Jesse Jo Stark Is Embracing Her Gray Areas

Jesse Jo Stark Is Embracing Her Gray Areas

Story by Kenna McCafferty / Photography by Jenna Marsh / Styling by Marc Eram / Hair by Antoine Martinez / Makeup by Loftjet

Jesse Jo Stark hates the color gray, she tells me on a rainy LA day — her first day back from a vacation “somewhere warm.” More interested in extremes, her artistic sensibilities traffic in the black-and-white. But between the old Hollywood black-and-white films her grandmother raised her on and the over-saturated teen vampire dramas that populated her adolescence — Stark does reside in gray areas, oscillating between love and tragedy, finding dark humor in death.

On Doomed, her debut album, Stark takes listeners through extremes — from 808s on “666 in the Suburbs” to country noir on “Lipstick.” Adventuring across genres, Stark’s lyrics pull the same thread, weaving listeners through tales of vulnerability, heartbreak and revenge.

With Stark five years into her music career, it feels strange to call Doomeda debut. Stark has been “on the scene” since her teens, first designing for her family’s fashion brand, Chrome Hearts, and eventually running a clothing line of her own, Deadly Doll. She even made an appearance in James Franco’s infamous film Palo Alto in 2017. And yet, with millions of streams, dozens of singles and EPs and a famed romance with pop-punker Yungblud, people still can’t seem to pin down why Jesse Jo Stark is famous.

Doomedis Stark's answer not as a justification of notoriety, which has never been her driving force, but as the culmination of her artistic project. Throughout her career, the idea of an album hung curiously over her head, inspiring intrigue, fear and excitement. Upon finally sitting down in the studio with The Neighbourhood vocalist Jesse Rutherford, everything fell into place. Doomedis a product of fate, as steeped in doom as it is in divine intervention.

To discuss her debut, PAPER sat down with Stark to talk through her inspirations and what’s in the cards for her future.

Jacket, bodysuit and boots: Rick Owen, Jewelry: Chrome Hearts

You’ve been making music for a while, so what about Doomed made it feel like “The Album?”

Albums are funny. I've always really waited until the last minute to do anything, like book reports. I felt like that with this too. It was this daunting, really mysterious project that I've had inside me my whole life. Then one day, when I met a couple of my collaborators, we just sat down and looked at all the songs I already had, and wrote new songs, and it kind of just fell into place really quickly. It was so not rushed. Everything unfolded, the creativity behind it, the colors, the album, the name, the artwork.

Everything really came together in a way that was quite romantic. Obviously, some of it was stressful, but I felt like I had entered a really another part of my life that I hadn’t known yet. It was all really, really organic and true to me. But I think I needed to really arrive at this place with myself for this to exist in the world. I wasn't ready until now. So I'm really proud of it. It's a really great representation of everything I've been influenced by my whole life, but with a modern twist.

Tell me about some of those influences.

I've always been inspired by country and punk and rockabilly. I've always been quite cryptic, and with this album, I got more vulnerable and more open and said things I normally wouldn't say about myself. It’s a bit more personal and literal with the sound. There's a rawness to it. I call it very moody. It represents all my different moods in one day, which can be quite a lot. I experimented with 808s and the way I felt was a bit more fluid. If you've listened to my music and you followed me from the beginning I think you’d see — not that I've not changed, but there's a sense of maturity and I got a bit more experimental and just out there. I’m really proud of that. I originally wanted 13 songs on the album, but we ended up with 11 because I didn’t want anything to be forced, and I knew they truly represented my past and my present. It was just time. Energetically I was really ready. I arrived at myself.

You said Doomed feels like your past and present, but what about your future?

Our experiences every day change, you know. I don't know who I'm going to be tomorrow. I know who I am now, but what if I see a different color tomorrow that inspires something new in me? I can't represent my future. I can dream and hope but I don't think I'm ever going to know. This album sounds like me when I was 13. So I guess I haven’t changed too much, but I hope to God I always have new experiences and I'm already ready to write about them, because life is crazy and I'm already on a different type of roller coaster. There will be different sounds, different energies. I just don't know how to speak for my future yet.

Doomed feels like something I’d Shazam in the background of a Vampire Diaries episode. Is there any media that you’re watching now that you feel like Doomed slots into?

It's so funny to see this horror culture rebirth right now. Everyone's monstering around and I'm kind of annoyed.

Like, you want it to be just for you?

We’re all so territorial, as a community. But I’m into it. Like Wednesday came out. I love that show. Or like, The Munsters was just remade, anything Tim Burton, any vampire show, I would love to have my music on. I’d love to score anything.

Dress: Saint Sintra, Boots and jewelry: Chrome Hearts

Are there any specific movies or shows that are meaningful to you — that inspire you aesthetically?

I love Breakfast at Tiffany's. I grew up watching really, really old classics. My grandmother always put them all on, and I don't think I fully understood them then, but now there's a sense of home when I watch them. They’re very long and slow and beautiful. Every detail is just captivating, so I watch a lot of old films, I watch a lot of cartoons. I love comic books and The Addams Family, obviously, all the ones you would probably guess.

Do you feel like there’s a relationship between the monster, grimy horror energy, and these more romantic, glamorous old Hollywood aspects of the album as well?

I don't really love Hollywood and what it represents. I've never been obsessed with Hollywood. I do think there's something beautiful about old-time actors in black and white, but I think love and death are two things that are quite horrific about life, but also beautiful. I love the comedic side of horror — facing death and space. I don't really love the gruesome side of horror. I love Morticia and Gomez’s love story, because it's the juxtaposition of what most people would say which is “I love you, I want you to live forever,” but they'd be like, “I love you, I will die with you.” I love that dramatic notion of life or death. I'm gonna love you to the grave.

What are some of the things you say on this album that you were too afraid to say in real life?

Like [in “slayer”]: “I can’t see my reflection when I’m looking in the mirror/ I’m so scared of what’s not there." So drama, right? Sometimes I listen to my songs later and forget that it’s mine. And that’s really cool. That one’s very difficult for me to sing, but I always smile on it, because it's so pretty, and that juxtaposition of me singing something quite tragic and smiling — it’s like I’m owning this. I’m taking on the narrative of facing my fears.

It sounds like color informs you a lot. What colors characterize Doomed?

I speak a lot about duality with this album, because I think it really represents both sides of me. I think most people have more to offer than just one thing. To put it simply — I guess it would be black and white, but it’s also trying to embrace the colors that I don't like as well. It's so funny, with my collaboration on the album cover, I don't like the color purple. They sent me a draft, and it was definitely quite purple, and instead of hating it, I really embraced that.

So there’s more than black and white. I guess I would say it’s oily and gray, those are some words I would use to describe it.

Tell me about some of the collaborations on Doomed, how did they add to your vision for it?

I’d done paintings for single releases before with my dear friends and I knew that I wanted someone who had done something heavy metal. I found Greg [Hildebrandt] and he had worked with Star Wars, and he did a [Black] Sabbath cover. I knew I had to do everything I could to get him on it. I spoke with him and his wife. I think they were really taken aback and surprised by me wanting that. I don't know how much our generation is involved with that era of art. I wanted it to be me but with a different lens. We started talking about lava and colors and angel wings, if I wanted a tail or not: the hardest question in my life. They were amazing. He works with light and acrylic, so I had to pose with specific lights on. The whole process is just amazing. It really fell into place.

And with Jesse [Rutherford], our relationship just started through friends and we started talking about it, and I was like, “Do you wanna write?” and he was really into it. We wrote a couple of times. Then I was in New York City working on this album and I called him and was like, “Do you wanna produce this album?” He said yes. It’s his first time producing another artist. He really wanted to be there for me. I think it’s hard, when it’s usually your project, to step down from that. I really admire him for that. He’s just so amazing and nurturing. He really saw me and I couldn’t ask for a better collaborator. It felt like family, almost.

As someone who entered the creative space through your family, but has been building your own world within it, do you have any thoughts on the whole ‘nepo baby’ discourse?

My parents started Chrome Hearts a little before I was born — they build this beautiful world around their dreams. They work hard as hell and lead with their hearts, and that’s exactly what they taught me to do. I’m proud to be their little girl — call me whatever the fuck you want. If your art and intent is strong, then that will speak louder than any label.

Are your parents proud?

They’re both just really supportive and let me discover who I am quite gracefully. They’ve been nothing but motivating, but never told me what I needed to do. They really let me figure out and curate my own path.

Top, tights and shorts: Poster Girl, Jewelry: Chrome Hearts

Photography and creative direction: Jenna Marsh
Styling: Marc Eram
Hair: Antoine Martinez
Makeup: Loftjet

Lighting director: Byron Nickleberry
CGI: Robert Gotham
Retouch: Mollie Pie

Dress: Acne Studios