Jezebels on the Brink

Hayley Mary, singer and lyricist, tells how moving to London and dealing with self-doubt affected the Australian band’s second album

Fri, Feb 7, 2014, 00:00

It’s not that Hayley McGlone is a serious person, per se – it’s more that she was, as she puts it herself, “brought up to be able to see the darkness in things”. This sounds a bit ominous, but McGlone – known to fans as Hayley Mary – tempers the inner gloom with an outwardly sunny disposition in her role as frontwoman of The Jezabels, the band she formed with three university friends in Sydney in 2007.

“I’m always a little bit too serious, I think,” the 27-year-old laughs. “I dunno, I think I was just trained, as a kid, to be really cynical. If there’s darkness in our music, it’s probably just because it’s very hard to try and write a heartfelt song that reflects how you feel about the world or what you see in the world without some darkness. If you’re trying to portray the pure happiness of teenage sexuality, or something, then a One Direction song is really great; What Makes You Beautiful is a perfect song for that very reason. But there is darkness in that song – I’m not entirely sure that it was consciously put in there, but I think it’s particularly dark,” she says with another chuckle.

“I try to write a really nice, upbeat song, and I think ‘I can’t sing this’. It’s not as conscious as this sounds, but I have to twist it a little bit to believe in it as an expression of my feelings and my view.”

The Jezabels first came to prominence with the release of their excellent debut, Prisoner, in 2011. The album did well in Australia, but, as it was initially independently released, it was somewhat surprising when it caught the ear of the rest of the world, too. Their skewed indie-pop sound, comparable to acts such as Metric, or a more upbeat Daughter, won them accolades and a fan base further afield – but it also meant that change was necessary when it came to album number two, The Brink.

After a long period of intensive touring off the back of Prisoner, entailing around 200 shows alone in 2012, it was a shock to the system when the band found themselves in a room together alone, writing new songs. It made for an unnecessarily drawn-out experience, McGlone explains.

Prisoner was written over a period of a few months, in sections, in between tours, whereas The Brink was written all in one go,” she says. “I think we overdid the writing process a bit. We had enough songs quite soon, but we didn’t think they were good enough and we kept trying to change them.We probably could have cut our writing by about three months, so that was a bit intense, but I think it comes from us being really self-critical people.”

As the band’s sole lyricist, McGlone also found herself at an uneasy juncture, which she attributes, at least partly, to a major life upheaval – last year, the band temporarily relocated from Sydney to London, a city she describes as a “very critical place”, to work on the album. The decision was partly business (their label is UK-based) and partly personal (some members of the band have partners in London).

“It might have been to do with being in London: unfamiliar surroundings as well as second-record pressure,” she concedes. “But also, it did feel like criticism would be directed at the vocals, because there’s a lot more weighing on this record than the last one, and a lot more people involved. We’ve got different crowds to think about. In the past, we’ve always just served Australia and anyone who wanted to hear it outside of Australia could, but this time, we’re actively investing time in America and the UK, and they are really hard markets, so there’s a lot more opinions going around – and I kind of buckled under it a little bit for a while.

“I may have been having one of those quarter-life crises, where you question everything you’re doing. I don’t know what it was; something happened to me when I was writing this record. The blind confidence I used to have just disappeared from under me, and I thought ‘I don’t think I can do any of this.’ It wasn’t really writer’s block, because I had plenty of ideas – I just didn’t have confidence.”

McGlone’s honesty about her self-doubt is refreshing, but it certainly doesn’t sound like that uncertainty seeped into The Brink in any way. Recorded in the UK, without their regular Sydney-based producer, Lachlan Mitchell, for the first time, it’s a more direct-sounding, propulsive record, with McGlone’s vocals less swathed in reverb. Tracks such as Look of Love crackle with a synthy pop jangle; The End’s anthemic, indie chorus has McGlone singing “I want a new beginning” and the sultry, smart Got Velvet will be irresistible to fans of shoulder-shaking alt-pop.

“Lachlan is like a brother at this stage, but it felt natural to work with someone else,” she says. “We worked with Dan Grech Marguerat, who is kind of an interesting man because he started out working with Nigel Godrich and then moved to more poppy stuff. That was interesting for us, because I think we tread a line between alternative rock and pop. He was amazing; I think the reason we chose him was because he was so positive and energetic. He really pulled a warmth out of our sound, which you can probably hear.”

Now back in Sydney and preparing for the tour-cycle craziness to kick in again, McGlone nonetheless is relishing the prospect of getting out and playing live to new audiences in new places, she says. And after all the stress and worry of making that “difficult second album”, they are happy with the end result.

“I just think it’s just about honesty and believing in what you’re trying to write about that’s satisfying,” she says. “It has to epitomise you and your views a little bit, and your questions about life – otherwise, you have to fake it all the time. I feel like a 27-year-old who’s thinking about the lights and darks of the world, and how they interact. And that’s probably where we are now as a band.”

yyy The Brink is out next week. The Jezabels play The Button Factory, Dublin, on March 1st and 2nd