Australian quartet The Jezabels’ inaugural gig together was in 2007 at a talent competition at Sydney University, where they were all students. They came in second place out of dozens of acts — and it’s pretty much been all uphill for the group ever since.
With a trilogy of EPs under its belt, and radio success in Australia, the band has toured with the likes of Tegan & Sara, and is gearing up for a small U.S. spring tour that includes a stop in Austin, Texas for the SXSW festival. They’re currently writing and recording new material, and plan to continue doing so through June. The goal is to have a full-length album ready for release in the fall.
The Jezabels’ songs are a perfect blend of signature building blocks — heavy on percussion (see: “Hurt Me,” “The Man is Dead”), densely layered and featuring intricate piano arrangements, all buoying singer Hayley Mary’s hummable, even hook-ish, singing. “Dark Storm” — their most recent EP and strongest to date — is the perfect culmination of the trio. The title track is nothing short of infectious; the moody, pensive “Sahara Mahala” allows Mary to show off her impressive pipes, and the jittery opening guitar notes on “A Little Piece” are shiver-inducing.
A mere glance at The Jezabels’ limited catalog will indicate that gender roles play a significant theme in their music — titles include “Old Little Girls,” “The Man is Dead” and “She’s So Hard,” and one song includes the line, “He was never meant to be a boy.” But upon closer examination, it’s apparent that everything about the band’s aesthetic has some sort of theoretical reasoning behind it, including the very concept of an EP trilogy and the decision to name each of the first two releases after a song that would be on the next one. Call it the thinking man’s (or woman’s?) indie.
It’s early evening on a Friday when Mary and I connect over Skype, meaning that it’s 10am on Saturday for her in Australia. But though The Jezabels deal with serious themes in their music, it’s clear they don’t take themselves too seriously. (For the record, Mary might be the only 23-year-old alive who can talk at length about anthropomorphizing feminism and not have it sound pretentious in the slightest.) Over the better part of an hour, the singer eloquently dishes on feminine icons from Virginia Woolf to Lady Gaga, the thematic concepts of each of the band’s releases, and how the band members manage to merge their diverse musical tastes.
(Responses have been edited for length.)
BLAST: How did you all meet and form the band?
HAYLEY MARY: I guess it starts with me and (keyboardist) Heather (Shannon). We went to primary school and high school together and we sort of played a bit of folky stuff. We grew up in Byron Bay, which is on the north coast of New South Wales, and we came to Sydney to go to uni and ended up still wanting to be in a band. So we met a couple of guys, Sam (Lockwood), the guitarist, and (drummer Nik Kaloper), at uni.
BLAST: Do you all have similar tastes in music?
HM: No, the opposite. We have very different music tastes, actually. Heather is a classical pianist. She did a degree in piano at the Sydney Conservatory. So she’s probably the least literate in pop and rock but the most literate in classical and jazz and every other type of music, and the theory of music. Nick is very into sort of technical drumming and thrash, and heavy music in a lot of ways, mainly because he likes the focus of the drums in music. And Sam has more of a pop sensibility, like I do, but he also likes a bit of country and folk, like Gillian Welch, that kind of stuff. And bluegrass. And I’m just really into pop, I suppose. I thought I was a pop purist, and I really like the ‘80s and that kind of stuff, which really went against everyone else’s taste in a lot of ways. I just like the general, you know, epicness of the ‘80s. Prince, Cyndi Lauper, David Bowie, Queen, Kate Bush. Bruce Springsteen’s awesome.
BLAST: Is it difficult to harness those varying tastes and form a cohesive sound?
HM: Our first EP (“The Man is Dead”) sort of seemed like we didn’t know each other, and it was kind of a war of the different elements. It was very sort of inconsistent in itself, and it’s quite naïve. But the more we write together, the more we realize where us as individuals have to compromise, and where we’re strong. Like, I really find that I like to dictate melody, but sometimes I’ll have to sort of sit back and say ok, because someone else’s feelings are stronger. We just find a way of compromising. And that’s when our best songs are written, I suppose.
We come from really different areas, and the best songs are when we manage to get a balance between those. We’ve changed each other’s tastes a lot, but that was where we started out. I mean, I’m still the only one to say I like Lady Gaga. The rest of them sort of are like, whoa, about that kind of stuff. I think she’s a genius, whereas the other ones don’t quite see where I’m coming from.
BLAST: Is there an artist that you all agree on?
HM: The National might be the only band we all like. I really relate to (singer Matt Berninger). I can’t quite work him out, but you know how he’s very aware of being the American man, like the white American man? I feel like that is the kind of person that we’re talking about when we say “The Man is Dead.” I’ve always related to him on that level, because he seems really sad and self-aware of his very privileged position.
BLAST: How did you come up with the band name?
HM: That was a childhood sort of thing for me. My dad always wanted to call me Jezabel, and it didn’t work out. My dad was a bit of an eccentric and we used to go busking and call ourselves the Jezabels. (When we formed the band) it just started to stick and made sense. It was hard at first to convince people. I think it’s cool in a really dorky way, but I like that.
HM: We went with the EP thing for a few reasons. It started out as, we were just too scared to do an album. Not too scared, but we didn’t really feel prepared to do an album after the first EP. Because we were independent, a lot of the kind of financial side of it affected that decision. EPs are cheaper, and they’re cheaper to buy, and they’re shorter in the time they take up (to record). So it made sense. But we also thought that the idea of a trilogy kind of suited our sort of themes, I guess. Like our melodramatic bit, sort of pseudo-epic kind of music, I suppose. It has a bit of a “Star Wars”-esque vibe to it. We thought trilogy, perfect. It’s all over the top. Why not just be really over the top, and we’ll have a kind of coherent aesthetic throughout all the EPs? It’s all a bit conceited and stuff, but it’s kind of fun.
And I think we’ve really kind of established ourselves, at least in Australia. Because now we’ve worked out how we write, what we are in people’s minds on the musical landscape, at least in this country. And we’ve kind of just really honed our … I’m going to say art, for wont of a better word … before our debut album. We’re all very strange and sometimes shaky, sort of emotional individuals. So we feel a lot more comfortable with the platform of having three EPs under our belt.
BLAST: The songs on the first EP, “The Man is Dead,” are much more upbeat than the ones on “Dark Storm.” The single “Disco Biscuit Love,” in particular, is about club culture. The song’s central character is “with the meanest boy in the hills” who “only loves (her) when he’s on pills.” Can you talk about that a bit?
HM: From my perspective personally, the first EP was more satirical of that culture, of partying culture. A lot of people took (“Disco Biscuit Love”) as, like, embracing drug and club culture, because it was about that. But if you listened at all in detail, it was very not about that. It was a critique of that, and it was kind of a romantic critique of that, I suppose. And that was sort of a coming to Sydney thing. Those were the observations I made, coming to Sydney and seeing that culture. I was very naive and new to it, but it made me sad. We never went into it trying to make a party album. It was always meant to be with an undercurrent of commentary or questioning or sadness about the whole situation.
BLAST: How would you describe the thematic evolution, if there is one, throughout the three EPs?
HM: I think it’s an evolution, but I kind of think that everything that people are seeing now was there in the first EP. I think we got better at articulating that more critical, I guess more socially aware (aspect). There’s definitely a difference, sort of like we exaggerated certain elements that were always there, but we just took them and exaggerated them, like the tragedy side of it, in “Dark Storm.” We became more self-aware by the people we worked with and what people said they got from it. And I know I personally lyrically decided to be kind of conscious and reflected on what the themes were in “The Man is Dead,” to write “She’s So Hard” and to write “Dark Storm,” to really kind of think about what I’m talking about, about females especially, and their own role in their oppression and this kind of stuff. And I started getting really theoretical about it, so I think it just kind of got a bit darker and a bit more self-aware as we went on, and that’s probably why it’s kind of boppy at the start and then it gets really kind of heavy. Because we were just delving into it.
BLAST: You generally write all the lyrics, but do the full songs come together in a collective songwriting process?
HM: We have a very slow writing process, generally. It’s very democratic. It’s a bit different for every song. It started out, the songs were (written mostly by) me and then they’d add their instruments to it. But then it quickly evolved into a kind of conversation between parts. Depending on who comes up with something first, we kind of shape it around that, whether it’s a drumbeat or a riff or something. I tend to write (the lyrics) in gibberish first with the melody. I feel like it has to have the right sounds. But then of course I’ve got to kind of meld in the sort of message that I want as well, so it’s kind of a long process. It takes me a while.
BLAST: Your lyrics are very confessional and sometimes heartbreaking, particularly on the “Dark Storm” EP. Where does your inspiration comes from?
HM: I’ve written songs with different types of people, or lots of people that I know, or attitudes I have towards people in mind. It’s kind of more fractured than just having one person in mind. I think I’ve probably only written one song with one particular person in mind. But most of the time it’s fictional, I’ve got to say. I think I manage to kind of hide a bit in kind of some fantastical world, which is a protective thing for me. Because you don’t want it to be about you, otherwise you feel too vulnerable.
BLAST: Your vocal range is one of the most striking things about The Jezabels’ overall sound. What’s your singing background?
HM: I always sang a lot. You couldn’t really shut me up. My mum actually, when I visited her recently, gave me this picture that I’d drawn that was a business card. I was about four. It was a picture of me, and it had my address and my phone number, and it said, “Singer. If you want a singer, call this number” or something. It’s really funny. I didn’t realize that I’d wanted to be a singer for that long until I saw that. My dad was always very musical, so he’d always try and make me sing on the table when we went to parties and that kind of stuff, which was a bit embarrassing at the time. But then, when I started actually singing in a band, I actually hurt my voice a bit. I started getting laryngitis a lot. I often write songs that I can’t sing or aren’t within my range, and I push it so that I can sing it. So I had to get some vocal training to prevent that from happening. And now I can safely say I can sing everything on (the records) I think, without doing too much damage. Hopefully.
BLAST: You worked with the same producer and cover designer on all three EPs. “The Man is Dead” features a figure in an mask and the image on the “Dark Storm” EP is of a woman wading into the water. Is that a reference to a suicide mission?
HM: Virginia Woolf died that way, and I was really affected by (her) imagery in her understanding of the water. She likened it to an illness. Like, she said that being ill was like being out at sea, and you’re kind of looking at the land, wanting to come back in. And eventually she just succumbed, if that’s the word, to her illness and walked out into the water and died. And I think that that’s become a really huge kind of analogy for the feminine, and giving into your illness or your “histrionic ways” and everything.
Chris Doyle is the designer of the covers. And he came up with that first image for “The Man Is Dead.” He knew there was an awareness of feminism in our band. Not necessarily pro-feminist, but just we really (explore) that kind of, is feminism a good thing? Yes and no. That debate, and all its various forms. That kind of colors the themes. And for him to come up with that image really kind of consolidated that. These feminine flowers on an executioner’s mask across a man, who looks like the epitome of traditional masculine sort of patriarchy. We were like, wow. Yeah, that kind of image is us in a nutshell, and it kind of shaped us from there on.
BLAST: That’s really interesting. Can you elaborate on the role feminism plays in your music?
HM: I studied a little bit of gender studies towards the end of my arts degree, and I really got interested in the stigma of feminism, and how people are kind of like, oh, get over it, and it’s just sort of a bad word. And to be a feminist is, you know, passe and negative and naive, and all that kind of stuff. And I wanted to somehow be a femme band but be aware of that at the same time, and I think my lyrics are just a process of me trying to do that. Whether I succeed or not is questionable, because most people don’t get it. With (the song) “Mace Spray,” for example (whose chorus includes the line, “She loves me / More than anyone who wouldn’t lay a hand”), it’s kind of about feminism, the “she” in it. And her as a sort of fairly fickle master, and having trouble with her because she wants to liberate you and she means so many good things to you as a woman, or as a girl. But at the same time, she makes you really scared and she makes you have a lot of anger. And trying to sort of be a modern feminist, or a contemporary feminist, or someone who doesn’t have to hate men and all the negatives of feminism. I suppose, for me, it’s an attempt to try and put feminism in your face, whilst transcending or even satirizing that attitude that it’s a negative thing. But also, I’m torn. Like, it sometimes is a bad thing for me. It makes you angry. It’s basically my ongoing struggle with feminism.
The Jezabels play at T.T. the Bear’s on March 14. For a full list of tour dates, visit thejezabels.com.