Jackie McLean, frontwoman of Roan Yellowthorn, the musical project supported by partner and multi-instrumentalist Shawn Strack, delivers confessional indie rock with a singer/songwriter heart. The duo’s forthcoming new album, Another Life, is due out May 14 via Blue Élan Records. McLean wrote much of the set as a reflection on a childhood marked by frequent mental and emotional abuse that continued into young adulthood, oftentimes causing her to question her own reality and sense of self-worth, and the idea of alternate or parallel lives serves as a throughline. She channels her healing process and the rebuilding of her individual identity through laid-back ’80s era synths and airy, often bright, dream-pop sounds helmed with the help of producer John Agnello (Dinosaur Jr, Kurt Vile, Waxahatchee).
Jackie McLean is one-half of the New York indie pop duo Roan Yellowthorn; Alex Cameron is the New York-based, Sydney-bred, often high-concept rock artist. Jackie recently wrote a song about Alex called “Stranger,” and though she’d never met him, emailed it to him on a whim — they then struck up a friendship, which they talk about here, among much, much more.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music
Alex Cameron: So I’m in my studio.
Jackie McLean: I like it.
Alex: And you’re upstate?
Jackie: Yeah, we’re very upstate. Like, close to Canada.
Alex: How close to Canada?
Jackie: Did you hear about when the inmates escaped from a prison a couple years ago?
Alex: Did they do a show about it?
Jackie: Yeah. That was here.
Alex: No shit. I really liked that show. You know, you can drive around Brooklyn and all of a sudden find yourself one second driving down an neighborhood street and the next you’re driving next to a prison. I don’t know how we manage to do it — to compartmentalize it — right this minute there is someone with the exact same degree of consciousness as me who is sitting in the cell.
Jackie: I know it. With the prison thing here, we had just moved here when the two prisoners escaped so there was a manhunt going on where everyone was trying to catch them. And it was so weird — they captured one of the guys that escaped, and there was a picture on the front page of the paper. I almost wanted to write a song about it because it was so chilling how the police officers around this guy, their body language, it looked as if they’d just hunted down an animal and they were happy about having gotten a trophy. But it’s a human being that’s just on the ground handcuffed. It was very disturbing.
Alex: That’s an interesting thing to bring up — the idea of writing songs based on events that, for whatever reason, symbolize or represent a broader meaning. I’ve always felt that it’s kind of an impossible task to write a broad song. Like, to write a song about the prison system and the idea of freedom versus incarceration. I think the only way to access that subject would be to pick a very specific story to tell and let the listener decide what it’s about. Because you could write a song where the lyrics are literally just like, “There are too many people in prison”—
Jackie: But that becomes like a lecture if you take that approach.
Alex: There’s that risk as well. But it’s also just very inaccessible. A song about world hunger isn’t as effective as a song about a person and their day to day life in an area that happens to be affected by poverty and starvation. I always felt like that was a big discovery for me when I was writing songs, that if I want to access big meanings then it’s going to require a certain degree of knowledge and understanding about the specific details. You know?
Jackie: Completely. I feel like, as I’ve progressed with my own writing, I’ve found that literally the more specific I can get about something, the more universal the message becomes.
Alex: For sure. I feel like that should be something everyone should be aware of when they start to write a song. It’s one of the basic fundamentals that it took me a while to get a hold of. There’s also writing from my own perspective which, I think if I’m just going to write a song about how I’m feeling today, that ends up being way too broad because everyone’s had that experience. There’s no experience that I could have emotionally that isn’t shared. In a sense it’s kind of like joke-writing because you have to find a way to say something that everyone has felt but hasn’t necessarily put into words before to get a really effective lyric. Similar to a punchline.
Jackie: Totally. I find that you have to be able to distill what you’re trying to say in the most essential terms. Really get to the core of what you mean.
Alex: Yes. That’s another thing. When I’m writing my songs at the moment, instead of worrying about whether or not a song has enough lyrical content, I’m now focusing more on, Is there anything left to say? As opposed to, I need to fill up this much space. If there’s nothing left to say and it’s just a one line song, then that’s the best case scenario.
Jackie: Yes. The Beatles is a really obvious example but there are so many songs where there’s such a simple lyrical concept but it’s so effective because, like you’re saying, there’s nothing else left to say. They’re saying what needs to be said to get the thing across and it doesn’t need to be filled up with a lot of extra things.
Alex: Totally. You know Andy Kaufman, the comedian? I think he used to have a show called The Andy Kaufman Show, which was like a variety show with sketches and live performances. He has a song that he sings — I think it’s called “I Trusted You,” and he just says “I trusted you” over and over and over again. It’s a joke — it’s a comedy song — but it’s also really fucking effective because he just is saying “I trusted you” over and over again. He doesn’t have to say anything else. And he gets more and more emotional as he keeps repeating this line. To me, that’s almost the perfect song because I get it straight away.
Jackie: Right. And he was able to distill that experience into those three powerful words.
Alex: You could read into it and say that the joke is that there are so many songs about heartbreak that there’s nothing really left to be said about it. It’s quite amazing. I would love to do a song with just one line.
Jackie: Another thing — something that you do really well, that I try to do in lyric writing, is to make the lyrics conversational. Like, don’t write any lyric that you wouldn’t actually say.
Alex: I feel physically uncomfortable when I hear songwriters using cliches that already exist—
Jackie: Oh, yeah, or if you put in a word that you wouldn’t say normally in conversation to make it rhyme or something.
Alex: Yeah. In that example, I would always sacrifice a rhyme in order to keep the meaning. I couldn’t give a fuck about rhymes. Rhyming is immediately impressive when you listen to it — that’s why I think the most popular music is rapping. It has a lot to do with how skillful you can be. They literally call it “rhyming”’ And I’m all ears when I’m listening to hip hop music, because the lyrics are always insanely good — I think one of the strong things about rap music and hip hop is that it’s all colloquial. This might sound insane, but I actually think there’s a similarity between the way that rap music uses colloquial terms and Australian culture, because Australian culture is all about nicknames and inventing your own cliches and rhyming slang.
Jackie: Really? I didn’t know that.
Alex: Yeah. It’s massive. It’s actually quite classic. Australia kind of has moved away from it but if you’ve got an older friend or you’re close to your parents, you can get a real idea into how colloquial Australian language can be.
Jackie: Kind of like Cockney?
Alex: Yes, definitely, like Cockney. It’s funny, that idea of not wanting — I guess it’s a little bit of a game — I kind of don’t want to reveal what I mean. I want it to be clear what I mean, but I also want to mask it in a way. So I need to appear in my songwriting like I’m denying something. And I need to be burying what I’m actually saying under this mound of words — excuses and veiled apologies and threats and bravado and, I guess, denial so that it eventually becomes clear what I’m saying.
Jackie: Like an unreliable narrator.
Alex: Exactly right. I remember when I first started writing songs, a friend of mine sent me the Wikipedia link to the unreliable narrator and said, “This is what you’re doing.”
Jackie: And then the reader or listener has to discern for themselves what the truth is underneath.
Alex: Yes. It’s very fun. It’s definitely how I would say I keep myself entertained — the layering. And the best part about it is I’m not trying to be esoteric or clever. I’m just trying to be very delicate about what the song means.
Jackie: It adds another layer.
Alex: Right. I guess the goal would be somewhat to create a piece of music you’re able to listen to multiple times. For whatever reason.
Jackie: I don’t know if this relates but I love songs like “Missin’ You” by John Waite. I love that — where the person is denying something and, in denying it, they’re revealing that it’s even more powerful than it would be if they said, “I am missing you.”
Alex: Totally. I often try to fix songs in my head — based only on my own standards — but that song by Enrique Inglasias, “I Can Be Your Hero,” would be so much better if it was “I Can’t Be Your Hero.”
Jackie: Dude. It would hurt so much more.
Alex: Wouldn’t it? ‘I can’t be your hero. I can’t take away your pain. I can’t stand with you forever. But you can take my breath away.’
Jackie: You should do a cover where you change it! It’s so much better.
Alex: Whenever I come across a pop song I’m like, That’s so close.
Jackie: They almost got it.
Alex: It’s a smash hit, but in my eyes… But I think that anyone who’s worked on my music, on the industry side, would tell me that I’m constantly making the wrong decisions.
Jackie: Like in what way?
Alex: By maybe taking a certain perspective and going too far with it. Making it unpalatable, traditionally. Making it unplayable on radio. Because I rely so heavily on colloquial language, it often involves curse words. Songwriting is actually so conservative, it’s so puritan. People have a certain standard — “You cannot say that in a song.” You could write it in a book, or someone in a movie could say it, but you can’t say it in a song. It seems so silly that in the indie world — which is dominated by white men — that we would have this under-the-table, not-spoken-about agreement that we’re also not going to write about anything challenging. It just seems really strange that the indie world would have this kind of system in place where nothing gets said at all.
Jackie: Those rules are meant to be broken.
Alex: Yeah. It’s strange because I would think that in this day and age, we’d be really excited to fuck with the form of things and what’s acceptable and what isn’t. I don’t think I’m a fringe artist, but every so often I’ll have a meeting with people in the industry and I’ll realize that I’m considered one.
Jackie: I think that that’s part of what makes your music interesting, that it’s not exactly following the prescribed rules.
Alex: Here’s an interesting question: You’re a woman who’s releasing music in an industry that’s dominated classically by people like me — you know, just white dudes who have every fucking opportunity in the world to do whatever they want. Do you find me talking about that kind of stuff a little rich? Like, “Who is this fucking guy to say that there’s a problem in the industry? He can go on stage and blurt out the most boring horseshit and still fill up a room.” What’s the experience like to be writing songs in a male-dominated industry? Do you think about that kind of thing?
Jackie: No, I don’t think about it. To your point about the industry being kind of puritanical, I think that it’s probably usually the case that it’s the artist themselves that push against those boundaries and end up breaking through, probably without the consent of whoever they’re working with,and people like that.
But I think that for me, writing songs, it’s scary probably whether or not you’re a woman to just be extremely honest and vulnerable in what you’re writing. I read this quote a few years ago. It’s something about like, “What would happen if a woman told the truth of her experience? The world would break open.” And I just try. Even though it’s kind of scary sometimes, I really try to be as honest with myself — and, in turn, as honest in my music and in my lyrics — as I can possibly be. I feel like, ultimately, it helps to create connections even though it’s a little bit frightening.
Alex: Yeah. That moment between expressing something and waiting to see if it’s connected. It can actually be a while, that time in between those two moments. When you’re thinking about putting out music, do you have optimism?
Jackie: I feel like it’s such an emotional rollercoaster. Some moments I’m imagining that whatever I put out is going to be the most successful thing to ever hit the airwaves — it’s just going to be a sensation and everyone’s just not even going to believe their ears. And then I’m like, Oh, my god, no one’s going to even fucking care and it’s going to be crushing. I really oscillate between these manic poles of intense depression and then feeling so sure of everything. How about you? Do you have that experience?
Alex: I think earlier on I was really switched on to what the response was. I kind of trained myself to really let the response — by radio and people commenting — be the wall I was bouncing off. I guess it comes and goes. I think I’m at my best as a person when I don’t care. I’m at my best as a songwriter when I’m not thinking about that. I have a few little mantras that have happened. One is just, “Service the song.” The song is the priority here, and not how I feel.
I had a friend named Steve Ostrow — he’s an old Brooklyn guy, an opera singer; I used to go hang out with him in his flat in Elizabeth Bay in Sydney. He used to say that, when you’re on stage, it can’t be about how you feel. Because you’re gonna do 200 shows a year and no one is gonna be able to guarantee that 200 times out of 200 you’re gonna be in the perfect place — physically, mentally, emotionally — to play the show. So no show can be about how you feel. All of it has to be about the audience. That’s a real old school take on performance, but the message is to know your audience. But also, you know, do the job well, and good things will happen because of it. He told me that years and years ago, and I really took it onboard.
I try to bring that same idea to songwriting. I’m not gonna feel good every time I step in the studio, and every time in the studio is not going to feel like fireworks. But the song can. I can remove myself from the equation and just be the conduit for the song. How do you feel about getting to a head space where, instead of feeling as though you created and wrote a song, it was more about that you discovered it?
Jackie: Well, it does feel like that sometimes. Maybe you’ve had this experience but sometimes you’re trying to write a song and you just try so hard to get it and it doesn’t work. You try and try and keep coming back to it and it’s just not working. And then sometimes you sit down and a fully formed song just comes out immediately. And I feel like, in those moments, it really does feel like you’re just an empty vessel that the song’s coming through.
Alex: I’d like it to be like that every time.
Jackie: That would be great.
Alex: I think of songwriting as almost like an old school gold rush. You have a plot of land, which is your idea, and then you’re just searching, hoping to find the song. And if you find the song, you have the rights to it. Because you bought the land.
Jackie: That’s interesting, because I have an image in my mind that I always think of, which is kind of similar, where you have an antennae on your head and you just have to find that frequency. And then, once you tap into that frequency, you get that song. Once you find that right place.
Alex: Exactly. Exactly. I think that, when I shifted that perspective, instead of putting all the pressure on me to write the song, it’s much more about, Well, as long as you’re digging. It’s either there or it’s not. And it’s up to me when I want to stop digging and go to another place and start digging there.
Jackie: There is that element for sure.
Alex: So I’ll ask you first: Where did you first hear my music? I don’t mean to suggest that the moment you first heard it was so significant.
Jackie: It was, though. It really was. It was definitely significant. I’m trying to remember what led me to it — I think it was through Angel Olsen. Shawn, my partner, is always discovering new musicians. He has that kind of personality. And I’m the kind of person, I just listen to the same four people over and over.
Alex: I’m like that. I’m not very good at discovering.
Jackie: Yeah. I don’t do that ever, really. So I think I was feeling competitive with him. And I wanted to try to discover somebody. So I started watching some Tiny Desk concerts and I heard Angel Olsen and really liked her. And then I think I looked her up and you guys had the same manager, right?
Alex: We used to, yeah.
Jackie: Yeah. So then I saw you, and I was very intrigued because it looked like you had old person makeup on or something. I was like, What’s up with his skin? What’s going on? So then I started looking up your music and the first thing I heard was “Stranger’s Kiss.” And then I was just, mind blown.
Alex: Yeah, right.
Jackie: I was. And I told you this, but I played it for my daughter Rosa, because she’s my little buddy. I was like, “You’re going to love this song so much. You’re going to love this guy, Alex Cameron, he is so cool.” And she just became obsessed. That was, like, three years ago, at least, and she’s so obsessed.
Alex: What do you think she likes about it?
Jackie: She loves everything. If someone asks her who her favorite artist is, she says Alex Cameron. If someone asks her favorite song she says “Stranger’s Kiss,” immediately. She’s not even seven yet. She’s six.
Alex: That’s crazy. Because I loved music — as soon as it was available, as a kid, it was my biggest love straight away. I had my favorite TV shows and my favorite movies and my favorite toys, but music was the thing that was the magical thing, from the age of five or earlier. So I’m always very interested if I hear that a young child is into music because I was like that.
Jackie: I think part of why she loved it so much is because I loved it so much. I wanted to watch that video over and over with her because it was just so — it really struck me, emotionally. The whole concept — the video, the lyrics, the singing, your character. Everything about it was just very evocative and also different. And also just the music, itself, I really loved. Everything about it.
Alex: The video that Jemima [Kirke] did is insanely good.
Jackie: I love the video. It’s so beautiful.
Alex: She fucking nailed it.
Jackie: The emotion in it.
Alex: The way it’s shot and Jemima’s performance. Ashley Connor was the DP. The look that they got with the film and the costume. And Jemima’s character. I watch it now and I’m like, God, I can’t believe it. I couldn’t claim the video. I watch it like it’s someone else’s work. That’s probably the one that I can be like, Holy fuck, that’s good.
Jackie: I love it. It’s amazing. The video’s amazing. I think my daughter also is really drawn to your physicality. The way you move in the videos. And just the whole character.
Alex: I would like to get better at dancing. Or maybe just dance more. I’m very serious about my dancing. I know you’re taking it for what it is. But some people think it’s a joke. Or that I’m doing a thing, just to get a reaction. And I’d like to get good enough where people don’t look at it like, what a silly person.
Jackie: But it is good. Because it’s unique. It’s yours.
Alex: It will be a lot better.
Jackie: Don’t change it.
Alex: That kind of brings us to where I first heard your music. The reason that it brings us to it is because you sent me an email.
Jackie: In the dark. I saw your email address on your Facebook page and I just had this idea. I was like, I really want him to hear it. I really wanted you to hear it. And I didn’t even expect you to receive it. I didn’t know if that email address would actually go to you.
Alex: Well, I’ve since taken it down, because I kept getting spam. Not because people were writing to me, but because there’s a fucking software.
Jackie: Did people write to you, though? Did you get a lot of emails from that?
Alex: It depends. If there’s an album out, yeah. But if we’re off cycle, it quiets down. But not too much. I think, generally, people don’t want to communicate with strangers all that much. I’m not very good at listening to music that people send me, either. Because usually it’s often just unfinished ideas that people are like, “What do you think this needs?” And I’m like, I don’t know. I don’t know what my song needs.
I guess it was the way you worded it. It was a nice email to read. And I was in a place where I was like, I want to listen to some music. And probably because I was in a lot of pain at the time. I was very sad, for no specific reason. Just life. And I fucking cried when I first heard your music. I was outside in the rain in Wales. In Cardiff. It was night. And I had my little headphones in. And I just wept. That song is so beautiful. Not at all because it’s — you know, once you dig into it and break it down you can figure out what it’s about. But I just love the melody. I love songs that have this hint of a folk nature to it. I feel like that song could be sung with different lyrics in 50 years. It has this really classic, lasting quality to it. It feels like it could be in a songbook of folk songs in a hundred years. It’s just so good. And it’s got such a good singalong quality. It’s really good to sing along with. That’s the best kind of song, where I could imagine a lot of people singing it together in a room just for the fun of it.
Jackie: That’s so nice.
Alex: When did you write it?
Jackie: I was writing music for my album, which is coming out now-ish. So I guess I wrote it two summers ago. I hadn’t really had the experience before of just setting aside a week or two and just writing every day with the goal of writing an album. Before, it had always been kind of scattered and in pieces. But that summer I had the intention of writing an album and I put aside a few weeks and every day I would just write. The whole time, in the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to write a portrait. A song portrait.
Alex: That’s a good angle.
Jackie: And, again, like what we were talking about, I wanted to write a very specific portrait. And your music, and just your physicality, and the idea of you as an artist was just such a big part of my consciousness and my everyday life just because I was listening to that song and a lot of your music so much and watching your videos and everything. It was one of those situations where I was the vessel for that song. That was a really easy song to write. I just tapped in and it all flowed out — the melody and the words and everything. It came together as if I was supposed to write it, you know?
Alex: So nice. I don’t know how many of those we get in a fuckin’ lifetime. The ones that flow so sweetly.
Jackie: I really wanted it to be a tribute to your art. I wanted to layer in a lot of references to things that you had done — different videos and different songs. And even calling it “Stranger” is an homage to “Stranger’s Kiss.”
Alex: Yeah, totally. Did you think about the song “Stranger’s Kiss” in the structuring or the rhythm or anything like that?
Jackie: I feel like I’m very much visual, so I definitely meditated on images from the video. And other images to be inspired to write. I was thinking a lot about scenes from the video to get things flowing.
Alex: It’s so special. It’s really special. I can’t wait for everyone to hear it.
Jackie: But when you answered — that for me was a whole other layer.
Alex: That becomes really meta.
Jackie: It did. But I think, similarly to how you were feeling sad and it gave you some sort of feeling to hear the song, I was feeling very sad also when you emailed me. I was feeling really discouraged and really down and questioning if it’s even worth it to do any of this — if anyone will even hear any of it, if anyone will even care. And then seeing your email was so fortifying.
Alex: One thing I think about a lot is how competitive the music business is. And how we’re sort of encouraged to be very, you know, these are my listeners, these are my stats, and these are my ticket sales and anyone who comes along is an enemy because they might take my potential ideas and my potential worlds that I’m building. And I really want to fight against that because there’s such a gaping lack of community in the indie songwriting world.
Jackie: And indie songwriters are depressed. And they need community.
Alex: Well, I’d love to take you on the road. As soon as we can do proper headline shows, we should get on the road.
Jackie: That would be sick.
Alex: Yeah. We’ll do it.
(Photo Credit: left, Patrisha McLean; right, Chris Rhodes)