We spoke to Phantastic Ferniture – the euphoric garage-pop project of Julia Jacklin, Elizabeth Hughes and Ryan K Brennan.
However much we try not to typecast musicians, you can’t help but feel that more than a few eyebrows were raised when, given her contemplative debut, Julia Jacklin appeared in the video for Phantastic Ferniture’s ‘Fucking And Rolling’ cavorting with a carefree contentment around a sun-dappled depiction of suburban Sydney. It’s a scene that felt at odds with Jacklin’s 2016 album, Don’t Let The Kids Win. A masterpiece of reflection on ageing and the passing of time, it echoed the album subsequently released later that year by fellow Antipodeans The Goon Sax in simultaneously being a coming of age record that also came from a place of wisdom and transcendental worldliness that belied her youth.
A longtime on-and-off background project that has only recently released its first record into the wider world, Phantastic Ferniture’s genesis comes from a place of youthful exuberance and sense that anything that is possible that more in step with that early-mid 20s ebullience than the wistful thoughtfulness that led Jacklin’s solo album.The band’s conception is something we can all relate to: a boozy birthday party that eventually leads to grand schemes and plans being formed. They key difference is that Jacklin, along with longtime friend and similarly confessional songwriter Elizabeth Hughes ( with the line-up since completed by Ryan K Brennan and Tom Stephens), actually saw it through.
Expectations were somewhat low – they lowered their natural self-imposed pressures by picking instruments to work with that weren’t their usual weapons of choice, and initially only planned to have a single solitary gig to mark their original bassist moving to Melbourne. As a result, it’s unsurprising to find that both Jacklin and Hughes have found the experience of releasing an actual album into the world four years after that fateful night of reverie more than a little strange . “It feels cliched, even a bit conceited or arrogant to say,” admits Hughes, candidly, but it really was a joke band to begin with. Being able to hold our vinyl in my hands is quite surreal, and really special. Our expectations were non-existent, so I feel completely grateful and delighted about everything that’s happened.” It’s a view backed up by Jacklin who adds, with a mix of characteristic pragmatism and window into the underlying effervescent experimentation at the heart of the project, that “all I wanted was to be able to know what it felt like to hold a mic off the stand and be some kind of ‘rock singer’. And we did it once and I was like well that was incredibly embarrassing. But then we did it again and it became slightly less embarrassing. Then the embarrassment turned to fun and then the fun turned to work (the fun kind)…”
“record a single, make a clip, play a show, push to radio, refresh your email incessantly, repeat”
One of the recurring themes that both Hughes and Jacklin keep coming back to is the way that Phantastic Ferniture is, as a project, built on a foundation of having little to no expectations and revelling in the fact to create something organic and representative of themselves. Jacklin describes how, for the past four years, they’ve swerved the standard industry cycle of “record a single, make a clip, play a show, push to radio, refresh your email incessantly, repeat”, instead opting for occasional bursts of activity before disappearing for months on end only to “crop up playing a Christmas show, all of us covered in tinsel yelling the chorus of Whams ‘Last Christmas’. “. “I think we really make the most of the moment”, concurs Hughes,” because we have to – we don’t worry too much about making fools of ourselves. We’ve made some pretty dubious choices along the way: the name of the band, our puns, covering “The Voice” by John Farnham…I think what works about Phantastic Ferniture is that we seem pretty gimmicky, almost like a kids band – but then you come to our shows and listen to our music and it’s decent listening, and I think this catches people by surprise.”
The record that has surfaced is accomplished, cohesive and awash with confidence, with the opening pair of ‘Uncomfortable Teenager’ and ‘Bad Timing’ instantly feeling like subtly anthemic road trip soundtrack staples and ‘Take It Off’ and ‘I Need It’ possessing a cocksure swagger. Both Hughes and Jacklin attribute a lot of the album’s assuredness to their long-standing friendships and the attendant comfort that it brings, with Hughes claiming that the band’s social connections “have been so imperative to the creation of this record and even to the existence of the music and band. We’ve seen each other at our very best, and our very worst, we’ve scooped each other out of the gutter (literally) during the darkest times and cheered each other on during the best times. Being so close helped us to take writing risks that we might have otherwise second guessed and lost, had we been playing music with people we weren’t so close to.” The idea of the album being built on long-standing bonds is a view shared by Jacklin, who adds that “we’ve all poured a lot into music, sacrificed a lot and been at the front rows of each other’s gigs for the last 8 years. On the one hand music can feel like a really indulgent and trivial pursuit and on the other hand it can feel like life and death and the thing that keeps us together and alive! So I think the constant back and forth that we’ve all experienced together came across somehow on this record.”
You’d be forgiven for assuming that, given their histories as solo songwriters, for Hughes and Jacklin to slip into writing collaboratively having been firmly at the reigns of their respective endeavours to date. But to do so would be to ignore the long-standing kinship the two have enjoyed that goes back to their first forays as musicians in Sydney, the pair finding solace in each other at a time when they both felt adrift of the city’s wider scene.” In retrospect, I think we were so lucky to be in that position, because it meant we took a lot of risks which allowed us to get to this point.
felt fairly alone in our choice to be musicians. When I met Julia I was quite blown away to even meet someone who played guitar, sang and was interested in songwriting” explain Hughes, “we started playing these open mic nights in Sydney and it really took us a very long time to become immersed in any kind of scene. I think we’ve never really had anyone to compare ourselves to, and I think this project was born during that time.” Almost a callback to the “don’t overthink things” mantra that has become Phantastic Ferniture’s call to arms , she adds that “without comparison we didn’t fear failure because we didn’t really know what failure or success looked like.”
“there’s something really apt about the way that even now neither Jacklin nor Hughes have any set goals for the project going forward”
For Jacklin, the experience has almost acted both as a time machine and a measure of how they’ve progressed both musically and in terms of their own confidence as musicians. Echoing Hughes’ assertion that a lot of the band’s confidence has come from a position of having no expectations she says that “when we started we were all at a place of feeling like we have nothing to lose, so anything and everything was on the table,” later looking back over her journey with (you suspect) a hint of pride as she describes how “it’s nice now to be able to draw some inspiration from my slightly younger self. I think about Liz and I being the most awkward and shy 20yr olds playing folk gigs to 3 people in bars, to now being able to feel confident enough to make and perform this kind of music. That’s really cool.”
Nonetheless, you get the impression that even they’ve been surprised at how easy the transition from working a solo songwriter to existing within a collaborative band-based collaborative environment has been. Jacklin admits that it’s the first time she’s ever worked in that way – in a room with other people, in real time – and claims that “and it was a lot easier than I was expecting”. For Hughes, it’s been an experience that’s reminded her of the joy of the creative process, and the boundless possibilities that making music in different ways can afford. “. “I think it’s so valuable writing with others, because often others see potential in something you may have otherwise discarded,” she says “that’s what I find so exciting and invigorating about music. It’s this bottomless pit of possibility and so much is gained, and lost along the way. To me, that’s really exciting and makes me feel a deep sense of purpose, passion and enthusiasm for life and music making.” Reflecting on the way that they, as a band, developed a habit of using pretty much everything that was brought to the table in some form or other, Jacklin wryly notes that “a lot of time we were just trying to flesh out our small set because the booker was paying us to play for 45mins and we only had 30mins. I think if I was put in a room with the goal being to make a hit I’d find it very stressful.”
Given the carefree nature that Phantastic Ferniture was conceived, and the way it’s operated free of expectations or self-imposed targets or goals to date, there’s something really apt about the way that even now neither Jacklin nor Hughes have any set goals for the project going forward even though they both have records of their own on the horizon (Jacklin, for her part, admits that “I feel like the moment we look too far ahead this whole thing will come crashing down”). Beyond the Australian tour that runs throughout the remainder of August, neither have any ideas as to what the future holds, with Hughes succinctly summarising matters as “we just let it happen, roll with the punches, and let it unfold – so far that mentality has worked pretty well for us.” For Jacklin, the project continues to be “way more about challenging ourselves and seeing if we could perform other versions of our musical selves.” As if addressing, unprompted, those eyebrows that might have raised when Phantastic Ferniture’s buoyant single and video reached the wider world, she describes how “ it’s very easy to typecast yourself and be like, oh yeah ‘I’m the folky soft voice girl who sings about my feelings’ and never try something else. To me Phantastic Ferniture still feels a bit fluid and that’s what I love about it.”
The future may lead Jacklin back to her home to date of existential crises and keeping one step ahead of the youth, but for now at least she’s got a bigger concern: “I’m just really excited to get on stage again and do my best ‘front woman in a rock band’ impersonation.”