Photo Credit: @xingerxanger

Hannah Diviney in conversation with Jack River AKA Holly Rankin

Holly Rankin created her musical persona, Jack River as a way to process the shattering grief of her younger sister’s death. Now a mum herself, Holly is re-evaluating where she sits in the world, and what comes next. 

I’ve sat on both sides of the interview format, as both the person answering and the person asking the questions. But it’s not often I get to do it with someone I count as a dear friend. Holly Rankin, better known to the world as Jack River, blew into my life on a warm breeze in the final weeks and days of her first pregnancy. We clicked, finding a shared language of creativity and social justice. But I’d never before had the opportunity to ask her all the questions that bubbled away inside me as a fan of her music, especially off the back of her funky sunburst of a sophomore record, Endless Summer. Until now. 

My first question? Where did the name ‘Jack River’ come from? The answer was more adorable than I expected; it was born from an inside joke with Holly’s best mates when they were 17, where they made up male pirate names for themselves. 

“So there's John Scarlet, Simon Woodpecker and Jack River, and we'd go out on the town and pretend they were our names and we just felt like badass, invincible women with men's names. Then I didn't know this would become my career, but I was just like how fun would it be to be like invincible, infinite, badass in that like, I don't know, I just imagine like a cowboy in space or like something just really fun.”

When Holly Rankin imagined her future, she thought the path in front of her was one that would head to politics, law or other careers motivated by social impact. But everything changed when her then 11-year-old sister Shannon died in a freak car accident when Holly was 14. Grief stripped her of desire, fear, ambition, sense of place and love. Stumbling through the fog and starting from what she calls her heart’s ‘Ground Zero’ in her late teens and early twenties, Holly found herself at uni, anxious and depressed, crying her way through a politics and philosophy degree.

So she left, turning instead to music. “My body, my brain, my soul needed music to heal and I think I did get to do that through my career as a musician, which meant I could write songs and travel and feel big grief with big crowds and do all this stuff, but also work in politics and social impact. I leaned into music because you can dream magically and it's very organic, there is no set kind of way to make a life.”

And so, Jack River was born. A fearless ethereal dreamer of an artist whose music is a stunning blend of giant soundscapes, vibrant colour and a world thrumming with the nostalgia of a much-needed escape. She sums it up best with a lyric from her song, ‘In Infinity’ off her debut album Sugar Mountain released in 2018: When you lose all of your desire you lose all of your fear and when you lose your fear you're standing on a boat that can go anywhere. 

Some have learned to ask those lost in grief - not what do you hope for, because of course their first wish has become an impossibility, but what else do you hope for? This simple redirection can help open up new options, new life. Holly asked herself: What can I dream up?  What can I give myself? 

It turns out – a lot. Two stunning records. Countless shows. Legions of fans. The chance to heal. To protect Holly while using Jack to cope.

Credit: Laura Smith

At  31, with motherhood and advocacy as fresh strings to her bow , I can tell the need for a coping mechanism isn’t as strong. Holly’s radiance is clear from the smile on her face to the sparkle in her big blue eyes and the calm she emanates even over Zoom,  so I can’t help but ask; where does that leave Jack River?

"Jack River has been a lens through which I’ve communicated and shared for so long. I am excited to share the things that I have been working on alongside my music career for some time now."

Music or creativity of any kind, Holly says, is a career that she thinks needs a lot of therapy attached, whether by yourself or with a professional purely for the fact that everything you do as an artist exists in conversation with the public.  You also have to navigate who you are and your relationship with yourself as well as to the art you make, before it becomes something for the masses to consume and have their own thoughts about. It can be like living a double life, with the two sides of yourself navigating a constant tension. A public profile can never really capture everything about you, and you would never really want it to.

But the relationship between the person you’ve been since before the spotlight, and your public profile is constantly changing. The presence of an audience has never felt stifling for her creativity as Jack River - in fact it doesn’t impact what she makes whatsoever. She thinks about her audience and the story she’s telling them, especially in light of a newer trend to hit the music industry in the last five years or so where listeners yearn for not just entertainment from their favourites, but a level of public advocacy and activism, too. Holly’s position on this is that artists shouldn’t feel a pressure to speak out, but they also shouldn’t hold back if they feel that they and their audience can learn something new. 

Credit: Jordan Kirk

We circle back to motherhood, an experience that can reek of a type of career death in the industry (thanks sexism and misogyny). When I broach the idea about the so-called balance of work and motherhood not necessarily being a popular choice for women in the music industry, Holly nods before the words are even fully out of my mouth. Motherhood doesn’t fit into the two narratives people like to project onto women in the public eye - someone you either aspire to be or aspire to sleep with. She’s quick to admit that there were indeed people who questioned her becoming a parent, herself included solely due to an overwhelming lack of representation of “females who have a baby in Australia’s contemporary music industry.” 

Ever keen to flip things on their head, Holly did it anyway, and rightly points out with a flash of laughter in her bright blue eyes, “that a bunch of successful males in the Australian industry (including Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker, several members of Gang of Youths, Violent Soho and DMA’s among others) are dad’s - they just don’t have to talk about it because they didn’t physically have the baby.” When promoting her latest record Endless Summer, Jack River was asked about being a mother almost constantly. She loves talking about it, keen to explore the uncharted territory of motherhood and work where the presence of her career is so visible and there’s really not any such thing as parental leave, but she found the difference striking. 

So it’s left to look like she’s one of the only parents in the industry, asked the ‘easy’ question about her parenting and her art sometimes left sitting to the side. She doesn’t want to be reduced to ‘that guy’, identified in conversation as ‘the one with the baby’ a signifier we decide isn’t too fair to Maggie either. 

If Maggie’s Dad was in the music industry instead of her mum, she’d live a life of more anonymity simply because people wouldn’t think it weird if she didn’t show up on social media or wasn’t talked about in the same way they would if Holly never posted stuff about her online. That’s without bringing into it the fact that people in the public eye should be able to share photos of their children on their own terms, as they choose without it becoming a Thing, especially in light of the connection between photos and financial gain. Even with all of those choices and strange decisions swirling around in the ether, Holly says being a mum to Maggie has unlocked a new level of healing. “It reframes your experiences as a kid because you’re just reliving and reimagining your own childhood every day, which is really a cool cinematic, hyper emotional experience through your adult brain.”

When I point out that all of this, and especially the multitudes women contain in the wake of motherhood, sounds like it might be the basis for a new project, if not an album, I’m rewarded with a secretive smile and a cryptic answer: that while she wants to keep creating as Jack River, she also wants to live life as Holly and “ensure I am being my complete self to the public”, something she says hasn’t felt entirely possible through the lens of her musical identity thus far. Not to mention that raising the next generation has meant she’s hyper-aware of the world we live in and its many tangled needs, particularly when it comes to representation, inclusion and climate change. 

In the meantime, Holly Rankin is content to just be, to figure things out on her own terms at her own pace. Whatever she ends up sharing with the world and all of us whenever she decides, I can guarantee you one thing; it’ll be pretty fucking brilliant. Because if there’s one thing I knew from the moment I met Holly, it’s that she’s a unicorn with an enormous brain, a wild heart and the kind of imagination that makes you believe magic really does exist after all. I can’t wait to see what she does next.