Nowadays, new artists often try to flood fans with music, attempting to acquire an audience through pure saturation. But singer and songwriter Jesse Jo Stark has employed the opposite approach, meting out an EP and a slow string of singles over the last five years with the intentionality and precision of someone rationing water in a desert.
It helps that the 31-year-old artist has some other pursuits to fill her time. Stark is part of the Chrome Hearts fashion family, and has designed for the brand, in addition to running her own clothing line called Deadly Doll, and trying her hand at acting. All the while, she’s been crafting a magnificently macabre musical image, one that feels distinct from the dourness that has permeated recent pop music.
Doomed, her first official album out this week, is filled with noir imagery and offers an alluring shadowiness. On standout tracks like “So Bad,” which features Stark’s close friend and collaborator Jesse Rutherford of The Neighbourhood, and “Tornado,” guitar chords sweep like tumbleweeds over a dusty road, and Stark’s reverb-soaked vocals are a masterclass in considered restraint. But she’s also branching into new territory, offering an anthemic country tune (“Lipstick”) and a dark take on disco (“Pussycat”), across the album’s lean 11 tracks.
Ahead of Doomed’s release, GQ spoke to Stark about finally releasing her debut LP, working with Jesse Rutherford, and drawing inspiration from Italian illustrators, Audrey Hepburn, and the dictionary.
GQ: How does it feel to be on the cusp of releasing an album that’s been so long in the works?
Jesse Jo Stark: It’s so random. I feel like time has just fucking passed by. I’ve always been that person who, if I get a show or something, I won’t believe that I’m playing it until I’m on stage. I don’t really know how I feel and I’m very nervous, but I’m excited. I feel like I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.
You’ve been releasing music for a while, but an album should reach people who were previously unfamiliar with your discography. How do you balance having songs that really appeal to you personally with songs that would make a good impression on potential new fans?
I explain each song as if it’s a different mood in my day. I feel like we wake up in one mood and end in another. Musically, I’m so inspired by a million different things and I’ve never felt a part of one specific genre. I think that’s very irritating for people because they really want to categorize you and make sure they understand what they’re listening to, but that’s just never been my intention with my music. If I’m playing the album live, I want to fulfill every kind of niche I have of wanting to dance or wanting to cry, wanting to scream. A couple of the songs I have on here are from six years ago. We added the last track “Trippin” literally two weeks before the album was done. I remembered this demo I had and I was like, “This has to be the end,” so then we added an outro to round out the whole record. It came down to not taking it too seriously and just saying, “These seem right. This is what I want to fucking play when I’m on stage. This really is me, at least right now.”
How far back do the oldest ideas on the album date?
I would say only about three of them are older. “Trippin” I wrote like six years ago. Then there’s another one, “Love is a Dream,” I wrote and recorded with live strings before COVID. I was about to release an album right before COVID hit and during that time, we all obviously reevaluated and I wrote new songs. I really wanted to try new things and new sounds and work with different people [on this album]. It feels like a more mature project and it’s silly to say that because I feel as we grow into ourselves, we kind of mature, or whatever that means, so I really own the sound I’ve always loved and just went for it with this one. I never make music thinking anyone’s gonna like it and I know that’s easy to say, but I really don’t chase a sound that I feel is going to resonate. I don’t know how to do that. I make what I like and I hope that people like it.
Listening to tracks like “Modern Love” and “So Bad,” it doesn’t sound like the contemporary rock-adjacent pop album that’s coming out today. There are elements of garage rock, sometimes it feels like you’re trying to channel Joan Jett.
It’s interesting though, because we experimented so much with 808s. That’s something that Jesse [Rutherford], who produced part of this album with me, [added]. I had never experimented with 808s before. It was really fun and I felt like I left fear out of the equation with this a lot. Vocally, melodically, I go to different places than I’ve ever gone before. It felt like I really let myself have fun with this album and not worry about being so raw, even though there are songs like that. “Patterns” I wrote in 10 minutes. It’s just one vocal track and then we layered the vocals. That’s just me fucking pissed off.
There is a big 808 pattern under “666 in the Suburbs,” you’re right.
I think there are different sounds from me in here, but I understand what you’re saying in that it’s a fun, kind of more modern sound to me. I still have the same influences I’ve always had. I really respect that you said Joan Jett. I’ve only listened to Joan Jett for one year of my life, but I was obsessed, so I’m grateful that her name even comes up when you hear my music.
Given that you have a lot of other creative interests, including fashion and film, what non-musical art influenced the making of Doomed?
I’m really inspired by old Italian illustrators like Emanuele Taglietti and pulp and pin-up and comic art. I always look at books. I’m more of a visual person, so I always look at pictures in books, old photography books, old children’s books. I love old films, I love Audrey Hepburn [films] like Sabrina and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I’m fascinated with old films, I grew up on them. Those really inspire me.
I watched a lot of home videos because I really wanted to remember my youth and just being a little girl and not really being hurt by the world yet. The little girl on the end of “Slayer” is me and so, you know, home videos and, honestly, the dictionary and the word “duality,” heaven and hell, all those references. [Laughs]
Going back and watching home movies of yourself is an interesting idea. When you’re young, you’re less jaded and more willing to express your creativity.
You’re nicer to yourself. I did my first really big acting project recently and I was in Mexico and I remember just revisiting [the younger me] and remembering how beautiful life is. I just think the media and the internet and the world is really dark. I think we have to remind ourselves of our upbringing and who we are and what we have to offer and that life is just not [so] serious.
You have songs like “Slayer” and “Pussycat” that are very self-affirming and focused on your womanhood, and then you have others like “Patterns” and “Sugar High” that get into the anxiety that you feel and some of your struggles. Were you trying to make it so all of that stuff was in balance and one emotion wasn’t overpowering another?
I wanted a rock song and a dance song, but I don’t think I tried to search for the emotions to be balanced. I think that they just are. I think some days we just have really bad fucking days and some days are good and some days are full of love and others are heartbreak. I think there’s a strong sense of this masculine and feminine energy that I have. It’s a struggle sometimes to hold this respect as a woman in this world. I feel like to get my point across, sometimes I have to take all this masculine energy but still obtain this feminine touch and that’s difficult. You have to tap into both, but really, we shouldn’t have to switch over. It should just be one thing. I feel like I’m battling those two sides of me on some of these songs…As the woman I am now, I had to work really hard to be comfortable with her, and I think that comes across a lot in these songs.
You’ve had a really unique experience with your live shows, having opened for legendary bands like Jane’s Addiction and Guns N’ Roses. How are you thinking about tailoring a live show experience around this album?
I’ll play the album pretty much start to finish with some of my older tunes. It’s been exciting thinking about what I’m gonna wear this round. People used to ask me if I have an alter ego on stage or not. I always said, “No,” but now I feel like I’m different and I go somewhere different. It’s so liberating and it’s still very much me. I can’t wait to meet her again, I really miss her and I don’t feel like myself without her. I’m fucking so excited to connect with people again and look in their eyes. It’s such a treat when people show up for you, whether it be two people or 200 or 2,000, it’s fucking killer. Honestly it’s quite simple for me: put my boots on, probably be half naked, have some strobes, pink lighting, the room will smell nice, and just play my songs that I’ve been writing my whole life. But they’re small venues, so it’s not gonna be some elaborate thing, it’s really about connecting and making sure that the live show sounds like the album.
Are there any particular moments that stick out from the making of the album that really feel emblematic of your creative process?
I think when we all sat around for weeks coming up with every word in the world of what to call this, then somebody said “Doomed” and we all looked at each other like, “What the fuck?” We were jumping up and down. Or The first time Jesse started playing “666” and figuring out how I’m gonna sing that and writing lyrics and saying things I never thought I’d say out loud. Those moments are so fucking satisfying.
We had a very grounding experience in my studio, that building in Hollywood. It was everything I’ve always loved–eating Hot Tamales. The whole record I was like, I have to shake these Hot Tamales [on a song] and the last day we had a stripper heel full of Hot Tamales that ended up not being the greatest sound, so we used the bin of Hot Tamales, but shaking those over “Patterns.” That’s what music and art is, being weird. Being around a group of people who also allow you to be weird and you’re just in that together, that process is greater than the ending. The making of it is the coolest part.