Jaguar Jonze And The Art Of Survival
"I’ve spent my whole life surviving, and now I get to just exist and take my space in this world."
Infinite Pop is a Music Junkee column about the past, present, and possibilities of pop music.
Since her debut single in late 2018, Jaguar Jonze has been through a career’s worth of upheaval. The artist otherwise known as Deena Lynch (and Dusky Jonze and Spectator Jonze, her photography and visual-art alter egos) launched her first EP while on the back of an ambulance as one of Australia’s first high-profile COVID patients.
She became a reluctant yet dedicated public face for the #MeToo movement within the Australian music industry, documenting hundreds of experiences, including her own, with sexual assault and harassment. And as she finally began to emerge from that turbulent period, she celebrated in an appropriately chaotic fashion — by driving a van with her band across Australia, completing, well, most of a tour while dodging venue cancellations and border closures.
At that time, Jaguar Jonze was running from her fears — bearing the dual burdens of her own struggles with complex PTSD, and representing other survivors. She describes her previous EPs, Diamonds & Liquid Gold and ANTIHERO, as “almost like an emotional vomit that needed to happen out of my body”.
When Deena Lynch and I first spoke in March 2021, our conversation was unusually candid and therapeutic in nature — especially for a first-time interview. It felt like a mutual effort to plumb the roots of her motivation to become Jaguar Jonze, which culminated in a breakthrough by her — that “fear and I are redefining our relationship with each other.”
In the 15 months since, her self-examination has born fruit. Lynch tells Junkee, “I’ve now been able to process that poison of trauma that was repressed in my body for so long… I feel like I really have redefined my relationship with fear. I’ve become a better artist for it as well. Because I’m not hiding behind the fear, I’ve been able to express myself more freely, be more transparent in my writing and artistry and music, and not be afraid of being judged or having to confront societal shame for whatever I choose to do.”
On her debut album BUNNY MODE, out now, the whirlwind of her life has become a controlled storm. She’s charging directly at her demons — “with music at the forefront”.
Watch the Throne
With that mindset, Jaguar Jonze kicked off the BUNNY MODE era last October with ‘Who Died and Made You King?’, a glam-rock stomper that takes aim at those who wield power while abdicating responsibility. Bratty, taunting, her voice on the verge of breaking — she opens the song with a hell of a one-two punch: “I’m leading, I’m the voice of change/Your downfall isn’t far away!”
Says Lynch, “Everyone pulls that line out and goes, ‘I love how strong it is!’” But she concedes — with a laugh — that those aren’t words that Deena Lynch would ever say with a straight face. “There’s a sassy side to me, and that day when I wrote that song, I let the cat out of the bag, and let it roam the streets. There’s that attitude, but sassy, but also an irony. It’s like, why am I leading the change when I’m not the fucking king?”
“I feel like I really have redefined my relationship with fear.”
Behind that playfulness is a palpable sense of anger — a feeling Lynch used to run from, but no longer. “I had a really turbulent childhood, and I suffered from people not using the emotion of anger correctly. Growing up, I always thought that anger was a bad emotion. I was scared of anger. But during this album process, I realised that anger is actually a super-important emotion. Anger is permission for you to feel that something has been done wrong unto you, and that you are acknowledging yourself.
So for the first time ever, I gave myself permission to feel anger. I just bashed out ‘Who Died and Made You King?’ in the studio in 30 minutes, because this anger was like this rolling wave that poured out of me, and I was frustrated at the leaders of our industry.”
In the music video, Jonze and ten other Asian-Australian performers take over the 100-year-old Brisbane City Hall, in a statement of glamorous defiance. “It was logistically, the biggest production I’ve ever pulled off, because it’s the most protected building in Brisbane, with marble floors,” says Lynch. “I wanted something that was regal, powerful, beautiful.”
Like Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s ‘Apeshit’, which was similarly filmed in the Louvre, Jaguar Jonze’s message is impossible to miss: we belong here, and we’re turning the tables.
Where her EPs had a spacier, more open-ended feel, BUNNY MODE finds Jaguar Jonze sharpening her knives. Half the record is modern alt-rock with pop hooks, written and delivered by Lynch and her band with razor-sharp precision. But those songs are also overtly joyful and fun — descriptors that didn’t apply to Jaguar Jonze’s music in the past, but perfectly fit Deena Lynch herself.
“It doesn’t always have to be heavy and thick and dark — it can also be who I am in my everyday. Which is charismatic and sarcastic, and wanting to shit-stir a little,” she explains with a laugh. “[We] put this cheeky spin on things so the message I’m trying to deliver is a little more digestible.”
Across four sleek singles and music videos — ‘Cut’, ‘Trigger Happy’, ‘Punchline’, ‘Swallow’ — Jaguar Jonze makes the case that she’s one of Australia’s most compelling pop stars, who happens to front a rock band of the same name, alongside Joe Fallon (guitar), Aidan Hogg (bass), and Jacob Mann (drums). They’re somewhere between the nervy, jumpy melodic energy of Paramore, the bubblegum-punk of the Veronicas, and the bluesy sweep of the Arctic Monkeys — with Deena Lynch out front, like the Asian-Australian ’90s alt-rock icon who never existed, but should have.
On ‘Trigger Happy’, she sings about letting go of an abusive, narcissistic, “love-bombing” relationship, that she likens to a “trigger-happy shotgun”. In the video, which was filmed entirely between takes during the album cover photo shoot, she throws pose after pose at the camera. As Lynch stares into the lens, it’s as if she’s controlling the camera movements, and even the quick cuts, with her raw physical charisma. Her anger and weariness come through in the music, but in the visuals, her playfulness and humour embody her defiance in a completely different way.
On ‘Swallow’, Jaguar Jonze unleashes dominant, feminine sexuality: “I can’t swallow your ego…/You don’t turn me on with your paradise/Go back home and swallow your own comedown!” She won’t be objectified — she rejects hypermasculine, cishet sexual norms, all while getting off on her own terms. The music video is a smorgasbord of chaotic imagery, with a range of female bodies tied up in Shibari ropes, and Lynch herself performing suggestive acts with bananas, cucumbers, lollipops, marshmallows…
But if there’s one defining image of the BUNNY MODE era, it’s the single cover and music video to ‘Cut’, where Lynch pleasures herself by taking an angle grinder to her armored crotch. It’s a deliberately provocative image that unintentionally echoes the (very NSFW) cover to WASP’s 1984 glam-metal single ‘Animal (F**k Like a Beast)’ — one of the songs that infamously inspired the creation of the Parental Advisory warning sticker in the U.S.
Lynch wasn’t aware of the connection, but she’s thrilled to see it — and to be subverting it even further. Almost four decades later, the combination of circular saws and genitals still has the power to shock — and make people laugh. “I wanted to cut away the chains of masculinity that feels entitled over my body. I wanted to have this kind of chastity belt, which is the symbol of purity and virginity. Then here I was, getting an angle grinder to it and making sparks fly. I wanted to be like, ‘I am liberating myself!’”
Lynch has a tendency to throw herself into the physicality of her performances — like on the 2020 Eurovision – Australia Decides broadcast, where she dislocated her shoulder and kept going. The risks on ‘Cut’, too, were very real: “To be honest, that was the most dangerous and scariest shoot I’ve ever done. If I slipped I would cut one of my major arteries. It was very stressful, and I didn’t tell anyone I was doing that video. Every time someone came up to me, it was like, ‘Oh my God, you’re making me so anxious.’ I was like, ‘Out! None of that energy.’”
There’s a darker side to BUNNY MODE too, one that makes the joyful moments all the more precious. Says Lynch, “For so long, ‘Bunny Mode’ was my cute way of explaining the horrible effects of complex PTSD. Imagine a rabbit in the wild having to play dead to be able to survive a predator — that was like my survival mechanism.”
Subconsciously, Lynch had planted the seeds for BUNNY MODE years earlier. “‘Not Yours’ was a song I wrote around three months after my sexual assault. It was the first time I had told anyone in the music industry what had happened. We wrote this song together with Tim Tan, and as one of my close friends, he facilitated this process of me being able to talk about it. I was really struggling to do that in person, and I always found it so much easier through music.”
She continues, “I thought it was just going to stay as a demo that was just part of that process. When I was thinking about what kind of world I wanted to build with BUNNY MODE, I was flicking through old demos, and I quickly listened to it. I got goosebumps, because I was listening to my voice from around two and a half years ago. I was able to reflect on how much I’ve grown since then, but also — that pain was coming through so much, that I thought it was an important song to help bookend this album.”
BUNNY MODE’s ballads — the other half of the record — are every bit as essential as its triumphant pop tracks. With ‘Not Yours’, Lynch drops any pretenses to poetry, singing her words as directly as possible: “This body’s mine and not for you to feel and touch / Pretend you’re blind but I know that you’re not / You can never right your wrongs.”
The poignant ‘Drawing Lines’ uses a dying romantic relationship as a metaphor for how the music industry marginalises people, while the deliberately anthemic ‘Loud’ plays out like a response — that Jaguar Jonze won’t back down from a fight: “I’m not gonna sleep below the glass ceiling / I don’t need to hear another bad reason / History won’t get a chance to repeat / You can’t take this from me!”
Art and Advocacy
So-called “political” songs often play out as a reaction to the state of our times. But Jaguar Jonze’s compositions aren’t political in the folk traditions of Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan, nor are they testaments to cultural endurance like in the hip-hop tradition. Lynch’s narratives are more internal — they’re written from the perspective of a woman who’s coming to understand her role as an advocate and the struggles of enacting real structural change.
The #MeToo movement within the Australian music industry has a long way to go. Lynch explains, “I feel like I do face resistance on a systemic level in the industry, and it’s very hard to pull that up. Because it’s this very unsaid, unexplainable monster that just creeps in the shadows of the industry”.
But without a doubt, there has been progress — much of it stemming from the snowball effect of July 2020, when Lynch used her social media to document “hundreds” of allegations against a Melbourne music photographer. On an industry level, there’ve been investigations into toxic workplace culture at Sony, and a national review of harassment and discrimination in the music industry is currently taking place.
…a lot of the people in this industry have benefited from a corrupt system. They are afraid to speak out against it for many reasons.
Just as important are the individuals involved. From artists to fans, we all have a role to play in dissolving the culture of silence. Crucially, Deena Lynch was willing to stake her name, reputation and artistic project for the cause, and on this subject, she doesn’t mince words. “Why is it after years of advocacy, that I’m still one of the only very few artists to speak out against the industry? Because a lot of the people in this industry have benefited from a corrupt system. They are afraid to speak out against it for many reasons — not just because they benefited from it, but also the repercussions. I think people are put in a tough place, because it’s really hard to survive in the industry without selling your soul a little bit.
We also have to remember that I’m not a white person, so I am always carved out of the narratives. I have seen so many people claim my work and step into it after all the risks have been minimised by my sacrifice and my effort. I just get watered down into this aggressive, angry person of colour, which always happens. People don’t understand that marginalised voices actually need to be supported, and amplified. They take that for granted all the time, and just let white supremacy and the patriarchy wash over.”
Fortunately, Lynch isn’t alone — she never has been, in Jaguar Jonze. “I really love my band. At this very moment, my band is three males who have different privileges and entitlements in society than I do. But never in my process of going through the advocacy did they say, ‘You’re putting my career at risk, and you should reconsider what you’re doing for the band.’ They never said that. They were always like, ‘you’re doing the right thing, we back you 100 percent, and we’re here for all your ups and downs no matter what.’ That made a huge difference.”
In retrospect, it was almost like a compulsion for Lynch to speak out despite the risks — a way to enact some kind of justice for her younger, more vulnerable self. “I think my life built me up to a place where there was no way I was going to let that happen. I have come from a very disadvantaged background, and have really struggled my whole life, [so] there was no way I could sit in that empathy I have for anyone else who has been through a similar position and turn a blind eye to it.”
At the Australian Women in Music Awards ceremony in May, Jaguar Jonze and former Sony employee Tamara Georgopoulos received the inaugural Change Maker award. Lynch gave a rousing speech that was a call to action — but her subsequent caption on Instagram was equally truthful: “I’m tired of being known as an advocate more than what I came into the industry to be — an artist.”
She tells me, “I’m so tired of trying to break not only a glass ceiling but a bamboo ceiling, as well. And also then carrying responsibility for an entire industry”.
At the same time, speaking ahead of the album’s release, Lynch has much to be thankful for. “I’m not surviving anymore. I’ve spent my whole life surviving, and now I get to just exist and take my space in this world. I’m really excited — and scared — to see with that mindset, how my debut album will be received.
I’m ready to show that I am multi-faceted and multidimensional as well. I want to be able to say, ‘I am here to play’ — and I am ferocious, and I have a voice, and I’m going to use it, and I have something really important to say.
I really hope people take the time to connect with BUNNY MODE. I hope it’s the start of a new chapter in my life, where artistry is number one again, and people connect with the music and art that I’m creating.”
From Little Things, Big Things Grow
At the opening night of the BUNNY MODE tour, in Melbourne’s Corner Hotel, Deena Lynch admits that she’s really, really hungover. After a successful run as an opener for The Wombats, the band gifted her two bottles of wine — and a long night of mischief was enacted.
On three hours’ sleep, Jaguar Jonze has gone from opening stadiums and arenas to playing to a few hundred of their most dedicated fans. Somehow, they still manage to play their first-ever Melbourne headline gig with the energy of a Forum Theatre concert — the Corner already feels too small to contain them.
“I’m not surviving anymore. I’ve spent my whole life surviving, and now I get to just exist and take my space in this world.”
Lynch’s voice is angrier, weightier, huskier than usual, while her band is unbelievably tight — they manage to replicate the more mechanical palette of the album’s electro-pop moments, while adding muscle to every rock song’s arrangements.
We get the light side of Deena Lynch when she tells the crowd how The Wombats’ other support act Alfie Templeman mistook her song ‘Cut’ for ‘Cunt’. Just this once, she lets us decide which way we want to yell the chorus–— and the result is a laugh riot.
She opens her encore with the slow-burning ballad ‘Little Fires’, singing solo alongside Joe Fallon’s guitar. When she performed it at Eurovision — Australia Decides earlier this year, while wearing a burning dress, she held it together… at least, until she finished the song, where she burst into tears as she received a minute-long standing ovation.
In Melbourne, she slips up. In the middle of the second verse of her most serious song, she forgets the words, and let out an audible “fuck!”. But her fans sing the words back to her for the first time ever: “We had to stand up and carry the pain/Over and over and over again…”
This time around, Deena lets herself weep during the song itself. As the crowd took over for her, she didn’t need to continue. Her message had gotten through. But she picked herself back up and finished the song anyway.
R.S. He is an artist and award-winning journalist. They tweet at @rsh_elle.
Jaguar Jonze is on tour throughout July, check out all details here.
Photo Credit: she is aphrodite