Photographer Dana Trippe

Music

Jesse Jo Stark: The Star Rock Deserves

Nothing gets Jesse Jo Stark fired up quite like the idea that the rock genre is lost forever. “It pisses me off. It’s bullshit,” the cool and confident 23-year-old says in nothing more than a black lace bra and Levi’s.

The phrase “rock is dead” has decorated headlines for two years now, supported by Billboard Hot 100 charts that favor digitized beats, loops and Auto-Tuned voices. There is no denying that Paul McCartney is a softer version of himself, and Gene Simmons is better known as a licensing powerhouse that a vocal one. I imagine it would be a rarity to find kids today, even those who wear their reproduced band t-shirts, who could name even one Sex Pistols song. And the majority of current “rock” bands who have been deemed successful by mainstream standards are a whimpering version of the salacious, raucous days of Led Zeppelin and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.

Stark’s music, however, doesn’t cower to the supposed ghosts of rock’s past. The songs—which she playfully calls "horror hillbilly"—that have trickled out over the past two years tap on ‘70s goddesses like Stevie Nicks and Patti Smith, but she twists her inspiration into her own time and time again. On her recently released debut EP, Dandelion, Stark jumps from vulnerable ballad “Monster Man” to the upbeat, witty “Breakfast and Lou” before going full rock vixen for “Love Is in the Air”—all with a back-up band instead of synths (again, an oddity in 2018).
And even though Dandelion was only released in June, she isn’t taking a day off quite yet. Today, she presents the world with "Wish I Was Dead" and "Rot Away," another side of Stark’s range that leans a bit more unhinged. “Rot Away,” specifically, features Stark repeatedly howling, “Please rot away with me” in between an explosive, trembling guitar and spiraling percussion—a sort of haunted version of Pat Benatar.

Her most recent releases, an even darker version of Stark, match her now-signature vampy stage persona. On stage, she undulates side to side in animal print or solid bold metallic and teeters on dramatic platforms. She holds the mic like a potential lover, close but not too close. Her songs come with come hither gesticulations and hip dips. “If anything lately, I feel like the vixen part of me has been coming out a little bit more,” she says. “I’m really infatuated with everything old, but I really respect the time we live in. I try to incorporate the two.”

When I ask Stark to elaborate on her “respect for the time we live in,” she calls out Britney Spears. She loved Spears growing up and still appreciates her, but as an adult she's come to terms with the lack of control the pop star had over her image during her peak. “This,” she looks down at herself. “This is how I feel good, and this is what I want to show. I think we’re fortunate now…we can be our true selves a bit more now, because of the self-releases and Spotify and the like.” As a rising name—with paparazzi that naturally follow her and her best friend Bella Hadid—Stark's brand is in-demand. But when she meets up with any potential collaborators, the creative relationship tends to stop before it starts because they "constantly" hope to turn her into something she is not. "Our world is going to turn into a heartless vortex of just the same saturated shit if we don't do anything about it."
Our world is going to turn into a heartless vortex of just the same saturated shit if we don't do anything about it.
Such a fearlessness comes with a lifelong support system—teachers, family and friends—most could only dream up. Her love for music began with the influence of her godmother, Cher, and parents Richard Stark and Laurie Lynn Stark, who co-founded the goth-tinged fashion label Chrome Hearts. Beyond the Goddess of Pop, Steve Jones (Sex Pistols) and Duff McKagan (Guns N’ Roses) often hung out at the Stark family home when she was growing up. “They were always playing. There were a ton of rock stars around before they were rockstars, and I was just kind of watching them.” She recalls hearing an assortment of The Clash, Brian Eno, country and psychedelia. “I really want my music to be an ode to what I grew up on, you know—blues, country, rock.”

“When I was 10, I wrote a song called ‘My Heart’s On Fire,’ and it already had this rock element.” Having such a pedigree can seem like a blessing—like an advantage over the competition. And there is an advantage. Her work with Chrome Hearts, her friendships with her A-list neighbors, and her inherited style is why she has pulled in hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers. But such a background, and so many eyes paying attention to her every upload, also increases pressure unlike any work she's done with her family. “When I’m creating with my music—it’s my project. It’s my baby. Chrome Hearts is what I know, but music is my heart, and I have to do it. You’re having to get across what you want to say in one song, and when you put that song out, it's out forever. Music is—I’m just on my own.”
Yet, even with her background, Stark couldn’t fathom she would be where she is now. McKagan, for instance, helped guide her when she was forming her first musical iteration at age 13, but now she's just returned from an international stadium tour with his legendary band. “That was crazy!” She continues, “When I walked out [for the first show in Prague], I was horrified. I was just like, ‘There’s thousands of human beings here. They don’t speak English, and they definitely don’t want to see me, but let’s go.’” It’s her tours in support of bands like Jane's Addiction, Guns N’ Roses, The Heavy, The Vaccines (next month across the U.S.) and Sunflower Bean (for a second time across the U.K. later this year) that introduces new people to her music.

And the way she's rolling out new music also lends itself to fan recruitment as well. In lieu of the more traditional roll-out plan that starts with an EP followed by a full-length album, Stark will continue to present one or two new songs every so often...because she can. "I don't think there should be rules, personally, especially now." The slow and steady process of popping out one song every few weeks, without the restraints of a record label, gives her the opportunity to reintroduce herself to her loyal following and push herself in front of a new audience.

“I want to have the opportunity to engage more and build my audience. I'm doing a lot of support acts right now, so I’d love to do a headline tour. “ And despite the rock haters, “I’m really happy and with where I’m at today, and I hope that has longevity in it.”

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