Australian-born, Brooklyn-based songwriter and performer Jess McAvoy has spent over two decades mining the human condition for her prolific output of music and lyrics. A stunning vocalist and commanding live performer, McAvoy combines blues, pop, rock and her astute lyricism to create a powerful, hook laden examination of that which fuels us all – the desire for connection.
McAvoy’s first single of 2019 – “Do What You Want” is a playful exploration of the notion that if we follow our own desires and joy that we can ultimately live our best lives. McAvoy’s newly emboldened sense of self and her power as a songwriter and live performer continues to gather momentum.
Growing up in Australia, was music always a big part of your life? Can you recall your first ever musical experience? Can you see yourself doing anything else?
My relationship with music started in an unusual way. My family didn’t listen to music much when I was growing up in Perth. I spent a lot of time playing outside, climbing trees and making art so it wasn’t really a thing. I do remember dancing in the loungeroom to Billy Joel and Abba when I was little, but I didn’t really develop a kinship with it until well after I had started to create it. It was a means to an end, a puzzle to solve- a way out, a way to gather influence.
I started performing in Perth back in 1996 at the Grosvenor hotel. What a venue. They no longer host live music, but back then that place was the central meeting hub for such an incredible community of musicians. It operated several stages and ran a bunch of local industry festivals. Eventually I would tend bar there- but that’s where I gained a life-saving and robust musical family. On Wednesdays there was a night called the Cosy Club where I began to perform almost every week, and when I wasn’t performing I was there hanging out with my new found chosen family. That’s where I met some of my oldest friends like Drew Goddard (Karnivool) and a lot of the bands that came up in Perth around then were all in the same circle. Luke Steele and I dated for a little bit having met in the Perth music scene. That time was so incredibly fertile and nurturing before anyone cared about little old Perth. I’m so grateful to have had that as my training ground, and it really made music about community and connection for me.
And no. I can’t see myself doing anything else, being that I will always make things, I will always write songs. It’s when I feel most like myself and it’s the one thing that has never, ever let me down.
What has been the biggest surprise so far about making music your career? What has been an unexpected or welcome challenge to it all?
The biggest surprise? I guess that I initially approached it as a means-to-an-end and discovered that it was the thing that would ultimately keep me alive. I struggled with alcoholism for a long time, and the tipping point was a choice between creating music and drinking. It’s more complicated than that of course, but that’s really what it boiled down to.
I feel so, so grateful that I have had music as the thickest through line of my life. It’s taken me to all these different places on the planet and in pursuit of being the best songwriter and performer I can be, music has motivated me to improve myself and my life time and time again. The people I have met, and the opportunities I have had because I believed I was worthy of doing something that I love has been the most amazing gift. The biggest challenge has been accepting how long things can take. Luckily, for me, the goal posts have shifted so much. When I was younger, I was consistently frustrated that I wasn’t gaining more recognition. I have since learned much more humility- I am a lot more grateful for the journey these days, plus I finally feel I’m ready for things to shift to the next level. It’s only taken twenty-three years!
How do you think you and your music have been influenced by your hometown and where you live today?
Interestingly enough, moving to the other side of the world has given me a deep appreciation for Australia, for Melbourne where I lived and worked in the industry for twelve years, but funnily enough for Perth, and my formative years there. I’ve written about it with “All Alone” – the intrinsic feeling of home that is deep within my bones. I benefit a lot in America for being Australian. Being exotic is a real plus. I feel a sense of deep pride in how far I’ve come, and how much support and training I gained from starting in Perth at that time.
Living in New York now, I feel that it’s really pushed me to up my game as a musician and a songwriter specifically. The turbulence of opportunity and the chaos of the city really pushes you -if you’re up for it and I always have been. I could feel a calling to this city all the way back when I was dancing to Billy Joel- though I didn’t know it then. There was something embedded in those recordings that I would come to chase all these years later. I feel more at home in New York than I ever knew that I could anywhere, and I think my deep connection to where I came from helps me to feel that.
All these things make me the musician that I am and help me continue to grow.
What was the inspiration behind your single, “Do What You Want”? How does it compare to any other music that you have released and worked on?
“Do What You Want” came about in a playful way, I wrote it as a bit of a joke, honestly. I was seeing this person while my heart wasn’t quite open to a romantic commitment, but we both were open to having a good time together. Her friends were all up in her shit about it, and I very much felt like- What’s that got to do with anyone else! Life is too short! Let’s have a good time!
Every now and again I write something light hearted and don’t take it too seriously. These ones feel very different to the other material I write, and in all honesty, they get a lot of attention due to their light heartedness. It’s been a great lesson in not taking myself so seriously.
When do you hope to release more new music and a full album of new songs?
At the moment we’re doing single for single so at this rate, around every six weeks to two months. I’m really hanging to release an album though, it’s been over ten years since I’ve done so. I’ve committed to writing a hundred songs this year, with the intention to record an album at the end of 2019 start of 2020. Of all the music I’ve released – it’s well over 13 records at this stage- I’ve never put out my self-titled record. Maybe I’ll finally create a body of work that’s worthy of representing me wholly as an artist. I’m so excited to at least try.