Words by Claudia Schmidt // Image by Maya Spangler
Jesse Jo Stark is kinda a force. When she’s not hands-on at American fashion brand Chrome Hearts (founded and owned by her parents), or behind the wheel of her own merch company, Deadly Doll, she’s got a burgeoning music career, with music long written in her stars (she’s Cher’s goddaughter, for God’s sake). Stark’s been writing music since the age of eight, but she only released her first single five years ago. Now, her debut album, DOOMED, is finally here.
With so much on, it makes sense that the album was a while in the making. But for the last two years, Stark made it her focus. “I was born to work, and I think I want to do everything, and I think I can do everything. But sometimes you forget that you’re just one person, and it’s important to give your art the time it deserves,” she says. “This album, I gave it that time.”
Stark co-produced much of DOOMED with Jesse Rutherford (lead singer of The Neighbourhood). Both living in LA, the pair were friends to start off with, before she finally worked up the nerve to ask Rutherford to write with her. “Because artists, we’re so shy, randomly,” Stark explains, which is almost hard to believe given her electric, no-fucks demeanour.
Stark usually writes alone, but the artistic connection with Rutherford was instant. He got all her references; they had a lot in common. But most importantly, he was able to do that thing that all good producers do, and coax out that extra glimmer of magic, the one even the artist doesn’t know they have in them. “Lyrically, he pulled a lot out of me. Things that I wouldn’t normally say about myself,” Stark describes. Perhaps, nowhere is this more evident than in the opening lines of the record: “Maybe I’m acting immature, hate to admit I’m insecure / I gotta cry when it hurts, I’m gonna try to find the words.”
This vulnerability courses through the album. The songs touch on different sides of Stark. She pokes fun at things; on others, she’s more serious. She explores her fantasies. Sometimes, she takes on an alter ego, like a slayer who kills vampires. There is no equivocation here. “They stand for the men in my life, the women in my life,” she says. “[I’m] calling out things that I just don’t agree with or respond to anymore.”
She also frequently broaches her femininity. Maybe, it’s just that she’s more grown up now. “I don’t think I actually am, but in my head, I’m a little more grown, in the woman that I am,” she says. But it’s not like she’s gone all Mother Teresa. “There’s also bratty moments,” she reassures me. “Where I’m just fucking pissed off, and they feel like bad moods.”
Sonically, the album is full of exploration, too. Moving away from the heavy, live band approach of previous releases, Stark found herself experimenting with 808s and different kinds of noises. But she still retained plenty of those hallmark organic instruments, like the rusty, Ennio Morricone-esque guitars that would be perfectly at home in a modern Spaghetti Western.
Perhaps one of the most exciting experimentations was with her own voice, with Stark pushing herself in ways she hadn’t before – like on the drawling album opener ‘666 in the subs’, where fidgety vocal phrases land restlessly behind the beat. Or on ‘lipstick’, where London producer Matt Schwartz encouraged Stark to project her voice in a way she never had before, resulting in bold, belting choruses cut straight from the pop canon. “When I listen to ‘lipstick’, it doesn’t feel like my song. And that’s also a cool feeling, because it is my song and I wrote it,” she describes.
You can tell a lot of love went into DOOMED – and that Stark was surrounded by plenty of love when making it, from her producers to her engineer, Michael, to her guitar player, Thomas. “It was just a little family over here in Hollywood,” she says. “But that’s what it’s about. That’s what ‘modern love’ is about. That’s what ‘patterns’ is about. I’m very tight-knit with my crew, and I think you have to have a real trust when you’re creating art.”
Although, when it comes to actual family (and friends), she says she has made a conscious decision to not share too much. “No one’s heard it. I’m like, ‘Fuck,’” she laughed. “I really wanted to just be like, “Here’s my album. I don’t want to know what you think until it’s out.”
The album is dripping with gothic imagery, as though the contents of a nightmare have been neatly sealed in eleven streamable songs. There is plenty Stark draws on, from Tarantino to old horror. Dusty, discarded B movies served as the inspiration for some of the imagery surrounding the record, like Dan Hoskins’s 1989 horror-comedy flick, Chopper Chicks in Zombietown.
In an extremely full circle moment, Stark’s dad, American fashion designer Richard Stark made the leather jackets for the film’s all-girl motorcycle gang, in what was his first movie gig. For Stark, it’s important there’s a cheekiness to the horror. “I like the comedic side of horror,” Stark explains. “I didn’t want it to feel grim. I wanted it to feel like, yes, badass, but also quite funny.”
Horror and comedy have long been entangled. Director Bruce G. Hallenbeck writes that HoCo gives you “permission to laugh at your fears”, allowing you to “whistle past the cinematic graveyard and feel secure in the knowledge that the monsters can’t get you.” It makes sense then why Stark is drawn to the dichotomy. It contains a subversiveness, a kind of one-upping of fear, which mirrors the rebellious persona of Jesse Jo Stark.
But Jesse Jo Stark, the person, is a lot more nuanced than that. On DOOMED, Stark is often drawn to the concept of love, constantly unpicking it, trying to articulate the kind of love that is most important to her. But her favourite romances aren’t always what you’d expect. She lists Holly Golightly and Paul Varjak in Breakfast at Tiffany’s – “she’s kind of a damsel, and she’s messy” – alongside Morticia and Gomez in Addams Family. “This kind of ‘will die without you’ love suits me the best,” she says, quickly adding: “But both equally in it. The fantasy belongs to the both of us, you know?”
Vampires feature heavily throughout the album. “Bloodsucker, vampire, take everything,” Rutherford sings on his feature vocal in ‘so bad.’ “I’ll suffer forever, as long as you’re here with me,” Stark responds. When I ask Stark whether she’s team Spike or Angel, she laughs. “Probably Angel, just because I was like, ‘I’m obsessed with that ungodly love,’” she says, referring to her younger self. “And also, that little heart ring they had. I searched high and low for it. And when I got that, I thought I was the coolest bitch around.”
It’s funny to imagine Stark as a little girl begging her parents to help her find the Claddagh ring that Angel gives Buffy. This was before you could just go online and order one. “Everything was special at that time,” she says. “I know that sounds like so long ago, but it’s like, it’s really not that long ago that you couldn’t find everything on the internet.”
In fact, young Stark features on DOOMED, with the outro to the album’s sixth track, ‘slayer,’ containing audio of her as a child talking; Stark admits it makes her cry. “I smelled your blood and it made me blush,” she sings earlier in the song. “I’m a slayer, I’m a heartbreaker, save your prayers for somebody who cares.” Yet even with all the lyrical bravado, there’s still a soulful melancholy that lingers beneath.
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For Stark, as with most good artists, horror serves as a vessel for her to explore something else. In this case, it’s love and selfhood. If DOOMED could be reduced to a Venn diagram, it would sit somewhere at the intersection of love, self and vampires. But with all the horror of DOOMED, I’m curious: what’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to Jesse Jo Stark?
“Oh my God,” she says. “Sad or happy? Because sometimes scary moments are cute, you know what I mean… Probably this time I went to a haunted house on a beach, it was a literal scary moment,” she pauses. “The first time I ever walked on stage is another horrifying moment. The album I’m about to put out – also totally scary. I think the first time I ever fell in love, I would say, would be my final answer.”
You can buy/stream ‘DOOMED’ right here.
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