“Synthetic femininity… illness and optimism,” is the eloquent description from lead singer Hayley Mary of the recurring themes on the newly released Jezabels‘ third album, Synthia. It’s a characterisation not only fitting for the latest Jezebels record, but perhaps a poignant summary of the band’s world right now.
Amidst unexpected tour cancellations, the deaths of some of music’s most legendary icons and the news that pianist Heather Shannon would need time away for cancer treatment, Hayley chatted with me about the emotional whirlwind that has brought them here, the responsibility we have to keep the rock’n’roll dream alive, and how the hell Courtney Barnett didn’t break the Hottest 100 top 10.
Music Feeds: 2016 looked set to be the year of The Jezabels, with new LP Synthia being released on February 12th as well as the announcement of an accompanying world tour. Just how difficult a process has it been to step away from that plan? How has the public reaction been?
Hayley Mary: It was a pretty big shock, as I don’t think any of us really expected Heather’s condition to change for the worse so suddenly or so soon, so that has been very emotional for us all. We’ve been doing this a long time now, and I suppose to have the whole years plans fall through, to be replaced with uncertainty was pretty confronting.
But I think when people are faced with something like this, keeping optimistic is probably the only viable option. It has just made us all really appreciative of how much we’ve been able to do over the years, and how much support we have had.
MF: Obviously battling this terrible illness is extremely difficult for anyone, let alone facing it in the public eye. How has the band been doing since the announcement, and what can people do to show their support?
HM: While it was really scary to have to share the reasons behind the cancellation of the tour with the public, the reactions of everyone, from our fans and everyone we work with to media outlets allover the world, has been really amazing and touching. Hopefully also it has raised a little more awareness for ovarian cancer as well, which I know would make Heather happy.
MF: Hayley you once described the band as “four individual desires to play music and taking whatever opportunities we could – which just happened to be each other.” It seems fulfilling the 2016 world tour without the whole band was never an option. How have The Jezabels changed over the years?
HM: Yeah, I think doing the tour without Heather or any of us was never really an option because we are the four people that make up the band, and we are all pretty devastated about what she’s having to go through. Obviously business-wise it might have helped the record to tour it and kept us afloat a bit better financially, but, you know it just wasn’t Mabo. It wasn’t the vibe.
MF: I was lucky enough to see you slay your set at Splendour In The Grass 2014, in which your affection for Australian crowds was clear. How does playing at home differ to playing abroad?
HM: There’s a history at home that you can never get abroad. It’s where you took your first steps and did all you worst early shows and found your first supporters. Also Australia does have some of the most enthusiastic music loving crowds in general anyway, I would say. Of course we love to travel and there are a few countries like Germany, Ireland and Scotland that are particular favourites for me, but you know, there’s no place like home. It’s reminds you of where you come from.
MF: We’ve had the pleasure of hearing a few tracks from Synthia. Pleasure Drive is bloody gorgeous and Come Alive is sexy as hell. Already we’re seeing some common themes not just musically but in lyrical content, so what else can we expect from Synthia?
HM: We actually tend to find to difficult to choose the one or two songs that represent an album. They are all pretty different to each other, but there are definitely recurring themes in the record. Synthetic femininity is sort of allover it, and illness and optimism.
MF: How was the making of Synthia different to The Brink and Prisoner? What do you want your fans to take away from this album?
HM: Everything you ever make is different. Personally, I was still just doing what I’ve always done with the lyrics in this band which is just try to put a face on the body of the music and the vibe it’s giving off. A bit like unconscious drawing or with musical stimuli. Musically, it’s still just an ongoing process of conversation between the four of us trying to make something that flows and makes you feel something.
In general though, I think we were more confident making this record, and we weren’t really trying to do anything at all, just writing what we felt like writing at the time and letting the songs go where they wanted.
MF: We’ve recently had the gift that is the Triple J Hottest 100 and a contentious point has been the lack of female representation. The Jezabel’s are no stranger to the countdown, how do you feel about female recognition in the industry?
HM: We were strangers to this countdown haha. No, but in seriousness, I’m not sure. There’s a lot to ponder. It’s not news that men (usually white heterosexual) dominate (the history of the world) rock ’n’ roll in Australia, but this was a very clear-cut piece of evidence, so I guess it could be a good thing that it played out that way, to spark the reaction it has. I did an interview in France yesterday where they apologised to me for having believed Australian music and culture was stereotypically masculine. I guess this proves it’s not just French ignorance. It’s ours.
Of course there are other factors. How well does a song’s chart position correspond to what time of year it’s released? Or with the amount of plays it gets throughout the year? (The latter, you could blame on triple j programming, but this is often based on crowd reaction so would suggest a wider cultural problem). Maybe men just made/make better music?
Oh, no, wait…Courtney Barnett released one of the most important and popular rock records of of the last decade and didn’t even make the top ten. I almost had a Kanye moment there.
MF: The music world has lost some true legends in the past couple of months, Lemmy of Motorhead, Glenn Frey of The Eagles and of course David Bowie. Many artists have been vocal about the impact they feel from these losses. How have you been affected?
HM: I had four missed calls from my brother when I woke up on the 10th of January and I thought, ‘oh no a family member has died.’ I called him back and it was sort of true. David Bowie had died. We both realised we had thought he would live forever, and we cried over the realisation he was human. I still get that pang of emptiness every time I remember he’s gone. It just felt like the mark of a new era, really.
That’s why these deaths have such an impact on us. The brilliance behind these people was their style. It came from a kind of spirit and energy within that maybe our generation feels our stars don’t have. Maybe we feel like it’s going to be the death of mystery, or rock ’n’ roll, even. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it’s definitely an anxiety of the younger generations.
It’s scary when these revered figures disappear because you realise it’s actually your time now. They aren’t there to keep the dreams alive. It’s all on us.
MF: So guys, what now?
HM: I don’t know. The plans for the year are now off. So we just have to make sure Heather has everything she needs to get better and hopefully make a full recovery for a future tour at some point. Meanwhile the rest of us will find something to do. Go on adventures or get real jobs. I’m not sure, but we’ll be back.