Hayley Mary on her debut solo album: “I’m letting go of standards on what I thought rock ’n’ roll could be”

The Jezabels’ frontwoman on the process of making her new album, her newfound sobriety and her doubts about livestreams

In taking the first strides in her solo career, Jezabels frontwoman Hayley Mary has been made to face a series of sudden obstacles, with no finish line in sight. Her current checklist includes drawing on her history in a highly respected Australian band to put together her debut solo album – all while navigating the consequences of the pandemic. At a time like this, slow and steady wins the race.

Though we haven’t heard from The Jezabels since 2017, the lead vocalist never stopped writing in her own time. In her words, “not doing music was really not an option”. But her songwriting process, outside of the Sydney indie rock group, has been rather unrushed. She doesn’t have to worry about input from other band members or locking in times that everyone can be in the same room.

“I’m kind of constantly trying to write. I collect songs over time rather than sitting down to write,” she tells NME. “I can collect songs over the next year and I just then get a band together for a few weeks and we record it.”

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This culminated with her debut EP, ‘The Piss, The Perfume’, released in January through I OH YOU. Compared to The Jezabels’ lusher, more alternative sound, Mary opted for the classic rock style of ’80s Australia. he EP fits snugly within her musical MO: comfortable, familiar, friendly.

“When you want to do a solo thing that’s kind of pop without going actually mainstream pop, I think classic rock is one of the better genres that doesn’t get in the way of vocals,” she says.

“It’s familiar enough to be considered pop but it’s got a bit of grit and earthiness that makes people feel warm. It’s just a good bed for something that’s basically vocally driven and isn’t mainstream pop.”

But this was when everything was comfortable and friendly, before borders closed, venues shut down and the world came to a halt. Mary’s tour for the EP had to be cancelled, and report after report show the arts and live entertainment sectors have been some of the most severely impacted by COVID-19. Now’s not the time to take risks. So instead, the singer-songwriter is choosing to follow her instincts.

Describing herself as a “primitive songwriter” and a “basic guitarist”, Mary is leaning into what comes natural to her, acknowledging there aren’t many others around to act as a sounding board. That said, her collaboration with producer Scott Horscroft means fans should expect some “contemporary electronic, hybrid elements” in the as-yet-untitled record.

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Hayley Mary debut solo album Scott Horscroft
Scott Horscroft and Hayley Mary. Image courtesy Hayley Mary

“I want to sound familiar. I don’t necessarily want to push boundaries, which some people do and there’s definitely a place for it, but I want to create feel-good music for me and what feels good to me is pretty classic, upbeat feel-good stuff.”

Feel-good stuff sounds pretty nice right about now, and even through social distancing, Mary is pushing to record the album. She had to drive up from Melbourne to the studio in Sydney (it’s essential travel after all, she jokes), where she’s working with her partner, Johnny Took of DMA’S, and a small handful of session musicians – and plenty of space in between them.

“Studios kind of work because there are isolation rooms and we’re just working with the minimum amount of crew to do drums and bass. Everyone’s able to be quite a few metres apart because it’s biggish, but yeah, it’s a weird one,” she says.

Hayley Mary debut solo album Johnny Took DMAs
Image courtesy Hayley Mary

She’s also made the decision to abstain from alcohol and keep a positive mindset during these creatively challenging months. Putting a stop to drinking is only temporary, she assures us. It’s a “moderate relationship” with it that she’s after.

“I’ve discovered [drinking] used to be, like for a lot of musicians, a ritual of loosening up by having a beer. And now I don’t have that,” she continues.“I discovered meditation and that’s probably the closest thing – that and exercise – to get me in a good mood. It sounds really lame. Far out, I’m the most boring musician. But I try to stay positive.”

To keep the good vibes flowing in and out of the studio, one of the session musicians – a member of Delta Riggs – suggested they do ‘Suits After Six’, which is exactly what it sounds like.

“So we do a few hours in the studio from 9:30 to 3:30, then [one of the session musicians] goes and picks up his kids and then he comes back, and after six we all wear suits. So we dress up. And it’s a new mood,” Mary explains.

The first few runs were successful in inspiring the musicians, which just goes to show how much shaking up your routine can do while in lockdown.

“It was pretty casual the first time, but the next night we went properly suited – vest, ties – and it really changed the mood. It was really inspiring,” she recalls.“It kind of makes you stand up and own the situation more. You can’t really slack about in a suit – I guess you can – but you feel sharp. You get a new wind. You get a bit of a swagger.”

Hayley Mary debut solo album Johnny Took DMAS
Johnny Took of DMA’S in the studio. Image courtesy Hayley Mary

Given Mary is still recording and no tracklist has been locked in, it’s safe to say the album is in its early stages – “embryonic”, in her words. That might be for the best, given the means of launching a record these days are limited. A live tour is out of the question and some experts predict that festivals won’t return until 2021. The conventional album release cycle has been shattered, so Mary suspects she’ll play the waiting game.

“Even when you put out an album in normal times, you don’t have to launch it live straight away. Maybe we’ll just plan it with coronavirus in mind and hopefully, it’ll hit when festivals and all that stuff is up and running again.”

She was able to support Alex Lahey and Ali Barter on their gigs before restrictions on public gatherings took hold. Like many musicians who’ve had the rug pulled out from under them, the singer has also taken part in the livestream music festival trend, including Australia’s two digital frontrunners, ISOL-AID and Delivered, Live.

Still, they certainly don’t replace the adrenaline of an IRL gig. Or the revenue, for that matter. These online music festivals, while encouraging audiences to donate or buy a ticket, remain a free source of entertainment.

While they do bring joy to many stuck at home, Mary admits she isn’t a fan of the whole livestream initiative, citing bad sound quality and labelling them a little tedious. She also suspects they could be here to stay post-pandemic, as labels push their artists to engage more with fans. Democratising the live performance has its ups and downs.

“The reason I did [ISOL-AID] was because I liked that it was for Support Act and it was factoring in the part of the industry that gets forgotten about: the crew and the behind the scenes,” she says.

“It is good that it keeps growing and getting bigger and there are ones like Delivered, Live – which was a higher production value – but to me, I just don’t want to keep doing the same thing.”

Hayley Mary debut solo album recording studio
Image courtesy Hayley Mary

So it makes sense when Mary says she’s not immediately gravitating towards her longtime live setup: her and a band. “I’m trying to make a record where I could be on stage with just tracks and a guitar,” she explains, “the opposite to the purist rock ’n’ roll thing – which I don’t think I would’ve ever thought about before coronavirus.”

Because of the coronavirus and its uncertain though undeniable impact on the live music industry, “I’m letting go of rules and standards on what I thought rock ’n’ roll could be,” she says.

“How can I make a rock record with swagger and still be able to perform it on my own, and it’s still full and cool and can translate across a phone speaker? That’s my main predicament.”

Write an album, record it while abiding by all government-enforced restrictions and, eventually, launch it – easy, right? With no release date in sight, it’s one leisurely step at a time for Mary, though she admits she needs more time to mull over the means of launching the record.

“I guess I’d come up with a genius, attention-seeking scam, but I can’t think of anything right now,” Mary says.

“If you’ve got any ideas, let me know.”

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