling my own vocals and I liked the idea of using a male double as a way to achieve that texture but also give more depth than just layering my own voice. I was thinking about who I knew that I could get to come in and sing it for me. Rob suggested that he could sing it as a guide take, so at least we could make sure the idea worked before getting someone to come in. As soon as he did it I knew it was perfect. I love the way our voices sound together. It’s one of my favourite parts of the whole album and it absolutely achieved what I had in my head the whole time.
Instrumentally, I always wanted this song to be very minimalistic, but it was hard to figure out how to do that without just being boring. Some of my favourite parts about this track are things I wouldn’t have thought to do myself, like the subtle ambient synths weaving in and out and the slightly meandering bassline that perfectly offsets the relentlessness of the Wurlitzer. It introduces a bit of warmth and optimism to my melancholic tendencies. Even if, lyrically, the song is quite pessimistic, the music itself doesn’t fully submit to that sentiment and that’s the result of collaborating. If it was just me, all the songs would just be downers.
This song came out very quickly one afternoon. It’s a song about self-love and community. It’s about who and what we value and what we define as a successful life. In all honesty, I think I wrote it for myself because I needed to hear it. Whenever I write something remotely optimistic, I immediately discount it because I tend to confuse positivity with cheesiness. It’s ridiculous but I can’t help it. But this song, I knew, was tender and honest and real, so we had to figure out how to record it without making it sterile.
Since we made our last album, I’ve wanted to do something based on a Lennon-esque piano and drums sound, but there’s John Lennon and then there are people trying to do John Lennon and that can get very lame, very quickly. But in the end, I think keeping it as raw as possible helped. I was originally adamant that the song had to be played on a real upright piano, but we didn’t have an upright piano at the studio. So, I recorded a guide track on the Wurlitzer and then we doubled that with an electric piano and the effect of that was actually very interesting so we kept it.
All Things Will Change
This song started as a very simple acoustic guitar song and went through a range of pretty weird and experimental arrangements before settling on being a humble little acoustic guitar song once again. I think that worked out because the song is about humbleness and perhaps if the recording ended up more aggressive and ironic (musically speaking) then the whole point of it would have been lost. The way I see it, the song is a kind of consolation. Ultimately, everything that happens to us in life, good or bad, is going to end.
In the universal scheme of things, our lives, our successes, our failures, our egos, reputations and the opinions of others are completely insignificant. It seems obvious, but we need reminding of it. Obviously, just knowing this can’t solve all the world’s problems and, depending on how you look at it, it could be a depressing or a liberating thought. For me, that kind of perspective is a tool that can help you withstand the bad times and make you appreciate the good ones for what they are.
I feel like that sentiment is a good way to end the album. I’m not offering any miracles, but here’s a thought that has provided me with comfort in my own life. Just because, one day, we will be forgotten, as individuals and as a species, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t go on living our lives. I think it just means we should focus less on our own self-importance and more on the bizarre and wonderful experience of being alive and being able to share that with each other.
Fri 23rd April - Volta, Ballarat
Sat 1 May - Major Tom’s, Kyneton
Sun 2 May - The Bridge, Castlemaine
Thu 27 May - The Lansdowne, Sydney
Fri 4 June - Tanswells, Beechworth
Fri 11 June - Northcote Social Club, Melbourne