Aussie rockers The Jezabels have built their fanbase with a relentless gigging schedule. But a band is a cool place to be in to see the world, Hayley Mary tells Jim Carroll
YOU GET the feeling that quiet moments are becoming few and far between for Hayley Mary and Sam Lockwood. The singer and guitarist with The Jezabels have just finished soundchecking in London’s Heaven venue for another gig on the tour which shows no signs of ending. While bandmates Heather Shannon and Nik Kaloper get to disappear behind headphones and laptops, Mary and Lockwood have to do another interview about the who, what, why, when and how of the Australian band.
But the pair are unlikely to complain about all this interest, at least not within earshot of a journalist’s recorder. Over the past 18 months, The Jezabels have slowly and steadily built their fanbase and profile. Much of this is due to a relentless gigging schedule which has had them regularly jumping continents. But it’s also essentially down to how growing audiences have embraced their big, dastardly pop tunes. A dozen of these hugely infectious and deeply emotional tunes can be found on Prisoner, their debut album.
“It’s kind of difficult still to work out why it all works so well for us”, says Lockwood about the ongoing rise. “We come from really different musical areas and we all have very different likes in music, so the best songs are when we manage to get a balance between those.”
Mary recalls that one of the first times things clicked for the nascent band was on a band-date to see The National play in Sydney.
“When we were starting off and we’d only four songs written, we went to see them and we took a lot from that in terms of what we could do with our sound. It opened our minds that we could write music which was melodic and nice and still be intense and earnest and dark and all these things The National are. It was a bit of an eye-opener.”
While the band initially came together when the four met at university in Sydney, the Jezabels’ story began in Byron Bay. The town on Australia’s east coast is a surfing nirvana, a place where, Mary notes, you’ve got Jack Johnson and other bluesy, rootsy acts blaring from every bar on the main street. It’s where Mary and keyboard player Shannon grew up and first began to play.
“We went to school together and we started playing music together. We did a lot of open-mic nights. The material was a lot more laidback and folky and immature. I suppose there were some similarities we definitely had some heavily romantic, melodramatic lyrics. I suppose they were always there.”
Would-be English and science teachers Lockwood and Kaloper came into the picture in Sydney. “It wasn’t intentionally a plan to join a band to avoid the humdrum of a classroom or escape from that,” says Lockwood. “You need a hobby. I’ve always wanted to be in a band and when I moved to Sydney to go to university, I joined a band, but I didn’t realise it would come to this.”
“A band is a cool place to be in to see the world,” says Mary. “It’s not serious, but it can be taken seriously. It’s not important, but it’s important to those who do it.”
Nearly five years on, being in that band has become a much bigger and all-consuming thing than anyone thought would be the case at their first shows in 2007. Mary feels, though, that it was clear from early on that the combination was right.
“After our first show, we got a really good reaction and that’s the impetus you need to keep going. There are so many bands out there that finding one where you’re happy and everything works is really exceptional. I think everyone has this desire to play music with a bunch of musicians who work well together and can write great songs together. It is very exciting when you find that, especially when people around you, like your friends, get excited about what you’re doing.”
For Longwood, the signs to stick with it came in the songs they were producing. “There was a song we used to play called Noah’s Ark that we used to end our sets on and that was our big tune and what made us different to everyone else. There was something we did in that song which kind of showed us in a different light to everyone else,” he says.
“Our first single Disco Biscuit Love was another important part in our development”, adds Mary. “I had the chorus and Sam knew exactly the riff it needed. We finished the song on the spot. That was a real moment when we realised something was happening.”
As has been the case from the early days, Mary’s lyrics are always mentioned in the despatches alongside the intense swell of the band’s music. “When I was younger, my lyrics were intense and romantic, but they were far more derivative,” she says.
“When the band came along, I began to hone my voice a bit to the sound of the band. I’ve found that there’s only so many things you can actually pull off in a song to this music, so I really only write what I think will fit. It’s very intuitive.
“Most of the time the stories in the songs are fictional, I rarely write songs with definite people in mind. I approach the lyrics like they’re poetry, and it’s great to be able to hide in a made-up world and work things out in that way. I’ve always been interested in how feminism is portrayed from when I did gender studies in university and some of the songs are me working out my thoughts on that. There’s a lot of negativity around feminism and I suppose I’m trying to address my struggle on trying to be a modern feminist.” She’s found that as time goes on she’s got better at shaping those words. “I’m more critical now about what we’re articulating in the songs and how we do it. Before, I think we always exaggerated certain elements, like the tragedy side of things, but I know I now really think about what I’m talking about, especially when I’m writing about females. We’ve just become darker and more self-aware as we’ve gone on.”
That process will continue as the touring to plug Prisoner goes into overdrive. By the time they come to a stop sometime in the next 18 months, The Jezabels will be a sight to see. “Touring is what makes you as a performer,” says Mary. “You can lose it if you don’t play for a while. The more we play, the more excited we are about being in a band and the more we realise what we can do.”