Middle Kids: ‘If You Want To Be A Mum And A Touring Musician, There’s Sacrifice’

15 February 2024 | 11:09 am | Bryget Chrisfield

We chat with frontwoman Hannah Joy about the urgent need for muso-mum prototypes, touring with a three-year-old while pregnant, learning to accept her creative process, and finding songs for ‘Faith Crisis Pt 1’ during solo staycations.

Middle Kids

Middle Kids (Credit: Pooneh Ghana)

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“We just came off a tour in the States,” Middle Kids lead vocalist/guitarist Hannah Joy explains from her home studio in Sydney. “We were out on the road for ten weeks over, like, August and September [2023]... I was pregnant and had my three-year-old, Sunny [with me] – it was pretty epic! We covered 32 cities or something and just kind of rolled around America. It was awesome.”

We can’t help but wonder whether Sunny is looking forward to being an older brother. “He is, but I’m sure he’ll hate it in a lot of ways, you know? He’s like, ‘YEWWWWWW!’ And then the baby’ll come and he’ll be like, ‘Um, ‘scuse me…’,” Joy predicts with a chuckle. “You know, we travel all the time so he’s definitely used to being treated like a little prince wherever he goes, which is partially why I’m like: ‘I need to give you a sibling, because your prince energy is getting too intense!’ [laughs] So I think he’s gonna love it eventually, but it will be a bit of a jolt. Particularly because he’s a little bit older, he’s probably gotten used to a certain way of things, you know?”

When asked how she thinks muso mums returning to the stage could be better supported, Joy offers, “I think a big part of it is just sharing our stories. For myself, before hitting motherhood I had a lot of fear, kinda being like, ‘Can I keep doing this lifestyle?’ And, ‘How does that look?’ And I didn’t have any peers, which is fine, but I just didn’t have any – what’s the word? Prototypes, I guess.

“The more that we can share our stories of how we’re doing is helpful, because then there’s more examples and more ways for your imagination to be like, ‘Oh, okay, so how would I do that?’ Because, you know, a lot of women I talk to are just feeling like, ‘There doesn’t seem to be a way for me’.

“It’s funny, ‘cause a few people will say to me, ‘Oh, look! You can do it all!’ And I actually don’t think that’s true; I don’t think you can do it all. Like, I think that if you want to be a mum and a touring musician, there’s sacrifice and you can’t do it the way that you used to do it. But I will say that it is possible and you just have to find your way.

“Being a mum can be isolating, but also being a touring musician can be isolating – you’re away, and on the move, all the time – but I feel excited about keeping on trying to figure it out and then reaching out to other mums who are artists and trying to do that journey together; that’s been really encouraging.

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“The other thing that’s cool [about being a touring muso mum] is just being willing to put yourself out there in that vulnerable state of imperfection. I feel like I’m very interested in that authenticity and I guess, yeah, motherhood just forces you to continue to do that, even more so.”

Joy wrote “a lot of” Middle Kids’ upcoming third studio album, Faith Crisis Pt 1, “in the wake of Covid and becoming a new mum”. “Often it’s actually my songs that will alert me to what I’m feeling inside,” she observes, laughing. “I’m like, ‘Oh! That’s in there, I should probably check on that,’ or whatever. But I think something that’s been really interesting about motherhood – well, my personal experience of it – is that it’s been taking me out of my head. I’m just living a lot more from my gut and my heart, which is very raw. And I don’t feel like I can will myself to not look at things like I used to, because you’ve got this person to protect now, outside of yourself – you can’t control their circumstances – and it’s this whole new thing.

“When COVID hit and I had a newborn, I found that period – probably about a year and a half – very difficult. I know it was a fruitful time for a lot of people, it just was not for me. I think my creativity is very influenced by the world and connection and people – and that I have an ebb and flow of going out, experiencing things and then coming back and reflecting – and that’s part of my natural songwriting process.

“I need to go out and get away from myself and the instruments – to live and find the stories and the inspiration – and then come back. Which I used to resent, and felt like I should be the kind of artist who could work and write every day now that this is my job. And whilst I still think I can work on my craft more in that way, there’s also an acceptance of being like, ‘I think this is just the way that I am built, as an artist.’

“So instead of wishing I was another way, or resenting the way that I do things, I’m actually just accepting it more. And it probably wasn’t ‘til I had a bit of time after having Sunny that I could start finding ways to go out and find my songs. So it was a deeply distressing time when I couldn’t do that.”

Joy eventually shifted this writer's block thanks to solo weekend getaways. “I would find these little songs along the coastline,” she reflects. “I’m a big walker – I think that energy’s very helpful for me – so I’d take voice memos as I was walking along the beach and then I’d come back and just kind of start building the songs on my computer, ‘cause I’d bring a little MIDI set-up with my laptop and instruments. I think Bootleg Firecracker was created in this little beachside apartment in Bondi, Sydney quite early on in terms of when I was writing and making the record. That was always a song where we felt like, ‘Oh, this is part of the new wave of what we’re gonna do.’ So that was a cool song to help unlock some other songs as well.”

Our mellow, contemplative first taste of Faith Crisis Pt 1, Bootleg Firecracker – which was released last May – began its life as an “upbeat, poppy song”, she explains. “It was interesting, when I showed it to my partner Tim [Fitz, bassist]. He loved it, but he had this idea of stripping it back and slowing it down, and seeing what was underneath. Often I’ll write things and just be like, ‘Make a lotta noise,’ and, ‘A lot of energy!’ And I think sometimes Tim’s really good at being like, ‘There’s actually something a bit more interesting behind that if you give it a bit of space and don’t feel like you have to be like, ‘Ahhhhhh!’ to, I dunno, distract or something.’

“But then, once we slowed it down, we worked on the lyrics of the chorus together, because it was almost revealing itself to be quite a sweet and intimate song; I was trying to find imagery of, like, the beauty and the risk of that. And so once we found that new vibe, the song really grew into what it was, quite simply and effortlessly.”

Highlands, the record’s sweeping jig of a second single, was inspired by Joy’s Scottish ancestry. “I think it was my great grandmother that came out [to Australia],” she shares, “but that side of my family’s Scottish heritage means a lot to them. It’s my dad’s side of the family and they’ve got heaps of kids, and it’s very wild. For me, growing up around that has been a cool image of, yeah, freedom and being alive.

“We all went over there as a family to see where our ancestors had come from and it was a very amazing experience. But it is funny that it is so meaningful to them, and such a big part of their story, even though none of them ever actually lived there. But, also, I think the power of legacy and story is that you can sometimes carry something with you from where you’ve come from – and, you know, this can be for better or for worse. But I just find these things that shape us so interesting and I definitely see that [Scottishness] in them – there’s something that I feel – and I have been influenced by that.”

Although Middle Kids “loooooooved” working with producer Jonathan Gilmore on their upcoming album, Joy admits, “I think that there was a little bit of, ‘Ooh, how’s this gonna go?’, ‘cause he co-produced it with Tim. Tim’s quite a specific person – as most producers are – so then bringing two [producers] together is always a bit of a risk. But it was so beautiful.

“We grew up – well, me in particular, I think – on a lot of British indie-rock music and even though we’ve spent more of our time in America, for our career, and have been influenced by that American indie scene, so much of my heart is very much with the British indie world and it felt really exciting to work with someone who is in that world a bit and could kind of help us create these sounds and landscapes that lean into that more.

“And, also, we have historically kept everything so much more in-house – like, recording a lotta stuff here and then giving it to someone right at the end – but I feel like even though I had all the songs going into the studio, there was an openness to how we were gonna bring them to life. So it was awesome being in the studio with Jon and I feel like he really got his hands into some of these songs; particularly Go To Sleep On Me and Dramamine – he really got in there and now they’re some of my favourite songs on the record, which is cool.”       

Dramamine shares its title with a 1996 Modest Mouse song (“Yeah, we’re big fans of Modest Mouse”) and features lyrics that’ll make your heart hurt: “You are the only reason I believe in anything/ I hope you don't take this the wrong way…” – like finally mustering up the guts to confess your feels to a long-time crush then immediately second-guessing this course of action.

“A lot of that song is about rewriting your narrative, in some ways,” Joy enlightens. “You know, we can have these experiences from our childhood, or those defining parts of our personalities that  make us feel like, ‘Oh, I’m this way’ – and some of them are true and remain with you forever. And I think sometimes you can grow up a little bit and be like, ‘I don’t actually know whether I wanna be like that, or if I believe that about myself’.

“A lot of the significant people in our life that we meet along the way then help rewrite some of these narratives and so this is a beautiful relationship in this song, of someone coming alongside someone and helping them find out who they really are – or who they wanna be – and empowering them to do that. So, yeah, there’s a lot of images then from personal experiences of mine where I felt like I was one way and then – as I got got older – I was either like, ‘I don’t wanna be that way and I need to fight to change,’ or actually, ‘I don’t even think I am that way, somehow I believed that along the way or had an experience that made me feel like that’.

“So often that can happen in relationships with other people, which is why when you’re in a bad relationship it’s a bummer, because it can really take away a lot and have a big impact on the way you see yourself. But the power of a good relationship – although they’re always flawed – is that actually they can help teach you about you, and bring out the best bits.

“Tim and I wrote that song from the ground up, which we don’t usually do,” Joy points out. “I usually write the songs and then give them to him, and we then work on them together. But that was a fun song, because we both went into the studio with nothing and wrote that together. So that was a pretty cool experience.”

Faith Crisis Pt 1 closes with All In My Head, which features Dave Le’aupepe (Gang Of Youths). “[Dave] is a very special person to us – particularly Tim, he's an old friend of Tim’s; they’ve had a beautiful friendship and connection over the years – and he has been a huge part of even how our band has been able to exist!” Joy extols. “He helped us get a manager and showed our first demos to people. And also, as an artist, he’s obviously just incredible.

“Tim had the idea of getting Dave onto the track. It’s funny, ‘cause I wrote that song a long time ago and I never knew what to do with it. We stripped it back and then I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this makes so much more sense just as a piano number.’ And Tim was like, ‘We should get Dave to sing on it.’ And at first I was a little bit hesitant, because I’m like, ‘Oh, but this song is so personal and this song is almost singular,’ you know? But it was actually so cool, because the more I thought about it the more I liked the image of two people singing alongside each other.

“We sent it to Dave in London, he recorded it and sent it back, and then I was just like, ‘Oooooh!’ I was so blown away by what he did and so, yeah! I feel really thankful to him and also loved closing the record with that moment.”   

Lyrically, Faith Crisis Pt 1 concludes with a question: “Is it all in my head?” When told that this closing thought somehow translates as hopeful rather than troubling, thanks to the song’s ascending piano melody, Joy considers, “Mmmmm. I think that’s something that’s really true in our music – you know, even on our last two records [2018’s Lost Friends and 2021’s ARIA Award-winning Today We’re The Greatest, both of which went Top 10] – is that there’s a lot of angst and mess, but I think that there always seems to be a thread of hope in it.

“And I think even calling it Faith Crisis Pt 1, the ‘Pt 1’ is almost to bring that hope, you know? ‘Cause it’s not just like, ‘Oh, I’ve had a faith crisis and now everything I believed has fallen away,’ it’s like a journey that we go through. Throughout life, we’re gonna have many parts of the crisis and it’s kinda keeping it open, saying that, like, ‘I’m sure there’ll be another one, but that’s okay’,” she points out, laughing.

“I think it’s a bit of a crisis right now in terms of technology and the internet, and a lot of people feeling very isolated, and, you know, understandably: we’re losing these communal spaces to be in community together and find these friendships or relationships… A lot of our songs are about trying to reach into those places of connection and relationships, because we feel like there’s a big crisis of our time.” Faith Crisis Pt 1, if you will.

Faith Crisis Pt 1 is out tomorrow (February 16) via EMI – head here to grab a copy.