Sam Lockwood guitar / Nik Kaloper drums / Hayley Mary vocals / Heather Shannon keys
“What’s a girl to do, standing in the spotlight?”
It’s a fine question to ponder as the curtain rises on The Jezabels’ third album. High expectations are a given now, seven years since those first EPs began their slow burn from Sydney to the world; four since PRISONER scooped the Australian Music Prize and set stages ablaze from Splendour to Lollapalooza.
“What’s it gonna be? Maybe it’s a broken heart.”
Yeah, they know that feeling too, after the turmoil of illness and dislocation surrounding their aptly titled second album, THE BRINK. Don’t even ask. Just cue a second #2 debut and another spectacular global onslaught.
What’s a band to do? The answer is short but loaded to the teeth. SYNTHIA.
The title gets Hayley Mary talking in pictures as big as the music itself. From the Greek goddess of the moon to ’80s synth-pop goddess Cyndi Lauper. From The Heroine’s Journey to the rock world’s simplistic perception of the synthetic feminine versus the authentic male.
All that’s between the lines, of course. The Jezabels didn’t choose their biblical namesake at random when Hayley and Heather met Sam and Nik at Sydney Uni almost a decade ago. Their deeply felt gender agenda has only grown more potent and personal as the world bends slowly to its fury.
Here their Trojan horse of big, cinematic rock has escalated in scale. With PRISONER producer Lachlan Mitchell back at the desk and Heather’s growing arsenal of new and vintage keyboards pushing the textural frontier, SYNTHIA is a bold assertion of craft that sets this band apart in a world groaning with blokes doing their best impersonation of rock authenticity.
“Heather had a couple of new synthesisers, so a lot of ideas were coming from her and then we’d build the songs around them,” Hayley says. “We were back in Sydney [from London] in January, we just got together to rehearse and we wrote about four songs in a week.
“This is a record we made ourselves, at our own behest,” she says significantly. “People were actually surprised when they heard it was happening. We were surprised. We just had a natural momentum.”
“The sound keeps growing,” says Mitchell, who witnessed the songs’ evolution over nearly seven months in the studio. “Sam’s guitar has transformed into this big, cinematic thing enveloped by effects and washes… Nik is the guy that gives the power and the intricacy to all of that. He’s always time-shifting, thinking up new parts to suit the big picture.”
SYNTHIA plays like a widescreen heroine’s journey in 10 parts — or maybe 11, if you count the swooning opening dream sequence of Stand And Deliver, with its spoken word invocation of Shirley Temple via Edie Sedgwick.
The far bookend is Stamina, another seven-minute drama that rises from liquid guitar ripples to an ecstatic, crashing crescendo of drums and determination.
The pendulum swings from ether calm to operatic epiphany within the space of any given song. The electronic glitch and thrash of My Love Is My Disease balances the symphonic undulations of A Message From My Mothers Passed.
The sinuous groove and sigh of Smile and the sensuous swing and electro burbles of Pleasure Drive find the band forging breathtaking new scaffolds of rhythm and melody for stories that have never been more timely.
“Previously I’ve shrouded myself a lot in mystery and the language of romanticism; played roles and stuff — which reflected some kind of truth about how I felt as a woman,” Hayley says.
“Now I feel like I can be much more upfront about all that. The truth about how it feels to be a woman has become a much more prominent part of the general conversation in the last couple of years,” she says. “These are exciting times. I think we’ve made an album that celebrates that.”
SYNTHIA released Feb 12, 2016 independently via MGM
PHOTOS BY: Cybele Malinowski
I never learned music formally. I didn’t even take it as an elective in high school, but I was encouraged to perform by my drama teacher and family, which is lucky.
I had always had an interest in songwriting since I was a child and what inspired me to start writing my own songs again in high school was seeing the guys starting punk and metal bands.
I wanted to be a part of it, but I didn’t feel I could, so I started writing my own acoustic stuff in my bedroom. It took years to have the courage to show anyone those.
If you are an artist, you are always going to be making art, even if you don’t think of it as potential career yet.
It’s a compulsion to create.
At the time of finishing school I thought I just wanted to make money. I was considering either a career in real estate, or studying law, but I was always writing songs.
I started a law degree when I was seventeen and was quite good at it, but felt very trapped and that I wanted to see more of the world.
So I transferred to an Arts degree in Sydney (with significantly fewer job prospects) and this opened the door a bit more to culture and writing.
For the first ten years of my career, writing/creating and performing with The Jezabels (who started at Sydney University with friends from school and uni) was the focus.
Social media was not around when we began, but it became a form of publicity that is now very important, perhaps more important than people had expected it would be.
These days it is considered a first step in ‘getting yourself out there’, but I still believe it is most important to have a real practice of art or craft which comes first over branding on social media.
Don’t let the culture of social media be the main use of your time. It’s a selling tool for your art/product, which requires practice and integrity if it’s going to resonate beyond a phase.
Again, with music it really is about practicing a lot and playing live, or with other arts; creating and exhibiting. The old cliche is true, no one will come knocking on your door.
We met our manager at our first show, but that was incredibly lucky. We still work with him independently (with no record label) on all our releases, but if you are looking for labels, again it is all about playing as often as possible, and being good at what you do.
Labels are always looking for new artists so if you put yourself out there enough through shows and social media they will hear of you, if you’re good, that is 🙂
I would say luck, but I try not to focus on what is out of my control, so I think strong work ethic and talent are probably the two most important things you can work on.
Being interested in others, collaborating and not being up yourself also goes a long way. I wish I had collaborated more in my early years, but I’m making up for it now.
Firstly the other band members of The Jezabels have taught me so much just by having different skills, knowledge and opinions.
I can’t really describe it all as it’s been ten years, but basically anyone you work with teaches you another perspective on songs so they’re all priceless.
Our producer Lachlan Mitchell is probably one of the most important influences on us because he understood all our different/conflicting perspectives on music, and somehow helps create a space where they can coexist.
I have recently learned a lot about the finer details of lyricism and rhyme from working with hip hop duo Horrorshow, for example, who come from a different world of music to me.
I think that’s the essence of collaboration, finding another/others different to yourselves and working out a little harmonious space between you all.
I grew up just before the Internet was widely used for music discovery and I didn’t really know about triple j until university, so my knowledge of music was actually pretty limited to what was on the Top 40.
I was influenced by the local live scene, which was at the time hardcore punk and metal; bands from my hometown like Parkway Drive and the bands they would listen to. But again I didn’t really feel part of it.
When Missy Higgins came out, I remember feeling like ‘this is someone like me,’ this is a girl who is Australian. It sounds crazy because now there are so many amazing female Australian artists, but I really didn’t know any until her.
I discovered a lot more when I moved to the city and started playing in a band. Now I’m listening to a lot of new artists. Jack River, Camp Cope, DMAs, Kirin J Callinan, City Calm Down, Violent Soho, Green Buzzard, Sampa the Great, A.B. Original. There’s hundreds!
Highlights for me are always the different cities you get to go to in Europe, USA, and Asia. But also playing the Sydney Opera House was pretty surreal.
Currently I am focusing on a few side projects and collaborations, which are teaching me a lot of new things about songwriting, which is important if you don’t want to fall into doing the same thing over and over and keep your brain working in new directions.
I’m also pretty excited to be supporting Midnight Oil on their reunion tour.
For me, and for many artists, it’s not a choice. Despite attempting to suppress it, or having to support it sometimes with normal jobs, I was going to be a singer from the first time I knew I heard a song at age 2.
Making it my job and maintaining that is the task of a lifetime, but the singing will never stop. I think one of the most important things a young person can do, if they know there is something they want to do, is do it.
So many are paralysed by choice or confusion. If you know what you like doing that’s half the battle.
From then on work only toward that and that is how it feels like you aren’t working, because you’re doing what you want.
If you don’t know, but you think it’s in the arts, again collaboration with others will help. Just making something tells you what you want to make next sometimes.
If you want money and security, there are actually plenty of people with that in the music industry, these are ‘industry jobs’ not necessarily artistic jobs but they are intertwined.
Being an artist of any kind, however, does come with uncertainty. It always has. It is a gamble, but if it’s what you want to do, I would say you have to do it and start young because if you don’t you will either wind up regretting not doing it, or trying to do it later and losing years that could have been working toward your goal.
Not to say you can’t get some life experience first and then pursue it. There are no rules. The fact is also that being in an artistic job helps you cope with the uncertainty of our society.
These days, even those jobs thought of as ‘safe’ are not. Economic changes happen, lawyers find it hard to get good work, housing markets fluctuate, jobs are automated, positions made redundant.
Actually one of the most enduring jobs is the job of the artist, through times of economic strife and affluence alike.
There may not always be stability or money, but you learn to make do if you enjoy what you do, and if you have to work a day job sometimes to allow you to continue doing what you’re put on earth to do, then so be it.
I feel it’s much more important to contribute to the ongoing story, if you feel you can, even if it means you suffer a little, than it is to simply subsist.