If you haven’t heard George Maple‘s stunning debut album Lover, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Not only is the alter-ego of Jess Higgs full of smoky, sensual R&B jams, it’s also a surprisingly meditative treatise on all the different meanings of its title. So it was an utter joy to catch the Australian powerhouse on the phone a few weeks before the release of her album; we do a lot of these chats but so rarely is there a genuine human connection between the endless PR patter. But that’s what it is to hear George Maple, and that’s certainly what it’s like to speak to Jess Higgs as you’ll see below…
First things first: do we call you George or Jess?
Whatever you want to! It’s like I’m an art project, people can call me what they want. It’s like the blue pill or the red pill.
Where does George begin and Jess end?
I think I really developed George to abolish my own fears of exposing my inner desires and darkest secrets. I think I was a little bit gun-shy to be really releasing music on my own. I’m a pretty open person but I think there was a period in my life when I was growing up and I was working through insecurities and working through bad relationships and learning about people. Your perfect sense of the world kinda demolishes you and you have to rebuild.
I think George was developed so it was easier to detach from myself and express things. It’s been a weird cathartic process over the last four years that’s resulted in me being completely comfortable and candid at anything really. Developing a project has allowed me to accept things within myself. I feel like the end of this album is the first step of me being honest with myself as Jess and as George.
There’s a lot to unpack here regarding identity politics too. You’re a woman front and centre of your own project; how do you reconcile that with your shy and vulnerable side?
One of the biggest learnings that I have taken away from the last four years is that we as humans categorise things and package them so they’re easier to understand. The reality is we’re all complex and not one-dimensional. I think this record is an exploration of intimacy and that concept. When I googled the word ‘lover’, the definition was basically mistress. And I thought that was really interesting because that’s not what I think of when I think of the word Lover. For me it was really poignant because I wanted to challenge the notion of that definition and explore the various shades: vulnerability, aggression, desire, lust. There are so many emotions and that’s what humans are.
There’s a limiting belief in society that you have to be just one thing and I think it stresses people out and what they’re defined by. Like if you’re a woman you have to be this. With this record it’s a similar approach. I just wanted to explore intimacy with no boundaries. A really important part of my work now is abolishing any boundaries.
That makes sense. Especially given as an artist if you’re too much of one thing you can become compartmentalised – Adele is now known for her thing, Lady Gaga tried to go all Joanne but people demanded more of the same from her…
There was one album in particular I thought of here – Christina Aguilera’s Stripped. I really feel like that record had a lot of facets to it. I have a weird synesthesia type thing, I have to see a song with imagery. So when I look at a body of work it has to be balanced. The colours have to be balanced. It’s just a non-negotiable for me.
Indeed, and like any art there needs to be the right amount of shading, or you’re just stuck with something two-dimensional. But we also live in a time of streaming and easily consumable art. Did you feel any external or internal pressure to conform to that?
No. I think I would have walked away. Everyone who works with me knows that. The team that I have now, I’m so lucky. I’m in a position where I’m completely in control… not like a tyrant, but collaboration! We talk about the project and the decisions that we make. They understand it’s not a hit-factory project. It’s a different way of looking at it but I’m incredibly grateful.
You’ve definitely created that behind you from day one – the air of mystery, the fact that people didn’t know who you were. Your trajectory reads like an industry outsider who made it major. How did you manage that, and what would you say to people trying to do the same?
You know it’s funny, a friend of mine I hadn’t spoken to for years recently said to me: it’s so awesome to see that you haven’t compromised. I guess I haven’t. I have my non-negotiables, and I think I’ve just never seen some things as an option. The way I write, the way I look, it’s my decision. I don’t know what the solution is for people in positions who can’t do that. I do have friends in those positions and it breaks my heart. But I like to think I could help young artists one day.
Well we imagine it’s like that high school feeling for some of them: I have to change myself in order to get acceptance. In this case, acceptance commercially or in the industry.
It’s quite primal. I’m into Eckhart Tolle and more esoteric stuff at the moment; there’s a notion that there’s a primal instinct triggered in us when we’re afraid of rejection or being outside the pack. In today’s day and age the same trigger points happen when threatened emotionally. And it’s not necessarily rational. The next stage of evolution may be to listen to that little voice and think, is that really valid?
There’s a lot of unquestioned behaviour. And particularly for artists, questioning those trigger points can help in maintaining control of decisions. Particularly when there are people around you saying that’s not the way you do it. If someone is saying artists shouldn’t know about finance etc then someone who is young might just go along with that.
On that note and referring to an earlier reference: did Christina Aguilera inspire you to become a popstar?
She was one of them! Christina, Alicia Keys, TLC, Justin Timberlake. Then later the performance side of things and songwriting it was people like Linda Perry. Then I discovered people like Donna Summer and Diana Ross. Oh and of course there’s always MJ!
Back to the album: you’ve had songs called Hero, Kryptonite, Lover. Was this sort of bold, almost superhero-thread intentional?
I didn’t realise that; I do love Wonder Woman though! It wasn’t intentional but maybe subconscious. But it’s about finding my strength. A lot of things happened… I lost my cousin who was basically like my sister, about seven years ago. I feel like I’m at a point where I’ve dealt with a lot of that. But there’s a thread of encouraging yourself to find that place.
And it’s so important to let yourself feel those things rather than constantly pretend to be ok, though it’s interesting that hero, kryptonite and lover are not only things you can be for other people, but also for yourself. Time for a cliche question though: what’s your kryptonite?
That’s changed a lot. I can answer that in three different places. Before the album, my kryptonite was very bad relationships. I think I was addicted to the story or the drama, as a writer I wanted to explore those but now I think “what were you doing?”. In the middle of the album my kryptonite was the relationship I was in at the time. Probably that need for comfort and stability. Now I think I don’t have one. I’m in a strange transitional period figuring out what the next five years will look like. I’m single and figuring out what that means.
It’s interesting that so much is to do with relationships, and we are raised to believe that you need someone who completes you. But you seem like you’re about to go out of it and that does feel rather exciting.
One of the conclusions I came to is: it’s a really bizarre thing to focus on the importance on your other half, which is the be all and end all according to other things. It’s conditioning that we must search for a partner. One thing I’m trying to engage in at the moment is: where is the importance on other relationships that aren’t romantic? There’s so much depth and breadth to other relationships around us, so if I have any sort of voice I’d say ‘where and when did we stop teaching people to be kind?’
Let’s talk about the George Maple live experience. We saw one show in Dalston over summer, but will that set-up now change after the album?
It depends on the context of the show. The show you would have seen was at the end of a festival run and I set it up for three times the size of that. I’m going to be supporting Lorde on her Australian run and I’m interested to see how her show is. I’m interested in a show and a night being really cohesive, essentially I’m going to adjust my show to the environment. I love the idea of people being able to have fun. They don’t need to necessarily know the whole album but it’s just about capturing it in a way.
“[Harley] called me and said I have something to tell you, Ella really loves this song! I was like “who’s Ella?”, and he says Lorde!”
The Lorde support is very exciting. How did that come about? Are you pals?
She just asked me to! We’re not pals but just fans of each other. She really loves Talk Talk. Harley [Streten, aka Flume] showed her. He was in a session with Lorde and he did some additional production on Talk Talk; he called me and said I have something to tell you, Ella really loves this song! I was like “who’s Ella?”, and he says Lorde! I thought that was so cool and we’ve been Twitter fans since.
What’s your musical kryptonite, then? Ours begins with Ed and ends in Sheeran.
(Laughs) He’s such a good songwriter though! Wait, we need to define what krytponite is: it’s something you’re addicted to and the one thing that can debilitate you?
Oh Jess. Oh no. As comic book geeks we have to point out that Superman can’t go anywhere near Kryptonite…
Oh that’s interesting! I thought it was a desire thing. I had someone who couldn’t look me in the eye and kept saying I was his kryptonite. So I see it as a desire thing, not necessarily a negative thing. But if it’s the other thing then I have to say it: I do not like EDM. It takes up a lot of aiirspace and it crushes my soul. There are some good songs in there but… no.
And finally, the question we ask everyone: your favourite Beyonce song?
I think Diva. I love it so much, it’s like the Cardi B song – they’re so important for women, there’s a fire they ignite. In an age where there’s talk about bravery in women, I think it’s really important to give people courage to just be themselves.
Lover by George Maple is out now.