Australia's Upcoming Arena Rockers Break Through With Femme Swagger
To match the epic intensity of their reverb-drenched rock, The Jezabels have gone all-out with some serious cinematography. In the video for “Endless Summer,” their album’s first single, the four of them wear blouses and ride horses in slo-mo, like Little House on the Prairie meets the Australian Outback.
But when I laid eyes on singer Hayley Mary in the Bowery Ballroom’s dressing room last week, a different sort of pop icon jumped to mind. With her asymmetrical dark bob, combat boots and, once she opened her mouth, her articulate, kick-ass stance on misogyny, Hayley was more like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (check out our exclusive photo shoot here).
“I am kind of inspired by misogynists,” she exclaimed. “I find engaging with that kind of language really fun as a feminist. Which is why the name [of the band] is such a total acknowledgement of this harlot figure, this fallen woman.”
Hayley feels the pain of women misrepresented throughout history: like Jezebel, for example, who might have been a whore, but was probably just an awesome queen with too many male enemies.
“Most people are like ‘Do you know what Jezebel means?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know what people think it means,’” says Hayley, who took classes on gender studies as an English major in college.
But if Lisbeth Salander’s mode of attacking the patriarchy is computer hacking, for Hayley it’s her giant voice, which fuses with the sonics of the other three Jezabels to create a rock WMD aimed straight at Australia’s music scene, and now the world. Opening their first headlining tour in North America, the Jezabels are coming off some serious home-continent accolades. Their trio of EPs consistently spawned chart-topping singles, and their debut album The Prisoner won last year’s Australian Music Prize, an honor similar to the British Mercury Prize.
Although some observers criticized the choice — “there was this assumption that because we were too popular we shouldn’t have won,” Hayley recalls — any casual listener of the album will be blown back by The Prisoner’s aural force. From the album’s opening bars of church organ and guitar distortion, to the seething drumkit and Hayley’s wailing alto on “Easy To Hurt,” having The Prisoner on your iPod will turn any small errand into an epic voyage.
So it’s pretty perfect that Hayley cites drama rockers Queen as spiritual forebears. But The Jezabels twist Freddie Mercury’s operatic pop, distressing it with grunge and indie like the best lived-in Cheap Mondays.
Hayley and classically-trained pianist Heather Shannon formed a songwriting duo while attending high school in the beach idyll of their hometown Byron Bay. They composed folky stuff, if only because “they only had acoustic instruments and it somehow automatically sounds like folk.” They were drawn to the glass and steel of Sydney for undergrad, where they formed a band with guitarist Sam Lockwood, also from Byron Bay, and Nik Kaloper, a Californian who moved to a Sydney suburb at 15. Nik came from a thrash metal band, while Sam was a country music devotee.
Even now, the four musicians have totally different musical tastes to the point that they can barely agree on what radio station to listen to in the touring van.
“Nik is the discerning listener of metal. He’s the nerd. And Heather’s the classical nerd.”
Perhaps it’s because of these differences that Hayley is so self-aware about The Jezabels’ music: what it is, but also what it isn’t, but could have been. Without Nik Kaloper’s energetic, obsessive drumming, “we could be really soft rock,” she confided. And thanks to guitarist Sam Lockwood’s reverb-washed atmospherics, The Jezabels are rescued from another possible fate: ”With a different guitar that was more straight and less wet, it could easily fall into the more Paramore category.”
Also, they might be the hugest-sounding band ever without a bassist. “It’s Heather’s left-hand’s job to be the bass player,” says Hayley.
With the forces combined like a pop rock dream team, their first move was to win a University of Sydney battle of the bands competition. Since then, they’ve had a meteoric rise, first with a trio of EPs, The Man is Dead, She’s So Hard, and Dark Storm in 2009 and 2010. They’ve been touring nationally since 2009, opening for Tegan and Sara in 2010, and they’ve toured abroad multiple times in North American and Europe.
Travel has taken over their lives for the time being. They officially packed their things into storage and left their apartments this February, and they couldn’t even be there to receive the AMP award in person, because they were touring in Europe at the time. Hayley has tried to develop strategies for the touring grind.
“You have to realize where you are and what’s right in front of you…Okay, I am in New York, look out the window…instead of thinking about the ‘big issue’: ‘what am i doing with my life?’ or ‘Will I end up alone?’” she said, laughing.
Speaking of the moment: it was Nik’s 26th birthday the day after the show. But plans had not been made.
“Birthdays, meh. We don’t have them,” said Hayley.
Still, as if promising a new, tour-friendly self, she retracted: “But we’ll do something.”