A CHILDHOOD growing up in the mid-north coast holiday town of Forster sounds idyllic. And the first 14 years of Holly Rankin’s life followed that classic Australian script.
There were long summer days spent swimming at nearby One Mile Beach or exploring Wallis Island and Diamond Beach. If the weather was poor Rankin could always turn to her piano, violin, trombone or guitar for entertainment.
Yet Rankin’s innocence was shattered at 14 by the death of her 11-year-old sister Shannon in a freak spa accident.
Shannon drowned on March 25, 2006, after she was sucked to the bottom of a spa in the Sevan Apartments in Forster. A coroner later found the spa was faulty due to a blockage in a drain, which caused Shannon to be pinned to the bottom with 350 kilograms of force.
In her grief Rankin turned to her beloved diary, which she had written in since she was five or six. Slowly the diary entries became songs as the broken teenager increasingly turned to music and began her transformation into Jack River.
“When she passed away it just turned into music,” Rankin says. “Music just flowed out of me as it was my way of dealing with emotion.”
On Friday Jack River released her debut album Sugar Mountain, named after a song penned by Rankin’s idol Neil Young.
It’s been a decade-long gestation for the album. Some tracks like So High and Stardust and Rust date back to her teens.
Surprisingly, despite the trauma her family experienced, many of the songs Rankin, 26, has written for Jack River are rooted in the sparkly pop-rock of the late ’90s and early 2000s. It’s classic high school prom material.
But many of the lyrics suggest a darker emotion at play, like in Limo Song when she sings, “you held that pose like a picture/I never wanted to say goodbye/You were crying in the mirror/I saw your reflection like it was mine.”
In reflection this album became bright and colourful and this vision of youth.Holly Rankin
Confess carries the vibe of Wheatus’ Teenage Dirtbag, while Gwen Stefani’s candied vocal is an obvious influence throughout on tracks like Ballroom and Fault Line.
Rankin says composing these bright and dreamy slices of pop was her method of recapturing that teenage innocence lost and a way to celebrate Shannon’s memory.
“In reflection this album became bright and colourful and this vision of youth,” she says.
“I realised across making it that I didn’t have that youth and it’s this beautiful thing I made instead of enjoying youth and a happy time because my world was in disarray.
“I think the beauty and the pure heart of my sister shines through in my music and the hope and love that she had.”
Just like the songs on Sugar Mountain, Rankin’s ascension to one of Australia’s hottest young songwriters have been long and tedious.
A day after finishing her HSC at Great Lakes College she drove to the Gold Coast to record her first EP with her former band Desire The Horse, whose name was taken from the Leonard Cohen poem The Book Of Longing.
Desire The Horse’s brand of folk-rock and psychedelica failed to find a mainstream audience.
“I was in triple j today doing an interview with Richard Kingsmill and he didn’t know I went in there six years ago and serviced music,” Rankin says. “It’s taken a very long time, but I just kept making music and knocking on doors pretty much.”
The adoption of her teenage “pirate name” Jack River and the release of her synth-drenched single Talk Like That through trendy indie label I Oh You (DMAs, DZ Deathrays, Violent Soho) finally had Rankin off to the races in 2016.
The release of her EP Highway Songs No.2 created further interest from triple j, which eventually led to Jack River being one of the youth station’s most played artists in 2017. Fool’s Gold also clocked in at No.64 on the Hottest 100.
Jack River brings the Sugar Mountain album tour to the Cambridge Hotel on September 26.