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interview: the jezabels

The Jezabels have a lot to be proud of; this four-piece indie pop band from Sydney won Triple J’s Unearthed competition in 2009 and subsequently pumped out three EPs to critical acclaim. Last year cemented that they’re here to stay: they had their single ‘Endless’ Summer place #9 in Triple J’s Hottest 100 and nominated for APRA Song of the Year, released their debut album Prisoner (which won the Rolling Stone Album of the Year Award and has since gone Gold) and additionally received a slew of accolades including the Australian Music Prize.

Lip spoke to Hayley Mary, lead singer and frontwoman, while in New York City on tour. Hayley was commendably down to earth, crediting the reality of touring as a “reminder” to stay level-headed.  Of the band’s success she said, “You can’t take it too well, you can’t take it too badly—you have to keep going. There’s always people that disagree that whoever won should have won, and there’s always people who love your music, so I think you just have to be really thankful that you have that support and move on.”

The band has found their experience with their supportive audience (“fans, if you want to call it that—I hate that word—but the people who come to our shows, buy our music, and connect to it”) at live shows to be always pleasant: “They’re always really nice! We meet them after.” While home-grown pride of The Jezabels is immense in Australia, the band has found that they also seem to attract a consistent and enthusiastic audience worldwide.  “World over, generally, our crowd are the same sort of people, and they act the same. A lot people will say, if we’re in a venue, no matter where we are, if the town is renowned for being really wild, they’ll notice our crowd is really attentive, and listens. But if a town is renowned for being really passive, they’ll say our crowd is really energetic. Like they’ll just stand in The Jezabels crowd and there’s always the same level of excitement.  It’ll vary a bit, but we seem to just attract really normal people of all ages, gender, it’s so weird!”

So is there any worry that the saturation of the single Endless Summer is going to overshadow their other music in the eyes (…or ears) of the public? “I feel like we’ll never be a band where people come for one song. And maybe that’ll be different this tour, we’ll have all this mainstream audience coming to watch us play ‘Endless Summer’…but maybe we’ll play it early and they can go home! I’m not worried about it overshadowing.  I love that song, it is commercially viable and that’s why it’s worked and I think that’s a valuable side to it…but we also have a lot of other aspects to our music other people or the same people can appreciate.”

Now to the band’s name; lip’s heard that it was derived from Hayley’s opinion that the biblical character of Jezebel was misunderstood and unfairly represented.

“You’ve basically summed it up, I guess because Jezebel was an Israeli pagan queen just on the cusp of the monarchy, becoming stronger through Judaism. I think following that, with the Christian Bible thing, there’s a massive degradation of women throughout literature, and I think it’s interesting that there are so many good women throughout history, but…they might have been written badly. [The name’s] kind of a bit tongue in cheek with a serious side to it…like our music!”

Mary’s not unfamiliar with critical thinking, having majored in English while at uni and also taking gender studies. She attributes this with influencing her approach to music, particularly on Prisoner.

“[Gender studies] was an incredible way of looking at the world. Because there are all these paradigms you can look at the world through, of class, of race—gender’s just one way and it made sense to me.  And obviously it attaches itself to looking at life.  All the ways that we feel isolated from each other, alone, and all the reasons for that, fascinate me.  And I think gender studies lends itself a lot to…the psychology of being oppressed, because so many people are oppressed and they’re obsessed with looking at the ways of not being oppressed. And you start thinking that even heterosexual males are oppressed, and maybe it’s a thing of the mind as well as [external] restriction.  And it really opened those kinds of avenues which we explore in the lyrics of Prisoner and even the EPs to the extent that they’re all about that, we just became more self-aware. And I think it comes from inside ourselves as well; I could be a lot more free if I let myself be, rather than having actual external reasons for my problems; it’s the case for a lot of people I know.”

Despite comprising half of the music darling du jour, Hayley and Heather Shannon (piano/keyboard) are still women in a male-dominated industry. Mary elaborates, “A lot of people always ask, ‘as girls, do you get treated different to men’, asking if we encounter sexism, that kind of thing. And [we do] a little bit, but what’s important is the lack of women doing things; or, it’s not so much the lack of women doing things it’s that we want more women doing things, particularly because it is dominated and women are still kind of token, and ‘exciting’ in music and I don’t quite get why, because there’s been women doing it forever, and we’re pretty good at it!  I know why you’re drawn to ask that question, but I think our standard [of treatment] is kind of similar except, like any working woman, I think we do feel ultimately some different pressures to working men.  I mean I’m 25 and I’m travelling the world for at least the next 5 years.  My relationships are screwed because I’m never in one place, and like, a baby, that kind of stuff…still plays on female musician’s minds, just like any career woman I suppose.  There’s quite a bit of sexism here and there.”

Given their presence in an industry where men’s music is legitimised above all, does being the female face of the band affect people’s perceptions of it? “I think definitely.  It’s not inaccurate to see it as slightly feminist. I mean, I wouldn’t want to describe us as a feminist band, we cover a lot of other ideas too, it’s not the only politics that influence what we think and feel.  But I guess having a female as the “face” of the band, and the name Jezabels, and I often go on about females and how great they are…I’d say it definitely does. [And] sometimes there’s a negative connotation to it, like, ‘Oh, are you a feminist band?’ and you’re like,  ‘…Yeah, but you don’t really understand what you’re asking’.

“Basically the most important part of the music is personal and ambiguous. And there’s a lot of passion in it, coming from all four of us.  But lyrically, coming from us it’s not one kind of politics at all, I’m just interested in a lot of issues, and I bring them up—but I won’t decide on them. I’m just questioning…I hope that that doesn’t alienate people, I feel feminism and politics is one of those things that I struggle with, so I end up exploring it in a critical way as well, and am not necessarily pro or against, just interested in the issues.”

The Jezabels are currently on tour in the USA but will be returning to Australian shores in June.  They’ve also been booked for festivals in August, and “it’s looking like we’re probably still gonna be touring after that: UK and US, a bit of South East Asia, up until December, when we will maybe start writing another album…I don’t want to commit to anything!”

The Jezabels’ Australian tour kicks off in Melbourne on June 1. Find all the dates and venues on the facebook event page!

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