Interview: Asha Jefferies

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Hold Yourself Together

Asha Jefferies and I last sat down to talk in September, following her first showcases at BIGSOUND. Earning the half-hour sets was monumental, even though they were sandwiched between 148 other artists’ across the three-day frenzy.

Since then, things have changed: she’s returned from a headlining lap of the country, supporting the release of long-awaited EP Hold Yourself Together. Black Bear Lodge overflowed for her hometown performance, friends and strangers clutching hand-photocopied zines and dripping sweat because the air conditioning had given out. The humid February night felt perfectly accompanied by Asha’s setlist of coming-of-age stories, pulled out like a photo album chronicling the previous twelve months, and told in between mouthfuls of soy chips.

We meet up at a West End cafe on Sunday arvo. It’s the day after Asha opened the sold-out Brissy leg of Julia Jacklin’s national tour, and the day before she’s due to fly to Sydney, where she’ll spend a week with a pen-pal she first met at Woodford Folk Festival this year.

Photography: Tai Pham

How was supporting Julia [Jacklin]?

Really good. I’ve been playing more shows than ever in the past month, so I was pretty ready to like, not be nervous. It felt like a really short time on stage, but it was nice. Julia was so down-to-earth, and I felt really respected by her. We had a good conversation afterwards about music and touring, writing the album.

What did she say about writing?

I think a big dilemma for songwriters is wanting to be happy, but also wanting to write good music, in a way. You can write a really good sad song, but to write a really happy song that connects with audiences is a lot harder. And when you have a lot of grief in your life - so many artists have had success from their grief - you don’t want to live in that cycle of not being a happy person.

I hope that more people can find success in being content.

Totally. Grief and horror and trauma are such strong emotions that are so easy to tap into and relate to. But happiness is more like- you can relate to it, but it takes a very special moment to really capture what pure happiness is, I think.

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Last time we spoke, you were just about to headline your tour with Thelma Plum, but now you’re home after finishing your first national headline run. How was it?

I didn’t really realise it would happen, but there’s quite a big shift from supporting people to playing your own shows. It’s big, because you play from forty-five minutes to an hour, at 11pm and you have other people open for you, so you’re being mindful of who’s there... I had a lot of late nights! It was really beautiful, and it meant more.

Did you enjoy playing Nannup [Music Festival]?

Nannup was so nice! It was my first time in WA, with a couple of sneaky house concerts, and then the two shows at the festival.

What were the house concerts like?

I played one night at this guy called Greg’s house. He’d heard my music three or four years ago and was like “I want you to come play at my house when you come to WA”. And I did, but it was like, 2am Brisbane time when I was playing. I was so tired! I was being a massive sook, but I’d had a lot of coffee, so I was very anxious and very tired at the same time. It was an awesome mix.

What about the festival?
It was super, super lovely, like a tiny version of Woodford Folk Festival. I played on an amphitheatre stage for the first show, and there were people in fairy light costumes who came into the crowd and did a dance while I played Teenage Dream by Katy Perry. The second show was at this Secret Garden Stage where I could actually see faces and look people in the eyes, which was really nice as well.

And then your hometown gig - packing out Black Bear!

That was the moment when I was like: “Nothing else can really be better than this” - I was shocked by how calm I felt the entire time; it was the best case scenario ever.

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Back in September, you said you’d been hanging out with new friends for about two months, and that the new environment had really changed your headspace, which was delightful. Coming into the new year, has that altered where your focus is at and your energy?
Totally. It’s happened more and more that I’m looking to female inspiration and female connections. A big thing that has happened is knowing what I want, in terms of presenting myself as a musician, and the kind of music that I make, and the kind of career choices I want. It’s really easy to have a lot of opinions, and for people to voice themselves when they’re older than you - to tell you what to do, or what they think you should do. But the biggest learning curve of the last six months has been that you’re the only person who’s right, because it’s you and it’s your music. Don’t let anyone else force you into anything, basically.

Are there any local artists that you’re trying to lift up at the moment, in the same way?
I have a lot of girl friends that play music, like Hallie, Felivand, Sycco.

I saw Felivand at Mountain Goat [Valley Crawl]!
Yeah, she’s so boss. It’s really good to be around all that creative, feminine energy. We all collaborate together and play in each others’ bands, which is great. And it’s all different types of music as well, like there are so many different pathways. Everyone’s going to stay at the same level if you’re competitive, so it’s about having mature relationships that aren’t about drama or competition. It’s about helping other people and supporting them, making them feel good and making yourself feel good.

I kind of had to realise that if I can’t share myself on a really vulnerable, connected level, nobody is going to be able to share that back.

Let’s talk about vulnerability... I love the little note you put out on your Instagram before the EP release about valuing honesty over everything else, even when your truths are scary or difficult to share. Could you walk me through the process you went through to get comfortable with that level of openness?

I think I was always going to write those songs, and I think they were always going to be vulnerable, but the light that I shared them in was always going to be tricky. Because it’s really easy to pretend to be someone that you’re not and to try to fit into a certain genre, or sound, or look or personality to feel safe within presenting yourself as a person. I kind of had to realise that if I can’t share myself on a really vulnerable, connected level, nobody is going to be able to share that back. It was a total rollercoaster. Figuring out not only ‘Who am I?’, but ‘How I’m going to present myself in the right light?’, that pays tribute to what I’ve written about.

Have you seen a response to that at your shows?
Um, yeah. Especially at the Brisbane show, when I played Hold Yourself Together. I don’t really play it a lot because it’s like a five-minute sad song that’s just about a story. But having people still connect to it when it’s that long, and seeing people crying in the crowd was so crazy to watch. If you’re very honest with yourself and honest with your audience, they can be honest with themselves.

What’s the story behind that track?
It kind of ties the rest of the songs, and the rest of the stories together, in this one big resolution of what had happened over the past year. How I felt about myself, and how I felt about relationships, and how to deal with grief and how to deal with loss. At the end of the day, no matter how cheesy it sounds, it’s like - you’re still here, and you’re still sipping on coffee, and you’re still holding yourself together, no matter how broken you think you felt. You have to be very proud of yourself, even though you’ve felt all these things within the last year and a half. So yeah, a very reflective song!

You’d written and recorded most of that like, a year before it was released?

Yeah.

Is there another wave of emotional resolution once it’s out, and people react to the events that happened ages ago?

Yeah. The weirdest fucking thing happened, two weeks before the EP was released. All the same themes that I’d written about on the EP just like, happened. I went through a breakup, and I had issues with friends, and just like, so many different changes, and I was like ‘Oh - this is why music is a thing’. Music is so eternal. I went back and listened to the songs, and was like, ‘What? What’s going on?’. It was good to know how I reacted in the past, and know how to react to them now.

Where do you think you’re headed next?

Well, I mean, a song is a song. It has so many interpretations performed live, but the real concrete execution comes with the recording, which is always so difficult for me because I want to jump from sound to sound. This next batch of songs is going to be a lot more stripped back, and I’m going to experiment with a lot more things. More folky? And a lot more solo stuff. I’m going to use some shitty nylon string guitars. I’ll definitely be writing more about things I never thought I’d write about, like bad kissing and cocaine. Things you really have to stop thinking about what other people think of you to write about.

Asha Jefferies’s EP ‘Hold Yourself Together’ is available now on all streaming platforms.

Aleisha McLaren