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2023 SXSW Festivals Interviews Music

Clawing and screaming past silence: An interview with Jaguar Jonze


SXSW’s magnetism for indie artists is well documented. So of course when an unprecedented global pandemic closes it down, what becomes of the artists who were scheduled to play? Some return, and with a clarifying amount of new material. One such artist includes Taiwanese-Australian singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and activist Deena Lynch, better known as her stage name, Jaguar Jonze.

Originally slated for SXSW 2020, Lynch returned to Austin this year celebrating the success of her 2022 full-length album Bunny Mode and previewed a selection of frenetic songs under inclement weather. I managed to catch Lynch in between last minute show changes and additions, mirroring the lightning rod energy of Jaguar Jonze’s performances. We dodged the muggy Texas skies and talked about her career thus far, her enviable relationship with HARU NEMURI, and of course, woodwind instruments.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Any highlights at SXSW you want to share with us so far? 

I feel a little bit ashamed for saying this, but the food has been a huge highlight for me. We’ve had some of the best food, like Texan barbecue. I’ve been overeating like crazy. I’m kind of glad the gig didn’t go ahead last night because I overate so much food that I was just bloated. Yeah, the food has been great. The atmosphere is amazing, chaotic, obviously very overwhelming for my first time in SXSW.

And the city. The city is really beautiful. I’ll say the opposite of a highlight has been the weather, though. I said this to our team last night. It felt like, if you don’t know what weather is or what the different types of weather can be, this one week has had every single weather category. Like blazing hot thunderstorms, random rainstorms, completely windy, arctic winds. Like, so spicy cold. Yeah. It’s like four seasons in one day. Yeah. So if it wasn’t already chaotic enough, the weather is completely chaotic.

Jaguar Jonze sounds like a superhero. Did you consider any other stage names before Jaguar Jonze and what called you to that one?

Yeah, so Jaguar Jonze wasn’t something that I came up with. I was just kind of performing under Deena for a long time, and I was developing a new project. So I was thinking about what I wanted to call that project because it’s a completely different new sound. I understood my artistry better, and I knew where I wanted to go. But the thing is, I didn’t have a name, but Jaguar Jonze was this nickname that the fans and people around me started calling me.

Album cover for Bunny Mode (2022) by Jaguar Jonze.

Because they thought that me in-person was so different to me on stage. And it started off as “Panther” and likened me to, like, a big, mysterious cat. And it slowly evolved into like a Jane Doe. Jaguar Jonze [was such a] mysterious cat name. So I was thinking of names for my project, and everything felt so contrived because I was just making it up, and I fell back on this one, and I was like, you know what? This was given to me. It means something to me. I love the sound of it. The alliteration suits the music, so I went with that.

Your album Bunny Mode totally super amps me up. I’m curious if your activist voice and your musical voice are different or the same, and if they developed separately or together?

Yeah, I would say the activist voice can be different because it’s the human side of me as well. And the things that people don’t quite see is the burden that I carry and also the issues that I’m speaking out on. I’m also a survivor and victim of that, so it’s really difficult to take care of myself as a human being.

I think the activist voice can have really dark moments and really strong moments in the music. It’s almost separate because it’s an escape for me to just really pour out that pain and have a cathartic release. But they do work in tandem together, and I think they’ve helped each other to find their voices more. And advocacy has always informed my artistry. But with Bunny Mode, I really gave myself permission to speak up, use my voice, and to not be afraid when I’ve lived most of my life in fear.

So I’m really grateful for Bunny Mode. It was a really difficult journey. I felt like I had to write for 500 voices. Being on the front line of the #MeToo movement in Australia held so many stories that people trusted to share with me, and I felt like I had to wield all of those voices to create music that hopefully cuts through the clutter and makes the difference.

Deena Lynch as Jaguar Jonze, photograph by She Is Aphrodite.

I think a thing that comes to mind hearing you is the concept of radical joy and how sometimes activism is really a slog and a fight and it’s something you keep doing. The idea that you can incorporate joyful moments is a reason people identify with the music because they have community in it and also comedy as well. Even activists deserve to laugh, right?

I think you’ll hear that the music is comedically taking the piss sometimes and going through this process was really difficult. I am so burnt out from the advocacy because once you’re kind of put on this pedestal, you’re almost disconnected from being a human being and everyone wants to claw at you, tear you down and take from you. But on the other side of that, I have been able to build a community that I didn’t know existed around me until I spoke up. So there’s a double-edged sword, and I’m just so grateful for the community and support because I would not have been able to go through everything I’ve been through without that.

I think I’m driven by the fact that the system that hurt me is because people around it and in it were complicit. And I would regret it if I chose to be complicit and put my artist career first and be a part of that system that hurt so many. So I was driven by that to do something. And if I could just put a little bit more effort to make a little bit of change, I’ll always take that option.

Jaguar Jonze, Bunny Mode press photo.

I love your song “PUNCHLINE.” Can you tell me the story about crafting that song in particular and how that banana bridge got started?

Being a musician in the Australian music industry is really difficult when you’re a woman of color. And I think when I started my career, it was really easy to be an emerging artist because there’s token spots for us. But then it was really difficult to move on from the emerging token spots because those token spots just cycle through brand new artists and just go, tick, tick, tick. Look at us, just churning through a whole bunch of people of color in our industry.

Jaguar Jonze, “Punchline” press photo.

But there’s no infrastructure for us to move beyond that and go into a career that’s more than emerging. [We can’t be] established and have sustainable careers. So I was feeling like my head was butting against this bamboo ceiling constantly. And so I decided to write “PUNCHLINE.” I didn’t think I was going to release it, to be honest. I wrote it with my band when we were stuck in a converted church while on tour and the borders closed. We booked this church for five days and wrote songs until we could drive back home. When I wrote this song I was like ah-ha! I just wanted to laugh about it because otherwise I’ll just cry about it.

I came up with the banana pre-chorus because that’s what I used to get called. Growing up, people would tease me for being like a banana or a custard or like whatever it is, like anything yellow, basically. I just thought, you know how Gwen Stefani did the bananas thing? It was a little bit of like, “Did you know what you were doing then?” Because a lot of Asians would be called bananas growing up.

It was also just a jest on everything and making light of something that’s really heavy. Recontextualizing or reclaiming. I think that those are words that come to mind with that too, because it’s fun, but there’s baggage behind it, which I think a lot of music does tend to do. For me, it was also a double meaning because bananas is seen as wild as well.

Also, I had to write two different press releases for “PUNCHLINE.” In the American one, I was a lot more free, and in the Australian one, I had to cater, placate and deliver it softly so that it wouldn’t hinder the song being played. I would say straight up that the song didn’t do well in Australia but did really well in Asia. So it just says something. 

We saw you and HARU NEMURI filming on the streets of Austin yesterday. Can you tell me how your track “Angry Angry” got started? 

So I was meant to support HARU NEMURI on her North American tour in 2020 and do SX in 2020. And we all know what happened. I’m not going to go into that. But everything was canceled. And then last year I made my way back to LA just to do a month of writing and recording. Haru texted me and was like, you’re in LA? I was like, yeah. And she was like, oh my god, the tour that got canceled in 2020 is happening this weekend. Are you free? Let’s make it happen. So it’s like a full circle moment of making the shows that were supposed to happen, happen.

So we did make it happen. And I supported her at the Echo show in LA. We had always talked about writing songs together. You know, she’s quite active in her voice too. We’ve always maintained a really special internet relationship, just kind of supporting each other and being sisters to each other so that we can stay knitted. She asked me if I was willing to write songs with her. I said fuck yeah. I told her to come over to my AirBnb and she wanted help kind of articulating some English words and English sentiments into a song.

So it was awesome. And we smashed through one song. We only wrote it halfway, but both agreed to make the most of this moment. So we wrote two songs. So two songs will be released together next month on April 14. “Angry Angry” is one of them, which we debuted yesterday at SX. And I’m super excited. It’s about those who are oppressed in the patriarchy and hurt by that system. We’re also talking about how frequent it is to see in the news that another female gendered violence was happening and it was happening in her country, it’s happening in my country. When you saw us dancing on the street, we were filming our music video. Not for “Angry Angry,” but the second one. You should have jumped in!

Very excited to hear it officially. Honestly, I’m thinking about the neighbor of the AirBnb and hearing these songs getting constructed. They didn’t know they were listening to history, I guess. 

My first time screaming as well. 

Really? In that track? 

Yeah. I was like, I can’t just leave Haru to it. So I practiced for a week.

Did she help you scream practice? 

No, it was a YouTube thing. And then at the end of the track, she does the real low growl. I can do the really high pitched screams. Like the ones that sounds like nails on a chalkboard.

Scream Team. Can you tell me about one of your most cherished memories making music? 

Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of heavy in the sense that I didn’t grow up doing music at all. I was actually banned from listening to music. I think [my parents] saw that I was a creative child. I mean, it’s the same old story of when you grow up in an Asian household. They wanted me to be a doctor, and I understand that way of thinking for them who have sacrificed so much for me to grow up in Australia. Creativity was not something that I could ever explore. But I had so much trauma growing up. I had a really difficult childhood, and it was really repressed in me, and it kind of just came, I don’t know, like a volcano eruption moment when my best friend passed away.

I think that just kind of unhinged everything. I was walking home and walked past a garage sale, and I ended up buying a guitar. And I was able to grieve through not just learning how to play the guitar, but writing songs. I’m gonna be honest, those songs were horrible. But the outlet is what I discovered. And I wrote twelve songs about just this grief that I had dealing with my friend passing and growing up. He always said to me, you are so creative, you’re not living life passionately. And he lived his life to the fullest and him leaving the world made me realize that I was living for other people.

I fell in love with music. I found passion for music. And so I decided to just turn my life 180. And that’s a cherished moment for me because I’m doing everything I love now and I’m so happy. And I’ve also been able to take the trauma out of my body and put it into these three minute vessels that are connecting with other people around the world.

Deena Lynch as Jaguar Jonze, photograph by She Is Aphrodite.

You’re dancing in the streets of Austin. Thank you for sharing that with me. That sounds so special and it sounds like such a great person. Definitely energies are still here as I listen to you speak about them. Moving ahead, sometimes you perform a flute on stage. What do you think about the clarinet? 

That reed sucks. I feel like it’s this germ capture magnet and then you also get splinters in your lip and stuff. Why you do that to yourself? Yeah, I’m sticking with my wind. 

Full transparency. I was a clarinet in high school. But look, I got that full honesty and I agree with you. 

I’m gonna flip the question to you. What do you think about flutes? 

It’s not it’s a very particular association. In high school, I thought that flutes were so much easier to carry. Their lives are so much easier. I still have yet to see the clarinetists show up in a big way in indie rock.

And so in our new band, Scream Team, you’ll have to play clarinet. 

I will have to dig out all the sharp splintery reeds for it to happen. But I will do it because I’ll be screaming. Screaming through my clarinet.

Screaming through the flute. I saw one last night, actually. I saw someone post, someone screaming into one. So there’s definitely a pathway for this.

Last question. What are your karaoke songs? 

Lynch: Oh, fuck yeah. Okay. Celine Dion. Straight up. I’m obsessed with Celine Dion. Like, I’m Team Celine all the way. So I would say, “Because You Loved Me.” And then also Britney Spears. “…Baby One More Time.” And then Paramore, “Misery Business.” So good. I would do some Chinese songs, too. I will say that I’m terrible at karaoke. It’s like I suddenly think I’m Whitney Houston. And I’ve got to remember that I’ve got to come back down to Earth.

This interview was conducted by Justin Ricafort in-person at SXSW 2023 in Austin, Texas on March 17th, 2023.

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