Don’t call The Jezabels an indie band. Sure, with their atmospheric sound and abstract lyrics, they’ve been put in that box ever since they formed in 2007, when Hayley Mary and Heather Shannon (friends from Byron Bay, Australia) met fellow University of Sydney students Samuel Lockwood and Nik Kaloper. “For us, indie was the genre when we started out,” says lead singer Mary from the Bowery Ballroom’s basement bar, where I caught up with her before the band played their final North American show. “I was speaking to a journalist recently and he said, ‘I think indie bands are bands that haven’t found who they are yet, or are scared to be who they are. Like Nirvana was an indie band, but now they’re a grunge band. The Killers were an indie band, but now they’re a stadium rock band.’” With the release this past January of their second album, The Brink, it’s clear The Jezabels have left the indie tag behind and know exactly who they are.
The aforementioned journalist was itching to call The Jezabels a pop band, but Mary is less sure. “We aren’t really a pop band, but we sort of border on it,” she says. “We were a bit scared of pop because of, you know, the old ‘selling out thing,’ but I think it depends on why you’re writing pop music. It’s different if you’re writing and you love melody and you just happen upon a pop song.”
Since their formation, the band has released three EPs and their first album, 2011’s Prisoner, snagged the Australia Music Prize, was nominated for eight ARIA awards (the Grammys of Australian music) and won for Best Independent Release. The Brink debuted at number two on the Australian charts and was hailed as a "stunningly impressive work that grabs you with melodic hooks, earnest passion, and propulsive rhythms" by AllMusic.
Though she confesses she’s a bit nervous about the night’s gig and is looking forward to the post-show celebration, it’s hard to imagine Mary being scared of anything. Google her name and the first hits paint her as a vitriolic frontwoman with a chip on her shoulder, with headlines like “The Jezabel’s Hayley Mary Lashes Out at Critics: F***ing Get a Real Job” and “Hayley Mary Explains ‘Rant’ Against Critics.” “I’ve made jokes before and they’ve been misinterpreted as being very serious. If you attack the media, that tends to have a bit of power in the media,” she says.
“I don’t understand why, if you know you hate a band and it’s not what your readers like, why keep reviewing it? It’s just kind of cruel," she continues. "There’s so much music. You don’t need to review the Justin Bieber album if you’re an angry leftist blog. You all assume he’s evil.” She takes a moment to reevaluate her defense of the troubled pop superstar. “Well, maybe you need to have voices of dissent, non-Beliebers,” she adds jokingly.
But regardless of how a few cranky critics feel about the band, tonight’s sold-out show at the Bowery Ballroom proves audiences are taking note. “The hype with us was a couple of years ago and now we feel like people come to see us because they like the music,” she says. “People are singing along even to the new songs which is impressive, because that doesn’t even really happen in Australia.”
Any attempts to sing along are even more impressive because Mary’s voice easily reaches the kind of high notes that mere mortals should not attempt. And with her lanky body and tough-girl black bob, her presence onstage is mesmerizing, like a combination between Uma Thurman dancing in Pulp Fiction and Jack Skellington prancing in The Nightmare Before Christmas. “I like to lunge and dance onstage, so it’s pants only for me at the moment,” she says when asked her about her onstage style. “I like gothic things, to a degree, but it doesn’t have to be extreme goth all the time.” The entire band only wears black onstage (it’s easier for the laundry) and Mary only buys vintage or secondhand clothing. “I don’t like brands that are overtly ‘brands,’ I don’t like it when it’s obvious to the common hipster what I’m wearing. I know that sounds really lame, but there’s something appealing about secondhand clothing, even if it’s from H&M—if it’s been worn before, that adds character.”
She’s slowly expanding her wardrobe color palette (right now she’s wearing a white slip dress and long black blazer). A bright blue vinyl jacket was abandoned in a hotel recently (“I realized I wasn’t there yet,” she says), but she just bought a checkered dress and will regularly wear red offstage. When it comes to her hair, however, she’s used to making radical changes. It’s now jet black, but last year she bleached it blonde (not unlike Lucky’s editors!). “I had a flip-out on the second record because I felt a bit trapped in the image that was out there and that people expected me to look a certain way. Some people really hated it,” she says, coolly. When I tell her I thought it looked excellent, she responds, “I think it was better in pictures than real life.”
As low-maintenance she is about her style, compared to rest of the black-clad band, Mary is a virtual fashion eccentric. “I think about it more because I’m a bit more flamboyant and dramatic than they are.” It’s a role that comes naturally to her, as does serving as the band’s unofficial spokesperson—while ceding other responsibilies, like managing The Jezabels’ social media, to her bandmates (“I’d rather talk to someone than tweet a thought”). The same can be said of the band’s recording process, in which the four work quasi-independently at first, and then come together to create whole songs, with Mary focusing on the lyrics. “I would describe it as a democracy in that it is officially, but it doesn’t always work,” she explains. “It’s an ideal, not a reality, but you’ve got to strive for ideals.”
Lyrically, there’s a lot to unpack in The Brink, especially on “Look of Love"— the most pop-sounding song on the album—with lines like, "In the dead of night, your love’s so staggering that I’ll shut it out of my mind." That type of lyrical ambiguity is Mary’s forte—she trades in tracks that seem innocuous at first glance, but reveal a darker edge upon closer inspection. “On first listen, it sounds like teenybopper music, which I really love,” she says. “If people want to look into it, they can, but they don’t have to."
There seems to be nothing Mary likes better than subverting expectations. She loves pop music even though it’s maligned by hipsters, she dyes her hair to disrupt her trademark image and admits to being inspired by deserted American malls ("They’re these romantic ruins, it’s like looking at Roman architecture or something"). At one point, we end up talking about Gwyneth Paltrow who, while having nothing else in common with Mary, has also recieved a lot of heat from the media. “That’s unfair, she’s probably a lovely person,” she says before reconsidering. “Maybe she’s the devil incarnate. But some people think I am, so I feel for her.”