It’s a stinking hot spring day in Sydney’s inner west, and Holly Rankin is carefully scanning a bookshelf in Newtown’s Repressed Records, looking for some Hunter S. Thompson.
“He’s one of my favourite writers,” she says, eyes darting across the shelves, fingers drifting across the spines. “I went through that big stage in high school — Kerouac, Thompson, the Doors. All of that.”
After a minute of searching Rankin — better known to the world as Jack River — gives up on finding any Thompson, and instead pulls out another book: Neil Young’s 2012 autobiography Waging Heavy Peace. It seems almost too perfect that she’s found the book among the piles of second-hand offerings, given that her acclaimed debut album Sugar Mountain took its name from Young’s 1979 track.
“Neil Young is my favourite artist ever,” Rankin explains, flicking absentmindedly through the pages. “The way his lyrics suggest so much without being literal. I feel like we’re on the same wavelength of how we see the world.”
“Sugar and mountain together is just perfect to me,” she continues. “That sugary sweet youth feeling, but then the really grounded, gritty feeling of the mountain. It just always stuck out to me.”
It had such an impact that Rankin chose it as the name of her album long before the album actually started to take shape. She had the vision first, she tells me, and then spent years crafting the album to fit.
The resulting record is one of the year’s best — a blinding explosion of heady psychedelic pop rock — and one of the most assured and powerful debuts of an artist in recent memory. But it took a long time, and a lot of darkness, to arrive there.
Jack River, Pirate And Protestor
Rankin grew up in Forster, on the New South Wales mid-north coast. A love of music came early: she wrote her first song on the piano as a nine-year-old, a protest song about a nearby development on a farm.
“I think the lyrics were like ‘This is my homeland and they’re not gonna take it away from me’,” she says, smiling at the memory.
Her dad only played Springsteen around the house (“Seriously, he doesn’t play any other artist”) while Rankin became obsessed with the poetry of Leonard Cohen and Patti Smith. She was also — she tells me proudly — one of the first people to ever get ahold of the Middle Easts’ song ‘Blood’.
“I don’t want to sound like one of those people that’s like ‘I knew it first’ or whatever, but I emailed their Myspace — it hadn’t been released, you couldn’t download it — and they just sent it to me in the post on a burnt CD.”
She began writing songs in earnest at around 13, and the name Jack River appeared a few years later — when her friends were creating pirate names for themselves.
“I felt infinite when I was being Jack River, at that age.”
“We used to go out on the town and use them as our names. Simon Woodpecker, John Scarlett — those two girls still use those names as their Instagram handles — and I’m Jack River. I felt infinite when I had that name, at that age — I thought it sounded like a cool space cowboy.”
Jack River became a space where Rankin could lose herself in, where she could explore whatever feeling or emotion she wanted.
“In the day-to-day world we place all these expectations on ourselves, we start to create boundaries and defence systems. I don’t want my songwriting to be affected like those things. Musically, I’ll never be affected by who I am, as a person.”
“Sometimes I get confused: Is ‘Holly’ more infinite? Or is Jack River more infinite?”
The tragedy and loss that informs Sugar Mountain is well known: when Rankin was 14, her younger sister Shannon drowned in a freak accident at Sevan Apartments in Forster. The grief threw Rankin into a period of blackness; for years, she says, she couldn’t feeling anything other than a “blur”.
Songwriting became a vital outlet — but more than that, it became a way for Rankin to attempt to heal herself, to find answers, and to create something positive out of something so dark.
“A lot of the songwriting started in a dark, honest place. But every song has to take you somewhere mentally, to a new place, to a better place. There’s not a song [on Sugar Mountain] that’s hopeless. It needs to take you to a place where you can get something from the song.”
She pauses, looking intently at Bruce Springsteen’s Born In The USA, which she’s just plucked from the rows of vinyl. “I was trying to give myself a way…I was trying to provide an answer.”
Her sister’s death was well-publicised (and was the subject of a coronial inquest), and in a small town like Forster, Rankin felt a burning need to set herself apart from the tragedy.
“I needed to redefine myself quickly, to survive,” she explains. “I saw my parents going in a different direction that was…you know they’re defined by this now and they’re still recovering from that.
“I was in my small town, and it was like ‘Oh you lost your sister and that’s, like, your thing.’ And that’s really hard. I needed to be my own self, not anyone else.”
Her loss touches all parts of Sugar Mountain — from tracks like opener ‘Her Smile’, to glimpses within lyrics like this in ‘Limo Song’, “I never wanted to say goodbye/ You were crying in the mirror/ I saw your reflection like it was mine.”
It’s also there in other ways. About halfway through making the album, Rankin found herself strangely pulled to specific musical memories — like Wheatus’ ‘Teenage Dirtbag’, or Fountains of Wayne’s ‘Stacy’s Mom’.
“I realised just how much joy I felt when I was listening to those songs we had when we were like 13, 14,” she explains, as we leave the record shop and walk to the nearby Camperdown Park. “And then I made this weird connection that that’s the age I lost my sister, when I was 14.”
“At that time in my life — when I look back at it now — I couldn’t really connect. I couldn’t feel anything…from ages 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21. It all feels black. And before that time, though, I just saw colour and fun.
“Growing up, I was never like, ‘I love Teenage Dirtbag.’ But I realised that it gave me joy and it’s from…from before I lost her.”
I offer that the album’s promotional run must have been gruelling — having to discuss the most painful part of your life over an over again to people you don’t know — but Rankin replies that she found it curiously healing, almost a form of counselling.
“A lot of it was training myself into a positive place, mentally,” she says, pausing to ruffle a dog’s ears who has wandered over to where we are sitting. “I spent a lot of time with my publicist and manager to understand that and feel good about it.
“I decided very clearly that I wanted to share, so people could be inspired or draw from that and know that art can help you get through something. So it was actually really beautiful and liberating for me.”
Even if Rankin hadn’t named ‘Teenage Dirtbag’ and ‘Stacy’s Mom’ as specific atmospheric touchstones for Sugar Mountain, it wouldn’t take too long for the listener to figure it out.
Tracks like ‘Ballroom’, ‘Confess’, and ‘Fault Line’ feel like they could be played in the final prom scene of a teen rom-com, with their spiralling chorus hooks and crystalline guitars. And while the lyrics contain not a few emotional gut punches (“I’ve gone through every memory we shared tonight/And I don’t have the guts to carry on without you” she sings on ‘Confess’) there’s a thread of hope and optimism that pulls you into the light.
And that’s entirely the point, from the lyrics to the hooks to the instrumentation. “I was trying to strike that balance between the ‘mountain’ and ‘sugar’,” says Rankin. “I just navigated it intuitively. I didn’t want it to be too rocky or raw, or too pop or too fake.
“Every song hopefully has a balance of real instruments, and imperfection, and then imperfect vocals and stuff. But they’re all layered in a way that makes them feel a little bit perfect. Every little element is me going ‘How can I make this sound real, but also pop?’ Every single part on the album is ‘Okay, how can we find that balance?'”
It was gradually pulled together over six years, recorded mostly in co-producer Xavier Dunn’s house — and some parts in Rankin’s house. The only time they got in a proper studio was to record some guitars down in Melbourne.
“I recorded them in staggered time, they happened over so many years. So I’d just do like two days and record one song, and then consequently add to it in tiny little spots over the four years.”
“It was like ‘Oh you lost your sister and that’s, like, your thing.’ And that’s really hard. I needed to be my own self, not anyone else.”
During this period Rankin chopped and changed managers a few times over — a result, she explains diplomatically, of her wanting to be involved in every process of music making.
“I like to be quite involved in the business and the direction and the legals, and, like, everything really. I love to know what’s happening and be a part of it, and that’s kind of uncomfortable for a lot of managers. I feel like artists should be more involved.”
She shopped the songs around to a few major labels, but eventually settled on working with indie tastemakers I Oh You — helmed by Johann Ponniah.
“Johann was the only one that saw my vision and committed to it,” she says. “Johann and I work directly together on everything. I still have a great team, but it’s just the two of us really. It’s a messy unorganised business, so to be with a messy unorganised label would not be good.”
Sugar Mountain landed on June 22 to rapturous reviews, lauded as one of the best debuts in a generation. The day after Rankin and I meet, she’ll attend the ARIA Awards, where she’s nominated for three gongs: Best Pop Release, Best Engineer, and Breakthrough Artist.
Earlier that day, she writes in a Facebook post that for a long time she “felt like a broken machine that had to fix itself, and find beauty in itself to work again.”
“I could never have imagined the beautiful response that the album has been given, and what Jack River has let into my life,” she elaborates. “Because you do receive this beautiful outpouring from strangers at shows, and online from journalists and other people.
“And if I wasn’t doing music, I don’t know…I might have got that in some other way, but this has been pretty special. The part that I really, really, care about is people sharing their experiences.”
The dog returns, and Rankin pauses to scratch its ears some more, leaning close to its fur. “You just genuinely really make something because you need to and want to,” she says once the dog trots off once again. “And when people say they’re emotionally tied to that, that’s like the number one thing. I hope people can find something within it to help themselves.”