Any band would envy the dream run of The Jezabels’ debut album Prisoner, which had the four NSW-based musicians travelling around the globe in recent years. Critical acclaim, radio airplay, sold out gigs, relocation to London, an international signing to PIAS (while remaining independent at home), gigs with Depeche Mode, and then an Australian Music Prize (AMP) win in 2012.
Inevitably though, sooner or later, reality bites. While the band are working up to another busy year promoting new album The Brink, vocalist Hayley Mary says their whirlwind existence is akin to being on dry land after months at sea.
I’m a rock singer and I never wanted to learn how to sing, I figured it’s intuitive.
“It’s a weird feeling of stillness; it’s pretty strange to get used to, just being in the same place. It’s a pretty extreme lifestyle and you can’t put your finger on it, but it makes you a little bit unstable at times,” she tells STACK while waiting for a flight back to London after her ARIA tribute to the late Chrissy Amphlett. “Or it does with me. I don’t know if it’s the lifestyle, or just my brain chemistry.”
The dreaded ‘second album’ syndrome was always going to rear its head in some fashion for The Brink, but Mary says the pressure mainly came from the band themselves. “We’re pretty stressy people, we’re all quite intense and I guess we all care to an extent. It’s definitely from us, more than external forces. This album … we wrote it in a rehearsal environment as a band, and wanted to be able to play the song live in theory before we recorded it. The stressful time was before that. The writing period, I think we over-laboured a bit.”
The Jezabels – Mary, keyboardist Heather Shannon, guitarist Sam Lockwood, and drummer Nik Kaloper – don’t easily fit a lot of ready-made industry moulds. They aren’t ‘commercial’ in that classically mainstream radio way, but their epic, widescreen keyboard-driven anthems – invoking everyone from Depeche Mode to The Motels – don’t easily fit many ‘genre boxes’ either. But it’s hard to see the band worrying about it; they have a fanbase, and the work offers aren’t exactly drying up.
“I think it’s liberating to just accept that you will lose fans with every release, and the idea is to just gain more than you lose,” reflects Mary. “It’s less about pressure and more about how you decide to negotiate … trying not to imitate yourself, but at the same time trying not to re-invent yourself too dramatically.“
London is now home for The Jezabels, and the city after dark also provided the setting for the clip for the album’s first single: The End. As the band play on a city rooftop, a young drifter holds up a small shop with a toy gun, and despite being chased by the owner (who is brandishing a real gun), things turn out quite unexpectedly.
“I met the director, Ivana Bobic, at a party. I just clicked with her, and she was talking about the balance between light and dark,” says Mary. “She said she was a filmmaker, and I was like, ‘You should make one of our film clips’. We liked the cityscape vibe. We wanted a performance video that wasn’t boring, so she wove a narrative into it.”
As with Prisoner, and its preceding three EPS, there is a definite visual aesthetic applied to the presentation of The Brink. Where previous releases have leant on stark photography, The Brink cover is an abstract painting of two figures embracing.
“I had a discussion with our graphic designer,” Mary reveals. “I was trying to explain ideas of intimacy and alienation at the same time. He really liked the idea of getting abstract angles of body parts, or faces missing – there’s still something personal about the image. I like how warm and romantic it is, at the same time as being anonymous. You don’t know if it’s a man and a woman, or a woman and a woman, it’s ambiguous.“
Mary, for her part, remains the face and voice of The Jezabels. While they’re absolutely a collaborative venture, the fact remains she’s the frontwoman – is there more pressure on her?
“I’ve had trouble losing my voice,” she admits. “I have to fix it, which requires strengthening my muscles and learning how to sing. I’m glad to have found a teacher who’ll teach me in a way that is not ‘conventional’. I never really wanted to learn how to sing properly as such, because your voice is your voice. I think – this is a wanky way of talking – art is as defined by its limitations as its abilities. There’s such a thing as being too good, and alienating people, like high art can do. I’m a rock singer and I never wanted to learn how to sing, I figured it’s intuitive.“
Paying Tribute to Chrissy
Hayley Mary sang The Divinyls’ Pleasure and Pain at the 2013 ARIA awards. She says it was quite an honour. “I was nervous about it, in the rehearsal I was talking to the crew and they’d worked on Divinyls tours in the ’80s and they knew her, and they spoke really highly of her.
“I definitely knew how respected and loved she was, but it started to really come home to me how she actually was a really great person,” she says.
“I became a bit scared of not doing her justice, but it was a ballad, and it was very much not meant to sound like her, it wasn’t about imitation.”
The Brink by The Jezabels is available now via MGM. More at thejezabels.com
This article appears courtesy of STACK Magazine.
Tickets for the Jezabels Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth shows in May go on sale February 19.
Pre sale tickets go on sale from February 17 though Frontier Touring.
Check the Frontier Touring site for all tour info.