In this world, there are many sirens who specialize in a genre. There are the Pop girls and the Country girls; the Punk girls and the Blues girls; the Hip-Hop girls and the Disco girls. And then, there is one girl who is like them all, yet all together different: our October cover star Jesse Jo Stark, the soulful and sensual rocker chick who, as you’ll discover in her recently released album “Doomed,” really does it all.
And with Cher as godmother and the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones as honorary “uncle” to Stark, it’s no wonder rock-&-roll rolls deep in her DNA. Even still, she refuses to put herself in any kind of box, preferring instead to spread around her talent for the sake of her audience, defying genres right and left.
Typically a more closed off artist, “Doomed” unlocks a door and invites us into a vivid world that Stark has completely made her own. Her passions, like classic horror cinema and the music greats of the past, are heard and seen, in both the music and the visual direction of the album cover and music videos, with nods to classic imagery and mythology everywhere. She tells newcomers they, “probably won’t understand it,” which is almost like an incentive from her to check out your next obsession.
“Doomed,” which dropped at the end of September, gives listeners the singer-songwriter’s truest and most unique sounds to date. As an independent creator, she utilizes her freedom as an avenue for beautiful experimentation, weaving together the sounds of punk, pop, and glam rock, along with a myriad of tastes in between. ”Doomed” offers a genuine sound for every taste, plating a way for listeners both veteran and new to find something tasty to devour from Ms. Stark’s gorgeously macabre buffet.
Some of our favorite tracks include “patterns” and “pussycat,” which in ways perfectly highlight the juxtaposition of vibes in “Doomed.” The former can be expected to be blasted at full volume in your car driving down the highway as you’re screaming at your lover on the phone… whereas the latter is what you listen to as you dance the night away with your best friends and you forget whatever pissed you off on the way there. The stark—no pun intended—differences between these songs resonate with the emotional rollercoaster you’ll ride as you listen to the album’s eleven riveting tracks.
And beyond “Doomed,” Stark has been keeping busy. Last year, she starred in, and composed original music for the soundtrack of, “FRACTURED,” a scripted drama series on England’s Channel 4 that doubled as Balmain’s AW21 campaign, alongside Tommy Dorfman and Charles Melton. In the last few years, she has headed a Los Angeles residency and opened for the likes of Lizzo, Doja Cat, Franz Ferdinand, Guns N’ Roses, Jane’s Addiction, Sunflower Bean, The Heavy & The Vaccines—each one a nod to Stark’s musical versatility. And with Chrome Hearts, her family’s storied design house, she’s created custom pieces for stars like Rihanna and Orville Peck, all while running her own clothing line Deadly Doll, named after her 2017 track of the same name.
Now collaborating with The Neighbourhood’s Jesse Rutherford for his first producing project, as well as iconic illustrator Greg Hildebrandt for the record art of “Doomed,” Stark has delivered one of the best albums of 2022. And in this cover series, the dark princess is captured in a variety of evocative and new ways, all by hot-take photographer Bryce Anderson, with makeup by the talented Sam Visser and hair by the lovely Iggy Rosales.
Jesse Jo Stark meets with LADYGUNN via Zoom from her home to talk about how her designer parents influenced her upbringing, how she watches “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” every day like a “full psycho,” and how her sense of duality pumps throughout the entirety of “Doomed.”
The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
Hello Jesse! Let’s start by going all the way back to the beginning. You wrote your first song when you were only seven years old. What do you think was your calling to a career in music?
I think we try things as we grow and we decide what we like. At one point, I thought I was going to be a professional ballerina, and then a horseback rider. I remember the first day I wrote a song, which is strange because I don’t remember much from when I was little, but I left school and I was in the saddest mood because this boy didn’t like me — typical. I ran home to my vocal coach and I remember writing this really short song called, “My Heart’s on Fire.” I remember feeling so powerful at such a young age being able to express myself through something so simple. They were pretty juvenile words, but it made me feel so strong; I wanted to feel that again and I just loved being in the studio and experimenting. I just felt like I wanted to do that all the time and it kind of grew from there. I followed my gut which told me that I needed to do it in order to survive.
Your sound emanates this macabre bad bitch energy, I can’t think of anyone else doing it like you. You effortlessly weave between punk and rock and country and more. How did you develop your taste?
I think it has a lot to do with my dad playing so many different types of music on the way to school. I remember listening to The Clash, Mötley Crüe, Britney Spears, Merle Haggard — it was kind of annoying because I was like, “This is my dad’s music, I don’t know any of this,” but it really stuck with me and heavily influenced my taste. Also, at different points in my life — I remember listening to punk when I turned 13 and I was in my angry stage and this boy that I loved was wearing these studded belts, it just resonated with me. My taste was just constantly evolving. I always gravitate towards the truth and something that’s more natural rather than produced. I constantly thank my dad for playing me so many different things from David Bowie to Cher.
For someone who hasn’t heard your music, how would you try to give it an elevator pitch?
Oh god, knowing me, I’d be like, “You probably won’t understand it. I don’t know if you’ll dig it. It’s like horrific hillbilly. It’s on Spotify, look it up. Come to a show.” I wouldn’t try to sell it, so that would be my pitch [laughs].
Before we dive into “Doomed,” I think it’s worth highlighting Chrome Hearts, the iconic brand founded by your parents. What role did this have on you growing up?
I remember always being at work with them as they were just starting off trying to grow their business. They had creatives around them and were constantly surrounded by these super eccentric people. I was always begging my dad to bring me to work, despite him going in at 4am until midnight. They were always making things and touching things. During the making of “Doomed,” I watched a lot of home videos, because I wanted to reconnect with myself as a little girl, and I saw myself playing in the factory and my mom telling my dad, “I’m just going to put this silver on her real quick and I’ll take it right off, it’s just for a photo!” It’s so grounding to me, because their company is operated at a higher scale now and, at the time, they really only had what my mom was putting on my body. They just really influenced my work ethic. Throughout my whole life, I’ve always wanted them to be proud of what I’ve created for myself. It was intimidating being around them and wondering how I was going to prove myself as an individual. They are my best friends. They have always allowed me to mess up and given me the platform to try. They embrace the youth. Icons.
Okay, enter “Doomed.” When I first listened to this in full, it was as though I caught you on 11 different days, each day embodying a drastically different mood than the day before it. It’s cliché, but true — there’s a song for every single mood. Thematically when you started writing, did you expect it to pan out this way?
I didn’t! You know, at one point I was like, “hell, we need a dance song.” So everyone would kind of acknowledge that and move on. Then Jesse a couple days later would creep in and look at me all mysterious and be like, “Okay, we got it.” We’d vamp from there and that’s how we got “pussycat.” I love that you say that, because I really feel like the album takes me through a moody day. I don’t believe you wake up in one mood and go to bed in the same one — there’s just no fucking way for me, I’m very moody. “Doomed” feels like that kind of expression and release for me. I wanted it all to feel very organic and, luckily, when you make an album you go through so much shit so there’s a song for everything.
It’s funny you mention “pussycat,” because you compare it to a song like “patterns,” which is so drastically different, but somehow, it all still feels cohesive. How do you think you were able to put all these songs under the same roof and make them all still feel familial?
That’s the benefit of being an independent artist and not really caring what you’re doing. I never stretch to sound like one thing, I don’t think that’s what I have to offer. I’m influenced by so many types of sound. I really left fear out of the equation with this and wanted to try new sounds, like using 808s. I didn’t question every move and I trusted the people that I was working with. I was able to express myself in a way that was like, “I’m going to come in here and I’m going to write this song ‘patterns’ in ten minutes because I’m pissed off at my guitar player,” then challenge myself by writing “pussycat,” which has Blondie and Cher influences in there. I wanted to take on different characters for every song that, all the while, are very me. Time was also the beauty of it all for me — not rushing into an album kept me at ease and allowed me to experiment.
The album is quite cinematic, almost like a noir. At times, I felt like I was in a world reminiscent of David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.” I was curious, whether movies/shows/books, did you draw inspiration from anything specific?
I love old films. I watch “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” like a full psycho every single day it’s on in my house. My friends won’t even come over anymore [laughs]. I grew up watching these really old films. I’m very visual — I love comics, old Italian illustrators, and I drew inspiration from a lot of different sources of art, specifically timeless art, as I don’t really love a lot of the stuff that comes out now. I dug deep into my archives, from old comics to old horror films, like Tim Burton and Rob Zombie.
You have noted that this album is all about the duality of life. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
It’s so interesting, like, I’ve always waited until the last minute to do my homework. This album was so interesting to me, because I’ve never created an album. I kind of sat down at one point and was like, “Woah, this is a project. What does this mean to me?” Everything happened organically. I was battling what I wanted to present myself as as a whole, like, I have this glam side to me, and I also have this beachy, chill, no shoes vibe. The juxtaposition of that was so intriguing to me and I wanted to implement that with songs and visuals. Duality heavily feeds into the album’s artwork where you see me as both characters, the angel and the demon pulling themselves in different directions like light and dark, heaven and hell. That sat heavily on me — I was just like, “I am both.” We all are. People have so many different sides to them and I think that rather than fearing that, it’s really beautiful to acknowledge that you have more than one thing to offer and to play with both sides of yourself and feed into those fantasies. You see that in my music videos too — “lipstick” is high glam with these Madonna references, and “so bad” is sort of like this niche, chill, cool girl, horror b-side.
The album cover is actual art. Who did this?
Greg Hildebrandt… though I was familiar with Greg’s art I wasn’t exactly sure I could reach him or if he had time to work on this with me but I knew I had to try. Greg works with acrylics and light so the entirety of the project was delicate. Our conversations consisted of things like “do you want lava and if so how much…or tail or no tail?” and so on. It blows my mind that someone can start by painting a canvas black and then turn it into this entirely different world. The artwork was the last piece to come from “Doomed” and it completed it.
Speaking of duality, let’s talk about the duality of the two Jesses, aka you and Jesse Rutherford. What was it like working with him and what did he help bring to the album?
Jesse brought everything. We met at a time in our lives where we both were searching for something. Our friendship evolved and we had to work hard at it. Like, we’re both artists, we’re both shy, we both didn’t like each other off the bat — well we did, but we didn’t know what the relationship was. When we first wrote together, it really set the tone of what I wanted the rest of the album to sound like. We both challenged each other in sound. It’s the first album he’s ever produced. He was also experimenting in a way, because you have to step down from your artist position to inspire this other artist and have a bit of selflessness. When writing with him, I think he saw me in a way that was easier for me, because he could look at me and pull words and sounds out of me that I was really intimidated by. We fought and we loved and it was one of the most beautiful experiences. He is so talented. Between him and I, and my engineer Michael, and my guitarist Thomas, it was like a family and I think you can hear that in the music. I don’t think “Doomed” would have existed if we weren’t all together.
Do you think that there’s a chance of reuniting with him, whether on his solo career or with The Neighbourhood?
We’re bonded forever. I don’t think it’s a choice — once I love someone, that’s it. We’re definitely going to have to do more things together.
Now that the album is out into the world, what has it been like finally being able to enjoy it with everyone?
It’s just hitting. I’ve never even had billboards before; this is all so exciting! Someone just sent me a video of them listening to vinyl and that’s so weird and cool and amazing. It’s just beautiful to see your art come to live and be in the world and see how people react and make it their own. It’s so daunting, like, the day you release something you think it’s the end, but it’s really just the beginning. Once it’s out in the world, it’s not completely yours anymore and I’m just really excited.
As you brace for sold out shows in London, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn this month, how has it been prepping for it all?
Haven’t played in a while, because of COVID. It’s been really grounding to be back with my band. Something was missing in my life and I hadn’t even realized it. When I played my show in London, everyone already knew the words and it was so emotional. I love that art brings people together, in spite of the chaos we find ourselves surrounded by… and I’m really grateful to be able to do what I love.
Photos / Bryce Anderson
Makeup / Sam Visser
Hair / Iggy Rosales
Styling / Jesse Jo Stark
Producer / Mara Weinstein
Wardrobe Assistant / Hunter Escobedo
Story / Vincent Perella
Cover Design / Pearl Zhang
Editorial Director / Alex Blynn