INTERVIEW: The Jezabels

Synthia marks Byron Bay-based band The Jezabels’ triumphant return to the Australian music scene after a short holiday and break. The four-piece have created an album distinctly different from their last releases, more influenced by US and UK rock on their lyrics, with elements of bands Tycho and Health on the instrumentals. It’s more exciting and fresh while still maintaining their uniqueness. Music Columnist Aden Beaver sat down with Hayley Mary from the band to find out more.

Aden Beaver: Hi Hayley, thank you for talking to us.

Hayley Mary: Oh, thanks for talking to me! How are you going?

AB: Yeah, I’m good, are you having a good day?

HM: I am; I am in sunny Byron Bay.

AB: You wouldn’t happen to be touring there, would you?

HM: No, unfortunately not, which is crazy, because it’s our hometown, but we’re just hitting the capital cities this time, quite a head back tour, but we’ll see how we go.

AB: It [Byron Bay] sounds like fun, hope you’re enjoying the sun there.

HM: Oh yeah!

AM: So, you’re currently supporting your third album Synthia, can you tell us a bit about the record?

HM: Well, it sort of came out of the blue, in that we were having a break after The Brink, because we were bloody tired (laughs) and we’d been going hard for a few years, and also Heather had some health issues, and then I went on holiday to the U.K. and the US, we had some time off with like, no expectations of having to write something when we got back together to play a show, and then we just started writing songs together, which was kind of unexpected, we ended up having four songs written by the end of the week and were like “oh, maybe we should write some more?” So it just kind of happened surprisingly to us all.

AB: That’s cool.

HM: Yeah it was, and then we just kind of went “Well Lachlan Mitchell is our producer, and he lives just around the corner, should we record It?” And then we just had this album. So it wasn’t really planned, it just kind of happened, I think it’s just kind of simple to us all, it felt really organic, kind of like when we first started out, we were all really excited by it, we had no expectations on it, and we had no idea what it was going to sound like, it just felt very sweet. It’s a favourite album for most of the band I think.

AB: Well that’s good, I guess all that freedom kind of helped.

HM: Yeah.

AB: So, going away on that holiday influenced the album a fair bit by the sound of it. Would you say you were influenced a lot more musically by bands in the US and UK?

HM: That was more me, and [influenced] lyrically I would say, but I think I was definitely more influenced by seeing a bit of rock and roll and seeing more of the hedonistic sides of music. I’d always been a little bit more, well, I wouldn’t say a prude, but you know, just quite chilled out when it came to partying on tour and stuff, and then I kind of let loose and we had a holiday and sort of went a bit mental, and I found that inspiring and I kind of just pursued a few travels for pleasure rather than work, and I met a lot of fun and interesting people that I found inspiring.

So, yeah, that was an influence lyrically, but I think musically we were kind of more influenced by having a couple of new synthesizers and particularly Heather, because she had some new instruments, and just seeing where we went, and maybe there was some kind of strange freedom in having been away from each other. You know how you get patterns in a relationship? Where you tend to do the same thing because you see each other every day and you fall into patterns…I think time away kind of breaks those patterns and you can sort of explore a bit more?

AB: I can understand that, makes sense. Was there any difficulty in producing this album?

HM: No, there was no difficulty whatsoever in producing the album. That was what was so good about it! I mean, yeah sure, it was an album like any other, and sometimes you’re in the studio and you’re like “ugh, I want to go home” but it was pretty easy, maybe the other guys would have something different to say about that but I found it fairly easy.

AB: In contrast, were your other albums more difficult do you think, and this one just came to you?

HM: Yeah, I think The Brink was a bit more difficult because we’d come off the back off a lot of touring, we had Second Album Syndrome, and a week into writing that we were in the UK and Heather received her initial diagnosis for ovarian cancer, which was a massive shock, and we sort of thought we wouldn’t write the album, the rest of us were like “Oh, the band is over, like, shit” and then she came out of hospital and was like “No, I want to keep writing it!” So it was kind of a strange mental shift of being in a bit of shock and tripping out about this kind of diagnosis that she’s had, but also wanting to support her and her desire to write, to keep writing, and we’re in a new city, so I think it was perhaps the biggest challenge of the album, in that it was a horrible condition in a lot of ways.

We sort of thought we wouldn’t write the album, the rest of us were like “Oh, the band is over, like, shit” and then she came out of hospital and was like “No, I want to keep writing it!”So it was kind of a strange mental shift of being in a bit of shock and tripping out about this kind of diagnosis that she’s had, but also wanting to support her and her desire to write, to keep writing.

It wasn’t the most inspiring, but we kind of got on with it, out of necessity and professionalism, and also friendship and support for what she wanted to do, I think it was hard for me because I was mentally very down about the whole thing, but yeah. It was really nice to kind of all organically want to make an album and not be pressured to, but just, to do it.

AB: The theme of our issue currently is Community, so I thought I’d ask what’s your best experience been together as a band?

HM: Hmm…

AB: Like, a funny story from a tour perhaps?

HM: Well, we haven’t toured for a couple of years so unfortunately that’s a bit hard, but I think playing, and this’ll sound like a very clichéd answer, but playing a couple of nights at the Opera House, I think in 2007, that was pretty amazing. That’s because we were a Sydney band and that was the kind of Venue where no matter who you’re talking to anywhere in the world and they ask “What’s your band like? Do you go okay?” And we say “Well, we’ve played the Opera House…” and everyone is like “Wow!”

AB: A lot of street cred comes with the Opera House.

HM: Yeah, like no one hasn’t heard of the Opera House so I feel like that’s a pretty amazing feat to have done, and it’s just such a beautiful venue, and as a Sydney band again, you fell very warm inside in doing it so I think probably that. I think just in general, a band is a little bit of a family, to speak in terms of a community, we’ve had so many experiences over the years traveling to different countries, and it’s kind of like having had a couple of years off, out of being forced to and being forced to cancel our tours at the start of the year, actually just having been able to tour and visit different communities and see the world through a working lens as musicians, that’s the best lifestyle ever and I feel really privileged to have done it. I have a lot of gratefulness to the other three people in the band for having made that possible for the last 10 years. Something that you’d kind of take for granted is if you don’t have it taken out from under you, I guess

AB: Well, congratulations on the new album, it sounds great, I might now talk about a few of the songs on the album, I think the track “Smile” was a bit of an interesting one lyrically, could you tell me about that?

HM: (laughs) Yes, ‘Interesting’, that’s always a neutrally, a morally neutral term!

AB: Yeah, It’s my go-to word really, I kind of try to not use it, but I end up using it.

HM: Well, I guess it (Smile) gets the most comments, because almost all of my lyrics probably except maybe “Disco Biscuit Love” which is our oldest song, it’s the most direct in what it’s seemingly about, so people seem to be able to relate to it because it’s the closest thing you can get to realism on a Jezabels album. I guess it’s personal, I think for most women these days feminism is an issue, whether you [subscribe] to it or not it’s something you have to talk about if you’re in the public eye, at some point someone’s going to ask you about it, it does tend to be a topic on one’s mind.

Also it is ‘coming of age’ it’s sort of really important at the moment, so I think it’s a really personal feminist message, I don’t like to ever try and speak as a generic feminist on this, [I’m not] speaking for other people, and I’d like to overtly say about that song that it was just me drawing my own personal line about my interactions with strangers in the street, in that like, I personally don’t mind being whistled at, in fact I quite like it, it makes me feel attractive, but my line is I’m really happy for men to express their feelings towards me, and that’s fine, but where I draw the line is that I don’t like them to tell me how to feel or how to behave, because that’s my territory.

I personally don’t mind being whistled at, in fact I quite like it, it makes me feel attractive, but my line is, I’m really happy for men to express their feelings towards me, and that’s fine, but where I draw the line is that I don’t like them to tell me how to feel or how to behave, because that’s my territory.

AB: Yeah, totally.

HM: Like, I want to stress, everyone has their right to draw their line, and some people hate being whistled at, and they should write a song called “Don’t whistle at me” But that was just my expression of, kind of also feeling like men feel really alienated by feminism these days, and they feel like they can’t express themselves, it was kind of reaching out saying like “I don’t mind this stuff, I would love it if you invited me to something, or I’d like it if you talked to me, don’t be scared to speak just because you’re in a climate of hyper-feminism” and don’t be afraid of sexuality, or your own, when it comes to me, personally. But, don’t tell me how to feel, or what to do, that’s my only thing. (laughs) A lot of women get told to smile in the street, and it’s a little annoying.

AB: Of course!

HM: Because you literally don’t know why someone’s frowning, they could have just buried their mum.

AB: Yeah, that’s a good point.

HM: (laughs) so, yeah. It’s just simply about what it sounds like it’s about, but I guess I’d like to stress it’s only a message that’s personal to me.

AB: It sounds like you’ve talked about the song quite a bit too.

HM: Ah, kind of. It is one of those ones that people ask about. I don’t know what purpose it served, other than trying to tell men that I’m not a prude, and you can talk to me. (laughs) But, just don’t tell me to smile, because I have often in the past been spoken out as a feminist, and combined with wearing black and stuff like that, I have wondered why men don’t talk to me very much, and I’ve thought perhaps that may have something to do with it. (laughs) So I guess I was trying to be a bit humorous and invite people to be friendly to me.

AB: I might ask about “Stand and Deliver” next, it’s the longest track on the record, and it’s also the first.

HM: …very long, Yeah. I guess that’s how we weed out those who are not committed. (laughs)

AB: Yeah, the instrumental drags on for a bit, but It caught me, because I like that sort of thing. But, is that really your intention for the track? Weed out those who are weak?

HM: No, no, not at all! I don’t know why, we just write long songs, and we always have, and we struggle with radio for these reasons. I guess maybe we’re old school in that way, or, you know, we like things that require a bit of attention span. I think that song is rather sublime, instrumentally, and you can sort of imagine driving along – I love albums that you can drive on a long road trip to, and you’re not rushing and you’re not quickly engaging in social media, and you’re not doing anything, you’re just listening to a long story, like a novel; so it’s nice to be able to write a long song and hope that some people will give it the time. We don’t consciously try to make them long, we try and make them shorter actually!

AB: Do you get comments from your producer like “Hey can you cut this down by about 30 seconds?”

HM: I think we probably did cut it down, it was about 10 minutes before, we went a bit crazy like that. It’s a lot to do with the dynamics of the band and how there’s a lot of quiet and loud parts, because of the nature of how the musicians play; Nick can be a dynamic drummer, and he also likes to let the other guys shine with their melodies and not dominate, so we tend to squeeze in everyone’s part in a song. That in turn lengthens it out so that everyone gets their kind of moment. That’s me answering what we might be subconsciously doing, I don’t really know, I haven’t really thought about it.

AB: Guess it’s just something you do.

HM: Yeah, once you rule something out as like “This isn’t going to be a single, we can indulge”, you kind of just go over the top and indulge it. We’re into epic stuff as well, we feel that length is epic.

AB: Well I have two more questions for you, one thing I’m not sure about, is why did you name your band The Jezabels?

HM: Well, it just sort of happened. Heather and I knew each other from high school, and my dad had always called the band The Jezabels, we’d been playing under that name, because back in the day my dad wanted to call me Jezebel, named after the harlot in the bible, because he just felt it would be controversial and he likes doing things like that, but my mum didn’t let him, so he named my cat Jezebel, and we she died, we named the band The Jezabels, and then when we went to uni the guys joined and there was some talk of changing it because it was such a feminine name, but we just couldn’t think of anything better.

Then I kind of came up with this rationale, that it was just some uni student thing, that it was like a feminist reclaiming of a word that was synonymous with whore, but was actually possibly a misrepresentation of a historical figure by Judeo-Christian History, and we should get behind Jezebel and even all these women who may have been presented as evil just because they had a sexuality or they had opinions back in the day when monotheism was on the rise, and it was kind of like a tribute to some pagan foremothers that may have had a hard time in history but they may have just been strong women, so that was the convoluted uni student reasoning behind it, that sort of post-justified it and got the guys on board, ‘cause they were like “Yeah! I’m into that!” (laughs) So we just kept it, and it sounded like it stuck, and we couldn’t think of anything better.

[Naming the band ‘The Jezabels’] was like a feminist reclaiming of a word that was synonymous with whore, but was actually possibly a misrepresentation of a historical figure by Judeo-Christian History, and we should get behind Jezebel and even all these women who may have been presented as evil just because they had a sexuality or they had opinions back in the day when monotheism was on the rise, and it was kind of like a tribute to some pagan foremothers that may have had a hard time in history but they may have just been strong women”

 

AB: That’s a lot of heavy stuff.

HM: Yeah, that’s heavy stuff, but ultimately it begins with my cat’s name.

AB: In memory of the cat.

HM: Yeah, and she was this beautiful black cat. The pagan roots of rock and roll, perhaps. A nod to them.

AB: Fair enough! Lastly, do you have any tips for the up and coming musicians who may be reading this Issue? I ask this one to everyone, so don’t worry.

HM: Yeah, I bet you do. I would say play live, as much as you can, and don’t take for granted how awesome the nomadic lifestyle is, because it seems taxing at the time sometimes, and it’s stressful on your relationships, but if you believe in your music, and you get to travel playing it, it’s the greatest gift that you’ll have in your lifetime. So don’t let anything get in the way of that, if that’s what you want to do.

AB: Great! Well, thank you for talking to us! Good luck on your tour dates, will you be coming to Adelaide soon?

HM: Thanks very much, and yes, we’ll be coming to Adelaide fairly soon, feel free to come when we’re in town.

The Jezabels play The GOV on Wednesday the 19th of October before embarking on a tour of North America. Synthia is out now on iTunes and at all good record stores.

Interview by Empire Times music columnist Aden Beaver.