You can call Julia Jacklin a songwriter.
She writes gentle, alt-country-adjacent indie rock songs for a living and goes around the world performing them for audiences. She is, by definition, a songwriter. That’s how it works.
But Jacklin thinks it’s weird.
She didn’t think to call herself that. Other people did first. But she has come to terms with it. With two albums to show for it, 2016’s Don’t Let the Kids Win and this year’s Crushing, it’s more than fair to say she’s earned it.
For Jacklin, neither album was a sure thing. She has no set protocol or routine; she doesn’t just sit down and work until a song comes out. Instead she writes as the spirit moves her. “I just write based off need because I’m trying to process something,” she says. “That’s a terrifying place to be in as a songwriter because you have to be patient and hope that things happen.”
After finishing the well-received Don’t Let the Kids Win, Jacklin was worried that the album might be the end of her career. She had exactly one album in her, and that one album was written and recorded and mixed and mastered and released, and that was that. And now other people were calling her a songwriter, a title she wasn’t sure fit. Does one album a songwriter make?
“It’s weird going from someone who has a job and is studying and playing music on the weekends to suddenly people calling you a songwriter as a title,” she says. “I was like, ‘I haven’t earned that yet, I’ve only made one record so I don’t think I’m a songwriter.’ It was a weird time in my head trying to come to terms with that title.”
And then life happened. Jacklin has been relatively mum on the developments that informed Crushing — the end of a significant relationship, the death of a close friend — but processing such heavy emotions revealed another album within her. Pulling said album out of herself took about a year and a half — standout “When The Family Flies In” materialized in a Motel 6 in Nashville — and then it ended up being something of a breakout record.
Granted, Jacklin admits that she still fears Crushing could be it. Sure, as it turns out she had two albums in her, rather than just the one. But does she have three? Three feels like a lot.
“I’m having those fears again now, where you are like, ‘I guess that was it!’” she says. “Songwriting has never been something I’ve done methodically.”
Raised in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, Australia, Jacklin started writing songs in her late teens after spending two years at a music high school. Growing up she loved Avril Lavigne — “That album, Let Go, I was listening to it three days ago in the car and remembering how I used to listen to that and feel so many things,” she says. Her family wasn’t particularly musical, although her mother sang in a choir and she attended a music high school for two years. Jacklin knew she wanted to sing and perform from the start, but wasn’t sure exactly how to go about it.
“When I was younger I thought I would be a singer and I would also be a writer, but I never connected the two. They were very separate to me,” Jacklin recalls. “It wasn’t until my friend taught me some guitar chords that suddenly I was like, ‘Oh! I can actually put writing and singing into one thing!’”
She moved into Sydney proper at 19 and started singing backup in a band. She took up guitar onstage partially because she “felt really awkward standing there without anything in my hands.”
Three years later and with some songwriting experience to show for it, she flew to Southern California and hopped on a Greyhound bus in Los Angeles, guitar in tow (but without a cell phone). She headed toward New York, stopping in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Memphis, New Orleans, and, most notably, Nashville, where she played the city’s famous open mic nights “with stars in my eyes.”
“I have a lot of nostalgia for it because I feel like it might have been the happiest time of my life in a weird way,” she says. “That was a particularly interesting and joyous experience. Just catching buses across America, it was very romantic to my 22-year-old self.”
Two years later she would make a return trip, do it all again, and record “Don’t Let the Kids Win” upon returning to Australia.
Now she’s 29 and two albums into her career. This is her job and she’s a professional. She didn’t just set her feelings to music and hope for a few listeners. Yes, her lyrical style tends toward the evocative and the confessional, but that’s a conscious choice she’s making.
“I didn’t just drop my diary and suddenly I’m a victim of my own thoughts that I’m exposing to the world. I’m making very clear choices as to what I write about and sing about and I’m very much in control of what I choose to share,” she says. “It’s annoying when you’re treated like you’re some sad girl who’s about to collapse in tears onstage. I’m a songwriter. I know exactly what I’m doing and the effect that it’s having.”
Which is also to say that Jacklin is doing something of an artistic balancing act: negotiating both the self-doubt inherent to being an intelligent musician with an audience and the pervasive (and sexist) impulse to write off the women of indie rock if they draw on deep personal experiences.
Jacklin is no such delicate flower. She’s a songwriter.
“It’s a strange thing to call myself,” she admits. “But I’ve accepted it now.”
Julia Jacklin with Christian Lee Hutson, Saturday, Nov. 23, 9 p.m. at The Independent. $20, theindependentsf.com