The first thing you need to know about musician Holly Rankin, better known by her stage name, Jack River, is that she's a writer first, singer second. "My real love since I was a kid was words," she says, perched on a wooden table in the backyard of her Sydney share house. "Like, how can I explain this feeling in a way its never been articulated before? That's the kick I get. The love is finding how to talk about something, and if I find another lyricist or writer that has talked about that feeling in the same way then I instantly will delete it." For Rankin, whose 13-track debut album Sugar Mountain (inspired by the Neil Young song of the same name) drops today, the lyrics are the beating heart of each song on the record; personal narratives coated in glitter and set against 80s-style synths, snaking effortlessly around the guitar and percussion. Which is not to downplay the voice - she's a singer in possession of some of the most inimitable vocals we've heard in recent years, at times passionate and emotive (it's impossible not to belt out the chorus on Fault Line whenever it's playing), at others sombre, almost folk-like (you'd be forgiven for thinking the final track, In Infinity, was recorded some several decades earlier, so nostalgic the melody and guitar strum feel). Though words still reign supreme on Rankin's first full-length LP. “I care about my lyrics and in my heart I feel like a writer, more so than a musician, almost," she muses, before laughing “read the lyrics!”
On stage and through speakers as Jack River, Rankin is drenched in neon - colourful and dreamy, a fantasy of sound and feeling. But she reveals the shimmering showcase belies a painful childhood - her younger sister died in a tragic accident at the age of 11. "I lost my sister when I was 14, and I definitely turned to music and writing. And over the past 11 or 12 years now I realised in my production and writing I was creating this sparkly, glittery, bold, strong universe of songs that were my way of experiencing youth while secretly in the real world going through crazy depression," she explains. "[Jack River] is almost like an alter ego experience." Rankin is open about her experiences and how the album marks a transition from childhood to adulthood, a sonic embodiment of the edging away from the naivety of youth and making the shift towards the stark light of reality. "Now looking back, I called it Sugar Mountain all along because I loved the words, but the more that I looked at the song Sugar Mountain, and this album, and where I'm standing now, and it all just made sense: this sugary world that you're leaving, and looking out the rear view mirror as you're driving away."
"I should have loved you the first time.
You were so bright, I was so blind."
- Fault Line, Sugar Mountain.
"Don't you waste it, dance a little closer
Put your fear in the pocket, give it up a little more."
- Ballroom, Sugar Mountain.
In terms of her creative process she finds inspiration in the words of fellow writer and musician, Patti Smith. “I’m reading her novel Devotion, and I just find a lot of comfort in her writing, mainly right now. To read Patti’s work and to know that she’s always writing, and she’s always observing, and she gives attention to the observation of the world. To know that’s OK - to give it the time of day and look at the plant weirdly, or look at the street strangely, and to not lose that," she muses. "As my life gets busier and I get older, it's nice just knowing it's OK to stay observant, and keep the time to do it." And busy she is. Alongside touring the country earlier this year and celebrating the release of the album, Rankin is gearing up for this year's Splendour in the Grass music festival, where she'll be performing for the first time. "Playing Splendour - it’s the absolute dream. I’ve talked about it with a couple of musicians and for me it’s a point to take my music kind of seriously," she laughs. "You dream about it for so long, [for me] since I was 16, and even though I know it’s just a festival I am so keen to pay respects to my little 16-year-old self. I’ve been in love with this festival for so long, as an Australian it really informs our youth, it informed my teenage years."
Throughout her festival performances, live gigs and the debut record, Rankin's ambition is beautifully succinct - she wants audiences to feel "not afraid of darkness". "[I want them to feel] a sense of imagination, and interest in their own darkness, and I hope [this album] makes their world more sparkly and alive," she says. "Mentally as I’m writing I’m always thinking about how, if I’m feeling anxious, I’m trying to articulate that and I’ll somehow be thinking about how to get out of it, and how to get to a better place. In that way I’m definitely thinking about my audience a bit, and how can I rebrand this emotion. And a message of resilience comes out in the lyrics." And Rankin herself is nothing if not resilient - confronting the tragedy of her youth head on and not only making peace with it, but allowing it to be the vehicle for her creative output. What were once simply scrawled entries in a journal are now modern day pop anthems, deftly crafted for late night living room dance parties, road trip soundtracks, or to be listened to in solitary quiet contemplation, but always with a message of hope. "That’s something I definitely see in this album, being really honest and authentic but trying to find ways in the story of the song to move forward," she says. "Let’s move forward."
"I don't have the guts to carry on without you.
When storm breaks through I'll be standing there.
Waiting for you."
- Confess, Sugar Mountain.