Jillian Kay featured on Beautiful Songwriting Vol. 4, her latest record, Dead Flowers, proving to be a distinctive and utterly transfixing lo-fi affair replete with just about as much untempered nostalgia as an aching heart can be expected to handle. Jillian took some time out from gorging on Fallout: New Vegas to chat with A Lonely Ghost Burning about her interest and preoccupation with the past, how playing music allows her to be in the present, and why she would like to convey a little more happiness through her work in the future.
I guess I do actually daydream about the end of the world a lot: what it would be like; what would happen.
Jillian: I wrote songs on the piano when I was a kid, although I didn’t play the piano; I just started messing around with it. I wrote some really lame songs about love and stuff because that’s all I knew from The Beatles and The Backstreet Boys [laughs]. I guess I really started writing music when I was fourteen or so.
Jillian: It’ll just happen when I’m walking; often, too, if I’m washing my hands or my face, these lyrics will just pop into my head and I’ll have to write them down right away. Usually, if I don’t finish a song in one sitting, it won’t get finished, so it’s usually done in these fifteen-minute bursts of, “I need to do this or else it will never actually come to be.” So, usually it’s pretty rushed. [laughs]
Jillian: No, I like that I keep myself guessing and wondering whether or not it’s actually going to be something – it keeps it interesting.
Jillian: I suppose it comes from a need to express myself and not knowing how to do it any other way; because I know that if I make something, I can share it with people, and it’ll be the only way that I really know how to tell other people who I am – and when I see their reactions and responses to it, I know who they are. So, it’s a way of knowing myself and knowing other people, and I love that, so I guess it’s why I do it.
Jillian: Oh, I’d probably go crazy and jump off a building, maybe. [laughs]
Jillian: [laughs] I don’t know; I guess it’s suggested by my songs that there are a lot of troubling things in life that expression helps to do away with. So, if I didn’t have music, I’d probably just be a weird, boring, crazy person that just kept to themselves and, you know, probably jumped off a building someday. [laughs]
Jillian: Some of those things, sometimes. Weird; yeah. Bored; sometimes. Crazy; a little bit. But, I don’t mind them as long as I can make music; as long as I feel like I’m doing something with my weirdness, my boredom and my craziness, it’s okay.
Jillian: That it’s honest – the words can be pretty, but if that’s all they are then I’m not satisfied. If it’s saying something I’m not happy with; if it’s just promoting sadness as something that can’t be dealt with – as something that’s cute or pretty to put in a song, which happens sometimes, unfortunately – I throw it out and start again. Doesn’t matter if I liked it or not because it has to be more than that.
Jillian: Working with myself. I am so stubborn, and I’m often really displeased with the things that I write. I think anyone who creates something usually is harsh with themselves. I think if you make something and you’re immediately like, “Ah, you know what? This is great – I’m not gonna change anything about it”, it can come off as arrogant. If you don’t care enough to go back to something, be honest and be like, “Okay, this could be better; I need to do this”, I would feel like I wasn’t doing it right. So, I guess just dealing with that part of myself – the critic – and listening to that part of myself; not just immediately being down about it is usually pretty hard. It’s striking the balance between criticising and having confidence.
Jillian: Yeah. [laughs] The guitar parts. I’m not a guitarist; I started playing guitar because I thought it looked cool when I was eleven, and I was right, it looks hella cool to play guitar – [laughs] – but it seems like I’m often stuck writing songs with the same four chords; C, F, A minor, G – it’s just like the standard chord progression of the world – and it sounds great, but when I can string all of my songs together in one song, that’s right about the time when I definitely feel like I’ve done something wrong. So, on the EP, I actually had like a crazy tea party with my songs where they all switched chords, but it just made everything fall into place – there was a point where they all sounded a bit too similar and then with one change, they all seemed to change and become cohesive rather than the same song over and over and over again… Yeah, I often find myself changing the guitar parts; it’s maddening.
Jillian: I would; I’d really like to have a band, someday – to be part of a band – but, as I said earlier, I’m super stubborn, and I can deal with telling myself, “No, that’s not right – change it; do something else”, but I would feel really bad being with friends or something and… I wouldn’t necessarily know how to say to someone else, “I don’t like that; let’s change it”, but that’s a ‘me’ problem. I really would like to play with friends someday. Everything’s better when you bring other people into it. You want to be able to share those experiences, especially being on stage and exciting a crowd and everything; it’s an absolute incredible feeling and I would love to share that with people.
Jillian: I wish I knew. [laughs] I really do. Who knows? My boyfriend’s a musician too, and we’ve tried to do some stuff together and some other friends who are musicians – we’ve tried to sit down and write, but it hasn’t quite happened yet. I’m holding out hope for the near future that, one day, I’m just gonna click with somebody and be like, “Okay; you’re my music soulmate – let’s do this.” Still looking.
Jillian: Hmm… It depends. I think it changes with the song; with the mood of the song. ‘Dead Flowers’, for example, I had just come out of a really excellent class at university – it was a Yeats class taught by one of my favourite professors – and I was feeling so inspired by all of these great poems that Yeats had. I guess the mood would have to be ‘inspired’ most of the time. No matter what the other feelings are, I have to be inspired by something so, in that case, it was someone else’s words. I was walking and I had these resonant feelings of hope and just an overall sobriety; a bit sombre – it was a cold afternoon – and it just worked. I was walking down a set of stairs and it just popped into my head, and I was like, “Okay. There it is.” [laughs] So yeah, for mood, it would definitely be inspired by something, whatever it may be.
Jillian: When I get really heavily involved with my music, everything else sort of becomes an activity that I have to do on autopilot. So, I’m probably not the most fun person to be around, because my brain is just focussed on the songs and thinking about each and every word; making sure each one has purpose and a place; thinking about the chords and the mood of it all. So, I might be in a conversation and have no idea what the other person is saying. I’ll just be like, “I’m such a jerk.” [laughs] I think that as long as it comes out in the end as something that I’m proud of, it’s worth it – as long as my friends will forgive me, usually it turns out okay.
Jillian: I’m definitely looking forward to the future. I think, even, that the future will be better than the past, but since I was a kid I wanted to know more about what had come before me. My dad showed me the Beatles when I was like five, and I used to just watch Yellow Submarine over and over and over again every single day. I just had this fascination with the past – especially the music. As I grew up, I always found myself thinking about other times and other places; perhaps it made me a bit distracted with what was going on in the present, so, I guess maybe that’s why I don’t write about the present often; because I’m not usually paying attention to it. [laughs] Which, according to some quotes I read online once, is the wrong way to go about life, but… to hell with it. I’ve had fun so far.
Yeah, I like to draw from my own memories sometimes too. I feel like if I tap into one of those – if I’m not just lying about these feelings or making something up for the sake of a song – it comes across as something more true; something that I’m more proud of. So, ‘Invincible’ for example – that song is just a bunch of things from my childhood, all thrown in there. The ‘running in front of cars to feel alive’ was just this one summer afternoon I remember. My brother and his friends and me and my friends – cars passed on the street and we’d run in front of them and they’d beep the horn and get so angry at us. To still be able to remember that feeling from childhood… it just comes across as more genuine, I hope. So yeah, I like my past… Most of it. [laughs] So, I guess that’s why I write about it.
Jillian: Currently, post-apocalyptica, but that’s got to do with the fact that I played maybe 48 hours of Fallout in the past 48 hours. [laughs] I got the DLC for New Vegas, and it’s like, “Ooh, I have no life.” I guess I do actually daydream about the end of the world a lot: what it would be like; what would happen. I used to have all these crazy nightmares when I was a kid – and I still get them sometimes – of the sky opening up in bright colours and atom bombs falling on me. So, I think a lot of my daydreams are like these wild, anxiety driven images of the end or, maybe, another life where, in the situation I’m in, something else has happened. I think a lot of people do that, and they always think about the worst; I know that I tend to do that a lot. But, when I’m daydreaming and trying to enjoy myself, I suppose I just imagine what life would be like; what life could be like if something had been done differently; where I will be, eventually. I’m very spacey – I forget a lot of things – and I think it’s often because I’m not right in the moment. That’s another reason for music – when I’m playing music, I feel like I’m right there; I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and I’m not thinking about the end of the world or all these other things.
Jillian: Oh, absolutely. It depends on the situation too, like, I’ve done some real bad dive-bar shows where there’s fluorescent lighting, the TV’s on and there are five people in the bar and they’re all looking at the TV. So, of course I’m looking at the TV too, thinking like, life could be better, but whatever. Fortunately, I don’t play too many of those sorts of shows these days, and I think that’s had a huge impact on the way that I feel about my music and the way I feel about playing shows. Once I had some integrity in the places that I was playing, and the songs that I was playing especially, it totally changed my perspective from, like “This is never gonna get better”, to “Yeah, this where I’m supposed to be right now.”
Jillian: In terms of music – I love the sixties – there was this yé-yé movement in France, which was like all these pretty young girls and actresses – who were also musicians – getting in on that rock-and-roll movement. There’s something about their sweetness that hides this underlying sultry person that I’ve always loved. That duality; I love it. I do have other interests aside from music – as I stated; I love Fallout. [laughs] Anything that has to do with post-apocalyptica. I’m from a place, in my state, that has a lot of history that’s pretty gruesome. We’re best known for an axe-murderess, so I’ve always been a little grim in that sense. I grew up right over the wall from the cemetery where this axe-murderess is buried, so I spent my whole life waking up every morning to breakfast with a cemetery in my back yard. So, I’ve always had darker interests and thoughts about death – not even necessarily in a heavy sense – ever since I was a kid and I guess I like spooky stuff; ghosts, skeletons and Tim Burton. [laughs] All the good stuff. I guess I have a lot of interests and they’re hard to think about now that I have to actually name them. [laughs]
Jillian: I hope so. I know that the music I was writing when I was younger was darker without really saying anything. I don’t like that; I don’t want to just say nothing into a microphone – that doesn’t make any sense to me, so I stopped doing that. I think and I hope that there’s still a sense that there is a child somewhere in the voice and that she is recognised as someone who is a little lonely in her childhood, a bit odd and didn’t necessarily find anything she could connect with; because it really shaped me as a person. I think the reason why there’s always a little bit of sadness is because I never want to forget exactly why I am the person who I am today. So yeah, my interests include being sad and binging on video games. [laughs]
Jillian: I don’t really know what people think about my music until I talk to them. I don’t want people to get the sense that I’m depressed all of the time. I mean, of course there are periods of depression where it’s terrible to do anything – just getting out of bed is a chore – but it’s not always like that, and I’m not always like that. I’m much more than just the sad girl persona that a lot of people seem to dig these days. I guess I spent my childhood – and even now – looking up to my favourite musicians as these people who are just their music and the things that they write about; that they’re really cool and I should idealise them – but as I’m making my own music and growing up, I realise that the things that they’re singing about… these people are real people who are going through these things and they’re able to write about really heavy subjects; go out and sing and play them – to me, that’s just so heroic, and I hope that one day I can really tap into the deeper, more pressing issues within myself, present those to people and have them know that it is a challenge and that it is worth it. Especially if, in doing that, other people figure out for themselves that they have something they can tell and it’s worth telling.
Jillian: A little more guts, maybe. Maybe just some time; playing more shows, getting more exposure… growing up. I’m still in college – I will be for another two years – and I had these plans for how my life would go and what I would do but, it’s all just sort of out the window at this point. I’m just going wherever I can – I’ve been doing this along the map of my life – and if at some point I finally feel ready, I feel like I’ll know and I’ll just go out and do it. I don’t like to get any real hopes up because I know that things are always subject to change. If it comes, it comes, and if it doesn’t, well, I’ll be a professor and bitch about it.
Jillian: Umm… That’s an excellent question.
Jillian: You’re welcome… [laughs] I think, especially since I feel like I’m putting the most genuine version of myself into these songs and people can listen and enjoy them and feel something that reminds them of something else that happened in their life; since there’s like a sense of connection there – yeah, absolutely I would love that, because I’m not as neat as my songs. I’m a total mess, at times, and if I could just be the emotions in a song or the words in a song and the way that it makes people feel… I suppose it might be a little flat-sided or static, but there are worse things to be.
Jillian: I think that might be part of the reason why I like it. In just a few minutes of writing a song, I can go from feeling like I’m doing nothing – I’m anxious; I’m not doing anything worth hanging around for – and then, in a moment, it just feels like everything is aligned, and I can breathe because I’ve made something. Even if people won’t hear it; even if it’s not good; I’ve made it and it has helped me to understand myself a little bit better. So, if it does bring up fears or I have to confront myself, it might be the only time where I feel like I can actually do those things and come out stronger afterwards.
Jillian: The fact that I ate two chocolate chip cookies for breakfast this morning… and didn’t get sick. I have a nineteen-year-old cat; her name is Daisy, and I just turn into a big, gooey pile of love every time I see her. My boyfriend is great. We’re just the weirdest two people… well, not the weirdest, but we seem to have a special brand of weird with each other that I truly love and appreciate… And, I’m gonna bring it up again, because I’m super stoked for Fallout 4. [laughs] I have no other emotions but ‘totally stoked’ whenever I’m playing Fallout – there’s no other video game in the world for me; it’s just Fallout forever.
A lot of things make me happy, and I feel like I should write about those more often because they are absolutely just as important as the things that make us sad. There has to be a balance, so the next batch of songs that I’m working on will absolutely be a little more light-hearted, and people will learn more about the things that make me smile. Smiling’s awesome; it’s a workout for your face; it makes you look younger… or something… I don’t know; I read these facts online so they’re probably not true, but it’s really important. [laughs].
Jillian: It’ll probably be another home-brewed bag of nonsense just like the last one. I kind of prefer it that way. I would like for it to sound like a real album and have high production quality and people be able to play it in their car stereos and have it not sound like someone’s banging on a tin can underneath the hood… but it might go the same way; just done in my bedroom with a microphone and a shitty little box that I bought from the music store for less than a hundred dollars. We’ll see. Like I said; no real hopes for the future because I’m bound to lose my mind and change it within a week.
Jillian: Ahh… I don’t know… I hope that they’ll give me a sense that I’ve done something with my life. To go back to Yeats, for a moment – as I mentioned, ‘Dead Flowers’ came about after a class on Yeats – he had this thing about immortality where you could live forever if you could create a really great piece of art. I don’t know if I’ll ever get there – I can almost guarantee that I will never be as celebrated and loved as Yeats, who happens to be one of my favourite poets – but I hope that whenever I join Lizzie Borden in the cemetery in my back yard, I will feel like I’ve done something with my life, achieved this sense of immortality in my words and in my music, and just be happy with myself. I’m not a totally unhappy person, but there is a lot of fear that the future is just this scary, massive black hole that one day I’m going to get lost in, and all of these joys that I had from childhood; all of this nostalgia will just be sucked up and gone in the course of a really shitty office job or something. So, I hope that my music will preserve some of that for me, so even if I do get caught up in the future and stop making music, I can always go back and just play something and remember what it was like to be twenty-two-years-old, totally broke and bummed out but also absolutely in love with my life.
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