Julia Stone, sounding nothing like the vulnerable, tortured artist who crafts music for everyone from hopeless romantics to lonely hearts, had something else on her mind besides love.
"I'm going ice skating tonight," she says enthusiastically over the phone from London. "And maybe 10-pin bowling as well."
That the carefree spirit was ready, willing and able to try decidedly different athletic activities -- and find a place in jolly old England that offered both -- says a lot about the thought-provoking Australian songstress who's embarking on another courageous chapter of her career.
May 29 marked the North American release of her second solo record, By the Horns (Nettwerk). And while the spontaneous Stone was certainly prepared to talk about her hands-off approach in making an album this time around, she was just as comfortable discussing Hollywood cemeteries, blonde ambition and the on-again, off-again status as a wildly popular, folk-inspired duo with her younger brother Angus Stone.
Such is the whimsical nature of the life Stone leads these days. Calling herself a "freeloading freak," the 28-year-old world traveler doesn't stay in one place too long. After leaving her homeland six years ago, Stone admits there's no longer a home base. She sublets rooms, stays with friends and often visits her parents John and Kim, a former folk duo, in Australia, where she plans to tour in September.
Stone not only worked on the tantalizingly rich By the Horns there, but also in California, New York, France and India.
Have suitcase, will travel must be her motto. "Yeah, I actually have my suitcase in front of me right now," she says, reeling off an itinerary that would make even the most frequent flier jealous. "I guess at this point in my life I get so excited by traveling and meeting people and playing music with different people and singing in all these crazy venues."
Dead and alive
In support of the album, she's thrilled to return to Los Angeles for a June 1 sold-out show at one of her favorite strange-but-true places, the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
"Have you been there?" she asks excitedly. "It's so wild. Well, I mean, it's a cemetery, obviously. But it's got a very strange vibe about it. Because it's ... I've never seen headstones with people's faces in color."
She bursts out laughing, then adds, "It's very out there. You know, Toto from the Wizard of Oz, the dog is buried there. It's a pretty amazing cemetery. I'm sure regular people are buried there as well but there's definitely a kind of... there's a feeling of -- that's where the famous go to rest."
Her five-member backing band will include By the Horns co-producer Thomas Bartlett (aka Doveman) on keyboards and Sam Amidon on banjo, fiddle and electric guitar. Ray Rizzo (drums), Hannah Cohen (backing vocals) and Josh Kaufman (bass), all of whom are on the album, fill out the group that will play at the cemetery's Masonic Lodge.
Stone says, "It's quite an unusual building," describing a room of stained glass and vaulted ceilings, with huge thrones on the stage. "It has a very Eyes Wide Shut feeling to it," she adds. "And then the guys that run it (including executive vice president Jay Boileau) are the biggest legends. They're such lovely fellows. They've got Buddhist artwork all through the backstage and skulls and crossbones. It's a fun place to hang out and to play."
At one of the cemetery's outdoor screenings, Stone enjoyed watching Ghostbusters. "Everybody stands up and sings. It's pretty out of this world. Not like back in Australia," she says, laughing, then feeling creeped out when informed that Silence of the Lambs had just played there.
Stone (left) returned in 2011 to see Laura Marling perform and sang backup during a morning session outdoors with the Flaming Lips. She played two nights with Angus in 2010 while they were promoting their second and most recent full-length album together, Down the Way.
Whether they'll have a third album remains to be seen. Press releases have indicated that's on the horizon after both launch their latest solo products (Angus' Broken Brights is scheduled to drop July 17 in North America), but Julia Stone isn't sure when -- or if -- the combined project will happen.
"We sort of made a record last year. It never got finished," she says candidly while cautiously choosing her words. "We just ... we kind of ... we've always been this way. When we have time off between tours, we book studio time. And so we were doing that. ...
"So there was kind of the momentum of recording these songs that we were sound-checking and we were playing in the set. ... And I guess we ... Angus and I are not super-communicative about plans for the future. We just don't talk about stuff. We just go, 'Oh, I guess we're making a record together.' "
After six more months of touring that completed about a year and a half on the road, those plans were put on hold when Julia went to New York and Angus back to Australia.
"I don't know, it was just one of those easy conversations where we were both in the same place with what we were working on," Stone says. "And when we were kinda of getting pushed by our managers to make a decision about what was gonna happen with the recordings we'd done together and what was gonna happen with the ones we'd done separately, when Angus and I talked about ... we both felt like we wanted to focus on our solo recordings.
"So that record or those songs that we worked on together, I mean who knows what will happen with them. They'll just probably sit on the hard drive."
While reports of personal friction and a professional split continue to swirl around them, Stone doesn't consider the situation that dire.
"At the moment, there's no plans (to work together)," she conveys. "He's my brother, so he's always gonna be around and I guess ... we love making music together. He's one of the funnest people I've collaborated with. He's really ... I guess because our voices are ... they do have a similar sound in a way from a boy and a girl. That they're different but the same. So to sing with him is one of my most enjoyable memories. It's a really beautiful experience.
"So both of us, we want to do that again. I guess I'd be forward to really talk about the future that much. I guess maybe it'll happen down the track, but right now we're both pretty happy and content with this sort of ... having some space, I guess." (Angus Stone, far right, with Julia.)
Stone just laughs when asked if the inevitable reunion with Angus already has been marked on the calendar. "There's no timetable with that kid," she says. "Yeah, it's hard enough if I can get him on the phone."
Stone waxes poetic about the time they first started performing together -- as separate artists -- after their dad moved out and left them the cottage. He eventually married another woman and found a place a three-minute walk from their mother in Avalon, which is along the peninsula north of Sydney and Newport, where the Family Stone (including oldest daughter Catherine) had lived.
Seven years ago at age 19, Angus worked as a general laborer and Julia, 21, was teaching trumpet, making just "enough to kind of get by." Both were writing their own songs and he started performing at parties.
She started doing backing harmonies for him during open mic nights and remembers finally getting the courage to tell him, "Oh, I would like to get up and do some of my songs. So maybe I'll do a set and you do a set; you can do backing harmonies for me."
Angus responded, "Yeah, that's a great idea."
After seeing them perform ("And, again, we were still thinking we're solo. One of his songs, one of my songs, one of his songs," Stone recalls), their aunt and future manager, Cathy Oates, suggested two Stones were better than one.
"We both felt it was a good idea at the time," Stone says before unleashing another magnificent laugh.
So while the pair enjoyed their share of success, both realized it wouldn't last forever. "We've written three songs together in our lifetime of playing music," Stone says. "That's really not a lot considering that we have spent pretty much everyday together for the last six years...
"I think we always felt on some level that we were separate artists," she adds, finding confidence and support that was essential for a musician "so petrified about the experience" of climbing on stage.
"But I do feel like we both on some level always knew this was gonna happen."
After co-producing her first solo record, The Memory Machine, with Kieran Kelly and Brad Albetta (Martha Wainwright), Stone was happy to be unchained from those duties for By the Horns.
"I just wanted to go in and make music," said the multi-instrumentalist whose primary job this time with Bartlett and co-producer Patrick Dillett (David Byrne) was to lend her introspective lyrics and a distinctive voice that can be dreamy and haunting.
No longer feeling so "neurotic" about the process relaxed Stone as she dipped into a vast backlog of songs she had written. Only a cover of The National's "Bloodbuzz Ohio" doesn't belong to her.
"Songwriting is such a part of my day, my day-to-day experience," Stone offers. "It's not like I write a song a day but ... I'm never short of songs to record. ... I guess that was a big part as well of wanting to do a solo record again as opposed to doing another record with Angus."
Horns of a dilemma
While her song "By the Horns" is a blunt brushoff message to a cheating partner -- Well my hair was still on the pillow / My music was still in the air / You didn't care to tell her why I had been there -- she's second-guessing herself about one aspect of the title track.
"In retrospect, having to talk about that song all the time, it's like probably the worst choice for the album title," she says, again joking to take the edge off a serious subject. "Oh, God. To be honest, I like the sound of 'By the Horns.' I like the way it sounds in my head and the picture it creates.
"That song was definitely a difficult moment in time but it doesn't really represent the whole album. It can, if I look at it in a positive way. I guess it's like the song's about life being uncomfortable. Going through a situation that maybe is painful or it hurts, but in the end, it doesn't change the fact that in the heart of who I am, I always will believe that love is possible and it doesn't really matter what I go through or what anybody goes through, I guess, in my perspective. It's possible to continue to love."
Angus and Julia have heard bits of each other's latest work -- they sat in a car listening to her early versions of "The Line That Ties Me" and "It's All Okay" -- but familial feedback has been minimal.
"To be honest, when we do talk, which is every so often, we're so in the mode of catch-up about ... he's got a dog and he's living in a beautiful place," she says. "And he shows me on Skype what's going on. We don't really get into talking about the record stuff. I think it's a bit weird for us in a way..."
As for Angus' new record (actress/girlfriend Isabel Lucas stars in the video for "Bird on the Buffalo"), Julia gives him a thumbs up. "Well, I've heard a couple of his tracks and they're pretty beautiful. I'm such a fan of his ... I think he's an extraordinary songwriter."
While writing songs is a labor of love for them both, it's the videos that bring out the entertainer in Julia. The stunning brunette appears as a blonde with bangs driving a vintage T-Bird in the 4-minute clip for "It's All Okay."
She had to console friends and acquaintances wondering what she did to her hair. "I was like, 'Don't worry, it's just a wig.' But the director (Sydney-based Kiku Ohe) wanted me to get into like a totally different character, so I felt that was a good way to do it."
And despite the serious nature of her work, such unpredictability undoubtedly endears her to most fans while leaving others dying to know: Do blondes have more fun?
In a perfect world where love is the simple answer to most of life's difficult questions, Stone prefers this time to deliver a parting punch line:
"Well, I did that night."
Publicity photos courtesy of Nettwerk Records.
See the official video for Julia Stone's "It's All Okay" from By the Horns:
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