Jack River: “There’s A Lot To Change For Future Generations Of Women Having Babies In Music”

16 June 2023 | 11:08 am | Bryget Chrisfield

“There’s a small number of women who have had babies in the kind of cohort of the music industry I’m in, so we’ve made a fun Instagram DM group to kind of trade stories and tips."

Jack River | Photo Credit: Jordan Kirk

Jack River | Photo Credit: Jordan Kirk (Supplied)

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Jack River (Holly Rankin to her mum) had almost finished creating her upcoming second album, Endless Summer, when she discovered she was pregnant with her first child. Instead of releasing a protest album that would flow on from her 2021 single, We Are The Youth – which addresses the urgent need for action surrounding climate change, First Nations’ rights and respects, and women’s rights and respects – Rankin chose to create “the kind of Jack River world” where you can “play with bubbles and think about fairies” – some much-needed escapism. Rankin also toured up until she was 35 weeks pregnant – wearing incredible sparkly maternity onesies into the bargain! – before welcoming baby Maggie into the world. 

We chatted with the singer-songwriter, muso-mum and advocate for social change about making magical music in times of political turmoil, how having a baby magnified her meditations on the future and her viral post that sparked a movement. 

From protest song to Endless Summer 

“[Baby Maggie] came as a surprise within our lives. It wasn’t a planned bubba, but I felt this – I dunno if anyone can hear it in the album [Endless Summer], but I’ve been going through a very big personal shift and a lot of questioning – as a lot of people have, post-pandemic – but, yeah! After having Maggie and during the pregnancy, the idea of thinking about the future but escaping it felt very magnified. And once I found out I was pregnant when most of the album was done, I guess… [Baby coos] That’s her in the background [laughs], she knows we’re talking about her! A lot of it felt more magnified – meditating on the future and, like, this endless summer that we’re entering feels very real – ‘cause I’m touching the future every day and holding it in my arms, and thinking about the kind of life she’s going to have. And you have to be really real about that, but you also have to tune out and, like, play with bubbles and think about fairies [laughs], and that’s the kind of Jack River world that I have created.

“I was setting out to write more of a literal protest album that would flow on from We Are The Youth. But as I kept writing the songs and listening to what was naturally coming, it just didn’t sound like that. I guess, songwriting-wise, I normally let things happen and let the song rule, but production-wise, I think going the escapism route was fun and enjoyable and felt like another really beautiful reality to create rather than trying to depict reality at the moment.”

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The album “literally almost got consumed by the Northern Rivers floods”

“I think we recorded the majority of [the album] before the floods because the hard drive – not that this is ‘the one’ story from the floods, but to do with this album: Matt [Corby, producer]’s laptop and hard drive got affected by the floods, and the album wasn’t backed up anywhere else, so it literally almost got consumed by the Northern Rivers floods! And then he did have to move into his studio after that, so, yeah! [After Corby’s home was engulfed by flood waters in early 2022, he was forced to relocate the whole family to his Rainbow Valley studios in northern NSW] It’s been a big few years for me and Matt – he had a baby during the making of this record as well, actually. So much stuff’s gone on! So we both had kids, there were floods – it was flooding the day we met! You know, he made his album, I made my album – there was a lot going on.”

Fanning out over Genesis Owusu 

“We’d already written and recorded the song [title track, Endless Summer] pretty much in its entirety, but we held out a dream to find a male artist to join the track. So I threw out Genesis [Owusu]’s name to the team as, like, a dream artist and he magically wanted to jump on board so, yeah! I am such a fan of his artistry and his voice – and how he does everything – so it was so cool to get him on the track. But we have only met in real life doing the film clip, so I feel like he’s still enigmatic to me; he’s still a character to me, like a magical pop star that I haven’t met [laughs].”

Ushering in “a new chapter” 

“I actually started writing [album closer, Stranger’s Dream] when I was 19 or 20 [she’s now 31]. I had this ringing of the chorus in my head for many years, and I just always loved the idea of being ‘six floors high in a stranger’s dream’ and, especially throughout my career as Jack River, it rang out to me as like, ‘Am I living in a stranger’s dream?’ Or, ‘What reality am I living in, and is it true to me?’ – like, just questioning that. 

“And then I sent [the song] to the label again two or three years ago and said, ‘I really wanna see what’s in this song,’ and Johann [Ponniah] – who I mainly work with at I OH YOU [record label] – was like, ‘Yeah, I love this so much!’

“I brought it to Matt, and it’s probably one of my favourite recordings – ever – that I’ve worked on ‘cause there’s a lot of real emotion in those lyrics for me. And I love that we worked on a new ending for it that kind of opens the door to a new reality and tries to set the person free kinda thing… When I listen to it, I’m like, ‘This is exciting! A nice way to finish a record and open a new chapter’.”

Touring until she was 35 months pregnant

“Everyone’s different with their pregnancy. So I was in a fair bit of pain throughout the pregnancy and quite sick in the beginning, but continued to tour – it seemed like most weekends. I think we did 20 shows or something during the pregnancy; it was a lot, yeah, I toured a lot. And from the get-go, I was just like, ‘I’m doing it all!’ I was also working full-time on the election, until the election, as well as being pregnant and touring on the weekends – I continue to behave like that and stack my life, so I’m literally insane [laughs]. 

“But, yeah, touring pregnant – I guess not much changed, except being more tired. And, I dunno, touring musicians are pretty crafty, like, I would nap under tables out the back of the Midnight Oil shows with a tablecloth as a blanket, you know? We just do whatever. And I think touring itself is a very gritty job already, so adding pregnancy – for me, it was like: it made it harder, but touring at the level I’m at isn’t a luxurious thing anyway, so I’m pretty used to it, really. Like, early wake-ups, lots of travel, carrying stuff – you kinda get tour-fit.

“I was a bit breathless. But it was nice to have a big belly to breathe into and have no shame around breathing into my belly when I was singing, so I did really enjoy that. And the audiences were awesome; I feel like it was novel for them. I’d make a joke about whether there were any doctors in the crowd [laughs].” 

“I’ve got an amazing band – most of the time it’s an all-female band – so they were really incredible to tour with and understood that I wasn’t gonna be much use most of the time. And then toward the end – ‘cause I toured right up until 35 weeks – for the last three weeks leading into that time, I brought along my mum or my partner just in case I had the baby [laughs]. So they came along and, yeah, at that point in the pregnancy, you are very tired and playing a one-hour set 35 weeks pregnant makes you wanna just fall over at the end.”

Those sparkly maternity jumpsuits!

“The stylist I work with, Emily Gibb, and I worked with a lady called Olivia Duer, she’s a designer who makes custom costumes. So I wanted something like that to tour with because it’s really hard to find good, fun maternity clothes – especially a jumpsuit – and, yeah! I just wanted one or two pieces that I could wear throughout the duration of the pregnancy ‘cause I didn’t wanna buy ten different outfits that I wouldn’t wear again. 

“I got a fair few [enquiry] DMs – I mean, I didn’t get thousands, so I didn’t decide to go into the fashion industry…”

Creating a mat leave plan 

“The physical stuff wasn’t so hard, the most challenging thing for me, mentally, was setting out my own plan with my label and management. I feel like everyone’s really understanding, but it’s mostly hard for us – as artists who are used to a 24-7 mentality with our work – to create a maternity leave plan and share it, like, as a director of your own company or as someone who is self-employed in a 24-7 industry, or during an album cycle. How do you create boundaries and a plan around taking time off?

“And typically, there’s a lot of men in the music industry – a lot of whom maybe haven’t had babies and definitely a lot of whom haven’t had a female artist who’s having a baby – so it’s just like, ‘No, I can’t do that thing one week after I have a baby! [laughs].”

“Women having babies in music” Insta group

“There’s a small number of women who have had babies in the kind of cohort of the music industry I’m in – people like Isabella Manfredi, Hannah [Joy] from Middle Kids, DJ Tigerlily’s just had a baby, and Alice in Wonderland’s about to have a baby – so we’ve made a fun Instagram DM group to kind of trade stories and tips. There’s a lot to be shared and a lot to change for future generations of women having babies in music.” 

Baby Maggie’s fave songs

“She’s on a healthy diet of Jack River when Mum’s looking after her. Apparently, she loves Sugar, my song with Peking Duk. I don’t play my own music too much, but her favourite song is The Happy Song by Imogen Heap, which is a song that Imogen Heap wrote with a university to make babies happy – like, it’s a scientifically proven happy song. I send it to everyone and it fully works!

“It must be something to do with the melodies and the instruments – it’s just, like, fun sounds and stuff [laughs] – but it’s pretty classic Imogen Heap, you know, fun to be listening to her instead of – I mean, all power to The Wiggles! I can’t wait to go through that phase [laughs].”

Making magical music in times of political turmoil

“If you asked my mum who my favourite artist was when I was growing up, she’d say Jewel because she wrote poetry and spoke about politics and was quite political. As a ten-year-old, I remember buying her poetry books.

“Then I think hearing The Beach Boys for the first time was pivotal – oh, actually, the thing I always remember is Mum and Dad having ‘The Hits Of The ‘60s & ‘70s’ or something, and it had Elton John’s Crocodile Rock and The Beach Boys and this music that sounded like it could be plastic: it was the surreal, hyper-pop of that day kinda thing. It really does transport you to another world, and I know all music does that, but I guess The Beach Boys especially – with these layered harmonies and unconventional sounds and unconventional song structures – really fascinated me.

“And, looking back, I realise that so many of those artists were making magical music in a time of political turmoil. And being quite conscious of that, I think, is an interesting thing and something that I employed in this record [Endless Summer].”

Fighting for First Nations’ rights and respects

“I’m working on the Voice To Parliament campaign for The Uluru Dialogue, which is one of the main organisations – working on the Yes Campaign. We’re working on a major social media campaign and some other things that I’ll get to talk about soon. 

“I studied Indigenous Law at uni and learned about the Voice To Parliament and got involved a few years ago now – I worked with them in a voluntary capacity for a year and a half after studying – and now it’s go time, so I’m doing what I can to mobilise, I guess, pop culture for the referendum.”

“Songs have a life of their own”

“I don’t talk too publicly about all that work that I’m doing – ‘cause, yeah, it doesn’t need to be talked about publicly at the moment. But I guess I do magic tricks in my head, like, when I’m working on one thing, I act like Jack River doesn’t exist, and when I’m working on Jack River, I act like the other work doesn’t exist, in that moment – so that’s useful.

“I kinda treat my calendar the same way, like, act like one thing’s not happening. I just feel privileged to get to work in these two amazing worlds that I love so much. So, yeah! I guess I’ll always be juggling the two spheres.

“I enjoy working on projects in politics and campaigns from the background, with my knowledge from pop culture, rather than needing to be the front of something or, like, driving things from a public position, if that makes sense. I definitely don’t want Jack River – like, my music – to be political or for me to push my personal muse through my songs; I just know it doesn’t work like that, and songs have a life of their own.”

Sparking the Our Soundtrack Our Stories campaign 

In 2021, Rankin shared her disappointment over the lack of homegrown music played during Australia’s TV coverage of the Olympics on social media, her posts were shared widely – rapidly gaining momentum – and morphed into the Our Soundtrack, Our Stories campaign: a joint initiative with ARIA calling upon Australia’s business sector to support local artists by playing more Australian music. Swift change followed, with Channel 7 increasing the Australian music played during its Olympics coverage, with Channels Nine and Ten also adjusting their morning show playlists to incorporate more local content. Then 7-Eleven, Bank Australia, Woolworths and Coles followed suit and committed to playing more local music more often.

“I was so blown away [by the post inspiring ongoing positive change] because I talk about a lot of stuff on social media and for whatever reason, that connected with people, and I’m so grateful that it did. And it really did seem to impact quite a lot of brands and TV stations. It’s just the beginning, hopefully, of a snowball of things that we’ll work on over the next two years.

“One cool thing that’s happened is a new ARIA Award [Best Use Of An Australian Recording In An Advertisement, which will debut at the 2023 ARIA Awards] to reward the best use of music in an ad. So I think it’s amazing, yeah. I’m so stoked about it.”

Jack River's new album, Endless Summer, is out today. You can stream or download it here