Maddy Jane on feminism in 2020: “We’re going toward equality, so get on that side or you’re going to fall away”

Life, as her album tells it, is ‘Not All Bad Or Good’ – but the singer-songwriter knows it sure as hell makes for good tunes

When Maddy Jane hops on a Zoom call with NME, we’re a week out from the release of her debut album, ‘Not All Bad Or Good.’ This should be a thrilling period for any musician, but the artist born Madeleine Jane Woolley – fresh-faced at home and sporting a t-shirt emblazoned “Protect Satan” – sounds ambivalent.

“It’s the most exciting time ever,” she says, “but also a little bit dampened. We thought, might as well get [the album] out, people can still listen to it, connect with it, do what they will.”

It’s not a surprising sentiment. The pandemic has cast a pall over everything besides the very question of survival. When thousands of lives have been lost and countless jobs imperilled by the coronavirus, the banalities and squabbles of our own lives can seem so trivial.

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‘Not All Bad Or Good’ dwells on the interpersonal, but it would command attention even in a fraught period like this one. Woolley distils emotional truths from episodes from her own life – a down-to-earth, streamlined approach to songwriting inspired by fellow Tasmanian Courtney Barnett – and blows them out into huge, soaring indie rock singalongs.

This album, which dropped last Friday, is “more personal than before”, the 24-year-old admits. “I guess it is nerve-wracking coming out with such personal stories.” But she’s an artist, not a diarist, and there’s a fine line between crafted song and life story: “Even though I write these songs on such specific ideas, I look at them in the end and go, ‘Oh, they do relate to this other aspect’, or ‘This actually is so broad and could be related to a lot of situations’.”

“And if you’re a person who’s willing to come up and say, ‘Hey, is that song about me?’, I think that’s just kind of funny,” she says. “I’m just like” – she puts on a mock condescending tone – “‘Oh, darling, you think it’s about you? Aren’t you something?’”

It’s the same biting sarcasm that informs the hook of album standout – and a song that Woolley singles out as a point of “obvious growth” for her – ‘Perfection’s A Thing And You’re It’. “Oh, perfection’s a thing and you’re it,” she cuts down an ex who’s still trying old tricks. “I’m not that old, but I’m too old for this shit.

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Those are the kind of lines punters – in another timeline – would be belting right back at Maddy Jane at a packed album launch. Some of Woolley’s fans have come to know of her thanks to support slots she’s notched for some massive acts over the years. In 2016, she supported Tash Sultana in Hobart (and was later signed by Sultana’s management team, Lemon Tree Music), and a year later opened for her longtime favourites Catfish And The Bottlemen.

Going on tour with Harry Styles in 2017, she remembers, was a “baffling” experience. For one, Woolley didn’t have to do the opener’s job of pumping up the crowd; Styles’ fans were already worked up beyond belief. And she didn’t have to pull out all the stops to win them over.

Woolley pronounces the New Zealand show of that tour one of the most memorable moments of her career. “We played ‘Say You Weren’t Mine’, a song that’s out now, but wasn’t at that time,” she recalls. “It was a song I was quite insecure about – so playing it was a bit hectic. We started playing that song unprompted, and the audience just started getting their mobile lights up – the 16,000-person arena. We were blown away. I was surprised that we got through the song.”

Not bad at all for a rookie from Bruny Island who’d never been to New Zealand before that show. Woolley has been based in Wollongong a few years now – to ease the logistics and cost of touring the country – and says moving has given her some perspective on Tasmania’s tiny-community mindset. “But Tassie’s also really cool now, more than it used to be,” she says. “Some people still give me the two-head jokes and I’m like, ‘You’re behind. It’s not funny anymore’.”

“I definitely appreciate how amazing and beautiful Tassie is,” she muses. “It is so arty, and Mona [the Museum Of Old And New Art in Hobart] is so great, but it also doesn’t encapsulate what Tassie and Tasmanians are about – which is like a wacky creativeness that’s a little dark. We’re a little bit cold most of the time.” She offers a friend’s analysis of the state’s abiding love of the arts: “We don’t have a huge sports team, we don’t have sports bars. So without those elements, art becomes a huge aspect of Tasmanians.”

The recording of ‘Not All Bad Or Good’ didn’t take place in either Tasmania or Wollongong, though – Woolley retreated to The Grove Studios in Newcastle with producer Jackson Barclay and her longtime backing band. A week in the relative isolation of The Grove, which Woolley lovingly describes as “an estate in the bush”, helped her concentrate on and consolidate the songs she’d written over the course of a few years. Fans will notice on the tracklist ‘Thank You And Sorry’, a song from 2017 that presents a more accepting, “high road” perspective on the same situation in the angrier ‘Say You Weren’t Mine’.

Those sister songs are just one example of ‘Not All Bad Or Good’’s insistence on honest plurality. Take the thorny ‘Femme’, on which Woolley wrestles with her own relationship to feminism and parses the wider world’s enduring refusal to get entirely with the programme – “because you’re scared of losing power, it’s obvious, we see you,” she sings on the cascading second verse. ‘Femme’ is one of the wordier cuts on the album, but it turns on a gem of a hook, buoyed by reverb-drenched guitars: “I’m not trying to be, I’m just being.”

“We’re going toward equality, so it’s time to learn and get on that side or you’re going to fall away,” Woolley says of the song’s perspective. “We’ve had all those songs that were putting their foot down, like, ‘Right, this is wrong and this is wrong, this isn’t right’, and were so needed. I wanted ‘Femme’ to be like, ‘[Equality is] coming now, so take it’.”

From the defiant opener ‘I’m Hearing Ya’ to the stark, deeply personal ‘Always Saying What They All Can’t Say’, Maddy Jane’s album is threaded with this distinctly 21st-century understanding of being a woman in the world today: an awareness that women aren’t taken seriously, their credibility relentlessly undermined. But as ‘Not All Bad Or Good’ shows, it’ll take far more than that to stop Maddy Jane from speaking her own complicated truth through her music.

Maddy Jane’s debut album, ‘Not All Bad Or Good’, is out now.

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