Soon to relocate to New York, Jess McAvoy is back in Perth for a little while, and will perform at the Astor Lounge next Friday, December 13. BOB GORDON checks in with McAvoy at what is a time of change.
Jess McAvoy has a song called The Heat That Holds Me, with an opening line that says so much of about life and career thus far.
‘I wasn’t even 20 when I jumped that white sedan, we took the straightest road that we could find from here to there’.
McAvoy left Perth back in 1999 at that tender age. She was starting to make a name of herself here but decided to try out the bigger pond. She moved to Melbourne, often touring and frequently releasing new material.
The need to move on returned, however, seeing her head in 2011 to Toronto, with stays in San Francisco and Los Angeles. She’s spent the last six weeks in Melbourne, but is now back for a month in Perth.
“I’m staying at Novac and Drew’s place,” she says of long-time friends Novac Bull and Drew Goddard (of Boom Bap Pow! and Karnivool, respectively). “It’s hard to find ground when you’re always moving. It’s such a beautiful house and they’ve had it for such a long time. There’s that consistency – having my own room and being able to put clothes on shelves and stuff, it’s the first time in four months that I’ve been able to do that. That little thing is such a big deal.”
McAvoy had lived in Melbourne for 12 years by the time the need to move right along returned. In a very real way she’s even more of a troubadour now than when she was younger.
“I’m 33 now,” she notes. “All my friends have kids and houses, careers and debts and things like that. I kind of went, ‘well, I still haven’t gotten what I want out of this career, so I’d better hurry up. I’ve got the luxury of being able to travel still, and in a much more sane package’. I spent a lot of time being very messy and I feel like I’m now focussed more.
“Leaving Australia was mostly so I wouldn’t lose sight of why I was doing what I was doing. I’d sort of pushed that into the ground and made a lot of mistakes that made me resent the Australian music industry a lot. So I had to leave to make sure that my muse didn’t desert me, because it was getting a bit touch and go there for a while.”
Hence the move to Canada in 2011. So how’d that work out?
“It worked for getting my heart back into it,” she reveals, “because I was in a market that I actually wasn’t interested in pursuing music in, so I could actually take some time off without feeling pressured that I wasn’t doing anything in that place. I spent a lot of time going to and from New York and playing there. Other than that, I was just taking time off to regroup.”
During that time McAvoy tested the waters of stylistic change, departing from her well-warmed folk-singer/songwriter climes and heading into a rock’n’roll band situation with an outfit called JessMaq & The Thump. It’s was a rough sketch for what’s to come when McAvoy relocates to New York in a few months’ time.
“That’s going to be my primary focus when I move to New York next year,” she explains. “I just got to the point where I felt that singer/songwriters are a dime a dozen these days. They have been for a long time. I feel like there’s this massive gap in the market for strong, female-fronted rock bands, like Chrissy Amphlett was the last we really had of that here. And there really hasn’t been anything like it across the world since. Nothing that’s really broken into the pop arena.
“It’s all well and good us bitching about the Miley Cyrus’s of this world, but if you’re not providing an alternative what’s the argument worth? That need for new feminism has come to the fore for me. Someone has to provide a really strong voice. It might as well be me because you know, why not? (laughs). Do something different. I mean, let’s face it, I’ve kind of been a bit rock’n’roll for the majority of my life, so the singer/songwriter thing is kind of tired… for me, anyway.”
McAvoy is going to write some songs with Goddard while in Perth to get closer to an album’s worth of tracks by the time she leaves Melbourne for The Big Apple. She’s working on band name too. It would seem the introspective is now totally retrospective.
“I wanna have big shows,” she laughs. “I want to spread the message quickly. And that really only happens when you make people move.”
This requires one to be attention-grabbing and universally appealing, which itself will need strategy and reinvention.
And it also requires simple songwriting, which is surprisingly difficult.
“I can write a song in a second,” McAvoy says with a snap of her fingers. “But to make it universally accessible, that’s the real challenge. And that’s what I find really interesting.”
Essentially, moving to New York is to be closer to, as they put it, The Big Show. There’s also some cultural realities.
“Exactly,” she says, “and the massive difference between North America and Australia is the lack of tall poppy syndrome over there. It’s really palpable. America’s centred on the Land Of The Free. Everybody wants you to win. Not only that, they all want to be part of the story.
“That attitude in itself promotes more grandiose kinds of ideas, and I feel like I have the capacity to negotiate getting something done in that space which just can’t work in this climate.”
Next Friday’s Astor Lounge show will be the last we see of Jess McAvoy the solo singer/songwriter. The new future won’t quite be Joan Jett and it won’t quite be Pink but…
“… somewhere in between,” McAvoy says. “It’s basically the heaviness of PJ Harvey or Rage Against The Machine, that kind of instrumentation, accessing that tribal nature of music; to really get that deep, heavy bass stuff going that shakes your sex organs, but then the structures are pop and the vocals have hooks. So it’s accessible from all different angles.
“My big thing is that in recent years there’s not a lot of public permission given to women to just rip it, unless it’s subversive or indie rock. In terms of mainstream, powerful, white women, there’s really not a lot. So I want to make it as heavy as possible, turn up and bash the wall down, but in a way that’s still accessible.”
Pic: Sean Ryan