Jules On Coming Into Her Own With New Album: ‘I've Really Had To Get To Know Who I Am’

8 November 2023 | 2:50 pm | David James Young

“You get very earnest as a singer-songwriter, but you also learn a lot.”


Jules (Supplied)

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“My album came out today!” As she drives around the streets of Sydney on an overcast Friday morning, Jules Kerr – known mononymously as Jules – gets to say the five words she's wanted to say for the last three years. Speaking to TheMusic.com.au (hands-free, of course), she notes that her fourth studio album Familiar Drama is intended to be reflective of 20 years pursuing a career as a singer-songwriter.

“I've really had to get to know who I am over that time period,” she says. “You get very earnest as a singer-songwriter, but you also learn a lot. That's kind of where the album title came from – being my age, being a little street-smart. When you think of 'familiar drama’, it's like, 'I've heard it all before.’ It can be as trivial as gossip or as major as trauma, but it's nothing you haven't gone through before. This is an album about growing up and about understanding, but also not becoming jaded. These are songs about learning to live with pain, but also finding redemptive arcs within it.”

Kerr explains that the phrase Familiar Drama came to her while writing the title track – a song, she claims, took “maybe 20 minutes” to arrive fully-formed. Normally a piano player, Kerr wrote the song on guitar: “I don't know heaps of chords,” she confesses, “but the challenge then is to work within those limitations. Getting away from the piano actually forces me to think differently about songwriting, and having a different approach like that can be really encouraging.

“I loved the way 'familiar drama' sounded when I landed on that lyric. Once I had that, I was able to riff off it and the rest came together super quickly. It's a straightforward song, but that's offset by this huge chorus. Simon [Cohen, co-producer and co-writer] helped me to create this chorus that really feels like a kick in the guts – I love how exciting it feels on the record, because I know you're not expecting it.”

As was seemingly inevitable in songwriting over the pandemic, Kerr notes there is an aspect of sorrow and grief to certain songs on Familiar Drama. So much so, in fact, that she jokes the album should have been called Dark Songs From The North Shore – referencing the area that she and co-producer/co-writer John Lawrie live. Heartsick, the album's penultimate track, is particularly singles out. “There's no redemptive arc, and there's no neat little bow tying everything up,” she says of the ballad.

“It's just a depressing song, there's really no hope to it at all. I really wanted to express how it feels to be heartbroken – and, indeed, heartsick. It's a song about pain, and sitting with it. There's a grief to it, which is the kind you can only feel once you've gotten a little older, and that's one of the things that holds the album together.”

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On the complete other end of the spectrum, Kerr finds herself indebted to yacht-rock: for the first time in her career, she's recorded a cover in the form of Christopher Cross' 1979 smash Sailing. What started out as a little bit of fun ultimately snowballed into one of the album's standout moments. “I was honestly kind of nervous approaching that song,” says Kerr. “John and I have such a reverence for songwriters like Christopher and Michael McDonald – we both grew up loving yacht-rock because of our parents, and we find ourselves referencing that sort of 80s sound a lot when we're making music together.

“We put together a quick demo track, and then I sat down and sang it. As soon as we heard those first takes back, we were both like, 'Oh my god, this might actually work!' It was probably the song that took the longest to produce, just because we knew it had been covered so many times and we had to figure out what we could bring to this cover that felt different.”

Kerr adds that she and Lawrie wrote to Cross' management and sent them a copy of the cover – although, at the time of writing, she hadn't heard back from his camp. “They were probably like, 'oh, here's another one', and added it to the pile,” she laughs. “Maybe he'll hear it, maybe he won't.”

Across the course of creating Familiar Drama, Kerr notes the transformation that several songs took from their original demo stage to the version that made it onto the record. Opening number In Your Sky, for example, took unlikely initial inspiration from Lionel Richie. “John and I had all these electronic drums and congas, straight out of the ‘80s,” Kerr laughs. “We took it to Simon, and it was a pretty firm 'yeah, nah'. It evolved from there over quite a long time into what we eventually ended up with.”

By means of contrast, Summertime Waits For You originally presented as a “murky, slow, jazzy kind of thing” according to Kerr. “It felt so sad, even though it was supposed to be a reassuring song,” she says. “John suggested we give it more of a ‘60s surf-rock feel, and we added in more Beach Boys-style harmonies to go with that. It also had a bit of a vintage Motwon flavour to it, so it became really fun.” That song is also home to a particularly curious lyric about “rented pineapple” – which, as Kerr explains, came from a discussion with her co-producers.

“Did you know pineapples used to be a symbol of wealth?” she says. “They used to be really expensive, and if you were hosting parties you'd make sure you had one on your table to show off. If you couldn't afford one, you'd rent one. That's where the idea came from, and soon enough Summertime was nicknamed 'the pineapple song'. I'm actually having a party tomorrow, and we're gonna have pineapple there.” Bought or rented? “Bought! They're pretty cheap at Harris Farm now.”