Queer Kiwi-born Jess Harlen’s newly-released debut album, Neon Heartache, comes after recent collaborations with roots band Blue King Brown and hip-hop act Muph & Plutonic. True to its title, Harlen’s own offering holds a fair bit of heartache.
“There’s definitely a very big bit of heartache in these songs. Some of the songs are a couple of years old, and some are fresh off the bat, so they’re from different heartaches,” she chuckled ruefully.
“The ‘neon’ is the beautiful, glowing part of my music, the ‘heartache’ is the suffering. It’s the big beautiful suffering, as a friend of mine very eloquently put it.”
The album brings to mind the soulful vibe of Sia’s 2001 debut, Healing Is Difficult, but Harlen said her influences went further back to the likes of Gladys Knight and Roberta Flack.
Harlen’s own brand of soul is more forward-thinking, with an admirable lyrical candour about her sexuality — love songs like Water To Sand don’t shy away from getting gender-specific. Did Harlen think twice about making her songs so clearly queer?
“Hell, yes. I totally went through that. I remember doing a tour where I drove from Melbourne to Brisbane, stopping at different venues on the way. There were a couple of regional, somewhat redneck shows where I decided I’d play my ‘straight set’, taking out all the ‘she’s and replacing them with ‘you’s,” she said, laughing at the memory.
“But when I was recording this album I thought, if I’m going to be shy about this and try and hide it, it’s going to be really difficult. I’m just going to go full steam ahead with it.
“It’s actually always bothered me, those songs by gay singers that are non-gender-specific. I want to describe things exactly as they feel and as they are. You can’t get away with just saying ‘you’ all the time.”
The album’s release has been accompanied by some stunning, colourful imagery, taken from the striking video to current single I Go, in which Harlen dons all manner of fluorescent make-up and headgear.
“We wanted to take it to the galactic levels that the song travels to,” she said.
The video also included some Maori symbols, in a nod to her Kiwi heritage.
“What you see in the clip, that headdress, with the drawing on my chin and the black lips, that is the legitimate design from my father’s tribe. It was drawn up by a master carver for our tribe.”
The Melbourne-based singer has been in Australia since she was three — long enough to lose all traces of an accent.
“I got rid of that pretty quickly. Kids tease you about it in school, so I thought I should straighten it out. It’s the only thing I’ve ever straightened out,” she quipped.
info: Neon Heartache (Plethora Records) is out now. Visit www.myspace.com/jessharlen