Jesse Jo Stark on Her Music Career and Leading with Her Heart
Words by Leonie Cooper
Photography by Diana Gomez
Styled by Diana Gomez & Trinity Tristan
Photographer Assisted by Juliette Leonidas
Hair by Davide Barbieri
Makeup by Georgie Hamed
Shot at the Mondrian Shoreditch in London
“I’m going to the studio later to finish my album,” promises Jesse Jo Stark, despite being wrapped up in a gray blanket like an extremely cozy human burrito. “It’s literally this close to being done and I know I’ve said that for the past however many years, but it’s actually this fucking close!”
The Los Angeles-raised singer-songwriter has just emerged from an epic nap following a trip to Budapest for the MTV EMAs. As well as masterclasses in stage- craft from the likes of Kim Petras, Ed Sheeran and Saweetie, the night’s biggest draw was the person who’s sofa Jesse just so happens to be lounging across right now, her partner and former MARVIN cover star, Yungblud. “I pretty much slept 12 hours last night so I’m a little, like, groggy,” she purrs in her husky West Coast accent. Later this afternoon she’ll peel herself off the sofa and add the final touches to one of the most eagerly awaited debut albums of recent years. By the time you read this, it’ll have been five years since Jesse Jo Stark’s first single, the swooning, lounge-folk of “Driftwood” which announced the arrival of her bold, timeless talent at the start of 2017.
A full-length follow up was initially set for the end of 2019, but Jesse, a perfectionist, held back. Lockdown led to further delays and instead of holding onto her old material, Jesse scrapped the bulk of the record and began writing a bunch of new material. Only a couple of tracks from the original debut remain. “Everything is pretty much new,” she says, her eyes twinkling despite her evident exhaustion. “Right now everything I’ve been writing and working on really feels like me and I’m so excited. I feel like I’m gonna have like this huge breath of air when I put this out, because it’s just been such a long time coming.”
Staying at her boyfriend’s London flat while she tweaks the final 15 tracks, she’s also doing her best not to get carried away and add any more music into the equation. “I shouldn’t write any more for this album,” she states. “I’m done. But there’s like ‘this verse could be better’ or ‘I want to change this lyric’—just little things.” But for Jesse Jo Stark, the devil is in the details. “I’m so psycho with it,” she nods. “I just want to make sure that every layer represents me and it’s exactly what I want to say. So I’ve been very, very specific and a little picky.”
Those already familiar with Jesse’s elegant, retro-indebted sound—a kind of gothic, shadowy sister to Lana Del Rey’s 21st century torch songs—might be surprised about what the record has in store. “It’s still got that eerie feel but I wanted some of these songs to be a bit more modern and my vocals really upfront,” she explains. “How I sing in the shower is how I went about this album. Like how you are when you’re alone and you act a little weirder than you would with other people.”
When it comes to honing her ideas, self-production is key. “I’ve always been in charge of my sound,” says Jesse, who’s not unaware of the challenges that come with producing your own material. “I think it makes everything way harder,” she admits. “I think that’s also why I’ve been so slow.” That said, collaboration has also become vital to the way Jesse works; sourcing feedback from fellow artists as well as let- ting unplanned cameos happen. Her current center of operations is the studio she’s started building in Hollywood. “It’s been very organic and people just drop by,” she says. “In fact, my boyfriend came in the other day and he worked on a song of mine that had already been written.”
Jesse’s way of working reflects the way she lives day to day. “That’s how I handle everything I do,” she says. “It’s all collaborative and I love that, because you get so inside your head when you’re inside all day working on something. It’s nice to just be able to play music for someone that also makes music that can actually lend an opinion.”
Though it’s currently stacked with years of gear and equipment, her Hollywood space is still something of a work in progress. “We had to go rent another studio to record drums the other day because there’s crickets, literally, on every song,” she explains with a smirk. “Actual crickets. You have to bang on the wall to make them shut up.”
There might not have been an album in the five years since Jesse started releasing music but she’s certainly not been slacking. Tours with Sunflower Bean and The Vaccines have studded her numerous releases, with 2018’s acclaimed Dandelion EP followed by a run of singles. And there have been major life milestones too, like recently turning 30. “I was dreading it,” she groans, “and every article now says ‘Jesse Jo, 30’, and I’m like, ’can you leave that out? Because it’s not my favorite thing!’ But at the same time age is fucking cool and I’ve never felt better.” With age comes wisdom and in the summer of 2020 Jesse made the decision to take a step back from the music industry machine right as the Black Lives Matter movement began making headlines across the world.
Rather than release her planned single “Tangerine” while so many people were fighting for their voices to be heard, Jesse pulled the release to focus on becoming an ally. “I would never want my art to be released in a time where there’s serious fucking shit going on in the world,” she says. “I mean, that’s everyday anyway but it just felt like I needed to sit back and learn and read and let everyone else speak up. I just think right now, it’s about listening.”
The trials of 2020 affected her relationship with social media too, making her step back from apps, delete Twitter from her phone and take a more sensitive approach to Instagram. “The internet is complicated,” she reasons. “I have beef with the fucking internet and I don’t always know when it’s ok to express yourself or when it’s not ok, but I kind of I just go with my gut and I lead with my heart.” She’ll take regular breaks from being online. Like when she’s off on a trip or when she’s in the studio. And rather than share the ins-and-outs of her daily life online, her current approach is to treat Instagram like a diary. She’s also been experimenting with TikTok, though hasn’t quite got her head around it yet. She prefers to take a slightly surreal approach and post videos of her long manicured nails playing with a fidget cube. “I love this fucking toy,” she says. “I have ADD and shit and this thing helps me with anxiety and I turned it into a funny art project.” Though we’re unlikely to discover Jesse’s innermost thoughts via her actions online, they’re all pieces of the puzzle. “Really all these different platforms are like one big whiteboard or a mood board and through them you give away pieces of yourself. But I try to remember that it’s not real. It’s just a way of expressing yourself and not everyone will agree with everything you do.”
Before the album comes, Jesse Jo Stark’s latest EP, the atmospheric A Pretty Place to Fall Apart. It hints at a part of Jesse that is vital to her sonic DNA: country music. The sound of the release might be closer to a glossy take on psychobilly stalwarts like The Cramps and The Gun Club. Its name references a track by one of the all-time country greats, Merle Haggard. Jesse’s been a fan since her father introduced her to the grizzled legend’s songs when she was a little kid. “My dad’s not obsessed with anyone apart from Merle Haggard and Arnold Schwarzenegger,” she explains. A month or so before Haggard’s death in 2016, Jesse had the honor of seeing him play at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. “Merle was pretty frail but I was so happy that I went,” she remembers. Could he still sing with all that feeling and soul? “Fuck yeah,” nods Jesse. “I mean, he barely had to try. It was nuts.”
It was Jesse’s dad too who instilled in her a love of punk. And she soon realized how much the two genres have in common. “Real country artists are punk as fuck,” she states. Merle was one and 82-year-old outlaw artist David Allan Coe is another. “I just love the rawness of him and the fact that his lyrics and vocals are the opposite of that,” she says, before revealing she has words from one of his songs tattooed on her body. “They make me feel soft but he’s so hard,” she nods. Her debut album might not be a country record, but it’s something that Jesse has earmarked for the future. “I would love to go do an album in Nashville,” she reveals. “100% I will put a country album out. But I mean what I think is country, I don’t know if others will think it’s country!”
At the moment though, the thought of spending an extended period of time anywhere that isn’t London or Los Angeles is out of the question. Nashville will have to wait. “My heart right now is in LA and London,” she says. “I feel like I haven’t been home for more than a month at a time so I’m confused where I belong.” But splitting her time between her two favorite cities in the world makes sense. She’s been going to London for years and since her first trip there alone at 19, she sensed a deep connec- tion to it. “In terms of music and fashion I felt like I fit in more in London than the US,” she explains. “Just what this place represents, and its history I’ve always been drawn to, so it’s really actually a pleasure for me to come here. It already felt like home.”
On that first trip she ended up trawling the endearingly grubby streets of Camden and over a decade later the North London neighborhood is still a regular draw. “I always go to The Hawley Arms,” says Jesse of her favorite place to sink whiskey, a rock n roll pub haunted by the crème de la crème of British music. From Amy Winehouse— who’d regularly pop up behind the bar to pour pints—to Wolf Alice and The Libertines. If London has anything going against it in her view, it’s the weather. “I like anywhere that I can find some sort of fucking corner and just sit and be somewhat warm because I don’t do well with the cold,” she says.
On a recent stint in Los Angeles, Jesse Jo Stark was able to indulge another one of her passions: fashion. Born into the family behind accessories brand Chrome Hearts, she’s worked on designs for the label since she was a teenager, releasing her first capsule collection when she was just 18. Her most recent design came in the shape of a pair of boots, initially made for Jesse to wear on stage when she started touring four years ago. “I was just like, ‘how do I not eat shit on stage, feel tall and be able to strut and fucking stomp’,” she says of the design. The go-go style boots were an instant hit. “Literally all my friends were like, ‘I want to borrow your boots’, and I was like, ‘you cannot borrow my boots, they’re my stage boots!’” She quickly realized that she needed to share the joy and decided to put them into production, starting with a glossy white pair before releasing patent pink and leopard styles. Known as the Sugar Jones boot, the name comes from what her godmother’s bodyguard would call her when she was a kid due to the amount of candy she ate. And if you think it’s odd that someone’s god- mother would have a bodyguard, it’s less odd when you consider that her godmother is Cher. Yes, that Cher. “She’s a really big reason why I’m the way I am,” says Jesse of her iconic family friend. “I’m super cheesy with that shit. I really remember everything about growing up and the people that made me who I am. Those boots make me feel really badass on stage and it made me think of the times that I would tour with her.”
Over last summer, Jesse hosted a launch party for the new Sugar Jones designs which included an unplanned performance alongside Dom Harrison aka Yungblud, as well as the masked cowboy genius that is Orville Peck. The swiftly formed super- group treated the starry audience–made up of Kendall Jenner, Drake, Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly–to a rowdy version of Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” It won’t be a show that Jesse forgets in a hurry. “Dom’s an insane performer obviously and he got us all up there and I was like, ‘alright, fuck yeah.’ But Orville’s voice just pierced through everything.” It was the first time Jesse and Dom have sung together onstage, but Jesse confirms that it certainly won’t be the last. “It’ll happen again,” she says confidently.
If two jobs weren’t enough, Jesse recently added another string to her bow with her onscreen debut in Balmain’s short-form drama series Fracture, used to launch the French fashion house’s latest collection and made in collaboration with British television network Channel 4. “The project kept growing as our conversations did,” she explains of the show, which saw her playing a misunderstood musician called Mya alongside Riverdale’s Charles Melton, Tommy Dorfman from 13 Reasons Why and Skate Kitchen’s Ajani Russell. “They were like, ‘we made a mood board and you’re all over it and then we realized why are we not asking you to be in the show?!’” At first Balmain asked Jesse to model the collection. She turned them down but they quickly came back to her with another offer, asking her to audition for the series.
“I was scared shitless but I was like ‘fuck, yeah’. Rather than going in blind she took acting lessons and set about remembering all her lines. She got the part. It made sense for Jesse to make the music for the show too. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done because I knew I didn’t want to fuck it up,” she says. “I just treated it like I was on one big music video and dove into it.” She’s now desperate to act again and is already thinking about future plans. “I have a couple of dreams. I’d love to do something with Tim Burton and Rob Zombie and I just saw Dune and now I want to be in an action film! I don’t know where my life will lead me but I definitely want to try.”