Musician Jack River Is Playing the Changes

The singular artist and social advocate transforms tragedy and hope into sound and, ultimately, action.

Article by Jen Nurick

Jack River_1The singer-songwriter Holly Rankin aka Jack River. Photography by Laura Smith.

Before and after. These are the temporal axes that punctuate the life and lyrics of the singer-songwriter and activist Holly Rankin, who goes by the nom de plume Jack River. Music has always played a starring role in Rankin’s life and she has embraced its strange duality: first as a skill to master (she learned to play the violin at age five; trombone and piano followed) and then as a form of therapy, which saw her transforming tragedy into art. 

When Rankin was 14, her younger sister, Shannon, died in an accident at age 11, upending an idyllic childhood in the coastal town of Forster in New South Wales. “The grief broke out into songs,” says Rankin. “And at the same time I was obsessed with music, as many people are at that age, so the obsession with music and bands and artistry was a beautiful escape.” At home, Abba and Bruce Springsteen were played interchangeably, the latter priming her ears for the role music can play in “storytelling and culture and subtle protest”. Elton John and the Beach Boys coloured Rankin’s developing soundscape with pop flourishes and piqued her interest in production. Late ’90s and early aughts hitmakers such as the Spice Girls and Britney Spears illuminated the possibilities of curating a picture-perfect veneer irrespective of the reality behind the scenes. Rankin found relief in the shiny, saccharine pastiche their music presented and she relished the opportunity to confect her own teenage dream with her first studio album, “Sugar Mountain” (named after Neil Young’s namesake song), which was released in 2018.

“After a lot of reflection, I realised I was yearning for this Hollywood youth that I never had because my family were in turmoil,” she says. “The difference between my friends having this easy teenage life [and my own] was stark.” “Sugar Mountain” filled that void. In each of the music videos, Rankin harks back to her vision of the ’90s, subverting her sadness into sweet-toothed, technicolour daydreams awash with painterly pink skies, glossy eyelids and glitter baths. Her lyrics on love and loss have a fragility to them, but her psychedelic-pop sound is geared towards dancing. The album, which was nominated for three ARIA awards (including Breakthrough Artist of the Year) and an APRA Music Award, proved a personal revelation. Says Rankin: “It was so fun and wonderful, and by marrying it with the story of what I was going through, so many people really resonated with that — creating an alternate world to process your grief.”

Rankin possesses a unique talent to do so. While many artists may have grief embedded in their core, it takes courage to shore up that kind of sadness and to excavate it in search of raw material. But Rankin has been cultivating the requisite resilience since she was five, thanks to her mother, Donna, an art teacher, who nurtured her creativity. “I started to keep a diary and felt very obsessed with the idea of documenting the world and my day, and writing little stories,” she says of her childhood. “My mum was always expressing herself, too, so I did that as second nature. 

Jack River_2
The singer-songwriter Holly Rankin aka Jack River. Photography by Dane Singleton.

“That gave me that channel of permission to recreate my world in my own way,” she continues. “Now more than ever we need to cultivate that quiet, personal trust in our own approach, our own absorption of the world. And it’s getting harder and harder to find time away from screens to do that.” 

Music is one of many levers she is pulling to incite change. Pre-Covid, Rankin founded Grow Your Own, a festival in Forster-Tuncurry, that spotlights regional makers and musicians, as well as Electric Lady, an all-women musical line-up that she organised in order to amplify female voices in the industry. When the pandemic hit, Rankin launched a podcast, “To Rebel in the Times”, as “an outlet for talking to artists about how they think about social movements and change and political action”. Periods confined to the house hardly deterred her, as Rankin used social media to communicate with her community. She is fiercely outspoken on far-ranging issues, from abortion access to climate action and Indigenous rights. All intersect in her anthemic 2021 track “We Are the Youth”. “I think there’s obviously congruent social movements happening alongside each other that I wanted to express in that song,” says Rankin of the politically charged lyrics. 

She performed at the 2019 School Strike 4 Climate rally in Sydney, an event held to galvanise the next generation through song and to celebrate the strides youth are making. “That was a very tactile, visible [experience] — 80,000 young people with their signs and their emotion and their reality,” she says. “And being the person that got to sing to them, it made it all real. Like, ‘Hey, you’re in this moment now and you’ve got to do everything you can, however big or small your platform.’ ” 

Since then, Rankin has been working on the Voice to Parliament campaign to help Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders advise Parliament on relevant policies and she has been pushing for broader abortion access. “I worked pretty much full-time on the federal election,” she says. “That was a moment of being able to really put my hands on the issues that I care about and experience not just talking about action and having an opinion [but] being really involved.” Next is motherhood — Rankin is expecting her first child — and there’s a new body of work in the mix, which she describes as “an escapist oasis mirage”, slated for release in 2023. 

Teasing a new song titled “Stranger’s Dream”, Rankin says it’s like “a postcard from a future self or something to say, ‘There’s something for you to look at here.’ ” It’s evident she is still finding ways to make sense of the haunting sadness of the past and channel a brighter future, reconciling what has been with what might come. “Sometimes you write a song and you spend months
or years listening to it to unlock what you’re
trying to internally realise,” she says of her lyrics. Undoubtedly, they will help listeners, each on their own journey, figure it out for themselves, too. 

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our tenth edition, Page 30 of T Australia with the headline: “Playing the Changes”