When illness, personal turmoil and a volley of other fiery arrows were violently flung at The Jezabels, the beloved Aussie rock quartet refused to back down.
Instead, they reassembled at home in Sydney for rehearsals that unexpectedly formed the bare-bones of their third LP. After coming back from 'The Brink' (pun intended), the band shed their inhibitions and churned out 'Synthia' – their most cohesive, full-bodied effort yet. The Jezabels have never been hesitant to poke and prod at social boundaries, but this time around, they're shouting their discontent from the rooftops, armed with anthems of optimism, declarations of assertive self-possession, and thoughtful, introspective lamentations.
We caught up with frontwoman Hayley Mary during some downtime in London to discuss her relationship with the city of Sydney, groupie culture, paraphrasing Shirley Temple, her responsibility as an empowered female in a shifting society and her refusal to beat around the bush when it comes to gender inequality.
Best Before: How are you doing, Hayley? How was your weekend?
Hayley Mary: I actually don't really get to have weekends, but my day was good. I was rehearsing.
Was that for The Jezabels, or is there something else in the pipeline? Can you tell us about it, or is it all under wraps?
HM: Vaguely. It's basically me doing some acoustic sessions.
When did you relocate to London?
HM: I've been back and forth for the last three or four years. I was just in Sydney for a few months while we made 'Synthia'.
How was revisiting Sydney? Did it feel weird being back for so long?
HM: Look, I love Sydney. I know I can always come back and enjoy it – but I've been there, done that. I lived there for eight years. I don't want to be there right now, though. I feel like when you're young and you have the energy to travel, you should definitely take full advantage of that. Plus, it was really, really hot when I was in town.
It hasn't been any better the last few weeks, I'll tell you that.
HM: I actually couldn't believe it. It was at least 45 degrees some days. I don't think humans are meant to live in those conditions. *Laughs*
Have you been following the controversial lockout law saga that's been sweeping the city lately?
HM: Yeah, a little bit. I've been asked about what I thought, and there's a lot of people getting quite uppity about it. Look – I've always had the opinion that there should be more live venues in Sydney. I also think there should be less pokie rooms. Venues have always been constantly getting shut down.
I guess Keep Sydney Open's mission statement falls quite nicely into place with what you've always believed then.
HM: Yeah, but because I haven't been there, I don't want to just flippantly say things about it. I was actually living in the Cross when those king-hits happened, and it was literally a random tragedy. I feel that the lockout laws were just an antibiotic for a bigger infection. There was something really bad going on, but I don't think it ever really fixed the problem – it just dulled the pain. The problem is definitely cultural, though. It's a massive lack of balance in how much we value sport over the arts in our culture.
I think if you're on the earth, and you have the privilege of being in the creative arts, then you should probably be questioning things, or pushing some kind of boundary.
There's a lot of undoing that needs to happen there.
HM: I also think it's more than just opening the venues again. It requires a shift in our perspective as a nation. But I'm not going to vacuously say, "Fuck the lockouts!" I haven't been there. But I do remember it being something that certainly needed to be addressed. The laws haven't fixed anything – it's just shifted the problem to 'fringe' areas like Newtown. Actually – this is what I genuinely think: the New South Wales government has a 'nanny-state' mentality. I know that's been thrown around, but they honestly can't trust anyone with alcohol, and as a result, there are people who behave like children when they're drunk. We need to be treated like adults when it comes to our nightlife.
Giving people more responsibility often urges them to behave more appropriately, anyway.
HM: Exactly. That starts to lend itself more and more to the idea of legalising drugs, as well. To be honest, that's something I'm for. I side with the Greens on that one. *Laughs*
I probably should ask about your new album, 'Synthia'. I'm sure you've barely touched on it.
HM: *Laughs* Yeah, I haven't really spoken about it at all...
How did your songwriting process evolve for album three?
HM: There's just more spirit behind the songwriting this time. In songwriting, there's certainly phases, and there's different ways of improving. There's a required level of professionalism there; learning your craft is important. Sometimes it's practising form and method, but in the end, you have to remember that you need a reason to write a song to start with. I think we had good enough reason to write a whole record. And we'd just happened to have had some practice with pulling together an album by then. *Laughs* It was just a good time to write an album. We were needing to express new things.
What did you find yourself gravitating towards in terms of subject matter this time?
HM: I wrote about the same things I've always written about: being a girl. Being a girl who ponders my own existence, and my own potential power, but also questions the social and constructed limits of that power as well. I've always explored the roots of that, whether they lie within my mind or outside of it. I think I'm a more empowered person now, and on 'Synthia', I feel that those questions were explored more confidently, and pondered differently. That ultimately led to better songs.
There's something new that women can be – it's not a choice between being a vulnerable girl, or a powerful, assertive female figure. You can be both. You can be in between.
Do you feel a responsibility to question and challenge social issues through the music you make as The Jezabels?
HM: I definitely think we do. I mean, we don't sit together and go, "Let's do this, or say that", but we are people who genuinely care about the world. We also joke around a lot – we're really ridiculous people, but we come across as quite a serious band. I think if you're on the earth, and you have the privilege of being in the creative arts, then you should probably be questioning things, or pushing some kind of boundary – even if it's not some monumental, groundbreaking boundary-pushing. I don't mean to sound like a wanker. We're not out to start a revolution or anything, but we're trying to make the world better for someone.
If you're not seeing anything wrong or questioning anything, then you're probably not looking at the world hard enough.
HM: Yeah. You know what I think? I think in a perfect world, there would be no art. Art is a response to the problems, and the pains, and the anxiety that comes with existing.
I've noticed that in the past you've remained quite poetic and veiled lyrically, but on 'Synthia', it feels like you've said, "Fuck it! I'm just going to be straight up." Is that the case?
HM: It definitely is. I think I just got sick of skirting around the issue. I got to a point where I was dealing with the notion of feminism, and whether I am a feminist, or whether 'girly' issues were even worth talking about. I experienced some self-doubt. Sometimes I wanted to be a 'traditional girl', and sometimes I wanted to subvert that. This time around, I wanted to be confident in that. There's something new that women can be – it's not a choice between being a vulnerable girl, or a powerful, assertive female figure. You can be both. You can be in between. There's many exciting new terrains to approach. I don't have to fall into either. I'm just excited to follow my gut more.
Back in the day, I was working with people who genuinely didn't think feminism was a cool card to play. People were actually warning me against talking about it, and shunning me for "playing the victim". Those same people have now come out and admitted they were wrong. It's cases like that where you think, "I'm glad I pushed through with this, and I didn't back down."
I've read that you feel like you have more free rein to speak out on the idea of femininity than ever before. I was happy to see that we're progressing as a society, but it also made me sad that you ever felt differently.
HM: If you're sad about that, you don't even want to think about the history of how women have been treated. That will make you really fucking sad. *Laughs*
I heard you tell a story where you were spending time with bands and artists you thought were socially progressive in the UK, and they straight-out said to you, "You're too pretty to be a feminist". It left a gross taste in my mouth.
HM: *Laughs* That was actually quite recently, as well. No matter where you go, you think you're in an enlightened world, and then you come against people who are genuine misogynists. It really makes you realise that you're not just rambling on about this – it's still a very important issue to discuss. Interestingly, I've observed a tipping of the scales in my short-lived music career. Back in the day, I was working with people who genuinely didn't think feminism was a cool card to play. People were actually warning me against talking about it, and shunning me for "playing the victim". Those same people have now come out and admitted they were wrong. It's cases like that where you think, "I'm glad I pushed through with this, and I didn't back down." In a way, I wish I was strong from the start, but I think that self-doubt was natural. You bolster your beliefs slowly and gradually.
Your album opener "Stand And Deliver" addresses that quite directly. You paraphrased a Shirley Temple song for the opening verses – where did that come from?
HM: It's a song from her film 'Poor Little Rich Girl'. If you listen to the original song, it sounds really cute, but it's actually really fucked up at the same time. It's about wanting to see her dad more. It's fucking twisted, man. I added in the allusions to the island and all of that to make sure it fit in with The Jezabels sound. I mean, she proposes to her dad. I can't believe that was even an idea in Temple's time.
How did you come across that?
HM: I don't even know. *Laughs* I think it was during one of my journeys into the abyss. I was a Shirley Temple fan as a child. Actually, I remember how I got to it! I was actually fascinated with groupie culture. In our time off, I'd gone off and hung out with rockstars, and taken a lot of drugs, and just partied hard. I guess I lived a bit of a groupie lifestyle, and in that world, that's how guys treat you. I was meeting gorgeous models who were dating rockstars, and that's where they drew their sense of self-worth from. I also became fascinated with figures like Edie Sedgwick, and then I ended up coming across the Poor Little Rich Girl film that Andy Warhol made and Sedgwick starred in. "Stand And Deliver" was birthed from that relationship between groupies and rockstars. It explores the image of the relationship a little girl has with tradition and admiration for a rockstar.
There's a few lines in there that stood out to me as particularly potent – "And it's something quite unfair, even systematically / That she wants the same success, but she's lacking in the breeding". You definitely weren't shrouding anything in poetic allusion there – that is amazingly direct.
HM: There's definitely some straight up lines on 'Synthia'. I'm glad I didn't beat around the bush. I tried to litter in enough absurdity so that it wouldn't just be directly didactic, though.
I will never forget sitting at a party at sixteen years of age and hearing your song "She's So Hard". I became absolutely hooked from that point. Thank you for essentially providing the soundtrack to my adolescence.
HM: Wow! That's so kind! What kind of a party was that, though? "She's So Hard" is so damn sad. Are you sure you weren't at a funeral? *Laughs*
Must have been a strictly sit-down affair. *Laughs* But seriously – amidst the personal chaos and everything that's been going on for you as a band, you still managed to put out what is, in my opinion, your best album yet. Thank you.
HM: Thank you so much for that. I've definitely had a couple of wines, so I hope I didn't say anything too controversial. *Laughs*
Wine only makes the banter better, right?
HM: Yeah – until you start accidentally offending people. I won't go any further with that...
Best Before sends all our love and wishes for a speedy, comfortable recovery to keyboardist Heather Shannon. ❤
'Synthia' is out right now through Dine Alone Records – you can purchase it right here.
You can also read our full review of 'Synthia' here.