Joan & The Giants are the answer to the question, what would it sound like if Perth had a heavy pop band? The answer: absolutely splendid in every respect. So, get ready to rejoice, world, because today Joan & The Giants release a double A-sided single with ‘Mother’ and ‘Young In Love’ and they’re sounding better than ever. Having followed their career since they were a folk duo called Platform 2, the opportunity to catch up with the nucleus of Joan & The Giants, Grace Newton-Wordsworth and Aaron Birch, was too good to pass up. We sat down for a cuppa at a Leederville eatery where I got slayed for being posh by ordering English breakfast tea and Newton-Wordsworth and Birch bickered with each other over who’s the best songwriter. Well, kind of, you be the judge.
“I want to create a space where people feel free to be emotional. That’s really what we’re all about. We are about creating spaces for vulnerability, for emotion. That’s the most important thing to us, that people can feel safe.”Grace Newton-Wordsworth
Joan & The Giants formed in February 2019 and have so far released four singles, had Triple J airplay and performed at every major festival in Western Australia. Their music has its roots in the broad church that is folk these days and has progressed to sit squarely in territory that Birch calls, “heavy pop” — think Florence + The Machine but with more than enough originality to get away with such weighty comparisons so early in their career. Joan & The Giants’ live performances are equal parts tight musicianship, emotion, and pulsating visuals that stem mostly from Newton-Wordsworth’s wild abandon on stage. Sometimes you wonder how she survives living it so large on, usually, such small stages, but she does and for that we have a good deal to be thankful.
‘Mother’ and ‘Young In Love’ are an extraordinary pair of songs that telegraph something of a change in direction for Joan & The Giants. Not so much a departure, more a flexing of song writing muscle that, up until recently, the couple had been developing, but which is now fully formed. As with so many artists, these songs are, to some degree, children of the pandemic.
“We actually started writing these songs back at the start of the pandemic,” said Newton-Wordsworth, “last March, April. So, we wrote them a long time ago, but it was so incredible having that space to write them and really work on them. We had the space to be in the studio for months; we worked on ‘Mother’ and ‘Young In Love’ for six months or something. It was a really long process, but it was a beautiful process.”
“You find space to do what you actually want to do,” continued Birch. “In 2019 we played 100 shows, which is insane. Just around WA, 100 shows. So, we had no time to even develop a sound that we wanted. When we were locked down we just naturally, it wasn’t even a thought process, we just found what we wanted to do.”
When the history of this era of music written, it’s my hope that the global pandemic of 2020 is assessed for its influence on the progress of bands all over the world. While it put a lengthy pause on live music and created so much uncertainty for musicians and their livelihoods, the impact it’s had on song writing and recording is only just beginning to be felt. That’s the posh way of putting it, Grace and Aaron. What I really mean to say is, fuck! you’ve written some mighty good music in ‘Mother’ and ‘Young In Love’. These songs are streets ahead of everything else you’ve written and recorded to date (and your back catalogue is not too shabby at all) and should rocket you to stardom if there is anything fair about this world.
So, how did they do it? Good question, and one that Newton-Wordsworth and Birch were only too happy to try to answer, when they weren’t arguing with each other. Strap in folks, it was quite the ride.
“We are very controlling of the music,” was where Birch began to unpick the couple’s song writing process. “We nearly broke up over one little part.”
What, as a band, or as a couple?
“We literally nearly broke up over a tiny hook,” said Newton-Wordsworth. “We can get very attached to our ideas, but the whole reason why these songs have worked out the way they have is because we had to let go of a lot of that control and just move with new ideas, try new ideas.”
According to Newton-Wordsworth, there’s also a growing maturity in the couple’s relationship that has enabled them to be less controlling when it comes to their song writing.
“Just growing up,” was how Newton-Wordsworth put it initially, continuing to say, “We’ve been together, in a relationship, since we were 18. It’s a very young age to be together and, you know, living together, and we’ve grown up a lot in that time. We’ve gone from being very young and immature crazies to being able to talk through things and work through things, be open minded and lose control a bit.”
Hearing Newton-Wordsworth and Birch talk about the intersection between their romantic and creative partnerships, you get a strong sense that this is a couple that has no fear of expressing emotion, with each other and, through their songs, with the world. It may create something of a tinderbox in the studio — and at home — but if it results in such good music, it is a sacrifice that it is their lot, as artists, to make.
Birch got to the heart of this when he said, “It always ends up being whatever is best for the song. That’s why my idea won over Grace’s.”
“Don’t get me started!” Newton-Wordsworth quipped in response. “Don’t. Get. Me. Started. I am still angry about it, I have to let it go (laughs).”
Sure, there’s a creative charge between these two, but everything they put on the table is done with love and good humour. I don’t doubt for a moment that they could contemplate breaking up after disagreeing over something as (un?)important as a hook, but for Newton-Wordsworth and Birch things couldn’t be any different. That tension is the magic one per cent that impels them from good to great.
Letting go wasn’t just an emotional ride for Newton-Wordsworth and Birch during the recording of ‘Mother’ and ‘Young In Love’, it was about their craft in the studio too and breaking old patterns of behaviour.
“We’ve taken a few risks with this as well,” said Newton-Wordsworth, “because we were used to working with one person and this time we’ve got it mixed by someone else, we are opening our minds to working with new people.”
“I think sometimes you block the good stuff from happening,” Birch continued, “because you’re so close to it. We just got into the mindset that we were going to change.”
Speaking more extensively about the writing and recording of the songs, Newton-Wordsworth and Birch lifted the lid on their creative processes and their disagreements along the way.
“‘Mother’ was different in its structure before the final version,” said Newton-Wordsworth. “It was way longer, it had this massive intro, it had this huge outro and bridge, and it was just too long. You know when you can feel a song is dragging? But Aaron was really attached. You know when you write a song and you’re really attached to what you’ve done, and it’s such a beautiful moment? And, I was attached as well, I was like, ‘We can’t change this.’ The guy we were working with, Lance (Robinson, studio engineer) was like, ‘I really think we should try a shorter bridge and have a big instrumental part,’ and straightaway, Aaron was like, ‘No, that can’t happen, no way, this is how it is.’ I was like, ‘Lance, I like that idea,’ but Aaron was looking at me miming yelling at me and then I was like, ‘We’re just going to leave it,’ and it took seven hours of putting that idea in his (Birch’s) head and letting it sink in. Eventually, he was like, ‘Fuck it, let’s do it.’
“It was better,” said Birch, obviously over most of the trauma associated with having his song rearranged so brutally. “But, even on the drive home listening to it, we were like, ‘We’re going to change it back.’ It took sleeping on it.”
“That’s the beauty of collaboration,” Newton-Wordsworth concluded. “With our engineer, we’ve built up a really great relationship with him and we are very open, and we are also very, in the space, everyone can have their ideas, there’s no ego. I guess there’s like a wanting to control but there’s no ego, will always end up just being like, ‘Let’s try it’.”
Did they really let go of the steering wheel? Who can say, after all that? I’m exhausted just thinking about everything that was poured into those two songs. Newton-Wordsworth and Birch, on the other hand look none the worse for wear. As we spoke, they were just back from Fairbridge Festival, where Joan & The Giants performed to great acclaim. Sure, Birch passed off his husky voice as, “a bit of a virus, don’t worry I’m not infectious,” but along the way there had obviously been some late nights and partying. Nevertheless, these young veterans of the music biz, for all their good-natured arguments, for all their control freakery, seemed to me like they were in the best form of their lives, riding a wave that is just beginning to reach peak swell with the release of ‘Mother’ and ‘Young In Love’.
A feature of these songs is the progression in Newton-Wordsworth’s vocals. I put it to her that she’s never sounded better, more like herself, than on these two songs.
“I think with every song you progress as an artist,” Newton-Wordsworth said, “but with these ones in particular and the songs we are currently recording for our EP, I’ve only focused on the song and the lyrics, that’s what it’s really about. I think with some of our previous songs it was easy to try too hard or be like, ‘I need to do a cool vocal here or something,’ which is coming kind of a little bit from the wrong place. With these vocals I just wanted to serve the song. I didn’t want to impress anyone, I didn’t want to do any crazy runs or anything, I just wanted to sing the song for what it is. Both of them, especially ‘Mother’, the lyrics are so important, and they tell a story, so I didn’t have room to go crazy I just wanted to sing the song, the purpose of the song. That’s what really drove it.”
As to the words behind the songs, there’s a bit of mystery in that. Speaking about ‘Mother’, which he wrote at 3.00 am one lockdown fuelled morning, Birch said, “I don’t know the story behind it. The way I wrote it, we rediscovered the love of folk music. We went heavy into heavy pop, but it wasn’t like pop it was more alternative pop stuff, like Florence and the Machine stuff. We started off as a folk duo, so that song was kind of going back to those roots, acoustic guitar sitting writing. Lyric wise, I don’t know, I have no idea, it just happened. It was cold, it was three o’clock, and I was tired, I couldn’t sleep. Those words, the chorus came out, and then I had a whole song. I think it’s just something about knowing someone’s family and then when they’re gone everything else is gone too, unless you stay friends with their Mum.”
“That’s why those lyrics connect to me so much,” said Newton-Wordsworth. “I knew your mother on a first name basis, but I’ve forgotten what her name is, I think that is something people connect to, because when you do lose a relationship you are losing everything that came with it. If you were close with a family or even if you weren’t, to forget the name of someone’s Mum, it’s strange. It’s this kind of nostalgic distance where you can miss someone and still hold onto them, but things are kind of moving on.”
‘Young In Love’ is built around a lyric Newton-Wordsworth wrote, and is as autobiographical as they come. “I really like that it goes hand in hand with ‘Mother’, because ‘Young In Love’ is about the very nervous feeling at the start of a relationship, when everything is just soaking in and you’re really nervous to see the person again but there’s an excitement there. We wrote that about when we first met, so that’s a really special one.”
Be still my beating heart. These really are two of the beautiful people. How could anyone not fall in love with both them and their music?
So, what does Around The Sound think of these songs? If you’ve read this far, you’ll already know how much we love them.
‘Young In Love’ is built around a piano riff and chord progression that creates a beautiful sense of anticipation, which flows into the chorus like the foamy sea lapping at the shore. It’s all about yearning and the quiet but fragile joy of the early flush of being in love. This is a song that, in years to come, people will look back on and sing in their hearts as they remember the beauty of their first loves. ‘Young In Love’ is immediate and enduring, a song for the ages.
‘Mother’ is an aching slow burn of a song, more folk than pop. It’s tinged with the sadness that comes with loss and, somehow, has an air of the past without being anything but of the moment. Newton-Wordsworth’s vocals carry the weight of this song superbly as she delivers it straight down the line, no frills, no vocal histrionics, just pure emotion. In the end, ‘Mother’ finds hope in the arpeggiated peals of the outro, then gives over to Newton-Wordsworth to close it out, bringing us gently back to reality. Grief is difficult, sometimes impossible, but it can be endured, you can find a place to live with it, is what Newton-Wordsworth’s vocal inflection tells us.
As a pair, ‘Young In Love’ and ‘Mother’ show us where Joan & The Giants are headed. They have two aces in the hand and four more on the way, with another single due for release in May and an EP in June or July, though the remaining four songs for this release are yet to be recorded.
“We have some other tracks that we wrote a long time ago that we thought would go on the EP,” said Newton-Wordsworth, “but that’s all part of progressing and writing new music. We spent so many hours in the studio, but those songs will probably not be released. Eventually you get to a place where you’ve got to let go of some songs as well.”
With releases in the can and some still left to record, Joan & The Giants are beginning to set their sights on live performance again. They have loose plans for a national tour later this year and are looking to hop onto the national festival circuit next summer. And, with what they bring to live performance, all of this should be a lock, if the stars align.
“The thing that I love most about live performances,” said Newton-Wordsworth, “is when we have people come up to us afterwards and they get really emotional. A lot of our music is very raw and very emotional and very real about what we’ve experienced. In some of my songs I talk about abuse, in one of my songs (‘Just For You’) I wrote about my friend who lost their brother last year in the pandemic, he took his own life. It was a horrific time, and I wrote this song for her because she’s also faced her own battles with depression and with her mental health. It’s a really scary thing. I wrote this song for her basically just to tell her that I love her and how much she’s valued and how much she’s changed my life. When I talk about this song, when I sing this song people get very emotional because a lot of people have had the same experience.
“It’s an ability to create vulnerability and to let people be able to be vulnerable and to cry. It’s pretty rare to be able to show emotion in this world. People block emotion. I want to create a space where people feel free to be emotional. That’s really what we’re all about. We are about creating spaces for vulnerability, for emotion. That’s the most important thing to us, that people can feel safe.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Joan & The Giants launch ‘Mother’ and ‘Young In Love’ on 3 April at The Rosemount. For event information and tickets, click here.