The Jezabels’ Hayley Mary: “We all hit rock bottom during ‘The Brink'”

JULES LEFEVRE chats to The Jezabels’ lead singer Hayley Mary about the making of their third record, Synthia, overcoming fear and depression, and realities of the modern music industry.  

The Jezabels have never been a timid band. Their early EP’s (the excellent trilogy of The Man Is Dead, She’s So Hard, and Dark Storm) were not the sound of a band cautiously dipping their toe in the water. Rather, they were colossal screams of New Wave rock, helmed by Hayley Mary’s flighty vocals weaving enigmatic lyrics about death, love, and suffering. The momentum continued with debut album Prisoner, which nabbed the prestigious Australian Music Prize and lead single ‘Endless Summer’ peaking at number 9 on triple j’s Hottest 100 in 2011.

They returned in early 2014 with The Brink that, perhaps for the first time in their career, faltered. Single ‘The End’ climbed the charts, but for the most part it felt like The Jezabels were painting by numbers. It’s a relief then, that Synthia is arguably their strongest release to date: dark, even menacing at times, with Heather Shannon’s keyboards and Sam Lockwood’s guitars providing the most interesting instrumental work of their career.

Synthia will be released on February 12 and was set to be followed with a national headline tour. But sadly, the tour has been cancelled due to Heather Shannon undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer, which was revealed shortly after this interview took place. We wish her all the best with treatment and hope for her speedy recovery.

What was happening at the end of The Brink cycle? How did you approach Synthia

Well we were on a break, and weren’t planning on making an album for a while. I went travelling in the US and the UK, and the other guys were just relaxing and taking a well needed break. Then we had a show in Australia that we went back for, and we just started jamming – I hate that word, but there’s not really a better word for it – then we started writing songs and we had about four or five songs in a week. So we just thought: “Oh, what if we just keep writing and see how we go?” We ended up with quite a few songs so we just thought we’d stay a little longer, then we called Lachlan [Mitchell, producer] to see if he was available and he was like “Yeah let’s do it!”

So it was kind of impromptu, we were planning on having some time off, just doing shows when we needed to but mainly relaxing. We’d had some tough times before that. So it just naturally happened, I was really excited – I’d met some new people and was inspired, Heather [Shannon, keyboardist] had bought some new synthesizers and ideas just started happening. Kind of like the old days, you know, when you write because you feel like it.

“Our band is four people who have very different tastes ranging from highly technical metal, to country and bluegrass, to pop diva, to classical

You guys have had a long and successful relationship with Lachlan Mitchell as your producer, what is that relationship like now?

Yeah it’s the same as ever. He recorded our first demos. To use an analogy he’s sort of the big brother of the band. If Dave our manager is the dad, Lachlan is definitely the brother – they get along, and they’re both people that we look up to. Lachlan is a musician too – he plays in a metal band – so he knows what it’s like being the musician, and he knows how to get the best out of us.

The best thing about him is that he’s really open minded with his taste. Our band is four people who have very different tastes ranging from highly technical metal, to country and bluegrass, to pop diva, to classical – and he knows about it all, and he knows where to let a song go and what the strongest part is and who is leading that element. For want of a better word kind of “indulge” whatever direction something is taking. So it’s kind of the same as what it has always been, he’s been involved in everything we’ve ever recorded. Even The Brink, which we had another producer for, he came over to London and did pre-production with us. It’s a constant relationship, he’s sort of like another member of the band.


Image by Daniel Boud for FL.

There are a lot of big themes within this record – I listened to you the other day on triple j and you were throwing about Freud and Epicurean philosophy –
[Laughs] Oh yeah, and then I realised it was a 15 minute interview with Matt and Alex and I should probably just calm down. Maybe stop wanking about.

“I overcame depression and wanted to write music again”

But there have always been big themes underlining your lyrics, what was the big concept for you on Synthia?

For me, and I say that because I don’t like to speak for the band as a whole – I just put a face on the body that is their music, there is a lot that goes into it for them – it was a rebirth, a survival, and a re-embracing of life. We all hit rock bottom during The Brink for personal reasons that I’m not really at liberty to discuss at this moment and I hit rock bottom for my own personal reasons because of a family history with depression. And we just overcame it. When we had a break I overcame depression and wanted to write music again. I was happy – not vacuous happy, but I saw the beauty in the world again. So it was just falling in love with life again was the spirit behind the album for me.

You mentioned that when premiering ‘Pleasure Drive’, which is my favourite track on the album…-

Yeah that’s mine too, it’s my favourite track that we’ve ever written, to be honest. Because it’s kind of straight up even though it’s a little bit abstract. But yeah, it’s about that living in the moment thing.

It’s got such a great groove – and not saying that you’ve never been a groove driven band before –

Yeah, but in a lot of ways we’re not, we’re very “white kid”. I mean we’re white kid indie rock; let’s be honest. [laughs] It’s all very on the beat most of the time. There are a lot of tracks that are syncopated and groovy and borrow from hip-hop, particularly the earlier stuff, but I think this is the grooviest. I think that’s what excited me the most. It was just instant. Heather had this sequence – that’s what you hear at the start of the song – and we just all went “Yes, that’s just good. That’s universally good.” And that’s what I mean about the spirit of just doing whatever. Maybe a couple of years ago we would have heard that and thought “Yeah that’s good, but it’s not us”, whereas now we were like “That’s good, let’s just fucking write a song to it.”

Instantly I had ideas flowing. I had done a road trip across from LA to Vegas … I hired a Ford Mustang convertible. And I drove listening to Bruce Springsteen really loudly, smoking cigarettes, across the desert. So I remembered that idea of a pleasure drive, of just driving and just pleasure. It was fairly hedonistic, but then I thought no, this is about survival. It’s about what’s the other choice? Just letting the world get smaller and smaller and enveloping yourself in fear. Every time you face a fear, your world gets bigger. As much as it seems frivolous to talk about pleasure, or what sometimes might manifest in hedonism, it’s about still having that thirst for life – which can actually be a life saver.

You mentioned before about getting into the studio and just saying “Fuck it”. Do you feel you have a lot more freedom now when you go into the studio, whereas a few years ago you may have been beholden to an idea of what you should be and sound like?

As conscious as we try and be, and we are a band that thinks a lot, we’ve unconsciously done a lot of things. We’ve gone with the flow on a lot of things because we’re friendly people. When momentum started happening in the early years, we had people who were interested and people who wanted to help us and they were genuine people, they were our friends though they may have worked for a label. We wanted to facilitate everyone’s good intentions [but] we were naive, I suppose. And now it is going back to the roots of “Why are you doing this?”, and if it’s not driven by you then it’s not going to come across right. This record was very much driven by us, no one was expecting it, we weren’t even expecting it, and we just wanted to write it.

You’re an independent band, one of the most successful of recent years, and you’ve been in the industry for a long time. Does it kind of bum you out sometimes, seeing this massive machine that is the music industry, how it can just chew you up and spit you out?

“The fire has to come from within”

It can. That’s it. An analogy I would say, from watching my younger cousins and siblings with social networking and that kind of thing, is that there’s a culture of “likes”, and the industry might gear you towards that because that is what’s apparent and “real”, and I’m not trying to dis youth culture or anything – it’s great, you’ve gotta live in the moment – but there is that kind of validation that people seek from external forces that is so prevalent in today’s social media culture.

Something that you always need to remember is that the warmth or the fire has to come from within, you can’t just be putting out an image because it’s wanted or what is popular and hope that it gets the most likes. You’ll never be gratified or validated by external forces, it has to come from you, you have to actually believe in what you’re doing and then it will last. So even though social media has a great amount of tools, and is really the only way of getting your message across today – you can’t ignore it – it’s full of young people who just think that if you go with the flow of what trends are, of the medium that we have, that you’ll be okay. But you won’t, you have to have something that you believe in – like yourself, or your force, or your inner flame – that’s a reason to put yourself out there.

Which is what I kind of realised on this third record. It’s kind of a cliche because you’re making it because you sort out have to, because you’re a “professional” now, because it’s expected. And there is strength in that because to be professional is hard – art has always had a relationship with commerce and you have to keep producing to maintain the business side of things – but ultimately it’s about having something to say and that belief in what you say.

I just went on such a ramble and I’ll give you the truth – I just landed in Berlin and I’ve been thinking about Bowie non-stop and I just had a scotch and I’m really emotional.

I can see that he was obviously a big inspiration for you…

Yeah, and I don’t even want to talk about it because suddenly he’s become such a big inspiration for everyone. [laughs] But I’m sure he was, he was that omnipotent. But I feel like I’ve lost a limb at the moment. He was just a brilliant alien.

I didn’t even want to bring him up but I actually found myself – as I was landing in Berlin tonight – crying. And I can’t even talk about it because it’s silly, you talk to your friends and say “Oh I’m really sad about Bowie” and they say “Yeah, cool. You didn’t know him”. But I feel like I’ve lost a family member.

Synthia will be released on Friday, February 12 independently via MGM.