The Living Character And The Sublime Behind The Music

4 February 2016 | 11:22 am | Carley Hall

"The challenge is to write lyrics to put a face to a body that makes the ambiguities in a space to read between the lines."

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There are so many words that precipitate a chat with Hayley Mary; stories to read, questions to ask, lyrics to decipher. Anyone familiar with The Jezabels singer knows the Byron Bay-born expat has much to say.

On the eve of the release of the Sydney foursome's third album, Synthia, Mary is open and talkative as always, especially given the lateness of the hour as she sniffles down the line from her London base with a head cold. But as the synth-heavy ten-track release came virtually out of nowhere in the middle of what the band thought was their "time off" after 2014's The Brink, there is much to talk about, and a trifling cold isn't going to stop the husky-voiced girl with the high-wire vocals.

"It's hard to say what I'll think in 10 years when I judge it against the others, but I think it's our best record."

"Since we toured last time I've been to America and London and Australia and back to London," she explains, with a hint of glee more than a sigh. "But we wrote the record altogether in Sydney because we all happened to be there for a show and then we were rehearsing. Then we were writing a song, then writing four songs, then we were like 'well should we just write an album?' So we stayed there for that."

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The Jezabels have never been a band easy to peg down — in a literal sense and a figurative one. Guitarist Sam Lockwood and key wizard Heather Shannon are still based in Sydney, while drummer Nik Kaloper and Mary continue their tenure in London, although Mary admits to being a restless "nomad" and is constantly on the move.

But it was with great sadness recently that the band announced their world tour plans for Synthia would have to be postponed; Shannon's three-year battle with ovarian cancer required the keyboardist to undergo immediate treatment. With a plea for fans to make a donation to further research and awareness, Shannon's positive mindset makes her bid to get on with touring this album a distinct likelihood for the future.

In the figurative sense, The Jezabels have also eluded to being boxed in to the traditional churn of the industry mill. Single Endless Summer catapulted the band and their debut into the spotlight, snaring them the #9 spot in triple j's Hottest 100 for 2011. Then 2014's The Brink contended with the dreaded second album syndrome. But for Mary, and the rest of the band, Synthia harks back to the old days and turns a corner with its more-synthesised-than-ever sound.

"To me, I think every record you make should probably feel like your best one," she admits. "So it's hard to say what I'll think in 10 years when I judge it against the others, but I think it's our best record. It's not so much that it's mature, because I think a lot of stuff went into it subconsciously. But it was kind of like writing in the early days when you just had a drive to write.

"I don't think anyone was expecting this record. After The Brink we did have time off, but we thought we'd have more and then we just wrote it. So it was kind of out of the blue. It felt like it had some similarities to the early stuff — even though it sounds totally different — in that it just kind of happened without any expectations or moulding, but maybe with a bit more knowledge or gut feeling for what the sound was or where songs should go."

"Some of my favourite music is where you just get a vibe and you can't really say why. I guess it's like the sublime."

Roping in the producing talents of Lachlan Mitchell (The Whitlams, The Vines, The Hard-Ons) once again after his deft hands worked their magic on their 2011 debut Prisoner, the similarities between Synthia and the band's early work are there, but they're less obvious than the usual sonic changes. Sure, there's the overarching array of synth motifs, those dramatic guitar washes, the interchangeable rhythms, but there's a shift that's less tangible, something that's more felt and less heard.

"I think what we've tried to do is make a face for the music — and when I say a face I mean sometimes I think of lyrics and words as the face to the body as the music — and I feel that the way that we all write music is so ambiguous," Mary explains. "The challenge is to write lyrics to put a face to a body that makes the ambiguities in a space to read between the lines.

"Some of my favourite music is where you just get a vibe and you can't really say why. I guess it's like the sublime. There's like an element of the unnameable, like romantic stuff or anything that touches on the sublime. The way that Lachlan works with Heather and Sam in particular where he lays down lots and lots of layers, you get this kind of more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts feeling when you do that. You just get this magical interchanging between rhythms that you didn't realise was going to happen and there's lots of happy accidents. Altogether it's a sublime beautiful feeling and that's a pleasure to write over."

And the juxtaposition of Mary's fragile singing voice that captains a sea of swirling guitar effects, vintage synths, arpeggiators and sequencers isn't lost on her. Despite the sonic appearance of a production-heavy album, Mary says it was not so compared to The Brink, nor did it blur the lines between rock and pop as much as what Synthia has.

"It's funny because I think what makes us able to own the pop-iness on this album is that I think the production on The Brink is more poppy than on Prisoner or Synthia," she argues. "Synthia is still a bit more loose and a bit more ephemeral, there are some tones and darker tones in there that add an angle to the pop-iness.

"That's the danger of writing pop in today's world, is that you're walking a fine line between pop and mainstream music, which is sometimes quite vacuous. In a way, yes, Pleasure Drive is our pop-iest song ever, but in another way I think it's a rock song. I think if a man was singing it, it would be a rock song. But because a girl is singing it it's a pop song."

Throughout our chat Mary has explained things carefully, for fear of being misunderstood or misrepresented, or perhaps it's merely that she's a very bright, well-informed woman trying to make sense of things as the night wears on. When it comes to the voice behind the Jezabels' many loved songs, however, Mary is decisive in this argument: that the lyrics embody their own character to speak for them, and it's this gift of art that it all boils down to.

"I think Synthia might be the name of the character in this record, but I think there's always been a character in the songs, a female character," she says. "She's a multifaceted and changing character. Maybe sometimes it's me, maybe sometimes it's an alter ego or fictitious or roleplaying or who I want to be, or imagining someone else's perspective, you know, just playing around.

"That's what I like about songs — they're a few minutes long and you don't have to tell the same story in every one, and that's liberating because identity is a fragmented thing. Like Bowie, he had that kind of fascist stage and then was this liberating gay rights figure. And that's the brilliance of art — it shows you your freedoms. I think escaping the grand narrative is something I've become conscious of what I'm trying to do. And also it ties into the fact that we are writing fairly generalist music. We've got a description on our Facebook because you have to put something but again, genre is a very malleable thing."