“It’s only recently that I’ve started to become a bit more comfortable in myself,” says Jess Ribeiro. The songwriter is walking through the backstreets of Brunswick East, her adopted Melburnian neighbourhood.
“I’ve been trying to get out of Brunswick for 10 years,” she says, as we turn to the subject of making her new, third album, Love Hate, and in turn, talking about herself.
Her self-discomfort was sown in her hometown, Armidale in Northern NSW. “It’s a small Christian town that’s considered ‘multicultural’ because of its university,” Ribeiro says. “In reality, it was really redneck and racist.”
They treated my dad like he was the houseboy because he was Asian. As someone who was mixed race I felt quite confused. I never felt quite white enough and I never felt quite Asian enough. Maybe that’s what being Australian is — never quite feeling that you belong.”
Ribeiro left home as soon as she could. She moved to Brisbane to go to jazz school, but ended up getting waylaid by an obsession with classical Indian ragas. She moved to Melbourne to study Steiner education, only for a dream to inspire a move across the continent.
“I had a dream, one night,” Ribeiro says, “where I went into a little op-shop in Central Australia, and everyone there knew me. They said: ‘Jessica, you’ve come home!’ I walked over the desert, walked on these stepping-stones that led me to this waterhole, where there was a crocodile. Then, I woke up, and decided I was going to move to Darwin.”
In Darwin, Ribeiro became a part of the city’s small, supportive music scene, recording a debut EP, 2008’s Pilgrimage. She eventually returned to Melbourne, gaining a following for her dark music and playful live-shows. After recording her second album, 2015’s Kill It Yourself, with Mick Harvey, she made Love Hate in Lyttelton, a harbour town outside of Christchurch.
While she says the songs are not autobiographical Ribeiro wrote the album “coming out of a long-term relationship” and dealing with the death of three friends over a period of 18 months. Songwriting, Ribeiro says, “is a real healing thing. I know that sounds cheesy and dramatic but that’s what it is for me. It’s a form of self-expression. I may not always be really good at it but I keep doing it anyway.”
As artist, Ribeiro loves the freedom of creativity, but admits she struggles with turning her wild ideas and daydreams into the tangible commodity of a song. “Everything I’ve done is, in some ways, a failure,” she says, self-effacingly. “You put so much effort into something — it’s so heartfelt, it comes from such a genuine place — but you know that you’re not always going to succeed. You have all these ideas of yourself and your music but it has its own way of unfolding. You can’t control everything. You can’t really control much of anything.”
Love Hate is available now on Barely Dressed Records.
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