Hannah Joy is a world away from the usual press day pandemonium. The Middle Kids singer, guitarist and keyboardist is bantering away with a mouthful of avocado toast, the crumbs spilling away onto tracky dacks and a Seinfeld parody shirt while she sits in the living room of her northern Sydney home. The aforementioned “he” is Sonny, Joy’s baby with Middle Kids bassist/producer Tim Fitz, which has briefly derailed the couple’s session of Zoom interviews.
“He’s been great,” Joy remarks, beaming with pride over one of two things she’s produced in the last 12 months – the other of which is the purpose of said press day. “He was originally gonna be a road baby, but just because of everything happening he hasn’t even been to a gig yet. Don’t worry, though – we’ll have him carrying guitars in no time.”
As Fitz looks after Sonny, Joy opts to handle the remainder of her interviews for that day solo. It’s something she’s entirely capable of, mind you – if this new Middle Kids record showcases anything, it’s her sense of agency and integrity. “You gotta back yourself!” she exclaims at one point. “I mean, shit, we called the record Today We’re the Greatest for a reason, right?”
That’s as good a point as any to jump in properly, so let Joy take you on a guided tour of the last few years of Middle Kids – from parenthood to pop songs and back again.
Music Feeds: Was Today We’re the Greatest reverse-engineered as a title? Did you come up with the title and then write the song around it, or did you have the song and then select it as the title track?
Hannah Joy: We wrote the song first. I think it was just such a special song to us. I don’t know why, but we really felt it belonged at the end of the album, just to finish with some triumphant ending. We had a bunch of names for the album, but that one felt really cool. It was funny, though… in the context of the song, that title makes sense, because it’s said in an inclusive way. It’s about a way of life. It’s about reminding ourselves, “we’re still great.” Since we’ve called the record Today We’re the Greatest, though, people have been, “I’m, I’m sorry, what?” The hubris people seem to think we have! That’s really not what we were going for. I understand where they’re coming from, but it’s just kind of been funny.
MF: If anyone gets confused, tell them it’s We Are the Champions by Queen.
HJ: [laughs] Yeah, exactly!
MF: What imagery does that phrase connotate to you specifically? When you think back to writing that particular song and coming up with that particular image, what sticks out for you? There are lots of ways to interpret it depending on what word you emphasise in it. You could specifically be alluding to “today” itself, y’know? Yesterday might have sucked, tomorrow might suck, but right now in this very moment, we’re still here.
HJ: I think that’s a big part of it, for sure. In the bridge of that song, there’s a line that says “Life is gory and boring sometimes.” To me, that’s a really cool image for the album. In amongst the monotony of day-to-day life, there’s also a lot of pain and a lot of beauty that just kind of unfolds. Being present in that, that we are still great in that moment. It’s kind of like a declaration of sorts. We were listening to Eckhart Tolle on Audible, probably earlier last year, his book The Power of Now. It’s all about being present because the present is the only thing that exists – the past doesn’t exist, the future doesn’t exist. When we can be fully present and alive in that moment, that is where we are great. That’s who we are. I think part of it is just being in the moment, but also it’s fighting to believe in greatness, even with the messiness of life.
MF: What did you hope to do with this record that you didn’t do on Lost Friends and New Songs for Old Problems previously?
HJ: I think we actually had a lot for this record. I think it’s because when we made our first record, a lot of it was written and recorded out on the road. We’re a touring band, and we had just moments to kind of make things in between, which is really cool. You can feel the energy of that in the record. It’s a big, loud rock record because we were doing these big American rock shows all the time. As a band, though, we have such a diverse musicality and we really wanted to express that more on this record. Even with my voice, I wanted to be way more expressive with it than I was on the previous album. Everything is just kind of thrown around a little bit more. It’s actually been really funny, because now that we’re performing these songs, I’m like, “Oh shit, I can’t sing this.” [laughs]
I’ve really got to kind of get in the zone and really stretch my voice. That’s cool to me, though. That’s what I want.
I would also say that I think we use the guitar in this record a lot more sparingly. I mean, there are still so many guitars, but there’s also a lot more diverse instrumentation. I think in doing that, we gave the guitar its own voice on this record, and they’re cool moments too. We’ve been able to draw a lot more from our backgrounds, and then even our skills I feel we’ve been able to really use what we’ve got more, as opposed to being like, “Oh, this is a cool three-and-a-half-minute indie-rock song, let’s leave it at that.” Don’t get me wrong, I love those songs. With that said, I think these songs do a bit more wandering, and they’re a little bit more interesting in terms of colours. That was a real push to do that.
MF: How do you decide what needs what in that writing process? Are you hearing a song with just the three of you on it and you just go, “this needs mariachi trumpets”? How do you come to those kinds of conclusions?
HJ: For this record, we went into a studio with a producer, which we’ve never done before. Because of that in particular, I really wanted to make sure that we already knew the soul of each song before we went in. You never want to get to that point in the studio of being like, “Oh, this song isn’t really that awesome. Maybe we can make it awesome by adding this cool sound to it!” Our MO was that the song has to be awesome already – that would be just as good if I was just singing and playing it on the piano. That meant the songs themselves were very much already alive. We could just throw stuff at it, y’know? We couldn’t lose the song, because we already knew what it was. Whatever we threw at it, you could tell pretty quickly what helped to serve the song and what was just a distraction or an over-complication.
There was this B-room at the studio where we were, and Tim would sometimes go in and experiment. It has all these really cool synthesizers and random guitars that Tim was just making random noises on, and some of that stuff really helped the songs flourish, which was really cool.
MF: What were some of the instances, then, where that didn’t work? Are there any stripped-back songs on the record where you initially tried to kind of go a bit bigger with them?
HJ: Yeah, for sure. I think ‘Bad Neighbours’ is a good example, which is the opening track.
MF: You opened your November shows with that, right?
HJ: Yeah! Good memory. That was a very vulnerable moment, but it was still so cool. We tried a few things with that one. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t a band song, with everyone playing. I think we realised that it’s such a raw song. Less was more for that one. So that was one where we initially had a lot more on it, and the vibe was just like “…ehh.” So we pulled it back, and I’m really glad we did. I mean, a lot of the songs kind of went in a lot of different directions, in that respect. ‘Stacking Chairs’ is another one. We had some weird electronic syncopated groove on that originally. After a while, we were like “Let’s just go straight down the line with that one.” We put a lot of stuff on, and we took a lot of stuff off. It was a journey, for sure, but it was a fun one to go on.
MF: What do you hear when you listen back to these songs insofar as the ideas are concerned? Do you see this united democratic front, or is it more of patchwork where you can pick out your ideas, Tim’s ideas and Harry [Day, drummer]’s ideas?
HJ: I would say that it probably is a patchwork, especially because of having a producer this time. You can hear Lars [Stalfors] in the ideas for this record, too. We’d be putting down parts and he’d be great at directing traffic. “Oh, you should try this on the Mellotron,” or “oh, you should sing that part like this,” or whatever have you. That was good to have, because once we got the bones down of a song down – bass, guitar, drums, piano, vocals – it was just kind of a bit of a free-for-all. That was a really fun part of the record, though. We’d never even done that before, so we loved that.
MF: That’s kind of liberating in a sense, as well. In a lot of ways, as a band, you’re breaking from whatever expectations might have been set by your previous work. You’re not necessarily having to acquiesce to a certain idea of what a Middle Kids song is. If anything, this record really throws that into a further sense of ambiguity.
HJ: For sure. I think it’s definitely a big practical thing. We were just talking about it before, but we’ve been quite defined by how we’ve spent our time over the last five years as a band, the majority of that being touring. For this record, we really wanted to have the space to actually create. It was a really big discipline because you have to then say no to things. For us, we love playing live – that’s our bread and butter for this project, so we actually really had to carve out the space to say no. We’re not releasing any songs, we’re not touring, we’re going to give it time. I’m really grateful for that because now I’m so much more excited to play these songs than ever before. This totally expresses who we are, and where we are at this point.
MF: You mentioned the early years of the band, and how much of that was spent touring. How do you reflect on that time now? Obviously, you and Tim had obviously been making music for years before that, but from an outsider’s perspective, it was crazy to see this band immediately get thrown into triple j rotation, have this huge management deal, touring with Paul Kelly before they even had an album out.
For you, was it a matter of feeling vindicated that everything kind of paid off so quickly at that point? Or do you feel like it was too much too soon, especially considering how intense that schedule was?
HJ: I think it’s such a good question. This time of COVID has been really reflective. You take this big, long breath and you rethink everything that’s happened. You’re right, of course – we did ‘Edge of Town’, and pretty much straight away we begin touring. Even though we’d been making music for years, I’d never really toured – in fact, I may have only played a handful of live shows. Our first few tours as a band were a real immersion into quite a new world. There was such an energy around it, though. I didn’t think I even thought about it or questioned it. We just went along with it. We just kind of jumped in, and said “yes” to everything.
When I think in terms of the musicality and the creativity when we were writing new stuff… I think there was less of an emphasis on that, and more of an emphasis on just getting out there and playing. Would I have done that differently knowing what I know now? I’m not sure. Who fucking knows anything, right? That being said, having a bit more space removed from it, I think I can see the real importance and my own personal desire to create. Maybe I have the luxury of doing it now being a bit further along the lines of not having to tour so intensely – eight, nine months of the year. I’m in a place now where I can actually give more time to just writing and making things. If I was to have done that three or four years ago, that might have been to our detriment, potentially. It’s hard to know, but I’m so grateful that we’ve had the space and time to do that for this record because I think we really needed that for the next stage.
MF: At what point in the creation of this record did you sense that you were onto something musically? Did you snag onto anything in particular across the writing process?
HJ: Let’s see… I started intentionally writing for the record at the end of 2019. I had a handful of songs, and some of them I’d started even earlier – I wrote ‘Questions’ maybe five years ago. It wasn’t until I had this quick succession of ‘R U 4 Me?’, ‘Today We’re the Greatest’ and ‘I Don’t Care’ that it started to fall into place. We were in LA, and we just wrote a bunch of songs. When we had that, I could actually sense a body of work coming together. Prior to that, I think I just felt we had a bunch of cool, random songs. I couldn’t see the connection yet at that point. It took writing some of these other songs for it to come together – especially because ‘Today We’re the Greatest’ is quite different for us. It helped tie in some of the other songs that I thought were really cool, but I didn’t know how they could fit. It really was down to the wire in those last few weeks. I was heavily pregnant, and we didn’t know if we were going to be able to get a record together. As we wrote those songs, we were like, “Oh shit, we got it!” Then we had maybe a month or so to record it.
MF: No pressure, right?
HJ: Yeah, none whatsoever. [laughs]
MF: Do you thrive in those sort of scenarios?
HJ: Yeah, I actually do. I think that kind of energy is a big part of this band – and I think we all work well under pressure. To be honest, I think that’s why I liked touring so much. It’s very intense, and it’s a lot at once, but I kinda like that. I just tear through and then crash at the end. [laughs]
MF: There’s a new factor of parenthood within the band. You would have gotten those questions a million times, but that’s kind of the point. As a society, we really put this focus on motherhood that puts all of the onus on them, whereas fathers are perceived as these glorified babysitters. You’ll be asked about performing while pregnant, how being a mum has impacted your life, balancing your family and your career… meanwhile, Tim probably rarely gets these kinds of questions, if at all. There’s this inherent imbalance at play – if you’re a mum, you can’t do anything else. If you’re a dad, it’s fun! Someone else will take care of it! Have you noticed that as that’s become part of the Middle Kids narrative?
HJ: Yeah I have, for sure. It’s really interesting because there’s not so many women who are still trying to bank a band and have kids when I look around. There is probably more guys, but even still, there are not heaps. When I look at Tim and I, especially because we’re in the same project, we share so much of the responsibility and the wages of parenthood, so it’s really interesting people expect it to be uneven or lopsided. I can understand a line of questioning in the pregnancy, that’s whatever. Right now, though, it’s a real and equal part of all of our lives. I mean, even Harry carries it too. We’re all actively working with this child as a part of our lives.
I would even say… [pauses] Look, the big thing is our creativity, and how to hold our creativity, our youthfulness, having no boundaries, maintaining that explorative position and posture in life. When you become a parent, a lot of the energy is quite the opposite of that. That has been a very interesting road for us to walk, both as parents. Being a parent is so reactive, it’s so in the moment; whereas when you want to be creative you want space, you need to be open and looking out. A lot of parents find themselves looking in. It’s cool, though. It just expands your human experience. It’s crazy… I feel my capacity is so much more expanded from what it was. I mean, I feel like a shell of a woman. Tim probably feels like a shell of a man most of the time. Ultimately, though, we’re really enjoying the wrestle of it all.
MF: When people listen to Today We’re the Greatest, what kind of response are you hoping to trigger?
HJ: I think the main thing I hope is that it would help people connect to their own story, and their own deeper parts of themselves. When I think about the music that has impacted me, the music that has really helped me, it’s when I can hear my own voice through their voice. Part of them sharing their story helps me see my story in another way. That goes beyond lyrics – I think there’s something in music that can cut through a lot of our own lines of defence. We have a lot of our own walls, and music can just can hit us in a part of ourselves that can be hard to get to without it. We feel really passionate about trying to make music that kind of cuts to the guts. If people can find their own voices through it, that’s probably the desire.
MF: The question, then, is how do you manage that as a songwriter? You’re trying to balance this dichotomy between creating something that is accessible for everyone this royal-we kind of way in Today We’re the Greatest, but at the same time, you’re also trying to write in a manner that is true to yourself and coming from your own personal experiences. The songwriters that you’d look up to probably weren’t anticipating anyone to kind of relate to their specific situation, so it’s interesting that you’re so conscious of that going forward in the songwriting.
HJ: It’s definitely beyond you in some ways, but I also just think that’s the power of story. I remember reading somewhere that the reason why stories can be so powerful is there’s something in our brain that automatically puts ourselves in the position of the protagonist. That’s what builds empathy. If you’re imagining yourself as the protagonist in the story, you’re kind of inserting yourself in that story, which is a really cool thing. If I’m just sharing myself and my story, then people’s brains are inserting themselves, because we insert ourselves into everything. It’s a cool way to give another perspective. All you can really do is give yours and hope that you can share it authentically.
I don’t fucking know what anyone’s really gone through. All I can do is be me. I can say, “this is what I’ve been seeing.” I know that when people do that, that really resonates with me. It’s not gonna resonate with everyone, but I think that exact thing is the coolest thing about art itself.
Middle Kids have today released their new album Today We’re The Greatest and will perform the title track next Tuesday 23 March on The Late Late Show With James Corden. This May, the band will take their album on the road for their first headline Australian Tour in almost two years. Dates below.
Middle Kids ‘Today We’re the Greatest’ Album Tour
Thursday, 13th May
Friday, 21st May — SOLD OUT
Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne
Saturday, 22nd May — SOLD OUT
Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne
Saturday, 22nd May (Matineeè) — NEW SHOW
Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne
Friday, 28th May — SOLD OUT
City Recital Hall, Sydney
Saturday, 29th May
City Recital Hall, Sydney