Jesse Jo Stark backstage at Cambridge JunctionSarika Datta

A grungy room in the back of the Cambridge Junction lined with bright, harsh ‘Hollywood’ bulbs reflects the juxtaposition of the woman who enters, shakes my hand and greets me with a sweet and grainy L.A. accent. While down-to-earth and grounded, the spectre of Hollywood lingers around her – she oozes a Californian glamour, all the more alluring in its muted form. “I’m classy as hell sometimes but I do it in my own way.”

In washed-out denim, a tie-dye zip up and UGG boots, Stark exudes a raw authenticity – something she sees as equally important in the music she creates: “we're starving for something that's really authentic and not just like the mainstream that you'd hear on the radio.”

“We had no plan. I just called her and was like: I need to be held by a monster, in front of, like, a painted mural.”

Stark offers satisfaction to that starvation. She has a unique sound, which makes her hard to place in the industry: a position that she enjoys. “I get nervous when people ask me what my genre is because it's just so hard to pinpoint.”

In answer, or in order to avoid answering the generic genre question, Stark coined a term she feels is more representative of her music: “horrific hillbilly,” she chuckles – only half-joking. The term seems to epitomise the unusual blend of influences in Stark’s sound which comprises an aurally stimulating cocktail of rock-and-roll and country, overlaid with the singer’s gravelly melodic voice.

Her music is at once soft and electrifying, dichotomous qualities that seem to coexist in Stark herself: she is sweet and softly-spoken, generous with her attention. After her show she spends a half hour talking to a young girl and her mother who travelled overseas to see her perform – a story she recounts to her own mum over the phone later in the evening with pleasure. She compares her ‘ideal’ fanbase to that of artist Mazzy Star, “she’s got like this cult following, and it's not like it's massive but it’s important”. She’s interested to find a “weird little group” in the cities she visits and from the people she meets.

Stark in conversation with Vivienne Hopley-JonesSarika Datta

But there is also something electric about Stark’s person. She is loud and boisterous – boldly throwing her body about on stage, or clambering across the back of the sofa to order for everybody at dinner later in the evening.

“I've always loved, like, neon, leopard and punk-rock. Like all that stuff.” In the bus before the show she picks out an outfit for the evening. In a leopard print, low-cut jumpsuit, knee high white boots that she designed herself and a silver silk overcoat, Stark transforms into the stage version of herself. After the show, she switches into ‘boyfriend’ jeans and a white shirt for dinner. Her makeup is a slightly smudged reminder of her stage persona – a Bowie-esque transformation.

“we're starving for something that's really authentic.”

Stark rejects the idea that the character she becomes on stage and in her music videos is a mere fiction: “There’s definitely fantasy behind anything that I create; a world that I wish I was a part of. Like this un-dead afterlife. You know, specifically Fire of Love – like I wish that that could be my every day, but it's not.” But, “that’s truly how I feel on the inside.”

How much of herself does she hold back? “I try to not write too much of myself as I know I can be cryptic and I want my thoughts to belong to others as well”. She divides herself into the poet and the individual: writing for others or “purge” writing for herself. “Some things are meant to be held onto and some things are meant to be said and then just burned.”

Stark is supporting Sunflower Bean on their UK tourSarika Datta

Stark’s visuals and consistent aesthetic are centrifugal to her music. From a curated Instagram feed to the old-school Hollywood style of her album artwork, listening to Stark’s music involves enmeshing oneself in a rich, visual world.

Her music videos are particularly striking – often shot and filtered through a vintage-looking filter, they have a reminiscent quality that is reflective of Stark’s own nostalgia for decades gone by. Her most recent video to accompany the gravelly tune ‘Fire of Love’ was shot by Chuck Grant, L.A. photographer and sister of Lana Del Rey. “We had no plan. I just called her and was like: I need to be held by a monster, in front of, like, a painted mural.”

“There’s definitely fantasy behind anything that I create; a world that I wish I was a part of.”

This strong visual direction that Stark has seems as important to her as the music she creates. “You know some of my friends that are musicians – they have an idea and then they just want the director to take it and do it. But for me it's really a collaborative piece and I want to be involved with everything.”

Stark’s own creative direction is strong. “It’s like having a really sick dream – that’s so beautiful to have like a really cool dream, but to actually make it a movie or a three minute long video – it's even cooler, you know?” Perhaps this is in-part influenced by her other long-standing career – that of a designer, I suggest. “I don't know – I’ve never thought of it like that.”

Stark's final UK show will be on December 3rd at the Shacklewell Arms in LondonSarika Datta

Stark exudes confidence on and off stage. She describes herself as a “late bloomer” when it comes to self confidence, particularly body confidence. And now? “I’m comfortable naked.” Her voice finds a clarity and gravity. “I think that women's bodies are beautiful. I want to shine. It's not to get attention. It's not for a man. It's because I own my body, I work for my body, I'm in control of my body and it's really a beautiful thing.”

There’s something infectious about Stark’s confidence and her attitude to her body and physical appearance. Hearing a woman talk about growing into herself — growing to like herself – in such a humbling way is inspiring. The feeling manifests within me when I see her on stage, where she’s as fierce and bold and is entirely herself. “I feel more confident than I've ever felt – I never knew that day would come for me.”

“I feel more confident than I've ever felt – I never knew that day would come for me.”

Of her clothing in music videos such as Fire of Love stark explains, “The reason I’m in lingerie for the most part is because I feel like clothes do accentuate us, but we don't need much.” Yet Stark recognises “sadly the game is that people have more to say if you have less clothes on.” This seems a prescient comment about the position of female artists in the industry, who seem more open to judgement based upon their appearance than many male counterparts. Not just in the music industry, but outside of it: this image of women playing ‘the game’ is an important one.

Stark in conversation with Vivienne Hopley-JonesSarika Datta

The role of women in the music industry is something we continue to speak on extensively – the ramifications of which extend beyond the music world: “we feed off of the youth,” Stark notes emphatically. “Growing old for women is scary for some reason and I'm sure like it’ll freak me out at some point – my body's already changing.” But Stark has a distinctly positive outlook: “I'm really happy that I’m growing into my skin and I'm looking forward to being a really bad-ass older woman.” Again, there’s something infectious about her boisterous confidence and attitude.


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Another thing that the singer-songwriter describes as “bad-ass” is being busy. Having supported the Vaccines earlier this year in the US before supporting Sunflower Bean for their current UK tour, Stark also balances her music career alongside her work for her parents’ brand Chrome Hearts. “I'm old school and I work for what I want”.

In the context of Cambridge, with the temptation to do everything, Stark’s advice resonates: “Don't do a million things and be bad at all of them.” Stark leaves you with the feeling not that you should do everything, but the belief you can do anything. Beyond that, she brims with life and vitality that exudes into the space surrounding her. “Our souls – I always wanted to be forever young, inside.”

Jesse Jo Stark's final UK show will be on December 3rd at the Shacklewell Arms in London.

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