Finally back to gigging, Flamingo Blonde and Jaguar Jonze sat down for a chat about music, post-Covid, and the impact of lockdown.
Right now, the Australian music industry is living in a Twilight Zone. After months of paused livelihoods and home-bound creation, the gates to live music have finally been opened once more for artists and fans, but it’s not as we remember. It’s a strange but welcome reality to experience a Covid-friendly gig, even stranger for the artists performing. Brisbane’s Flamingo Blonde (a.k.a. James Bartlett) and Jaguar Jonze (a.k.a. Deena Lynch) can tell you firsthand.
Both ripped from what would have been a restless year for their music, the two songwriters have both begun their journey back onto the post-Covid scene, performing together on the Byron leg of Jonze’s DEADALIVE Tour. Confronted by the new reality of live music but eager to be back again, the pair sat down to discuss the industry, burnout, and art in isolation after the event.
JAMES: How was last night’s show for you? How did you feel getting back on stage for the first time in absolute yonks?
DEENA: It was awesome. I’m definitely struggling with a bit of an adrenaline dump today because I just haven’t done a full headline performance in a while, so I’m very gig unfit. How about you?
JAMES: Yeah, it was fun! Technically our first interstate show with the band…
DEENA: Ahh cool! Congratulations! You guys were awesome.
JAMES: Thank you! Yeah, besides a super small solo-tour a couple of years ago, which was really just an excuse to see family down south, playing some absolute corner-of-the-venue type shows. But we’ve been lucky, I guess. We’ve had a few shows in the last couple of weeks which has been great, so I think we’re feeling surprisingly gig fit for the first time in ages, especially given this new music in the mix, which is a nice change!
DEENA: It was actually such a nice crowd, they had really good energy and vibes. Also, after the show, I had people ask me where I found you guys ’cause they really enjoyed your set!
JAMES: That’s really sweet! It felt scrappy… I think the restrictions are still throwing me, I’m still not used to people sitting down.
DEENA: I know! It was so weird, the encore I was doing, the whole audience was clapping, right? But because they’re seated, I wasn’t sure if I was hallucinating or if it was actually happening. I had to actually look up and physically look at each person’s hands because I’m so used to just reading body movement! But it was so contained!
JAMES: It’s really strange, right? Twilight zone days being on stage at the moment. But going back, how did you get your start in music, because you’ve been playing under Jaguar Jonze for almost two years now, but you’ve been playing for longer than that?
DEENA: Yeah, not too much longer than that. It’s not something I grew up doing at all, it was something I fell into in my adulthood, I guess. But Jaguar Jonze kind of became my project when I started understanding what my artistry was and what kind of world I wanted to create and have people fall into. Once I understood that it just kind of all snowballed from there because I think the formative years of just writing and playing and collaborating and experimenting all kind of led into the Jaguar Jonze project. I don’t know what it is for you, but it kind of sounds like you did something similar, doing solo stuff beforehand?
JAMES: Yeah, I think so. The band I play with now, we’ve been playing together since we met in high school about a decade ago now, so it’s really nice to have that relationship and understanding of each other as friends and musicians. But Flamingo Blonde has really only been around for two years and really as a solo vehicle, but I wanted it to live and breathe as its own thing and then evolve with the band as well. I tried to use it as a project where songs could stand on their own and work with the band, creating two different experiences that both work in different ways.
DEENA: Yeah, that sounds really similar! What I like to call it is a solo project of mine, but it doesn’t exist without the band. They’re very much a part of the identity of it, but they would never say they are Jaguar Jonze. For me, I kind of liken it to someone like Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
I played with these guys; Joe, Aiden, and Jacob, for a while now and Joe I’ve known since primary school. We’ve really grown throughout the whole project together and I’m really lucky to have an amazing band because it makes such a difference when they just understand who I am and let me be. But it sounds like you’ve got that as well! I think it makes a huge difference when there’s chemistry on stage and you can see that when you guys are playing together, where you can read each other’s micro-expressions and mojo.
JAMES: The non-verbal communication is pretty crucial, just to have that ability to read each other’s minds on stage.
DEENA: Totally, that’s like a healthy relationship!
JAMES: Completely! And on that, you have your photography with Dusky Jonze and your art with Spectator Jonze. Did breaking them into those three different identities really help you figure out what they really were and what they meant?
DEENA: I knew that I was going to launch Jaguar Jonze as a music project already, but my art became the first thing that I put out because it was kind of ready first and it has less obstacles to get through for it to go from pen to paper to in front of eyes, whilst music is a whole different hurdle to get in front of someone’s ears. I didn’t think much of my art project, that was just like “ah, this is something I’m doing as a side-hobby” and I need to figure out some kind of name for it ’cause I wanted it to exist in its own space, almost like a digital art gallery? I couldn’t think of names and I came up with some really stupid ones like ‘Deena Doodle’, not even kidding.
And then I was like, oh, I’ll just use ‘Jonze’ as a last name from my music project to create some kind of weird little cult family of creativity. I didn’t actually plan all that at the beginning, it was just kind of an “I need to find an Instagram handle.” It took off on its own and I didn’t wanna mix them because they’re so different from each other, but they kind of exist under the same banner. But, I can’t assume that people who are my music fans are my art fans and vice versa.
They all kind of stand for different things, so I just wanted to respect the identity and artistry of each of those projects. The other thing for me is Spectator Jonze, the visual art project, exists because I interview each person and then I draw them based on what they shared with me, and I felt wrong for that to be mine. I just wanted a space where Spectator Jonze isn’t really a person, but it’s more of a collaborative effort of people and I felt wrong mixing that in with my personal, vulnerable music when they’re not mine either.
JAMES: In terms of creating your music, do you have any true favourite albums or influences? What have you been smashing recently and what’s always been in rotation for you?
DEENA: Yeah, I wonder what albums have I been playing recently? All Mirrors by Angel Olsen is one I’ve been smashing recently.
JAMES: Such a harrowing album.
DEENA: Yeah, it’s just so good. And one that I always have in rotation is Dummy by Portishead. When I’m feeling like a bit of a lonely sad girl, it’ll be Jeff Buckley.
JAMES: That’s a go-to for the wee lonely hours for sure.
DEENA: Yeah, I think they would be my main ones. How about you?
JAMES: The last couple of months, I’ve just found myself going down so many different rabbit holes with some extra time on my hands. I found myself revisiting a lot of early Bowie stuff, Hunky Dory‘s always been an absolute staple for me. A lot of John Mayer to keep my sanity eased. Working on the Flamingo Blonde stuff though, I’ve been listening to a lot of Pixies and Father John Misty, like a lot of Father John Misty. I just think his way with words is untouchable and his charm is just.. ugh.
DEENA: Oh yeah, I can see that. I can definitely see that!
JAMES: If I could even capture a 100th of his charm, I’d die happy I think.
DEENA: Oh I think you do, I think you have the charm and then also the cheek…
JAMES: [Laughs] The good ol’ charm and cheek. So, you’re probably absolutely fucking sick of talking about COVID, but more so, I guess, given you’ve usually got so much on the go at once, in terms of different projects and stuff, have you found yourself taking up anything new to help keep you sane over the past few months?
DEENA: It’s gotta be the least rock’n’roll answer ever, but the thing that I’ve really taken up over the last few weeks is running! Running, exercise, and cooking, I’m cooking for myself, just slowing down. I kind of touched on this last night, but COVID really beat me up and it still has. I was exhausted after last night’s gig. Not only that, even after band rehearsal. I lose my voice so much quicker now and I just get so fatigued a lot easier. I have found that eating well and exercising and building my fitness back up has made a huge difference and so now I’m like this weird, isolated hipster?
JAMES: Emerging out of quarantine, I think it’s the little things that people are realising the importance of self-help and especially mental health, especially over the last couple of months.
DEENA: I didn’t even realise, even when I had COVID, even when I was on the frontline of the Australian #MeToo movement in the music industry, I didn’t realise even when I was in the thick of it, recovering from trauma or sickness, I was actually giving myself away a lot to others and people around me, which I do not regret but I didn’t take the time afterwards to look after numero uno. Taking the time to recover and process and grieve and rest.
JAMES: Do you find that it helps avoid burnout as well? I mean, there’s just so much happening all the time.
DEENA: Oh yeah, I don’t even think I avoided burning out. I think I was in burn-out. It was really like, “I have to do this otherwise I would break down.” So now, I take things a lot slower when I can and things are picking up and it’s really crazy. I’m still a self-managed artist as well and we’re going on tour. Just trying to balance everything but, at the same time, take the lessons that I learnt through quarantine, and yeah, that’s been it for me. How about you? How have you found this year?
JAMES: Yeah, it’s been strange. I’ve been just trying to stick my head down with uni…
DEENA: You study as well? Wow.
JAMES: Yeah, I’m almost done. It’s home-stretch now. But yeah, balancing study and work and music, just trying to find time to be creative was tough. I had gotten to a point, before everything kind of went to shit, where I was out doing stuff every night of the week; going to shows and playing and all that, which was great and I absolutely love that, but being forced to take a breather and just stay home was kind of a blessing in disguise. Seeing fewer people at a time was an incredible thing that I took for granted, you know, actually spending time with people one on one, as opposed to just being in a group of 10 or 15 people at a time. That really changed how I viewed my relationships with other people. But yeah, I don’t know what would have happened if this all hadn’t happened, I wonder how the rest of the year would have panned out.
DEENA: Oh god, we can wonder…
JAMES: I read something online the other day which said, “if you don’t want to burn out, stop living your life like you’re on fire.” I love that so much, I’m realizing I’ve spent the last however many years running around like a headless chicken, just trying to keep these plates spinning. It’s been this weird struggle, as I’m sure it was for a lot of people. But coming back out of this period will be interesting, trying to approach it from a perspective of newfound self-care and not feeling like I need to be at everything and putting yourself first.
DEENA: You’ve just released your new single, Picture Me Gone, tell me about that! You’ve been working on it for a bit now.
JAMES: Yeah, we’ve had it on the live set for a little while. I wrote it while I was living in a very small Italian apartment in Milan, I got in before the pandemic did. I bought a really garbage Frankenstein of a guitar off of Italian Facebook marketplace and was writing a lot of synth and guitar and it started as this really watery, spacey, slow-burner. But once I took to the band and really figured out where it’s energy sat, it became this really punchy song which I was super happy with. Recording it mid-year at Plutonium Studios in Kelvin Grove, it was the first time we’d recorded in a studio with a producer and everything and it was really great to have such a positive experience and our producer Aidan Hogg was super supportive.
DEENA: And to make it clear to people, Aidan is the bass player and co-producer for Jaguar Jonze.
JAMES: He’s a talent, working all over the place. But yeah, we had a great time recording it and it’s been good to just have something out now and be back playing gigs semi-frequently and getting tighter as a live band, which is what I’m focused on at the moment.
DEENA: Totally, that is such an important element as well.
JAMES: Yeah, but I’m really stoked to have something to build upon. It’s still strange to me to have music out there, but it’s been a super nice response from people and I’m just keen to keep that rolling for as long as we can and then get on with the next one early next year I guess.
DEENA: That sounds good. I’m excited ’cause I really liked everything you played last night, especially the one about your mother (Heroin is a Gateway Drug You’re a Pussy if You’re Not Gonna Try It). That was actually so hilarious, I was tapping on the table laughing.
JAMES: The last time she did come to see us play, I think I dropped it just out of maternal fear. But she’s coming to see us at the Tivoli in a few weeks, so I might keep that one in the set and then see what happens.
DEENA: Yeah, I’m curious. Do you think she’ll be shocked or super proud?
JAMES: I dunno, I’m sure she’d want to clarify that she said none of those things and that it’s all fabricated.
DEENA: Get on stage and grab the microphone, “Before we end…”
JAMES: “…We need to clear up some things here.” Yeah, but we’re heading back into the studio soon so that one might come back up on the table! Not sure yet how we’ll pull it down from a six-minute piece with a big breakdown, but we’ll see.
DEENA: Otherwise, I could see it sitting nicely as a six-minute closer on an EP.
JAMES: Usually, I get into the audience for that one with that big breakdown in the middle, but I was so sure I’d knock my beer all over my pedalboard with my lead.
DEENA: Me too, with the audience, I didn’t know what the rules were for New South Wales.
JAMES: But, we’re keen to be playing with you at home at The Tivoli in a few weeks. Have you got any special plans for your big return to Brisbane?
DEENA: Oh gosh, to play some new songs and have a good time. Do what we do best and what we enjoy best and that’s playing live shows and doing that in our hometown! To be honest, I’m really looking forward to it because The Tivoli has always been quite consistent throughout every interview when I’m asked, “what’s that dream venue you always wanted to play?” and I’m like The Tivoli has always been my dream venue. Now I get to play it, so I’m really excited for that.
JAMES: It’s pretty huge! It’s such a gorgeous iconic venue and it’s a big stage. I’m worried how small I’m going to look!
DEENA: A big stage and seated crowd, it’s going to be such a cool show!
Catch Flamingo Blonde and Jaguar Jonze at The Tivoli on November 20. Tickets here.