When she was making sparse, acoustic folk records with her vocalist-guitarist brother as the duo Angus & Julia Stone, Australian singer-songwriter Julia Stone once believed that too many cooks would spoil the broth.
But on “Sixty Summers” — her expansive, experimental new album, released April 30 — she changed her mind. She spent several years composing and co-producing the 14 adventurous songs on her third solo recording, first with Thomas “Doveman” Bartlett at his studio in New York, then alongside Grammy-winning auteur Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, in her Los Angeles digs.
The result is a tasty, exotic concoction, and easily one of the best records of 2021.
“Working on this project has been a real…well, it feels weird to call it a coming-of-age thing, because I feel like I’m too old to be saying ‘coming of age,’” says the Melbourne-based Stone, 37, laughing. “But working with Annie and Thomas, I gained a certain confidence with how I sang and how I wrote music, which I hadn’t experienced before.”
Clark and Bartlett didn’t do much tweaking to her sweet, seraphic voice. They simply expanded it with sweeping sonic backdrops, on the swaying, horn-peppered title track; the murmured march “Dance”; a tropical, clattering “Unreal”; and the delicate ballad “We All Have,” a duet with The National’s Matt Berninger.
It’s a remarkably busy new palette that she’s painting from, underscored by the disc’s fragmented Picasso-meets-Escher cover art commissioned from Surrealist Spanish photographer Filip Custic.
From 2007’s skeletal Angus & Julia Stone debut “A Book Like This” to 2017’s “Snow,” the singing siblings — who grew up playing in a family band, with Julia on trumpet — carefully choreographed their voices into a gentle, traditional blend, harmonizing as close relatives can. (Angus, who resides in the more rural Byron Bay and works from his home studio, Belafonte, is also flying solo now.)
Though she loved their sound, Stone says, she found it limiting. She began to explore her own voice’s power in live shows, in her bluesy 2014 showcase “Death Defying Acts” and a sassy cover of the “Grease” classic “You’re the One That I Want.”
Clark and Bartlett picked up on the budding brashness.
She says, “In the studio, they were just being great with me, just celebrating those moments and going, ‘More of that! More of that! And they were always more of the things that I hadn’t done a lot of.”
It started in 2015, when Stone, feeling restless, began cobbling songs together with the Grammy-nominated keyboardist-producer Doveman/Bartlett, now cowriting the upcoming “Great Gatsby” musical with Florence Welch.
Stone says she had no intention cutting a new album. The pair was just having fun and enjoying the studio process. They amassed 30 finished tracks, but Bartlett wasn’t satisfied. He thought they could use that magic touch that only his old friend St. Vincent could bring (“Annie always knows what to do,” he told her at the time.)
So he introduced the ladies, who were immediately, and equally, inspired by each other. Stone still refers to Clark as “the best human being on the planet,” and Clark took to calling Stone “Red,” for not only the flaming tint to her hair but the un-stoked creative fire she sensed simmering in her belly.
Pre-pandemic weeks Stone spent in St.Vincent’s Laurel Canyon studio were magical, she says. “And Annie was pretty unique,” she adds. “With her, you’ve got an artist and a producer and a friend, all in one, and she took the songs in some amazing directions.”
Whatever added vocal parts that Clark heard in her head, she would sing or hum to her astounded protege, and the rest, like a distorted pedal-steel guitar — she would just play live.
“It was so cool to witness her genius in action,” she says.
Stone was a keen student. When Clark listened to her initially rambling Australian childhood reminiscence titled “Better Like This,” she pushed her to edit it down to its experiential core. The song then became “Sixty Summers,” the album’s mortality-themed centerpiece.
“Annie wanted to know what all my songs were about, like, ‘What’s the story? What are you trying to say?’” says Stone. “Better” was rooted in a wild beach party she attended in her early twenties, when a friend turned to her in a moment of almost desperation and said, “Can you believe we only have 60 summers left?”
Stone says, “I was struck at that moment by the very finite nature of life. And Annie said, ‘That’s it! That’s the song right there!’”