Jackie Hayes: gritty guitar greatness from Chicago grafter

Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you’ll see opening the bill for your favourite act. This week, Jackie Hayes on how growing up in a church band, her emo roots and a move to the Windy City inspired her glorious new EP

“I joined the church worship band but grew tired of it very quickly”, says Jackie Hayes, whose devoutly Christian upbringing in suburban Illinois was somewhat at odds with an angsty teen who’d rather worship Paramore than pray. “I was never religious, so I ended up telling the church leader that I didn’t believe in God, and she kicked me out. It was a disaster after that – everyone was so angry at me”.

Having dropped her gnarly debut EP in the midst of the pandemic last year – with a second due in August – it’s safe to say that the days of church band are now well and truly behind Hayes. Her upbeat ennui reflects on Gen Z disillusionment with a healthy dose of dry wit, and speaking to NME from her now-home of Chicago, she explains how years of hard graft and a game-changing move made for an unlikely coming of age experience.

“I did a few county fair talent shows and would always do these emo songs like Paramore or Pierce The Veil – it’s not exactly what these middle-aged judges in 2013 wanted to hear”, she smiles; membership in a church band was perhaps ill-fated from the start. Craving more than just pastors and pageants, she swapped small-town life for the Windy City at 19. “I was not allowed to play shows when I was under 18, so I had to wait before I started doing anything for my music career. I guess a lot of it when I was younger was doing things for other people, versus now I’m doing this for myself – that’s why I had to move out”.

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Although Hayes acknowledges that “it was very difficult for me at such a young age to be that financially independent”, she maintains that “I don’t regret it because I was able to meet everyone that I work with now”. And once in Chicago, the ball really started rolling; having released a trio of singles in 2019 before last year’s debut EP, Hayes road-tested her new material by regularly filling opening slots for various artists. In doing so, she became a frequent fixture at locally legendary venue Schubas – to the extent the staff now joke of her unofficial “residency” there – and began to catch the attention of fans and fellow artists alike. Before long, she’d played dates supporting The Japanese House, Claud, and ROLE MODEL, experiences which she describes as “a lot of fun, especially because I was still working… it felt like a vacation or get-away from my job”.

While the outbreak of coronavirus put paid to these live performances (along with just about all other forms of fun), Hayes by no means took her foot off the gas. Regarding the process behind her forthcoming EP, she explains that “most of this stuff was written from around fall last year to this spring, I was working at a grocery store the whole time, up until I got laid off in March”. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that this strong work ethic permeates the project; burnout and exhaustion act as overarching themes which weave together the five tracks into a coherent whole. “Before I was signed, I was close to wanting to give up music, because I was working so much”, Hayes says. “Those songs are about me missing the drive and motivation of my younger self”.

This feeling is succinctly captured by lead single ‘omg’, on which hazy guitars background the central refrain: “It’s just not as fun as they advertised / What a waste of time”. Here, Hayes deftly invests personal topics with a poppier edge in a manner reminiscent of Snail Mail or boy pablo; from childhood experiences at church (‘sunday’) to idealising adulthood as a teen (‘brand new’), the EP is a masterclass in such upbeat introspection. Although she’s already amassed somewhat of a cult following, due to the pandemic she’s yet to actually come face-to-face with her fanbase at gigs. “I think I’m still trying to figure out who my fans are. You know people make memes like ‘Radiohead fans are like this, Phoebe Bridgers fans are like this’ – I wonder if that’ll ever be a meme for me”, she laughs.

“I still have a really long way to go obviously, but this is just the beginning of what I hope will be a long career”. With a self-awareness and candour belying her age, she’s truly overcome the growing pains of her (relative) youth through sheer hard work and humility; that meme might be created sooner than she thinks.

Jackie Hayes’ ‘There’s Always Going To Be Something’ EP will be released August 13

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