It’s like sticking your hand in the fire, and when it gets burnt you still put your hand back in there
Jess Macc is a writer and performer from Sydney, and has recently jumped into the music scene after a long career in various creative industries. Her music is bold and passionate, and it was a delight to talk to her and get some insider info on the drive behind her writing
‘Hater’ came out late last year, how did the release go?
It was great! I mean, especially during the whole COVID thing where it’s been so difficult on everybody. It’s cool to be able to go, all right, well let’s just make stuff work – just in a different capacity.
Yeah, it’s a weird thing to get your head around. The regular formula of doing things has been flipped on its head a little bit – it’s not like everything is as straightforward as maybe it would be if you could have more freedom to go out and perform or go to recording studios. It’s a weird readjustment that no one was prepared for.
Yeah, true. I’m always trying to be positive, and I think this situation made a lot of people reassess where they want to be; what they actually really want to do. You realise through something like this, so much time is spent focused on shit that doesn’t matter.
Has it been strange for you to launch your music career and this project during a pandemic? Obviously that probably wasn’t the initial plan!
Yeah, I don’t honestly know how much it really has affected my music. I feel like probably the only thing is that the writing process isn’t done in the studio, it’s back and forth online. I wasn’t doing live gigs, and we just relocated back to Sydney from California. I’ve kinda been one of the lucky ones where I’ve not been massively kicked in the face!
How did you get started doing music?
I’m a bit of a weird one… I could never sing and I was pretty much tone deaf. I had a friend in school who was just such a phenomenal singer and I was always so inspired by her. Singing and music became something I just really wanted to do. I graduated acting college in Sydney in 2007, but before that I’d just caught a bug for music. I did some singing lessons with Jennifer Murphy, who’s phenomenal! I was just terrible, I really couldn’t sing, but I wanted it so bad. After about two years of training with her, I was like, look, I think we’re at a good point now where I can ask you this, what did you think of me when I first came? I knew that I couldn’t sing. She was so gracious, she just said, “You know, I’ve had to turn people like you away before, because sometimes you just can’t train people. You can’t train everyone. I could just tell how much you wanted it and you were willing to work really hard for it, and that made it very difficult to say no”.
I trained and worked hard at hearing and listening and really getting to know myself better. I was always very scared – I still am and I still have a lot of anxiety around performing. But I auditioned for a band, and we gigged around Sydney and then recorded an EP and just worked with some other friends. I released a few EPs about ten years ago, but I’ve never released anything solo. I’ve been over in America for the last eight years and even though I’m a real team player, I had this feeling where I should get back to Australia and start a project just under “Jess Macc” rather than a band name. Whenever I’d come to Australia to visit, I’d always jump in the studio to do some recording – even just covers, and one of the guys I met through doing that at the studio is now my producer. I reconnected with him when I came back. It’s been really fun trying something new and shaking it up a bit.
Do you feel like you enjoy it more as a solo musician or do you miss having a band around you?
I think having Daniel has made it kinda feel like there’s a band. We do almost the whole process together. I usually will take a song to him and then he writes parts and composes and we decide together where we want it to go etc.. I don’t feel like I’m just out here doing it by myself, and I very much need other people so the process doesn’t feel lonely.
Not ideal to feel lonely in your music career!
Yeah, I definitely need that support – that family feeling! I can’t even do it by myself, it just doesn’t work for me.
There are lot of emotions that can weigh you down in the process, and to go through it alone is tough. Even with releasing a song – it’s nice when you can share that with someone and you can feel the sense that you’re not going through this whole process alone.
It’s so true, it’s like having siblings. We’ve created a dynamic together that’s really cool – I think this whole process really feels like family now and that makes me super happy.
How did you settle on this kind of Americana, indie-rock style?
It’s so weird, I don’t really know. I probably am influenced in that direction because of being overseas for so long. But also, I do think the old Aussie Rock I grew up on that has shaped the sound a bit too. I think there’s always going to be a little bit of that, but I also wanted to make it modern. I actually don’t feel like I’ve settled on anything until now. We’ve been working on an EP and we’re really pushing more into the Alt-Country side of my sound.
Did it take a while for you to feel like that was the sound you wanted, or was it pretty natural for you to land here?
The first track we did, ‘Win Some Lose Some’ was actually super quick – very organic and natural. I’ve got two singles out at the moment, ‘Win Some Lose Some’ and ‘Hater’, and I do think there’s already a bit of an evolution between the two. There are so many reasons why, but after these two songs I just realised I wanted to press into the country sound. It’s so much more me than anything else. It’s been a natural progression and actually feels so freeing to land somewhere.
It can really feel like one song will ‘define’ you, but that’s not really the case because what we make is pretty fluid! Let’s talk a little bit about ‘Win Some, Lose Some’. Why did this song feel like a good first release for you?
During my time in America I had all these voice memo ideas, and this song was one idea that really stood out to me and to Dan – It felt like the right one to start with. It developed so easily, and it felt really good in the studio.
That’s such a good feeling, what are you communicating with this song?
I think something we can all experience is feeling like we don’t know what we are doing in our lives, we keep repeating the same things that make us unhappy, and you think to yourself, why am I like this? Why do I keep doing this to myself? I remember always feeling like that, feeling like I didn’t have self-control. It’s like sticking your hand in the fire, and when it gets burnt you still put your hand back in there.
I really like the title for this one, that phrase, ‘Win Some, Lose Some’ has a great feeling to it. I think that making mistakes and fucking up is something that people talk about less and less as we become more self-indulged on social media. Failing and making mistakes is intrinsic to being a human being, and I just love the candidness of that phrase, ‘Win Some Lose Some’, because it’s actually not the end of the world if you do make a mistake, because you still have the chance to be better tomorrow.
Yes, I love that.
Tell me a little bit about what your more recent release, ‘Hater’, is about and what you’re communicating with it
This song is kind of fighting back against passive aggressive bullying. I got bullied at school a lot by girls, and then I thought it would be over, but I’m 36 and that shit still goes on. Why is this happening still? There’s a lot of people out there that are super insecure and want to make everyone around them feel the same. It’s so nasty to be like that and tear people down to make yourself feel better. Drives me nuts. Life is hard enough.
Why do you feel like this is something that you wanted to write a song about?
It’s just something that I’ve seen for so many years. I’ve been on the receiving end of it, and it was just boiling my blood so much. I think it’s something a lot of women feel, and it’s been amazing to see this movement of women supporting each other nowadays. I hope that this song is something that can empower people to stand up for themselves.
If you just keep getting pushed down into feeling like you’re nothing, it really is something you have to find in yourself to pull yourself up. That ability to pull yourself up out of such a trampled down state is huge. That’s a really big, important step that I think a lot of people have to make, especially women.
Yeah, and it’s sad too. I look at my Mum who got bullied at school so bad in Year 11 and 12, and in some ways she never really recovered from those comments. It does so much damage, it’s so sad because my Mum could have done so many things that she would have loved, and she missed out on it. I got bullied a lot about singing. I had some people who would encourage me, but so many others who told me to give up. I kind of just went, fuck you! to them. I think that’s one reason why it’s a super important song to me, because it’s my journey of being a solo artist. It’s been such a big journey to get here emotionally and mentally.
I think it’s just insane how those mean comments that someone can say so lazily, can be the things that stick with us for the rest of our lives. Someone might be told when they’re 10 years old that they have a weird smile, so they’ll just refuse to smile for the rest of their life. It’s just so sad. I think it’s important to outline and understand in yourself what it is that’s the root cause of our insecurities, and it can be a tough thing to get over.
Yeah, for sure. We all have that thing someone said that still messes us up years later, even if we don’t really recognise it. It’s hard enough being alive, you know what I mean? Like why be a dick head?
It feels like such a simple message, but people really just can’t get it through their skulls?
Literally, like, don’t be an asshole, why is that so hard?
What do you feel like are the emotions that drive your songwriting the most?
I think I feel things pretty deeply, but I’m probably more affected by negative emotions. I can’t really write happy songs, I just don’t know how to do it. Maybe I could make it a mission for me to write something happy, the world probably needs a little bit more happy right now. I mostly write about heartbreak though.
Heartbreak is a strong emotion! There’s a lot you can draw on to write a good song!
Even ‘Hater’ – it isn’t really about the heartbreak of a romantic relationship – it’s heartache of getting abused or attacked or bullied. I think heartbreak is the best word to summarise the emotions I write with, and I think songwriting definitely helps me process.
Do you feel like the process of writing and releasing helps you close that chapter of emotions, or is it something that you still experience?
It really does close it for me. I acknowledge it, work through it, I let myself fully feel it, I let it pass through my body, and I grieve it. By the time a song is released, I’ve fully grieved the feelings.
I’m so surprised by people who don’t create things to understand their emotions, because to me that feels impossible. To not create to understand yourself.
I’m the same, and it doesn’t have to just be with songwriting. I paint, and I’m a photographer by trade. I even made this Halloween playlist last year because I missed being in America over Halloween. I was so bummed I wasn’t there for it so I made this playlist, and I spend time creating a great photo for the cover, and it was just so much fun and it made me so happy to be creative in that small way. I did a Christmas one too.
I think that’s great. I think it’s important to not feel like everything needs to be big and grand in order to be worth creating. Your creativity isn’t just reserved for releasing a song or an EP – you can just enjoy being creative in small moments in everyday life.
Exactly! And to be honest, I’ve had a few bad car accidents – I’ve been within an inch of death because of neglectful drivers on the road. Moments like that just shift your entire view of life. You ask yourself, what do I care about? Even big achievements don’t matter that much to me anymore. It’s the every day things that make me happy that bring me so much lasting joy. I think we just forget, and we’re so focused on trying to become something, or get somewhere. Honestly, when you nearly die, that shifts everything and you just don’t care anymore – the small moments in life become so fulfilling and make you so happy to be alive.
I feel like that’s what living is about, it’s about enjoying these small moments. If it’s only these really big achievements that are the things that bring you real joy, you’re going to be quite depressed and disappointed most of the time. I think allowing yourself to be childlike and creative and enjoy things, it’s just way more important and life-giving than we think.
Yeah, 100 percent!
Who do you think would be your dream collaboration?
Don’t laugh at me, but I’m not even joking when I say John Farnham. I bloody love him so much! He made me want to be a singer. I remember when I was probably twelve or thirteen, when no one was home, I’d go into the living room no one really went into…
The good room!
I knew that I wasn’t allowed in there because then my Mum would have to vacuum it again, but whenever no one was home I would go in there and lie on the ground and put his CDs on. I would just lay there and close my eyes and just be so affected, like so affected, I’d have goosebumps everywhere and I’d just be like, oh my Gosh. I actually met him once when I was a kid at Sydney airport, so I have this hilarious photo with him. There’s something about him – I would die if I could sing with him one day. That would be the absolute best!
What would be the dream performance environment for you to perform your music in?
I’m a very anxious performer – I get very, very, very nervous and terrible anxiety, but I have always wanted to play somewhere like the Enmore. I do get really nervous so I’d love to have a bunch of people with me on stage, you know? I wouldn’t want it to just be me and a freaking spotlight! I would just shit my pants. It would just be so difficult. A sick venue like the Enmore or the Metro or even Hordern would be rad. Anything bigger than that would be too much for me I think. I remember I saw Arcade Fire once (about 20 years ago), and they had like 10 or 11 people in the show, and they’re changing instruments in between songs. It was so rad!!! One of the best bands I’ve seen live.
A big team would make the performance a lot of fun I think.
As long as everyone gets along!
What would you love for people to walk away with after they’ve listened to your music?
I think empowerment, probably. And joy. I hear certain songs, and they really feel like they’ve saved me in a moment, and that’s such a common thing for people and music. It makes you feel so connected to people. It’s such an intimate thing, and it makes you feel so supported too. I hope I can make people feel like that.
You can find Jess Macc from the links below