HOLLY Rankin was walking her dog when she was hit by an epiphany that inspired ‘Constellation Ball’, the penultimate track on her debut record Sugar Mountain.
“I started thinking how sad it is that I’ve got my best friend on a leash,” the singer, better known as Jack River, says. “And then it just went from there.”
Over the kind of chords and whimsical production that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Flaming Lips record, Holly lays out an evocative Christopher Nolan-inspired vision: a party on mars with trippers, physicists, and dogs running free. She describes it as her “love song to the planet”, even though she later jokes how “trippy” that’ll sound in print.
“I could talk about that song for days,” she explains. “The main crux of it is that I saw this ball in space. Because right now on the planet there’s a whole bunch of environmentalists, artists and musicians, and people that are called trippers. They believe the same things as climate scientists and astrophysicists, but they’re not necessarily connected as the one thing yet. It will happen.”
But there’s a dark side to this fantasy, too. Holly’s sister Shannon was killed in a tragic accident in 2006, upending her idyllic family life in Forster on the north coast of NSW, and sending her into a long depression.
Her songs become a form of escapism, and in many ways Sugar Mountain is an attempt to recreate the kind of youth she missed – but through a fantastical, dream-like lens.
“Visualising the future and scenes and different things always helps me to get out of where I am,” she explains.
Following the death of her sister, Holly has poured herself into a range of projects. She has become an inspirational force in Australian music, co-founding the Grow Your Own festival in Forster with her childhood friend Lee McConnell as a way of showing what two creative kids from a country town can achieve. Next came Electric Lady, a series of national events celebrating “women on fire in music”, which she hopes to branch out into other disciplines and grow into an international concern.
But today we’re talking almost exclusively about Sugar Mountain, an album in which the full scope of her creative vision unfolds over 13 immaculately produced tracks.
It’s a month out from the album’s release and we’re at her favourite Melbourne cafe Arcadia – an eclectic ‘90s throwback among the gentrified trendiness of Gertrude Street. It suits this small town girl to a tee.
“It’s not crowded like a Melbourne cafe usually is. The guy remembered my name so I keep coming back.”
"A song has to do something - help you with something or take you somewhere - and if it doesn't, I'm not interested in it."
Where is home for you now?
Mostly in Sydney, I live in Redfern with five girls in a sharehouse. It’s pretty funny. But my partner is in Mollymook [on the NSW south coast], and my family are in Forster, so I kind of live between all these places.
I loved the Cigarettes After Sex interview where you talk a lot about driving and how songs kind of form while driving. Is that still a thing that happens?
I do a lot of driving and I have since – well, since I could drive really. Foster is so far from everything, so I really value the time with music and driving. You just get a lot of clarity and time with albums as well, rather than working and listening. You just can’t do anything other than listen. So I don’t mind driving on tour for six hours, I’m happy to drive.
And you do a lot of driving yourself, obviously from Sydney out to Forster or Mollymook.
Yeah. I’d say like every week. I don’t know if I would spend a weekend in Sydney, I’d just drive away. I’m definitely a country kid. I can’t find much in the city, unless it’s New York.
Elton John, though. All these things are a gateway into other artists in a way.
Classics, yeah. Until you figure the world out, you don’t know that Elton John and Bernie [Taupin] wrote that soundtrack. And it’s a classic for us, we’re absorbing that great songwriting when we’re, like, three. [Laughs]
Were you a musical kid?
Yeah. I started playing violin when I was four. I had an obsession [with that instrument] and mum and dad listened to it. And then started piano when I was about seven … I picked up a guitar at 13.
Listening to the record, there’s a mix of guitar and piano songs. Do you still write mostly on guitar, or is it a bit of both?
Yeah, so mostly on guitar. Unless something, when it comes into my head sounds like it needs to be a ballad, or if it’s really dramatic or sad, then I’ll find a piano. But guitar is so rhythmic. It’s got a texture as well. I love hearing different things that just come out.
What was the first song that you wrote? Do you remember?
Yes. The first thing I ever wrote when I was a kid was about saving a farm. My parents were involved in a piece of land that we would go visit, and it was getting subdivided. And that was my first song. I think I was probably eight or nine. The lyrics were like [sings track], “This is my home and you’re not gonna take it away from me.” It’s about saving the farm. [Laughs]
Did it make your parents cry?
[Laughs] I doubt it. It would have been a bit of a joke. I think then the first real song I wrote was probably the first New Year’s Eve after my sister had passed away. Just this crazy feeling you get when you’re young, and it’s New Year’s Eve, and she wasn’t there. I can still remember that was the first real powerful song that helped me, or healed me in some way.
Is that song on the record?
No. It would be from like 11 years ago. Some of those songs, you overlook them but after five years, when I get some time one day I’d love to go in and look at them cause they’re often so pure and actually really good…
Perhaps there is a connection between the farm song and the song about your sister? Maybe songs are a way of processing your reality or what’s happening in your world?
Totally. Yeah I’ve always used songwriting as a direct self-healing processing [tool]. When I write it’s for myself to process something. Pretty much if I’m overwhelmed or whatever, I’ll let a song come out. It’ll be helping me somehow.
Were you particularly productive as a songwriter after your sister passed away?
I started writing at a really young age, writing in diaries. I’ve got a 150 diaries in my room at home, ‘cause I’ve written every day. When I lost her that energy started turning to songs because it was too much. I was overwhelmed. As I get older, I write less songs like that ‘cause your brain starts dealing with things better. But when I’m writing I’m always looking to see how I can heal whatever is going on. How you can add a lyric to inspire you out of a place … So I really value that in my past. A song has to do something – help you with something or take you somewhere – and if it doesn’t, I’m not interested in it. It needs to be strong enough to push you somewhere.
I’m so interested in your decision to really throw yourself back into that world and into that time. Was that always your intention for the first record? Did you want that first record to really sum up that time?
I didn’t try to write this album, it just happened, and this is a collection of the strongest songs and strongest messages. And when I stopped to look at it all I was just like, “Wow. You didn’t get anything throughout this album. You didn’t get the lover or the happiness or whatever.”
Now that I’ve finished it, my life is pretty beautiful and happy right now. But looking back through all this, I can see a real struggle and a real dark fucked-up time. So I’ve kind of arrived at the thought that it’s like an alternate youth that I was making along the way to get out of it.
Are you prepared to talk about your sister ad nauseam now as you enter the press cycle for the record? That’s pretty brave to put it out there in the press release so everyone knows the story. You don’t really necessarily know it straight away from listening to the songs.
Especially in this time of mass sharing it would be dumb to put this album out and not talk about my life because I’d be missing out on an opportunity to help other people. The album isn’t about death, it’s more about how I’ve dealt with darkness. Hopefully it can help people…
I only put stuff out so that people can get something from it, and it doesn’t feel fulfilling if that’s not happening. Otherwise I’d rather just keep it to myself … It’s so special when someone says to me, “I lost my sister.” I’m like, “Woah.” I immediately feel like I can share, and there’s so much that I’d like to share. So hopefully it helps. And I know that so many girls, especially going through dark things, we’re in really fucked-up times….
I also thought of it as a weird mass healing process as well. There’s so much stuff for me to figure out still, and it’s actually this weird beautiful thing to talk about it with strangers a lot.
Are you getting better at talking about it?
Yeah. Honestly, creating this album and releasing it will be a big step in the healing process. I think the next album might be about actually experiencing grief. It’s taken so long to be able to let go, talk about it, and be honest about my past. I’ve spent the past eight or nine years pretending that I was fine, making music, not talking about my sister, not wanting to be labeled as: “She lost her sister.” In my small town that’s what my family were – the family that lost a kid.
What was your upbringing like up until that point?
It was amazing and happy and perfect and fun. We did lots of camping and surfing. My parents were really community involved, which they’re becoming again now. It was a really open, beautiful childhood in a small happy town.
Did you have a big family?
Yeah, not a massive family. Just a couple great cousins and my little brother, and mum and dad.
Has this record helped them heal too?
Well, they probably haven’t listened to it as a whole. They’ve been listening to my music the whole time. I think my career and having it advance and bringing so many beautiful people and stories into our family’s world has really helped them … Doing this, the business stuff, everything in music, has revived me back to being a human.
My mum is an artist as well, she has done similar things through healing, the way she created a program for young girls in school and turned her grief into an art project as well. I don’t know what else I would have done, like if I just went to uni and continued to deny the stuff within myself.
How important was it for you to open with that song about your sister, ‘Her Smile’?
That actually almost didn’t make the record because some people didn’t understand the significance of it … This story about my sister is kind of complicated in the album story. Having that song there opens the door to the greater things going on in the record and how there is a mystical otherworld to it from my end…
There is a real atmosphere to the record, it’s almost like a dream state. I don’t know if that’s something you were intending to do with the production, but it’s interesting you say that because the atmosphere in the record is really quite apparent from the second it starts.
That’s really cool. I was definitely trying to unconsciously then consciously make a dream of youth kind of thing. And have all of those sugary, early-2000s parts and lots of cymbals and Disney-like kick drums and stuff…
I realised unconsciously I was referencing a lot of stuff from when I was 14. So then I looked into it and really, for whatever personal reason, needed to put that edge on it. Like a ‘Teenage Dirtbag’. [Laughs] And hopefully it resonates in people, but I don’t really care cause it gives me this sense of, “I need this, I need to hear this stuff.”
So was that the idea for you to put together a really small team to make this record so that you could kind of frame things and control things a bit easier than having a lot of players?
Yeah, I think that finding Xavier Dunn who I’ve done everything with, I just didn’t need anyone else. The thought of too many cooks in the kitchen just freaks me out, and once we started to achieve my visions I was like, “I don’t want a producer.” I can listen to a Beach Boys song and be whipped into shape about the level that I want to achieve. So I think that that’s another amazing thing about Spotify and streaming is that the best are right there, like one second away. If you want to be inspired or you’re lacking direction, go listen to Beyonce or the Beach Boys or your idols, and that will give you the production ideas.
So what is your [recording] set up like? Do you have one place that you work out of?
I have all that I need at home to make good demos. And then I go and work wherever Xavier is. He’s got a bunch of synths … and we just track a lot of stuff, a lot of synths and guitars and then vocals, any lines that I’ve got. I took a lot of the songs on the record down to [producer/engineer] John Castle. His passion is real instruments and real music, where Xavier is an electronic guy, and I’m in between. I took it down to John and would track as many guitars and I could and any real drums that I needed to add in. Also just to get one other person’s opinion, and then that’s worked for every song.
Where did you meet Xavier and what drew you to him as a collaborator?
I met Xavier through my first manager … The first day we hung out we wrote ‘Fault Line’ together and that song became an important new step in what I realised I could write. Up until then I was with anti-pop, with traditional structures and stuff. But I loved that song [‘Fault Line’]. We clashed for a while because it was so different. We didn’t understand each other. He’s all rules, I’m no rules. He’s all technical, I’m non technical. I was crying some days because I hated Xavier and now he’s my best friend, my best musical friend. So he’s gone on to produce and write some incredible things. I think of him as the Jack Antonoff or the future Jack Antonoff of Australia. Not many people understand all the stuff he’s worked on yet.
Was there a connective record or song that was a turning point in your relationship do you think?
The cool thing about Xav and I is that we both have no boundaries as to what we think is cool or good, so we’ll put on ‘Teenage Dirtbag’, then Taylor Swift, then Neil Young, then ‘Stacy’s Mom’, or Kate Bush. He’s from Dubbo, I’m from Forster. We’re not in scenes, we don’t have any pressure or feel any pressure. So I love that about our relationship. There’s no judgment. It’s all just darting about to find what’s good for the song.
Obviously you’re involved in so many other things beyond music, I really wanted to keep this chat focused on the record. But with throwing yourself into all these other projects, which are amazing, was that a coping mechanism as well? Just keeping yourself busy.
Probably yeah. I’ve been on a fast train of doing things … I think last year I worked day and night and haven’t really stopped working and feeling like I have to work. It’s not only a career thing, but probably a personal thing of wanting to move forward.
Is music still the thing that everything else orbits around?
Yeah, it has been. Writing for me is something I do every day. It’s my thing.